The Magazine

Queen of Hearts

The life and times of a royal icon.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Queen of Hearts

Queen Elizabeth and King George VI during the Blitz, 1940

Central Press/Getty Images

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.

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