The Reaction to the Queen’s Death Reminded Us of What We Thought We Had Forgotten

‘A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman! He ought not; he does not.’ —Jane Austen, Persuasion

A photograph of Queen Elizabeth II is seen attached to railings above some flowers on The Mall on Sept. 20 in London.
A photograph of Queen Elizabeth II is seen attached to railings above some flowers on The Mall on Sept. 20 in London. (photo: Rob Pinney / Getty Images)

Like so many others, I was saddened over the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The period of mourning that followed reinforced the sense that we had suffered a great loss — a loss of someone truly meaningful and important to the world.

Certainly, we can all agree that the death of Queen Elizabeth at age 96 marked the end of an era — and a long era at that, when you consider the sheer amount of life and history that she not only lived but also served through.

Over her 70-year reign as queen, Elizabeth witnessed 14 United States presidents, seven popes and 15 UK prime ministers. That is no small amount of change and transition, and my 18-year-old daughter (fellow British culture enthusiast, currently away at college) perhaps said it best when she remarked, “The queen was “such a staple.”

Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy (if I may be permitted to speculate) will in part be that of a woman whose presence brought some level of stability and steadfastness to the world — all the more important in a time when political groups are so polarized, communities are in social decline and people have lost their faith in institutions altogether. Tributes from leaders around the globe began to pour in almost as soon as her death was announced, and they seemed to all be saying the same thing.

Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy in general, surely this widespread global reaction to Queen Elizabeth’s death said something fundamental about us, and about our world.

It told us that in spite of our assorted shallow cultural obsessions, our descent into general indecency and our rejection of traditional societal norms, we long for the sort of stalwart constancy that the queen represented. Deep down, it turns out that we admire a woman who is feminine in her strength, faithful to her vows and committed to a quiet (albeit public) life of service.

It calls to mind another British figure, though fictional this time: Anne Elliott, of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. If you haven’t read the very last novel to have been completed by Austen, you really must! It is a shorter, more fast-paced read than some of her others, and arguably boasts one of literature’s greatest heroines. The book tells the story of Anne’s broken engagement, her subsequent years of loneliness, and the astoundingly beautiful life she managed to live in spite of the circumstances.

Throughout the novel Anne is revealed to be many things: a dutiful daughter and sister, a good friend, a woman capable of rising to meet whatever challenge is presented to her. But she is perhaps best known for her constancy, that is, her dependability and loyalty and skill in adapting herself to the situation at hand. She was, without fail, a touchstone of sorts to everyone around her.

In many ways, she has a lot in common with Queen Elizabeth II.

Could then the resurgence in popularity of Austen’s 19th-century British novel, most recently developed into a film by Netflix — which I hear is largely disappointing to Austen fans, though I’ve not seen it myself — be rooted in the same human longing as our collective attachment to a 21st-century monarch? 

We sophisticated moderns may claim otherwise, but the long queue of mourners in a post-Christian England, and the tributes, and the general climate of sadness over Queen Elizabeth II’s death, don’t lie. In our mourning, we were revealed for what we are: a people longing desperately for steadfastness, constancy and order in a world too often marked by chaos and confusion. (For an interesting take on the Church’s opportunity here, check out this fantastic piece by Elizabeth Scalia.)

So Christians, take note! Don’t be fooled. No matter how distorted things in the culture may appear, we are all created in the image and likeness of God. We are all created to be pursued and loved by Christ. We are all longing, and looking, for what St. John of the Cross called the “I-know-not-what.”

As so many who mourned the Queen’s death prepare for the coronation of the King in 2023, will we be ready with an answer?