- - Tuesday, February 5, 2013


By William Shawcross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30, 666 pages illustrated

By Margaret Rhodes
River North Editions, $14.95, 195 pages, illustrated

When William Shawcross published his official life of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2009, one of its many virtues was the sampling of her letters sprinkled throughout his text. One of the benefits of writing with the authorization of his subject’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, was that she gave him access to such treasures and, even more importantly, permission to quote them. Now he has followed up his biography with a hefty selection of those letters, which whetted the appetite for more.

Of course, dealing with one of those very few people whose lives actually spanned three centuries and who died not long before her 102nd birthday — and was an inveterate, lifelong letter writer to boot — there had to be a selection. But it is apparent from the first letter, written by the 8-year-old Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon to her father in February 1909, to the last one to her favorite grandson, the Prince of Wales, thanking him for a 101st birthday present, that these are texts worth reading even if they were not by a monarch.

The quality that jumps off these pages is the vibrancy of her style and the very defined, highly distinctive character of this particular letter writer. Naturally, over the astonishing 11 separate decades when they were written, there had to be an evolution, not just the natural progression from 8-year-old to centenarian, but the development of a particular character. Some things, though, that don’t change are an amazing gusto, a verve, an animation, a zest for life, a warmth of expression and all-round enthusiasm for what life holds. There are also unexpected aspects to her, a love of art and literature, particularly poetry, which is perhaps why one of the more surprising correspondents of her later years was Ted Hughes.

There is also an unmistakable vein of iron in her character as she deals with what she has chosen in life as well as what is thrown at her. No one who reads these letters will ever again be able to think of her in terms of that sugary image or the benign grandmotherly figure with her ready smile and gracious wave. This is someone who not only holds a grudge but knows just how to act on it to maximum advantage for herself — and, crucially, her image. Equally maximized is the detriment for those, such as her unacceptable — and never accepted — sister-in-law, the Duchess of Windsor, who fell afoul of her.

It is fascinating to note the difference between those letters written before and after she took the plunge into royal life shortly before her 23rd birthday. Those early ones have a devil-may-care gaiety, a spontaneity that is delightful to encounter. Later, many of them appear to have been written very much with an eye to posterity, calculated to shape her historical image and events surrounding her. She may have been hesitant about embracing a royal existence — she turned her future husband down several times and her letters to him about that are models of kindness and tact.

Once she did accept royal life, however, she was nothing if not wholehearted. She came from a large family and her letters here to those relatives show that she retained a lifelong affection and intimacy with them. Yet her resolution never under any circumstances to share with them information from within the royal circle was strictly adhered to even when she was wracked with emotion in times of crisis. She may not have been born to it, but from her marriage in 1923 to her death in 2002, she was royal through and through, in private as well as in public, as these letters demonstrate.

For an up-close and personal view of the woman rather than the correspondent, readers can turn to “The Final Curtsey,” a delightful memoir by Margaret Rhodes, who grew up knowing her as a beloved aunt. In the last few years before Queen Elizabeth’s death, this niece actually served as a lady-in-waiting at Clarence House and so provides a unique view of the last stage of a life still filled with the qualities so apparent in all the letters.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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