- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

By William Shawcross
Knopf, $40, 1,096 pages, illus.

First, ignore the “official biography” subtitle, often the kiss of death for a book. William Shawcross‘ history of the 20th century as reflected in the life of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon — who became George VI’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, and, later, the Queen Mother (a name she disliked) — is delightful as well as dignified. Second, you’ll need a pillow to hold this book comfortably in your lap (it’s heavier than the dictionary, but at least the publisher has used an elegant, readable font).

Finally, you’ll need lots of leisure to savor the stories; if you skim you’ll miss vignettes such as the time in Canada when King George VI, in full-dress naval uniform, waved goodbye to the crowd from the rear platform of a train, only to find the train could not move because the engine was missing. He went inside and flung his sword down the passageway, barely missing the steward, who reported, “The poor Queen, meanwhile, was left outside waving her handkerchief at the people standing in the rain and the pipes piping away.”

It wasn’t all roses being queen, but Elizabeth, daughter of an aristocratic but fun-loving family in Scotland who spent three years telling Prince Albert no before consenting to join the royal family, made the best of it to the end, dying in 2002 at age 101. Although the time when she had been most influential — during the abdication crisis of 1936 and World War II — was long past, she remained popular, helping to “soften criticism of the monarchy, particularly in the miseries of the 1990s,” says the author.

The miseries — multiple unsuitable marriages and divorces among the younger royals, public protests over the cost of maintaining the royal family, and a devastating fire at Windsor Castle — are mentioned in this book but quickly passed over in favor of colorful descriptions of ceremonial occasions, incredible wardrobes (those hats!), and the Queen Mother’s graceful adaptation to any inconvenience, such as airplane engine failure.

In fact, she loved interruptions in the relentless march of scheduled events, finding it refreshing to meet people who were not prepared for her arrival. She also loved picnics, whatever the weather. According to Mr. Shawcross, she demonstrated her “sense of fun and presence of mind” early in her marriage at a ball during an official visit to Fiji: “When all the guests had shaken hands, a lone dog, which had managed to get into the ballroom, quietly trotted up to Her Royal Highness and held up its paw. The Duchess smilingly shook hands and patted doggy on the head.”

The author begins his book by contrasting the formal atmosphere of George V’s royal household, in which Prince Albert was reared, and Elizabeth’s youth spent in a warm, cheery family of nine children and two loving, attentive parents in Glamis Castle in Scotland. Her formal education was minimal — her mother didn’t think girls needed much instruction, and, to the chagrin of successive foreign governesses, the children were always sent outside to play after morning lessons.

P.G. Wodehouse was her all-time favorite author. When World War I broke out in 1914, the Bowes Lyon home was turned into a hospital for convalescent servicemen, and Elizabeth became practiced at making young men from a variety of backgrounds feel at home. One of her brothers was killed in the war, which may help explain why, on her way down the aisle of Westminster Abbey to be married, she left her wedding bouquet at the memorial to the unknown warrior. Prince Albert’s poor health kept him from seeing much action in the Navy.

After the war, “Bertie,” like his elder brother David, the Prince of Wales, had an affair with a married woman but gave her up to become Duke of York and to marry Elizabeth. The new bride, Mr. Shawcross writes, “did what she could to enliven Court life. She found that she was able to put nervous guests at ease in ways which the King and Queen could never have done. When possible, she would sit down at the piano after dinner, play and sing and encourage other guests to join her.” When someone mentioned to King George V her tendency to tardiness, he replied, “Ah, but if she weren’t late, she would be perfect, and how horrible that would be.”

Early on, she tackled her husband’s severe stammering, which caused him to dread the public speaking required of all the royals. She encouraged him to work with an Australian therapist, Lionel Logue, who tackled the sufferers’ breathing problems while assuring them that “they were normal people with a common affliction which could usually be cured.”

Bertie was indeed helped and went on to prove, by surviving an exhausting six-month world tour with his wife, that he had all the kingly qualities that his brother lacked. When, as George VI, he inherited the throne that Edward VIII had cast off for Mrs. Simpson, he had the country and Commonwealth with him. His and his wife’s courage in remaining with their children in London throughout World War II were credited with keeping their subjects united during the ordeal. They both remained steadfastly opposed to recognition of the Duchess of Windsor as Her Royal Highness, not least because King Edward VIII had lied to them about his personal wealth at the time of his abdication, to support his claim for an increased allowance.

In truth, this book could almost have ended in the middle, after the Allied triumph in World War II in 1945 and the death of George VI in 1952. Based primarily on letters and documents of the royal family and friends (the family members wrote to one another copiously, sometimes from across the room), the story in the post-George VI era becomes one of carrying on: The Queen Mother bought herself a derelict castle in Scotland and rehabilitated it, moved from palace to palace with the season, took 20 trips to Canada, wore out several guides on her annual vacations in France or Italy, smilingly appeared before the 300 various organizations of which she was the patron, and indulged her grandchildren.

She loved to share cocktails with friends old and new, enjoyed racing her horses, and wearied of middle-aged men who told her she reminded them of their mothers, particularly after Jimmy Carter sealed his comment with a kiss full on the lips. (“I took a sharp step backwards,” she recalled. “Not quite far enough.”)

Mr. Shawcross searches for any even slightly negative comments to offset the lifelong positive view of the Queen Mother among her subjects, but he seems to have settled for only two: During wartime, photographer Cecil Beaton “thought her clothes ugly and dowdy and her jewellery messy, but concluded that it did not matter what she wore: nothing could detract from the impression of goodness, sympathy and overwhelming charm which she conveyed.”

In 1959, philosopher and diplomat Sir Isaiah Berlin described a dinner party in which the Queen Mother struck him as “not particularly intelligent nor even terribly nice, but a very strong personality — much stronger than I thought her — and filled with the possibility of unexpected answers. … In short I enjoyed my evening a good deal.”

The Queen Mother once wrote to a friend, “What a lot of our life is spent in acting.” It was this skill that enabled her to project an air of interest in everybody she met. She died beloved by all her family and subjects, and Mr. Shawcross‘ engaging book tells why.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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