Wednesday, 21 October 2009

New books: The official biography of the Queen Mother

A month ago Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross was published by Macmillan of London. The concept of official biographies is a rather unique British practice, whereby the monarch appoints a biographer who gets unrestricted access to the Royal Archives and the papers of the subject. Mostly the biography is published quite shortly after the subject’s death – the official biography of George V appeared sixteen years after his death, that of George VI a mere six years and of Queen Mary also six years, while Edward VIII took eighteen years. Thus the public gets the possibility to read letters and other private papers of recently deceased royal which one in other monarchies mostly will have to wait generations for. This openness should be applauded, but the condition has normally been that the official biography shall be read and approved by the monarch and sometimes other senior royals. Sometimes this is known to have lead to a certain “censorship” and one may speculate if the official biographer, consciously or subconsciously, may anyhow be careful to avoid certain topics or facts he (so far only men have been official biographers) knows will be sensitive.
In 2003 Queen Elizabeth II appointed the author and journalist William Shawcross to be her mother’s official biographer. The book was originally due to be published by Penguin, but after their adventures with Princess Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell, the biography was transferred to Macmillan. The result of Shawcross’s six years of research and writing is a monumental book running to some 1,100 pages. He insists in the preface that the Queen gave him “absolute freedom to write as I wished” and that “the decision on what to publish remained mine alone”.
Luckily, Shawcross does not fall into the same trap as James Pope-Hennessy did when writing the official biography of Queen Mary, i.e. writing at length about the early years and then rushing through her years as queen at too great a speed. The various parts of the Queen Mother’s long life are well balanced against each other and, naturally, the book begins with her family background and early years. The young Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (Shawcross insists that the family preferred to spell its surname without a hyphen) comes alive as a happy, charming girl, quite liberated for her time but also with a sense of duty which, Shawcross argues, followed her throughout her life. We learn of her friendships and teenage crushes on soldiers and musical stars as well as more serious sides of the girl who helped take care of wounded soldiers when her family home Glamis Castle was turned into a convalescent home during the First World War. Her mother, Lady Strathmore, comes out as a person of great significance, while her father remains mostly in the shadows.
To those of us who have read a number of biographies of the Queen Mother there is little new and few surprises in the official biography. But what makes this biography stand out from the previous ones is that the author is able to tell much of the story through the subject’s own words. From the time she learnt to write until her death nearly a century later, the Queen Mother was a sparkling letter-writer and these letters form the core of Shawcross’s biography. There are funny, entertaining letters such as the newly engaged Elizabeth writing to her sister: “I am so tired already – I think I shall probably die LONG before I get married. How delighted the papers would be – after the ROMANCE the TRAGEDY! What ho”. Or when her good friend D’Arcy Osborne, described as a “confirmed bachelor”, asks her advice about whether he should marry an American woman named Isabel. The then Duchess of York makes a list of “against” and “for”: “Against: 1. Her name. 2. American. 3. Eight millions. 4. Indifferent features. 5. No parents. For: Sense of Humour”, concluding: “Yes, I think you ought to marry her. The sense of humour balances everything”. But there are also more heartbreaking letters, such as the one she wrote to her mother-in-law Queen Mary just after her husband had been found dead, beginning: “My darling Mama, What can I say to you – I know that you loved Bertie dearly, and he was my whole life [...]”.
Their married life lasted only 29 years – little more than ¼ of her life – yet George VI seems indeed to have been her whole life during those years. But the two of them might never have married at all. One of the revelations of this book is that the then Prince Albert in 1919 was in love with a married woman (Lady Loughborough, née Sheila Chisholm, later the wife of Prince Dimitri of Russia in her third marriage) and wanted to marry her. His father George V offered him a ducal title, financial independence and an independent establishment, “provided that he hears nothing more about Sheila & me!!!!”, Albert wrote to his elder brother. The Prince took the offer, a fact which perhaps adds something of importance to our understanding of his reaction when his brother Edward chose otherwise in 1936.
Several biographers have claimed that Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was reluctant to marry the Duke of York and that it was only his third proposal which led to her saying yes. Shawcross confirms this, dates the three proposals to 27 February 1921, 7 March 1922 and 3 January 1923, with her eventually accepting him on 14 January 1923. He backs it up with the letters they wrote to each other at the time, from which it seems that Elizabeth liked the Duke as a friend, but did not feel comfortable with the idea of marrying him. The role of her other serious suitor, the Duke’s equerry the Hon. James Stuart, who has been accorded great importance by other biographers, remains vague in Shawcross’s version. However, the letters Albert and Elizabeth wrote to each other during their marriage make it clear that the two of them were deeply devoted to each other.
