Mum's the Word

The Queen Mother's letters chronicle a century spent at the center (or top) of ... This astounding statistic is from William Shawcross's officialbiography
Wall Street Journal, November 22, 2012


Were it possible actually to measure qualities like tact, poise, cheerfulness and imperturbable good manners, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (1900-2002) would surely hold a bushel of Guinness World Records. During her almost 80 years in the public eye—first as the Duchess of York, then as queen consort to George VI, and finally as the Queen Mother—she never once seriously stumbled or put so much as a toe in her mouth. She managed this feat largely by dint of an exceptionally calm and sunny temperament, yet her discipline and dedication were no less prodigious. "One comes away from the Queen Mother," the royal biographer Theo Aronson once observed, "with the clear impression that for all her celebrated charm and joie de vivre, she is a woman with a core of steel."Associated Press

The Duke and Duchess of York honeymooning in Surrey in 1923. The future Queen Mother, wary of the chilly Windsors, declined the Duke's first two proposals.

Born into a large, close-knit, unusually jolly aristocratic family, she was so reluctant to join the stiff and chilly House of Windsor that she turned down the first two proposals of Prince Albert, Duke of York. Having accepted his third in 1923, she promptly became the most supportive of wives, encouraging him to overcome his stammer and providing the playful affection so lacking from his parents. When his brother abdicated in 1936 and he was forced to assume the throne, her Gibraltar-like attributes helped make him the steady monarch that Britain urgently needed. (Given that P.G. Wodehouse was her favorite author and that her husband's nickname was Bertie, it is tempting to describe her role as Jeevesian.) After his death in 1952, she took up the post of Queen Mother, which, though ceremonial, was no cakewalk. Anyone who imagines her later life to have been all smiles and waves and gin and Dubonnet (her vile favorite drink) should consider that in the year she turned 97 she carried out 54 public engagements.

This astounding statistic is from William Shawcross's official biography, published in 2009. In researching it, Mr. Shawcross became so enamored of the letters of the QM (as she shall henceforth be known) that he decided to compile a selection. The result certainly represents a contribution to our understanding of 20th-century British life, if only because the QM was for so long near the center (or top) of it. But does "Counting One's Blessings" stand on its own merits? Does it make good reading?

On one level, the answer can only be no. Held up to the epistolary standard of, say, John Keats or Robert Louis Stevenson, it doesn't have a chance. Mr. Shawcross effuses that the QM's "words danced on the page," but in truth they never attempted anything more daring than a Morris dance or elementary polka. She wrote like what she was, namely a conventional Edwardian aristocrat of limited education, and her letters are largely made up of polite formulas and bland hyperboles: "It was angelic of you to write me such a charming letter," one begins.

Nor do they deepen over time. In fact, most of the letters from her later years, such as her thank-you note for the "huge and heavenly Bath Towel" that Prince Charles gave her for her 101st birthday, will be of interest only to hard-core royal watchers. Finally, the book has little to offer those hoping for dirt on Wallis Simpson and the abdication crisis; the travails of the QM's wayward younger daughter, Princess Margaret; the events of 1992 (which her other daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, called her "annus horribilis"); or the death of the Princess of Wales five years later. Whatever inside dope the QM may have had, she was far too circumspect to dispense it in her letters.

For all this, "Counting One's Blessings" is eminently worthwhile, to skim if not to pore over. Precisely because so much of it consists of gentle boilerplate, the occasional moment of spikiness leaps out, as when the QM describes the King of Romania as "the silliest & kindest old idiot" or her father-in-law, George V, as a "narrow-minded autocrat." Her sense of humor was keen, and her endless trips abroad often brought it to the surface: "The natives," she reported to Queen Mary (George V's wife) from the Marquesas Islands in 1927, "are brown and the men quite nice-looking, but very diseased and rapidly dying out. Instead of being strong healthy cannibals with strange religions and no clothes, they are now weakly half hearted Roman Catholics with European clothes." And her correspondents include a surprising number of cultural figures, among them Benjamin Britten, John Betjeman and Ted Hughes, with whom she forged a rather touching late friendship.

Yet the real fascination of the book lies in its historical embeddedness. The World War II years are, of course, particularly compelling. The QM famously proclaimed her gratitude for the bombing of Buckingham Palace on the grounds that it allowed her to "look the East End in the face," and here we find much the same mixture of sorrow, empathy and dry wit. In 1943 she wrote to her husband, off visiting the Home Fleet in Scotland, "I do hope you won't be too bored, but I am afraid that your ceiling has fallen down in the Regency Room, and therefore you will find your writing table in the '44 Room." If this suggests a certain flippancy, other letters correct the misapprehension. She saw terrible things during the Blitz, and they affected her deeply. "We went on to Stoke Newington," she reported after a 1940 bomb-site tour, "where they were still digging people out from a block of flats which collapsed on top of them. They fear two hundred dead, owing to the fact that the water main burst, & drowned many."

Above everything, the QM believed in Britain, its empire and the importance of its monarchy. In 1954 she wrote to her elder daughter, then in the midst of a grueling tour of Australia, in part to condole—"I remember so well how tired we got in 1927"—but also to ruminate on patriotism. "How moving & humble-making," she writes, "that one can be the vehicle through which this love for country can be expressed. Don't you feel that? When one is exhausted, & maddened by the idiocy of everybody, one is sustained by the feeling that people need a sovereign." These are sentiments to nauseate a republican, but I, for one, find them stirring in their almost sacerdotal sense of purpose. Even if much of "Counting One's Blessings" can be dismissed as the literary equivalent of the oversize bath towel that Prince Charles gave the QM, passages like these remind us that she was the furthest thing from just another spoiled rich lady at the spa.


website © William Shawcross 2018
design by
aerta 0844 884 1707/ 07976 629435