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The Queen Mother

by Lady Colin Campbell
St. Martin’s Press, 2012

We’ll never agree on the single most iconic photograph from World War Two. There are so many contenders: Robert Capa’s blurred shot of a soldier crawling through the surf at Omaha Beach on D-Day; Joe Rosenthal’s famous group of Marines raising an American flag at Iwo Jima; an Einsatzgruppen thug at a mass grave in the Ukraine caught in the instant before he shoots a kneeling Jewish man (the so-called “Last Jew of Vinnytsia”) in the head; Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 glimpse of an exuberant sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square … all have irresistible iconic power, and there’s at least one other that deserves a place on any short-list. It’s a Getty image taken on the London Mall outside Buckingham Palace in the roaring, cheering jubilation of V-E day, 1945, and it shows a gaunt, pinched King George VI, his two young daughters, his famous Prime Minister Winston Churchill smiling down at the gathered crowds … and a half-step in front of all of them, George VI’s Queen Elizabeth, smartly jacketed and hatted, purse chucked up tight under her left arm and her beefy right arm raised in a sure, confident salute, her wide face beaming. Alone of the people in the photo, she understands exactly why she’s standing on that balcony – not just to celebrate something specific but to represent something grand, to embody victory. Right there in the midst of war-sooted masonry and war-wearied ministers, she is an utterly magnificent pure-muscle block of sunlight.

It would not have been a picture designed to gladden Adolf Hitler’s heart, had he been alive to see it. He once characterized Queen Elizabeth as “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” sensing with eerie exactitude that she was the whole source of George VI‘s fortitude in the kingship that was thrust upon him when his older brother David, King Edward VIII, abdicated in order to marry ‘the woman he loved.’ Hitler might also have sensed from afar that Queen Elizabeth was a cynosure of hope to her people, although it hadn’t always been so. In the earliest days of the WWII, when she’d visited war-struck areas of London, she’d been booed and jeered in the streets for her plumed hats and furs. She was undaunted; “they would wear their finest to visit me,” she said. “I shall wear my finest to visit them.” When Buckingham Palace itself took bomb-hits, she famously remarked that she was glad of it – it gave her a little more equal footing with her people. There were no more catcalls in the streets – she’d won a widespread public affection that would only deepen over the next half-century until her death in 2002 at the age of 101, the most beloved public figure in the whole of her Commonwealth.

She always smiled; she always waved; she’s attributed with as good a one-liner as any public figure of the 20th century (“The children will never leave without their mother; their mother will never leave without the King; and the King will never leave”); she always carried fresh flowers; even the Mitford sisters were at least partially under her spell … if modern history has an unstoppable force, surely this is it.

Foolhardy indeed, then, to attempt confining such a force in mere humanity, which might be why William Shawcross’ official 2009 biography of the Queen Mother, in a thousand pages of recounted Palace functions and reprinted Court circulars, never attempts it.

Lady Colin Campbell is no fool, but in her new book The Queen Mother, she attempts just the same to stuff this particular lavender-and-feathers genie back into its bottle. The occasion, she tells us, was her publisher pointing out that if she didn’t write such a book, all the delectable backstairs gossip she knew would die with her – basically, that she had a public duty to dish the dirt. The opportunity was well-poised: although born a commoner in Jamaica, in 1974 Georgia Arianna Ziadie married an actual Scottish laird, Lord Colin Ivar Campbell, son of the 11th Duke of Argyll. The marriage was by all accounts brutally unhappy, and although the couple divorced in 1975, Lady Colin Campbell kept both her married name and the entree it gave her to the upper echelons of British nobility. Her book has every bit as many dukes and duchesses parading through it as Shawcross’ did, but unlike that Sussex bounder, she’s actually eaten, entertained, and air-kissed with them all. Matched with occasion and opportunity is motive – and as Lady Campbell stresses throughout her beguiling book, her motive isn’t malice but rather proportion: no human being is perfect, she reminds us, and if we call them such, we actually diminish any accomplishments they had to battle their own flawed humanity to achieve.