Elizabeth married the Duke in April 1923 and died in March 2002, thus serving as a member of the British royal family for nearly eighty years. Perhaps her longevity and that hardly anyone these days are able to remember her as a young woman are the reasons why one often forgets how young she was when she entered the royal family. There are often references to how young Lady Diana Spencer was when she married Prince Charles; in fact Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was only a couple of years older and apparently she too found it hard to adapt to her in-laws and their way of life. “Everybody as old as the hills!” is the 22-year-old Elizabeth’s verdict after her first visit to Queen Alexandra, her three daughters and her sister the former Dowager Empress of Russia at Sandringham. From Balmoral she reports that there are no-one younger than ninety there, later she describes her father-in-law as “a narrow-minded autocrat” and writes of her in-laws that “There is no ‘family’ feeling at all in this family. They are all very nice to me, & horrid to each other!”
Shawcross argues that Elizabeth was probably more attached to George V than to Queen Mary, but from the letters he quotes it seems to me to have been the other way round. Another fact perhaps obscured by later events is how close the young Duke and Duchess of York were to the Prince of Wales and that their lifestyle in the early years of marriage was almost as “racy” and fun-loving as his. There are letters quoted between the Duchess and the Prince which make it clear how good friends they were at the time. Only later did they start to drift into different directions before it all broke down with the events of the abdication. Yet when the Duke of Windsor died in 1972, Shawcross argues that it probably affected the Queen Mother more than most people realised.
The abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 which brought the Duke and Duchess of York to the British throne as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth is labelled “the most serious constitutional crisis affecting the British monarchy since the seventeenth century”. Many will have been looking forward to what Shawcross would be able to say about Elizabeth’s role in the abdication crisis. The answer is that he says very little about it. In fact this is symptomatic of one of the weaknesses of this biography, namely that Shawcross avoids some of the most difficult issues. Another such issue is the subsequent relationship between Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Windsor, by many described as a “feud”. This is barely touched upon by Shawcross and when he does so, it is more or less written off by quoting Robert Fellowes saying: “She was herself very kind to the Duchess”. Fellowes, born years after the abdication, a courtier in the 1980s and 1990s and brother-in-law of Princess Diana, does not seem to be a good source for such a surprising statement. In fact Queen Elizabeth referred to the Duchess of Windsor as “the lowest of the low” and refused to meet her for thirty years, which is not exactly everyone’s idea of being “very kind” to a sister-in-law.
The extent of Queen Elizabeth’s influence is another topic which Shawcross remains vague about, stating: “She was utterly discreet and never talked, nor wrote even in letters to her family, about this aspect of her partnership with the King”. Yet he points out that she “knew far more about affairs of state than did either Queen Alexandra or Queen Mary” and that the King’s Private Secretary Alec Hardinge later said that “early in his reign the King would refuse to discuss business with him but invariably went to talk to the Queen instead, returning with a decision which Hardinge attributed to her. And as Hardinge observed, her views were further to the right than those of her husband”.
But she did not always get her way. When George VI at the time of Prince Charles’s birth decided to dispense with the practice of the Home Secretary being present at royal births, she was firmly opposed to it, writing to the then Private Secretary, Alan Lascelles, that “I feel that we should cling to our domestic traditions and ceremonies for dear life”. The question of whether her inert conservatism may sometimes have been a negative influence is left until the last but one page of this massive tome. Shawcross then acknowledges that “Queen Elizabeth’s dislike of change may have slowed down the pace of royal reform which is always necessary to retain consent. There were changes which the Queen [Elizabeth II] and her advisers might have chosen to make earlier, had there been no concern about upsetting Queen Elizabeth”.
She was not always discreet about her political opinions in her letters. In the 1930s she described herself as “anti-feminist”, declaring that “I think it a crime for women to take jobs that men can do as well”. During World War II she acknowledged the importance of women taking on the jobs of men absent at the front, but added “yet they must be ready to stand down (& by) after the war”.
