The Queen Mother

The Official Biography

by William Shawcross

Knopf, 1,120 pp., $40

In Brideshead Revisited Anthony Blanche warns Charles Ryder against what he calls “simple, creamy English charm” because, as he says, “Charm is the great English blight. .  .  . It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art.” This was certainly not the case with Elizabeth (1900-2002), the consort of George VI and mother of Elizabeth II, whose charm profoundly endeared her to her subjects. It also suffuses this admirable new biography, which chronicles how Elizabeth’s Edwardian upbringing formed not only her strong, resilient, dutiful character but her abounding sense of fun.

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, the ninth of the Earl of Strathmore’s 10 children, was born on August 4, 1900, at the family home of St. Paul’s Walden Bury, near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, though the failure of her father to register a birth certificate gave rise to speculation that she might actually have been delivered in a horse-drawn ambulance in Mayfair. The Bowes were a raffish lot: spendthrift, hard-drinking, and mad for horses. One of her 18th-century ancestors, known as Stoney Bowes, was described by a contemporary as “surely the lowest cad in history. .  .  . He was the type of seedy, gentlemanly bounder. .  .  . He was cunning, ruthless, sadistic, with rat-like cleverness and a specious Irish charm. He was a fortune hunter of the worst type.” Doubtless it was this louche ancestry that gave Elizabeth so much of her own delight in the turf, strong drink, and the society of courtiers.

Her father Lord Glamis, later the Earl of Strathmore, was educated at Eton and served in the Life Guards. A philoprogenitive, humorous man, he was particularly fond of his daughter, who reciprocated, a governess recalled, by “always looking round to see if he wanted anything—and lighting his cigarettes.” Her devout mother Cecilia Cavendish Bentinck was the great-granddaughter of the Duke of Portland, who was twice prime minister in George III’s reign. After her clergyman father died when she was just shy of three, Cecilia lived with her mother in Florence. Some of Elizabeth’s fondest childhood memories were of days spent with her mother in various Italian villas.

Like most upper-class Georgian women, Elizabeth was educated at home by governesses. When not putting those governesses through their paces, she formed her lifelong love of horses. It was also as a girl that she acquired her voracious appetite. Years later, when recovering from a bout of flu in Buckingham Palace, she wrote Princess Elizabeth

I am .  .  . still a little achy, and still living on tea! I hope by tomorrow that I shall be eating Irish stew, steak & kidney pudding, haricot mutton, roast beef, boiled beef, sausages & mutton pies, not to mention roast chicken, fried chicken, boiled chicken, scrambled chicken, scrunched up chicken, good chicken, nasty chicken, fat chicken, thin chicken, any sort of chicken.

During her childhood, Elizabeth formed an inseparable bond with her brother David, later the godfather of Princess Margaret, who confided to her sister after the death of George VI that it had been he who encouraged the stammering Duke of York to pursue her before they married. In a letter divulging his long-kept secret, David explained that he was only breaking his silence “because in Your Majesty’s terrible loneliness I believe that it may bring one tiny grain of comfort.”

Another David, Lord David Cecil, the biographer of Lord Melbourne who was so instrumental in the education of Queen Victoria, recalled Elizabeth as a child:

I turned and looked and was aware of a small, charming rosy face around which twined and strayed rings and tendrils of silken hair, and a pair of dewy grey eyes. .  .  . From that moment my small damp hand clutched at hers and I never left her side. .  .  . Forgotten were all the pretenders to my heart. Here was the true heroine.

Cecil would be the first of Elizabeth’s many literary friends, who would later include the Sitwells, John Betjeman, Noel Coward, and Ted Hughes.

On her fourteenth birthday, when the First World War broke out, Elizabeth lay in bed listening to jubilant crowds making their way up the Mall towards Buckingham Palace. “The streets were full of people shouting, roaring, yelling their heads off,” she recalled, “little thinking what was going to happen.” After war was declared, Glamis Castle was converted into an army hospital and the Edwardian idyll that had been Elizabeth’s childhood came to an end. It was during these unforgettable war years that Elizabeth acquired her lifelong respect for soldiers. Later, before World War II, she was visiting the Black Watch at their barracks in Perth and noticed her nephew John Elphinstone among the officers.

“It gave me such a shock to see John in his Black Watch uniform,” she confided to Queen Mary, “for he suddenly looked exactly like my brother Fergus who was killed at Loos, & in the same regiment. It was uncanny in a way, & desperately sad to feel that all that ghastly waste was starting again at the bidding of a lunatic.”

William Shawcross nicely sums up the impact of the First World War on Elizabeth: “She had acquired, through her experience of the suffering of family, friends, and soldiers from all over the world, an understanding of pain, and of the difficulties of others, which served her and her country well in the years to come.” If, towards the end of her life, she was often called the last of the Edwardians, she was careful to remind her countrymen that there were aspects of the Edwardian age worth preserving.

