Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: the Official Biography

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The publication of William Shawcross’ ‘Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: the Official Biography’ has created quite a stir with reviewers criticising both the work and its author. The battle lines can be summarised. Is it an authoritative biography giving a fuller, deeper picture of the life and times of an icon of the 20th century? Or is it a carefully constructed, airbrushed version of history? A degree of skepticism from reviewers is to some extent the author’s burden as this official biography has the blessing of the Royal Family, including photographs released of the Queen and the Prince of Wales with Shawcross’ tome in hand. The work itself is certainly a fitting tribute to the Queen Mother’s life: some six years of research and writing and based on the author’s unfettered access to the Royal Archives it runs to over nine hundred pages and includes previously unpublished letters and photographs. The author was also given access to hundreds of hours of unique tape-recorded interviews which the Queen Mother made in the years before her death with Sir Eric Anderson, the former Head Master of Eton College, beginning in 1994. It was Prince Charles’ idea and her first comment to Anderson was typically self-effacing and disarming: “I am afraid Charles has been bullying you. I’m a very ordinary person. There is nothing very interesting about me.” A modesty that belied the truth as Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyon was a most remarkable woman, as Shawcross ably delineates.

The broad strokes of her achievement are indelibly woven into British history, and few if any would question her contribution to the war effort, or to her role in the survival of the Royal Family. The portrait that Shawcross gives is of a woman of great natural charm and equally great strength of character. She didn’t sugar coat her own personality and she was not lacking in self-esteem. Nor, as one including Robert II of Scotland and George Washington in her family history, was she star struck by marrying into the Royal Family, rather the opposite. “There is no ‘family’ feeling at all in this family. They are all very nice to me, and horrid to each other!” was the reaction of the young Duchess of York. Joining the ‘family firm’ was not easy and later royal brides, most recently Lady Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson, would also find that transition difficult, and in their frustration make some acerbic comments of their own. Although that is not an avenue of investigation Shawcross pursues. Bringing stability to the timid and nervous Prince Albert, Elizabeth also brought her strengths to ‘the firm’. In the early years the greatest quality she brought to her public role was charm. Compared to today’s media dominated world, the early and mid-twentieth century was parochial and naïve and royalty remained distant from the common people. But times were changing rapidly and Prince Albert’s elder brother, Edward, Prince of Wales, had grasped that a new approach was needed, as did the Yorks. In the 1920s and 1930s the simple fact that the attractive young duchess smiled, seemed vivacious and accessible made a world of difference. For a deeply conservative institution it was a revolutionary step.

Yet Elizabeth was deeply conservative herself and her political and social perspectives were neither very sophisticated, nor in touch with many in a disillusioned post-war Britain. Following the election of the first Labour government in 1924 she wrote to Francis Darcy Osborne, Duke of Leeds: “I am extremely anti-Labour. They are so far apart from fairies and owls and bluebells and Americans and all the things I like. If they agree with me, I know they are pretending – in fact I believe everything is pretence to them.” On the early years of Elizabeth’s royal life Shawcross’ perceptive writing is supported by a generous usage of the materials. It is not always particularly flattering to his subject who was neither particularly progressive or open minded in her political views. The Duchess of York was very much a product of her class and era and her idyllic formative years, which had left her with a charming romanticism, also saw her take a reactionary view towards the new wave in British politics. Ill-founded though it proved to be, the fear of the industrial working classes taking power and terraforming society was widespread amongst the upper and middle classes. Elizabeth, whose world view was that of the landed gentry, certainly shared those fears. But her anxieties were always tempered by the good sense never to make her own rather naïve views public and her fundamentally decent nature always gave her empathy for the sufferings of others. Antagonism to the workers’ party did not prevent her from describing the coalminers as “real people”. Those conservative views remained constant throughout her life but the character of political leaders did make a difference to her. It may not have been so much the full-blooded conservatism of Margaret Thatcher that won her approval, as the ‘Iron Lady’s’ belief in the institution of monarchy and the innate greatness of Great Britain. But Thatcher’s predecessor, James Callaghan, was also respected and the Labour PM appreciated the Queen Mother asking after the coalminers in his Cardiff constituency. The key to understanding Elizabeth Bowes Lyon in all her incarnations – Duchess of York, as Queen and Queen Mother – is surely her rare strength of character. In the wealth of material Shawcross provides there are plenty of anecdotes which reveal a sharper, more opinionated woman than the public persona allowed. The conservative philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who was one of her admirers, wrote after meeting the Queen Mother at a dinner party in 1959 that he found her “not indeed 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.”

