I take some pride in the fairly challenging task of having read all 1100 page of this seven year research project! Good to learn more about Windsor from a slightly different perspective….
In 2002, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s coffin lay in state in Westminster Hall after her death at the age of 101: for three days, 200,000 Britons – people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds – queued to pay their respects.
She was not born royal nor, on her marriage to the second son of George V and Queen Mary in 1923, did she have a realistic prospect of being Queen Consort. The daughter of a large family of military-minded, devoutly Christian Scottish aristocrats, the Bowes-Lyon Earls of Strathmore, she was the first British “commoner” to marry into the royal family, the first to break the dreary tradition of marrying minor German princesses which had been established since the Hanoverians came to the throne.
She was a star from the start, showing the true celebrity’s ability to communicate in a crowd; above all she had a dazzling smile – something her parents-in-law considered to be distinctly unroyal. “It is so hard to know when not to smile,” she told Cecil Beaton, at their first photographic session in July 1939. And beneath the ostrich feathers and the fluff, there was a steely determination to do her patriotic duty, to support her husband to the hilt and, if possible, to spread happiness in a dark time of war.
Elizabeth found her real role when her traumatised husband was left to carry the burden of kingship after the abdication of his elder brother David as Edward VIII in 1936. She was an actress with an instinctive understanding of what people wanted of a Queen Consort, an ability to communicate with people in a crowd and a smile that lit up any occasion. When war came she showed her intense patriotism – “Keep the old flag flying, Hooray” she wrote to her friend Osbert Sitwell. When Buckingham Palace was bombed during the Blitz, she declared: “Now we can look the East End in the face.” She and the king formed a successful, mutually supportive partnership during the Second World War. She was party to all his decisions as his private secretaries were not: Shawcross reveals that she used to attend the king’s weekly private lunches with Winston Churchill.
When George VI died suddenly at the age of 56 in 1952, her world collapsed. She bought a ruined castle on the remote coast of Caithness and contemplated retirement, but it didn’t last; she made a new life, representing her country on countless tours and heading her favourite charities. She became “the Queen Mother” – “horrible title”, as she commented – revelling in her life, public and private, until a few months before her death.
It was a long life and this is a long book – I think too long. Shawcross has grappled manfully with the official biographer’s tedious task of describing Queen Elizabeth’s frocks and shoes, charity outings and repetitive foreign tours. There is a bit too much of the “idyllic childhood” and girlish letters, but his account of her formative experiences running the hospital for wounded soldiers at Glamis and of losing friends and a brother in the First World War is illuminating, and he compensates for the fluff by interpolating skilful precis of social, political and historical background.
There is a sense of pussyfooting around some difficult personal themes, such as Queen Elizabeth’s dislike of the Windsors, which she has always denied, even to Edward VIII’s official biographer. Among her strengths was her ability to glide over the surface of life, skimming like one of her favourite helicopters and retreating from unpleasant personal confrontations by avoiding them.
She loved literature and poetry and the Scottish people, soldiers and the landscape; Ted Hughes was one of her later friends. Above all she liked fun: jokes, champagne, good food and wine.
She was adored for her life-enhancing qualities by her courtiers and staff, particularly the latter to whom she was ever loyal. On one occasion, when approached by a member of her household to complain about the behaviour of one of the staff, she told him firmly, “remember, they are indispensable and you are not”.
Hers was a long life worth celebrating and Shawcross has done it admirably in this well-written book. It is too long and at 4lbs 5oz, your wrists will be stronger as a result of your reading!