William Shawcross’s official biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother of Britain three years ago, one of the pleasant surprises about that book was what a sparkling letter-writer the late Queen was throughout her long life. Apparently I was not alone in noticing this, and last month Macmillan issued what might perhaps be called a companion volume to the official biography, titled Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, edited by Shawcross.
The book runs to 666 pages and covers the huge time span from 1909 until 2001. In between the letters there are also some extracts from the diaries she occasionally wrote in younger years, a few speeches and extracts from recorded conversations with Eric Anderson in 1994 and 1995. The letters are written to a great many different addressees and only very occasionally has the editor chosen to include extracts from letters written to Queen Elizabeth.
Obviously, not all of the letters are equally interesting. The largest section of the book is devoted to the brief fifteen years when she was Queen, while less space is given to her five decades as Queen Mother. To me this seems a reasonable solution, as her years as Queen were obviously more interesting and event-filled than her long widowhood. As the wife of the monarch she was naturally more involved in affairs than as the mother of the monarch, and there are occasional glimpses of her machinations behind the scenes during World War II – for instance how she tried to ensure that the King got the media attention she thought he deserved, and criticism of the King’s advisers in that respect as well as of Churchill for upstaging her husband in a way she thought undermined his position.
There are, in my opinion, perhaps too many letters included from the teenage Lady Elizabeth to her governess turned best friend Beryl Poignand, which deal with such things as her infatuation with the Justin Biebers of a hundred years ago. On the other hand one is charmed when the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth is going to a tea “to meet Princess Mary and Prince Albert next Sunday”, adding that “[t]hey don’t frighten me quite as much as Queens” (“rather nice” was her comment, after the tea, about the Prince who would one day make her Queen). Some of her observations of royal life shortly after her marriage, seen with the eyes of one who was until recently an outsider, are also quite amusing.
Through the letters the reader gets closer to a person who was highly visible for eighty years, but who nevertheless managed to remain very private. In her letters Queen Elizabeth made no attempt at hiding her views on party politics. Already in 1924 she describes herself as “extremely anti-Labour”, followed by other harsh words through the years and herself longing to use her vote and dispatching “a busload of servants up to London” to vote for the Conservative candidate Duff Cooper in 1931.
She declares her hate for the League of Nations and her view that it is “a crime for women to take jobs that men can do as well”. Gandhi was in her eyes “an old blackmailer […], practically committing murder to gain his own ends […]”. There are no signs of her having become less conservative with time, but apparently she learned to express herself somewhat more diplomatically on political matters with the passing of the years and in her old age even acknowledged that Attlee had been “a very good Prime Minister”.
On the other hand she mostly remained discreet about family matters, although there are some critical remarks about her parents-in-law and expressions of the young Duchess’s sense of being frustrated in her wishes by “Press & Precedent”.
Occasionally her letters are self-revelatory in a way which was perhaps unintended. For instance, when Beryl Poignand in 1930 is about to publish a book on Princess Elizabeth, the Duchess of York asks only for the removal of a suggestion that she might one day be Queen. “It always irritates me, this assumption that the Prince of Wales will not marry – he is quiet young and it is rude to him in a way too”, she writes, and one is left wondering if it was perhaps also a thought the Duchess herself was uncomfortable with.
On the subject of King Edward VIII one notes how close she used to be to him in the early years of her marriage. When he abdicated she found it “hard to believe that the one that we knew as Prince of Wales could possibly have done what King Edward did” – to her, the Prince of Wales and King Edward were apparently almost two different men. Queen Elizabeth is often said to have thought that the abdication, and thus in fact Edward VIII, caused the early death of her husband. This is not a view expressed in any of the letters quoted, but already in 1951 we find her referring to the Duke of Windsor as “the part author of the King’s troubles”.
Her deep sense of loss after King George’s death is very evident, as is the degree to which she had depended on him and how he, as she wrote to Queen Mary on the day of his death, had been her “whole life”. Doing things without him “nearly kills one”, she writes in 1954. The letters speak of a blackness which engulfed her for years after his death – in 1957 she was still struggling to find peace of mind – but also of her resolve to never give in, as “the King never gave in, and I am determined to try & do what he would have wished”.
Her letters to Queen Elizabeth II in particular speak of a sense of loneliness which apparently never left her after the death of her husband (the letters suggest that her relationship with Princess Margaret was less confidential than with her elder daughter). The most moving personal aspect of this book is perhaps that of the contrast between the joy which always radiated from the Queen Mother in public and the melancholy and loneliness she felt in private as she lived on for fifty years after losing the man she had been reluctant to marry but who became everything to her. In that way this collection of letters is also implicitly a love story in itself.
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