In 1924 she declared herself “extremely Anti-Labour” and writing of a Conservative election victory she describes the result as “MARVELLOUS”, concluding: “One feels so much safer”. Shawcross believes that her political views matured somewhat with the years and that she was able to get along well with Labour politicians as well as Tories. He does not quote her conversation with A. N. Wilson in the 1980s when she famously stated: “The best thing is a good old Tory government with a strong Labour opposition”. He does however point out that the Queen Mother had a habit of proposing dinner table toasts with her glass held up and the words “Up with...” for people she liked or holding her glass below the table with the words “Down with...” for people she did not like. “For Mrs Thatcher, the glass was always high”, writes Shawcross. He does not address the rumour that in later years the glass would often be held low with the words: “Down with Blair!”
Queen Elizabeth’s support for appeasement is one of the very few occasions when Shawcross criticises his subject, writing that her and the King’s appearance with Chamberlain on the Palace balcony following the signing of the controversial Munich agreement but before it was to be debated in Parliament “was imprudent, if not unconstitutional”. Shawcross points out that the Queen Mother in 1991 “acknowledged the mistake”, yet she continued to have a favourable view of appeasement, believing in the myth that it “gave us a year to rearm, and build a few aeroplanes” (in fact Germany used that year to rearm and prepare itself much more than Britain did). According to Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Queen Elizabeth in 1939 believed that Hitler probably did not want war. She was not alone in the royal family in supporting appeasement; Queen Mary hoped that the Munich agreement would mean “that at last our 2 countries will come together”.
When war did break out, the Queen, in the words of Ted Hughes, her great friend in later life, “rose to the occasion in such a way that she became the incarnation of it”. The story of the war years is told in a rather familiar way and little new of importance is added, perhaps except the fact that Queen Elizabeth used to be present for the King’s weekly lunches with Winston Churchill – naturally this gave her great knowledge and insight in what was going on.
In 1991 she would tell Theo Aronson (not quoted by Shawcross): “The King was told everything so, of course, I knew everything as well. That’s when I learned to keep things to myself. There were so many rumours going round at that time; one heard so many stories. I became very cagey. And I’ve been cagey ever since”.
Given the close relationship between the King and the Queen, the sudden death of George VI in February 1952 naturally left his widow engulfed in deep mourning. After nearly three decades dedicated to supporting and sustaining her husband in his public and private life, his death suddenly left her without a “mission” in life. Shawcross echoes earlier biographers when he writes that “without the added confidence which his wife had imparted on him, and the loyal and loving support which she and their children continued to give him, the Duke of York might never have been able to make a success of his unwanted kingship after his brother’s abrupt departure”. But Shawcross also stresses how much she had depended on him and how this left her feeling quite forlorn when he died.
The King’s death naturally also changed the conditions of her life drastically. She was no longer The Queen, but “now, in effect, the ancien regime”, writes Shawcross. And she was after all only 51 at the time – and would live for half a century more, dying fifty years and two months after her husband. Probably resenting being relegated to the second row, she was very keen on the Regency Act being amended so that she would be allowed to continue to serve as Counsellor of State.
With her status as consort she also lost her homes – Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Sandringham and Balmoral were now her daughter’s homes where she would be a guest. The Royal Lodge at Windsor, Birkhall near Balmoral and Clarence House in London would be her homes for the rest of her life, to which she added the Castle of Mey, which she purchased shortly after George VI’s death. She found Birkhall too small and disliked Clarence House, but her wish to move to Marlborough House following Queen Mary’s death in 1953 was not granted. She also disliked her new title, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, describing it as a “horrible name”.
The story of the grieving widow is told with great empathy. Despite her great sense of loss, she managed to find her feet again, to carry on alone the work begun by her and King George and to reinvent herself in the role as the universally beloved “Queen Mum”, a role she would carry out with great charm for fifty years.
The great strength of William Shawcross’s biography of the Queen Mother is that he, with access to her papers, is able to tell large parts of the story through her own words. The book is also better written than official biographies tend to be and is thereby – mostly – a good read. Yet there are some passages which are quite tedious. King George VI’s and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Canada and the USA in 1939 was undoubtedly quite important, both personally and politically, but the nearly forty pages of the chapter dedicated to it seem packed with a never-ending list of engagements performed, speeches made, people met and dinners had. The same goes for those parts of the book which deal with the charities, regiments and voluntary organisations the Queen Mother patronised. This was surely an important aspect of her role and it is more or less in the nature of the official biography that it should be dealt with at some length, but the author himself seems to struggle to muster much enthusiasm for it.
