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Book Review: Counting One’s Blessings

Keeping Up with the Windsors

Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

Edited by William Shawcross

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012

When Ben Downing came to review Counting One’s Blessings, William Shawcross’ new collection of the letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, he got down to cases in his customarily direct way. Writing last month inThe Wall Street Journal, he broached perhaps the most natural question any literary person would think to ask about a volume like this: Does it make good reading? And his answer is as ungallant as it is funny: “On one level, the answer can only be no.” Citing Shawcross’ contention that his subject’s words “danced on the page,” Downing quips, “they never attempted anything more daring than a Morris dance or an elementary polka.”

Rosemary Hill, reviewing the book for the London Review of Books, was more generous, pointing that “In an age and a class where letter-writing was obligatory she was a versatile and ingenious correspondent, learning to put a dab of jam on the most bread and butter communication,” but she still complains that the book is much too long. Richard Davenport-Hines gives the book its most intelligent appraisal so far (one really must be hyphenated to get this job done), writing winningly of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon herself (if less forgivingly of Shawcross’ efforts on her behalf) and even managing to work in a little Auden without making a complete horse’s ass out of himself.

Some drunken copy editor titled Hill’s piece “The Last Intellectual,” which is wrong and hilarious on many different levels, but it’s Downing who’s most mystifying. Morris dancing? What letter collection could he possibly have been reading? In truth, and against considerably long odds, Counting One’s Blessings is a pure sunlit mazurka from start to finish. Shawcross of course wrote the monumental official biography of the woman who was England’s queen during the Second World War and its beloved “Queen Mother” for half a century more. For the undertaking of that task, he was granted unfettered access to the Royal Archives and emailing privileges with half of Burke’s Peerage, and it’s clear that along the way, this respected journalist and historian somewhat fell under the same spell of smiling charisma that held most of the United Kingdom in its sway for most of the 20th Century. How else would the idea have even occurred to him to assemble a collection of letters that have more ampersands than words, all scribbled in haste by a fine upstanding Edwardian lady who delighted in calling herself an imbecile?

And yet, it works so splendidly it almost seems like this should have been the volume Shawcross produced back in 2009, instead of an authorized Life that had to find 615 different ways to describe garden parties. Here in these dashed-off and immeasurably chatty letters, we have not a marble bust but the woman herself, loving, sensitive, funny, and often surprising (readers familiar only with her flower-carrying hand-waving later decades will perhaps be surprised to find her writing to Duff Cooper in 1935 praising the “simplicity & beauty” of the language in the Tale of Genji).

Some of it, true, will be trying to modern sensibilities. When Elizabeth writes to her imperious mother-in-law Queen Mary in 1942 on the occasion of being mentioned in as friend’s will, she falls a little short of the ‘common touch’ for which she was so justly famous:

I must tell you that Mrs. Grenville has left me her jewels, tho’ I am keeping that quiet as well for the moment! She left them to me ‘with her loving thoughts,’ dear old thing, and I feel very touched … Apart from everything else, it is rather exciting to be left something, and I do admire beautiful stones with all my heart. I can’t help thinking most women do!

(At the time of that writing, the happy recipient of those beautiful stones was also the possessor of fifteen country estates, two castles, and the Crown Jewels of England – a bit more, in other words, than most of her food-rationing subjects). And yet later in the same letter, a note is sounded of the simple-minded and righteous indignation that was to endear her so thoroughly to her countrymen:

Is it not terrible the way the Germans are behaving all over Europe. The mask is off at last, and the true savagery is emerging now that there is no need to pretend that all these small countries were taken over for their own good. Murder & deportations, children sent away from their families, & now the unspeakable treatment of prisoners.

Something in that tone rose above the theatricality in which it was undoubtedly born; it crops up most predictably in her letters to that other icon of bulldog tenacity, Winston Churchill, as when she writes to him in 1944 (ironically feeling ‘old age coming on’) about her poor beleaguered people:

My heart aches for our wonderful brave people, they have been tried so high, & of course can go on, but it really is rather a bore to feel that one might be blown to pieces at any moment. There is no limit to their courage & cheerfulness, and I long for them to have a lightening of their burden.

Once the great crisis passes – and once her husband the King dies and her prim daughter ascends to the throne – the newly-designated Queen Mother is free to be a person again, a doting mother, a bracing confidant, a sympathetic ear, and a bubbly best friend to her beloved grandson Prince Charles, who tends to get the joking anecdotes edited out of letters to more remote recipients:

I had a pretty strenuous tour in New Zealand, and the fishing was a failure! One nice little river was rising so rapidly that I nearly got marooned in the middle of it. There were huge trout swimming about literally under my feet, & I was reduced to taking the line in my fingers an dangling the fly over their noses! They took not the slightest notice …

Critics have pointed out that there’s no dirt in this volume, and it’s true. We don’t learn anything new about what the Queen Mother thought of Wallis Simpson or Princess Diana or indeed any of the controversial figures she met in her long life – if such letters exist, Shawcross has dutifully suppressed them. Dirt aplenty there had to be (you don’t live a century on this planet without accumulating it), but for now, readers will have to go elsewhere for it. This big collection forms a companion to that previous Queen Mother tome, and we’ll now hear little more about the dear old thing – it seems unlikely that those old bones will wriggle out from under such definitive treatment any time soon.

But Shawcross saved the better volume – the fittingly fun one – for last.