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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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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