Thoroughly researched and well written as it is, how then did the criticism and the controversy arise? This is certainly a major work but Shawcross’ intent seems to have been rather different than the expectations of some reviewers who hoped for a more critical evaluation. The author’s objective is of course at one with the hopes of the Royal Family, but that is not to say this is a work short on insights. This is partly the portrait of a great lady and equally an account of how a woman who saw herself as “a very ordinary person” came to play a vital role at the heart of British national life. But the reviewers clearly wanted the biographer to craft his portrait with a more critical pen. In The Independent Matthew Denison commented: “Like many biographers, Shawcross ends up treating his subject with a degree of leniency. He soft-peddles her animosity towards the Duchess of Windsor and excuses her lifelong resolve to avoid unpleasantness as proof of that determined optimism which contributed to her life-enhancing qualities.” Writing for The Daily Mail A.N. Wilson noted that while the publication of a furious letter by the Duke of Windsor (in which the former king lambasts his brother for “Ignominious capitulation to the wiles of his ambitious wife”) is “a sign of more relaxed times that the present Royal Family has allowed the publication of material as explosive as this, even though one feels them breathing down the author’s neck on almost every page.” Wilson also notes that Shawcross declined to use material from royal governess Marion Crawford’s scandalous memoirs: “It would seem as if the ban goes on from beyond the grave, since Shawcross does not use any of Crawfie’s invaluable first-hand material in the passages relating to the childhood of ‘The Little Princesses’.”

One particular criticism that did provoke a reaction from Shawcross was of his handling of the Queen Mother’s role during the breakdown of the Prince of Wales’ marriage. In an interview for BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ he said, “I don’t think it’s whitewashed at all. I think that Diana was a tragic story for everybody. And I think there’s actually quite a bit about it that was not known before. I don’t think it’s a whitewash. Nor do I think that I’ve failed to cover it but readers will have to judge for themselves.” Ironically Shawcross was also lambasted by the press for “a whitewash” after revealing that Princess Margaret had destroyed letters between the Queen Mother and Princess Diana. Margaret apparently felt they were “too private”. Shawcross also informs that in the early hours of August 31, 1997 (the night of the Alma Tunnel car crash), “the Queen wrote her mother a note to be given when she awoke, telling her of the tragedy.” But no further details of the note are given. Presumably he felt that privacy was a relevant issue and the content not of sufficient importance to justify its publication. The criticism of omission is also aimed more broadly at the latter years of the Queen Mother’s life.

Undoubtedly she continued to be hugely influential, particularly upon Prince Charles. Yet little is said about the break-up of the Wales’ marriage, and Camilla Parker Bowles is mentioned once, simply as the spouse of Andrew Parker Bowles. Many will feel this is discretion taken too far and, arguably, self-censorhsip. The Duchess of Cornwall has undoubtedly been a pivotal personality in recent royal history, for four decades in fact. Faced with this dilemma Shawcross may have decided to simply draw the line at the whole issue of Prince Charles’ personal life. However, as future king and with his very close relations with his grandmother, it has undoubtedly undermined the work’s claim to be a definitive biography. In particular the Queen Mother’s opposition to Prince Charles’ second marriage was deeply felt, rooted in her memories of the abdication crisis of 1936. Her views on the whole saga of the breakdown of the Wales’ marriage and the implications of Charles marrying Camilla would have been fascinating to read and surely justified for the historical record.

This is a work that has provoked strong reactions, all of which serves to remind that throughout her long life Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyons was a very significant woman. Any serious biographer is faced with a difficult task. In this instance the author seems to have been reluctant (although that is not Shawcross’ view of the criticisms) to delve too deeply into matters both personal and dynastic. Does this detract from his achievement? To a degree but what is done is done very well. A definitive warts and all biography of modern royalty’s best loved lady may have to wait, but Shawcross’ contribution is invaluable both for what it reveals and for the discussion it has provoked about what has been left unsaid. This official biography is perhaps better described as a tribute for our times: a reflection (to what degree will be for each reader to decide for themselves) of the view the Royal Family has of its best loved member and, equally importantly, the image they hope will be propagated. (Extract from Royalty Magazine Vol. 21/08)