In the midst of Britain’s phone-hacking scandal, well-known biographer Sally Bedell Smith’s solidly traditional new life story of Queen Elizabeth II is a great pleasure. Smith approaches the Royals the right way, with hundreds of interviews with friends and associates, personal observation and thorough research into the historical record. The effort has produced in Elizabeth the Queen a book that ably blends a chronological account of the 85-year-old queen’s life with an inside look at her household, personality and private interests.

One theme emerges with great clarity: Elizabeth Windsor was thrust willy-nilly into her full-time job when she inherited the throne, but her true passion is horse breeding and racing. Corgis aside, she has always spent as much time as possible, given her circumstances, at stable and horse track, with considerable success. If you want to break through the queen’s reserve, ask her about yesterday’s most exciting race at Ascot.

More seriously, Smith convincingly describes a remarkable woman—not flawless, certainly, but with the discipline, intelligence, emotional balance and physical stamina to shine at a dauntingly tough job. Whatever their preconceptions about the monarchy, every one of her 12 prime ministers, from Churchill to Cameron, has come to admire her brains, knowledge and sound counsel.

Elizabeth’s record as matriarch of her own family is, of course, more checkered, and Smith doesn’t whitewash it—though her view of the queen’s various predicaments is sympathetic. Elizabeth accepted bad advice about her sister Princess Margaret’s romance with Peter Townsend. To some extent, she neglected her children to focus on her job and her husband (who emerges in the book as a more interesting person than one might have realized). And from beginning to end, she mishandled Princess Diana. But she was capable of learning along the way, and seems to be a more successful royal grandmother than she was a royal mother.

As Elizabeth approaches her Diamond Jubilee—60 years on the throne in 2012—Smith is able to make an overall judgment about this second Elizabethan Age, and her assessment is positive. Elizabeth has weathered the storms; the monarchy is as popular among the British as it has ever been. And that, says Smith, can be credited to the queen’s “steadfast determination and clarity of purpose.”

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