When I asked about reviewing The Queen Mother: The Official Biography, the response I got was something like: "It's 1,100 pages long!" Yes, I said, in my most imperturbable royal voice. But that works out to only about 11 pages for each year of her majesty's life.
Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, lived to be 101. On her public and private timeline were two world wars, an empire lost, half a century of widowhood — and a British throne that looked a lot more wobbly when she died in 2002 than it did when she was born during the reign of Queen Victoria, in 1900. It's a throne that might have toppled but for the steely resolve and unrelenting smile that made Adolf Hitler consider her "the most dangerous woman in Europe."
The QM was a remarkable woman, but what is most remarkable about this official biography is that the QM invited author William Shawcross to make her private material public.
Not public in the way that Princess Diana went public with her tearful and vengeful revelations, about which the queen mother noted, "It's always a mistake to talk about your marriage." Not public like Prince Charles' awkward, gut-spilling confessions. But public in opening her journals, tapes and letters to Shawcross. It's said that those who know about the royal family don't talk (or write), and those who talk about it (or write) don't know. She knew. And by making her archives public, she deftly managed to "keep the old flag flying," in a favorite turn of phrase, from the great beyond.
Yet we get to read only those letters that her younger daughter, Princess Margaret, didn't burn, the way Victoria's youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, expurgated her mother's papers. Whereas there's lots about the QM's known dislike for the American Wallis Simpson, for whom her brother-in-law King Edward VIII left his throne, Margaret's epistolary arson leaves us with precious little about the QM's relationship with Diana, whose letters Margaret destroyed along with sacks of other papers.
As a result, as one reviewer noted, there are many more pages about the late British poet laureate Ted Hughes than about Diana. In any case, the QM put little of controversy on paper in her later years, partly from caution and partly because the woman her staff nicknamed "the imperial ostrich" didn't like to, as Shawcross puts it, "acknowledge, let alone confront, disagreeableness within the family."
The QM heartily enjoyed her rank and privileges ("oh how I hate utility and austerity, don't you?" she wrote to her husband). She was an aristocratic Tory, fretting whether the arrival of nationalized health care meant the end of royal charity to hospitals.
She and her husband insisted on racially integrating the crowds and guests who came to see them, but she also had, Shawcross writes, a "maternalistic view" about white settlers in Africa helping themselves and then, by extension, the black population. And years after her warm reception of Neville Chamberlain after his meeting with Hitler, she was saying that the appeasement agreement "gave us one year to rearm."
At her core, this wife of a king and mother of a queen took seriously the principles of decorum and duty. The degree to which royalty has been commingled with the divine is hard to imagine, but as anointed queen consort, Elizabeth understood the significance of what she was in public — a living symbol whose own mother would have been expected to curtsy to her — as opposed to who she was in private.
Her 50 years of widowhood were threaded through with capital-D duty, however bejeweled. It's why she deplored Diana's conduct, why she was appalled that Margaret wanted to marry a divorced military aide. Duty had sent her husband to an early grave, so why should anyone else in the family not have to make lesser sacrifices in duty's name?
The book puts flesh on what we already knew of the big set pieces in her life: the initially unwelcome courtship of the prince she finally married, the abdication that put them on the throne, her brushes with death from Nazi bombs.
When she realized that she might indeed be killed, she advised her daughters on how they might divide her jewelry and suggested, "remember to keep your temper & your word."
What made this role tolerable — for her and everyone she met — was that she was a showman, a natural actor with a spirited sense of insouciance. She described a trip to Saks Fifth Avenue with a clamoring madhouse of reporters as "like a Marx Brothers movie." When she failed the standard national exam for 16-year-olds, she wrote, "DAMN THE EXAM!!" (Her daughters came to regret their mother's rather cavalier attitude toward formal education.)
Her spending was cheerfully vast, with reported millions in bank overdrafts, some of it from her passion for racing and betting. "I have lost all your money at Ascot," she wrote to her treasurer. "I hope you don't mind." She also believed in maintaining a regal "standard," she wrote, "such as large motorcars & special trains, and all the things that are expected of the mother of the sovereign."
In private, she lived large, threw lavish and hilarious parties, ate and drank — Champagne, pink gin — to her heart's content. But she let her furniture grow so threadbare that her daughters had to have it secretly reupholstered with identical fabric in her absence.
Shawcross falls into the understandable error of being so enamored of every scrap that he evidently hates to cut out any of it, which dulls some later parts of the book.
After writing the QM's obituary for the Los Angeles Times and now reading this book, I think I can say that she left behind not the odor of sanctity of her peerless daughter but a regal impishness that delighted millions, from her grandchildren to the throngs behind rope lines. Her virtues, in her time and class, were immaculate, and her sins venial and more than amusing enough to keep her from being that creature so truly intolerable to the English sensibility: an admirable bore.