Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross
This is a long, important and remarkable book about a long, important and remarkable life. Do not read it for revelations because there aren’t any. Read it for the charm and gently ironic wit of a strong-willed woman who knew everyone who mattered in 20th-century Britain. This book does not force us to change our understanding of the Abdication Crisis or the monarchy’s role during the Second World War, but it is crammed with interesting information and delightful quotations from the Queen Mother’s letters, or at least as much of them as survived Princess Margaret’s ruthless auto-da-fé of her correspondence.
The Queen Mother was an Edwardian who grew up in a time when it was improper for a lady’s back to touch her chair at mealtimes. She went to only one supermarket in her life (Sainsbury’s on the Cromwell Road). She proudly described herself as an “anti-feminist”, believing it was “a crime for women to take jobs that men can do as well”.
Political incorrectness suffuses this book. Although the Queen Mother was taught by a German Jewish governess, Käthe Kübler, her time tending the wounded at Glamis Castle and the death of her adored brother Fergus during the Great War left her hating “the unspeakable Hun”. Of the French she wrote: “I like their sense of humour — it’s so delicious, and yet, how can one trust them?” Some of her letters display a poetic sensibility, which might explain her friendship with Ted Hughes.
The Queen Mother’s politics were entirely conventional and predictable, given her age, class and background. She distrusted Churchill at first — not least because of his support for Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis — but came to admire him during 1940. She thought Clement Attlee “wouldn’t strike one as a star, but he was a practical little man”. She despised Harold Wilson’s “mismanagement of the Rhodesian question”, but Shawcross does not pronounce on Ian Smith’s (I suspect true) claim that she sent him supportive private messages at the time of the Lancaster House talks. She liked Jim Callaghan, but adored Margaret Thatcher, giving her a brooch. The Liberal Democrats were a bête noire.
On one of the very few occasions when the Queen Mother had any significant direct input into great political events, she and the King, Shawcross rightly asserts, made a bad mistake: taking the Conservative Neville Chamberlain out on to the balcony of Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Munich Agreement — despite this being the subject of a vote in the Commons and opposed by both the Labour and Liberal parties — was constitutionally wrong. But her superb work in maintaining morale during the war, especially during the Blitz, revealed a pure genius for public relations.
The Queen Mother was certainly at the heart of events. She sat in on Churchill’s audiences with her husband, something that Prince Philip was not allowed to do after the Queen’s accession in 1952. Shawcross speculates that she might even have known about the Ultra decrypts. After the King’s death, she realised how “very much I am cut off from ‘inside’ information”.
Her strength of character was evident on several occasions during the war. It is not generally known that in February 1941 a mentally disturbed military deserter jumped out at her from behind some curtains in her room at Windsor Castle, grabbing her by her ankles. “For a moment my heart stood absolutely still,” she later said, and she knew that if she screamed she might well be assaulted. So she said: “Tell me about it,” and listened to him reciting his troubles — his family had been killed in the Blitz — as she moved calmly and quietly across the room to ring for assistance.
During the V-1 “doodlebug” bomb attacks on London of 1944, she wrote a letter to her eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, “in case I get ‘done in’ by the Germans!” explaining how she wanted her effects divided. It ended with the words: “Let’s hope this won’t be needed, but I know you will always do the right thing, & remember to keep your temper & your word & be loving.” Perhaps the Queen Mother’s greatest legacy was to have brought up a monarch who has lived her life precisely by those precepts.
The book is full of interesting snippets of information, such as how the dress designer Norman Hartnell made the Queen Mother a special air-raid gown and a velvet gas-mask case and JP Morgan sent her a food parcel from America in 1942. A surprising footnote tells us that she told Sir Isaiah Berlin that “wholly fearless men are often boring”, instancing various Victoria Cross holders, including General Freyberg. One wonders if she felt that about Guy Gibson, to whom she presented the VC after the Dambusters Raid in 1943, while the King was in Malta. One fearless man who undoubtedly interested her was Charles de Gaulle, “something of a favourite with her”. Of course she admired his courage during the war, but she particularly liked his magisterial “Non” of January 1963, which kept Britain out of the Common Market.
So what of the broadcaster Ed Stourton’s recent claim that the Queen Mother was “a ghastly old bigot”? It is true that during her visit to Toulouse in 1989 she said that she would like to meet Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was holding a rally there at the time. She was probably joking, however, and enjoying the consternation she knew her request would cause the British Embassy in Paris. Anyhow, Shawcross goes on to state, ”Although conservative in her own views, she was worried by the tendency he represented.”
Generally, she exercised the sound, unobtrusive judgment one would expect of a consort in a constitutional monarchy. It was she who, in addition to Queen Mary, prevented the name of the royal family being changed from Windsor to Mountbatten in 1952. As Harold Macmillan noted, “Of course, she favours the name of Windsor and all the emphasis on the truly British and native character of the Royal Family.” She hated Prince Charles being educated at Gordonstoun — “he might as well be at school abroad”, she said, and it would be “an alien world” where he would be “terribly alone & cut off” — but Prince Philip’s views prevailed.
Who can now doubt that the Queen Mother was right to prefer Eton, where Prince Charles would have been closer to friends, family and civilisation?
The Queen Mother was not going to allow her tragically early widowhood to affect her material comforts and in 1953 she told the Queen that she felt she ought to maintain “a certain standard, such as large motor cars and special trains, and all the things that are expected of the mother of the sovereign”. There will be few readers of this fine book who will not wholeheartedly agree.