It’s a very good, very high-minded note of justification to take, and she states it with heartfelt conviction. Then she dives like a stooping falcon, clawing straight for vulnerable viscera, and it’s a wonder to behold. They just don’t write books like this anymore – a fact for which we can all thank God even while we’re eagerly tearing through these terrific pages.

There’s no aspect of the Queen Mother’s life that gets a free pass – including the start of it. Lady Campbell takes the nattering confusion her subject always displayed about the actual place and time of her birth and rips it away from the very courteous fog of euphemisms and doubt-benefitting in which Shawcross covers it. According to Lady Campbell, the simplest, most obvious reason why the old Queen Mother would lie about her birth is the true one: because she wasn’t really the daughter of Claude Bowes-Lyon, the 14th Earl of Strathmore and his wife Cecilia Cavendish-Bentick but rather was a bastard got on the fetching Strathmore cook Marguerite Rodiere by His Lordship and then passed off as a ‘jacket’ (as such well-known surrogate babies were called) in genteel society. Lady Campbell has known many such ‘jackets’ personally, and she’s heard all the first-hand gossip from those in the know at the time (including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, whose practice of calling the Queen Mother ‘Cookie’ suddenly becomes both appalling and just a bit funny).

It’s the first of the book’s countless bombshells, and it’s followed in rapid-fire by many more. In Lady Campbell’s telling, this was a both a wanton figure who never forgave the handsome Prince of Wales for not picking her (hence giving rise to her implacable hatred of the woman he did eventually choose, Wallis Simpson) and a prissy figure who disliked sex so much she had herself artificially inseminated with her two daughters. And most of all, this was a young queen who didn’t rely on being liked but rather schemed toward it, relentlessly, with everybody she thought could further her apparently insatiable ambition – starting with her husband’s father, King George V, one in a long line of alluringly flattered men:

Her technique for winning over her future father-in-law was the same one she used on everyone else. She simply turned the full fusillade of her charms upon him. I remember observing Elizabeth doing the same thing to an old codger in the 1970s. By then she was in her seventies, so infinitely less appealing than she would have been at twenty-two. Nevertheless, it was a performance to behold. She was as flirtatious as any young woman confident in her allure. Without exactly fluttering her eyelashes, she batted them seductively. Although she sat up ramrod straight, she would sometimes withdraw provocatively with a gay laugh, her hands fluttering over her bosom, her head tilted to one side as if to say, ‘You fascinate me.’ A subtle study in perpetual motion, she would then change the pace, seductively leaning in as she adjusted the tilt of her head and the expression on her face. Those facial expressions, believe me, were artistry personified.

These blandishments were less effective, naturally, on King George’s formidable wife Queen Mary. Despite a whole file of published letters between the two showing every evidence of affection, Lady Campbell has a slightly more stereotypical daughter/mother-in-law story to tell (with a healthy side-serving of class snobbery):

Even Shawcross acknowledges in the official biography that the relationship between Queen Mary and Elizabeth was more strained than their superficially affectionate correspondence indicated. The fact is, Mary had a withering contempt for Elizabeth’s intellectual viewpoint and lack of actual gravitas beneath the wily Machiavellianism. She also despised Elizabeth’s flamboyant lack of modesty as she went about her official duties, and ensured that Lilibet [that's Queen Elizabeth II, to you] understood that real Queens are modest and sincere rather than insincere players to the gallery, and that style is no substitute for substance.