Elizabeth’s marriage to George V’s diffident second son, Prince Albert, proved deeply happy. Unsure at first whether she could adapt to her new role as Duchess of York, she eventually succeeded simply by making the role her own. As one admirer told another biographer: “Her charm was indescribable. .  .  . She was also very kind and compassionate. And she could be very funny—which was rare in those circles. She was a wag.” Before accepting Prince Albert’s third proposal, she received two from other beaux. Even George V, a morbidly implacable man, had to admit that “Bertie is a lucky fellow.”

If her marriage was unexpected, her husband’s accession to the throne was even more so. In this, Elizabeth sharply differed from Queen Mary, whose marriage to George V was meticulously plotted. No one, least of all Elizabeth herself, planned to make Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon Queen of England. Edward VIII thrust the throne on her and her husband after Stanley Baldwin insisted that he either dump Wallis Simpson or abdicate. When he abdicated, Elizabeth’s life was changed forever. Shawcross adroitly re-creates the day-to-day drama of the abdication crisis.

Soon after George VI ascended the throne, war broke out. When he and his queen consort visited the bomb-battered streets of London, there was nothing factitious about their empathy. “I’m glad we’ve been bombed,” the queen assured a policeman after Buckingham Palace had been hit. “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.” The sentence has been quoted a million times and still gets to the very heart of why Elizabeth was such a good queen.

Throughout the war, George VI and Elizabeth rallied the home front by visiting towns and cities bombed by the Luftwaffe and refusing to leave London. They also refused to have the princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, removed to Canada. Hitler thought Queen Elizabeth “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” and when England stood alone against the full fury of Hitler’s bombers, she responded to a letter of sympathy from Eleanor Roosevelt with a letter of her own.

Sometimes one’s heart seems near breaking under the stress of so much sorrow and anxiety. When we think of our gallant young men being sacrificed to the terrible machine that Germany has created, I think that anger perhaps predominates. But when we think of their valour, their determination and their grave spirit, pride and joy are uppermost. We are all prepared to sacrifice everything in the fight to save freedom, and the curious thing is, that already many false values are going, and life is becoming simpler and greater every day.

At a time when Great Britain’s survival was in question, George VI proved a capable king—though much of the credit for his success, as Shawcross shows, was due to his good, brave, loving wife. Elizabeth assumed her regal role with ready poise and became an admirable consort. She was also a good mother, rearing her daughters in the same Christian principles in which she had been reared. When George VI died in 1952 at 56 from lung cancer, the queen wrote her brother David: “Things can never be the same again without his energy & fun & goodness & kindness. He really was the kindest and most selfless person I have ever known.” And after Edith Sitwell sent her some poems by George Herbert, she wrote back: “How small and selfish is sorrow. But it bangs one about until one is senseless, and I can never thank you enough for giving me such a delicious book wherein I found so much beauty and hope.”

Once her daughter ascended the throne, Queen Elizabeth played her new role of Queen Mother with zest. It was Winston Churchill who convinced her that she must continue to play a national, indeed an international, role. In addition to becoming a symbol of enduring tradition, she became a perennial favorite of the Commonwealth, especially Canada, where she made 13 visits. Like Churchill, she was an unrepentant imperialist and watched with dismay as Robert Mugabe despoiled Rhodesia. At home, she was never convinced of the benefits of socialism. “I am extremely Anti-Labour,” she told one friend. As Shawcross rightly points out, “It was an intuitive antipathy, a sense .  .  . that socialism sought to drag everything down into uniform and unimaginative drabness and political humbug.”

That the Queen Mother regularly overdrew her account at Coutts Bank was proof of more than her extravagance; she was unstintingly generous to friends in straits. When one, D’Arcy Osborne, became hard up in old age, she wrote him from Clarence House: “D’Arcy, one or two of our old & loving friends have sent a small sum to your banking account in Rome, in case it might come in handy some time.” To which the old man replied: “Dear Ma’am, How KIND!” Her munificence would allow him to take taxis and give him “the invaluable benefit of peace of mind and freedom from fussing over small and ignoble matters.” What greater gift could any queen bestow?

Elizabeth never granted interviews to newspapers. She agreed with Walter Bagehot that “above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. .  .  . Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.” In this long but engaging book, Shawcross emulates his subject’s reserve—saying nothing, for example, of the more lurid aspects of the recent Windsors, only remarking: “There were some in the Royal Household who wished Queen Elizabeth would give [the Prince of Wales] robust advice. But that was not her style. She never liked to acknowledge, let alone confront, disagreeableness within the family. It was a characteristic which had earned her the nickname ‘imperial ostrich.’ ” Here, again, she proved the quintessential Edwardian.

Edward Short is the author of a forthcoming book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.

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