One of the weaknesses of the book is that the closer we come to our own days, the more discreet the author becomes. The name of Camilla Parker Bowles (incidentally, a friend of Shawcross) is for example mentioned only once, when she attends a house party with her then husband in 1973. Whereas the Queen Mother’s husband, daughters, parents, siblings, parents-in-law, siblings-in-law and other family members play a large part in the earlier stages of the book, the focus in the years of her widowhood shifts somehow away from her family and towards various friends and courtiers. Yet this seems not to implicate that her family became less important to her with the passing of the years. Towards the end of the book there seems to be fewer letters and other such sources to draw upon and instead we are again treated to what resembles a chronological list of lunches eaten, regiments visited and people charmed.
To judge by the press attention to the book many had apparently hoped that the official biography would let us know what the relationship between the Queen Mother and Princess Diana was really like and whether it was true that the Queen Mother and her good friend and lady-in-waiting Ruth Fermoy played a part in “arranging” the marriage between their respective grandchildren Charles and Diana. The latter question is not touched upon and we learn little about the first, partly because Princess Margaret in the 1990s destroyed the letters from Princess Diana to the Queen Mother. One of the few surviving letters was written by the Princess of Wales just after her wedding in 1981. “I will try my HARDEST to make your grandson happy & give him all the love & support he needs & deserves”, the Princess writes. “I still can’t get over how lucky I am & it will take me the rest of my life to recover!” It is quite poignant to read these words when one knows how it all ended.
The Queen Mother loved her eighties, we are told. Her nineties were considerably more difficult, considering all the troubles which engulfed the royal family during that decade – press intrusion, public scandals, the divorces of three of her grandchildren, the fire at Windsor Castle and the violent death of the Princess of Wales are of course remembered by most of us. Combined, these events meant that the British monarchy in the 1990s found itself in its biggest crisis since the abdication.
Again we learn little about the Queen Mother’s role and her views on all this, except that she apparently tried to stay out of it as much as possible. “There were some in the Royal Household who wished Queen Elizabeth would give him [Prince Charles] robust advice”, Shawcross writes. “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’ among some members of the Household. She thought her role was not to try and change people’s courses but to be an anchor”.
We are told that she found Andrew Morton’s book on Princess Diana “deeply shocking” and that “the washing of dirty linen in public was utterly abhorrent to Queen Elizabeth. Her life was based upon obligation, discretion and restraint”. She “regretted” the Prince of Wales’s decision to talk about his marriage in Jonathan Dimbleby’s biography and TV documentary, saying: “It’s always a mistake to talk about your marriage”. But she hoped the book “would help history to judge him better”.
Throughout the storm Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was virtually the only member of the royal family to remain almost above criticism. Her great popularity and her presence as a living reminder of a time when the British royal family had been an important inspiration to their people may perhaps in itself have helped sustain the institution through the crisis. She lived to see the crisis pass and at the time of her death on 30 March 2002 the monarchy had again entered more placid waters. A crowd of a million people turned out in London on the day of her funeral, clearly demonstrating that the royal family was still able to touch a chord with its people.
By all accounts the Queen Mother was herself not unusually talented, but she seems to have been very conscious of her own role and image. She combined great charm with an ability to get on with people from all walks of life, despite her own privileged existence. To her charm, she added a strong sense of duty, a will of iron and a great love of life.
When Princess Diana once told her how much she looked forward to her 100th birthday, the Queen Mother replied that she might be run over by a bus before then. She then added something about her own philosophy of life: “Wouldn’t it be terrible if you’d spent all your life doing everything you were supposed to do, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t eat things, took lots of exercise, all the things you didn’t want to do, and suddenly one day you were run over by a big red bus, and as the wheels were crushing into you you’d say ‘Oh my God, I could have got so drunk last night!’ That’s the way you should live your life, as if tomorrow you’ll be run over by a big red bus”.
Perhaps she also disclosed something about herself when her daughter Princess Margaret was born and she wrote in a letter: “[...] I am glad to say that she has got large blue eyes and a will of iron, which is all the equipment that a lady needs! And as long as she can disguise her will, & use her eyes, then all will be well”.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this thoughtful review. I just got the book from the library and am a little overwhelmed by the size. Hope to begin reading this afternoon.


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