The substance of Lady Campbell’s portrait is positively Ricardian: that this arriviste from Glamis Castle not only plotted relentlessly to gain the throne but once there used all her power to persecute her enemies – foremost being the newly-christened Duke and Duchess of Windsor. According to Lady Campbell, the Duke’s departure from England following his abdication in 1936 was never meant to be a permanent exile – he’d always intended to return and help his younger brother rule:

And what of the Duke of Windsor’s version of events? In exile he constantly said that the revisionists were rewriting history. Of course, he had been well educated, so he knew that the victor always imposes his interpretation upon events. What he had not reckoned with when he abdicated, however, was that his renunciation of the throne would be used to turn him into a pariah. Nor had he expected to be cast in the role of adversary of his brother and the other members of the Royal Family. He had struck an agreement with Bertie that he would return after a year abroad and fulfil the role of a younger son. It was this agreement, which Elizabeth would ensure was never honoured, that was not being used by the revisionists to pillory and discredit him, by claiming that he had contemplated renouncing his rights of succession before his accession. He had never had any such plans, and there was, he would point out, not one piece of paper to prove the contention.

“The only people who made these claims, which he denied conclusively,” Lady Campbell continues, “were those who had been a party to the Abdication, or who had profited by it. Why, he would ask, did he tell people of his plans for the monarchy prior to his accession to the throne, if he planned to renounce his rights? And why, once he was king, was he posing for his State portrait, in his Coronation robes, if he planned to abdicate?”

The obvious answer to these heated questions – that Edward VIII did all these things because he was incredibly spoiled and completely certain he’d be able to do whatever he wanted once he was King – is patently insufficient for our author. Instead, she detects a “trail of barely visible slime” all the way back to 1929, pointing toward a cold-eyed Elizabeth calculating the best way to get her husband on the throne of England. Res ipsa loquitur, Lady Campbell says: the thing speaks for itself.

This vindictive Queen Mother wasn’t entirely exclusionary, however. Lady Campbell shot to fame in 1992 with a scandalous life of Princess Diana, and The People’s Princess makes several re-appearances in The Queen Mother, always as a younger version of our main character:

Like Elizabeth, Diana hid an ambitious, predatory nature behind a sweet and easy countenance. Both of them had the talent of saying the right thing at the right moment to bring about the desired effect. Both of them also knew how to seize the moment. These are not virtues that can be readily taught.

The Queen Mother, Lady Campbell contends, liked the new blood Diana might inject into her beloved royal family (not to mention her beloved grandson, Prince Charles), although our author, who seems to have all of Debrett’s at her mental fingertips, is quick to assure us that blood wasn’t exactly new:

She always preferred British aristocrats to foreign royals, and Diana had many illustrious bloodlines in her veins. [Diana's grandmother] Cynthia’s father had been the 3rd Duke of Abercorn (whose next duke will be a descendant of the Torby/Merensky/Puskin family), while her maternal line included the earls of Lucan and the dukes of Richmond and Gordon.

On and on, for page after page, the old girl wears her tiaras and carries her flowers and flirts with every man in sight, and Lady Campbell has the backstage story on all of it. She’s detectably angry about the white-wash history was already doing on the ‘Queen Mum’ long before she died – but although anger is easy to spot in this book, simple spite is not. Despite angry counter-blasts from spokespeople connected with the Palace, such simple spite appears nowhere in these pages. Instead, Lady Campbell time and again gives Queen Elizabeth as much credit as she can: she’s called a gifted raconteur, a loyal friend to her loyal friends, and an extremely hard-working Royal. She just wasn’t, our author insists, the perfect, benign latter-day saint the press have made her out to be.

Fair enough, but one of Lady Campbell’s main gossip-sources for The Queen Mother was Margaret, the Duchess of Argyll, the former wife of Lady Campbell’s former father-in-law, the 11th Duke of Argyll. That Duke’s great-grandfather was something of a literary man himself, a dabbler in royal biography, and in his 1902 life of Queen Victoria, he offers a caution in his Preface: “Comment on a character and the attempted dissection of motives and actions on the part of an essayist or historian we must often feel to be an impertinence. Let the dead speak. Do not lecture around their shrines.”

Instead of heeding that advice, The Queen Mother throws it out the window and proceeds to clamor around more shrines than a cold November draft. Scandals are revived; ruinous gossip is finally put down in print; privileged confidences are relayed in the hopes of setting the record straight.

And none of it matters. That V-E picture wins, no contest.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.