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From the Archives: I Talk & Laugh & Listen

Society reserves a spotlight for them unlike any it shines on other celebrities: they are the royal House of Windsor – famous, powerful, fabulously wealthy, revered, scorned, romanticized, vilified, and even taken for granted. Their gaudy, moving spectacle has played out alongside the entire 20th century – and continues into the 21st. In this year-long feature, we’ll examine the lives of the men and women whose stories comprise a Year with the Windsors.

The Queen Mother: The Official Biography

By William Shawcross
Knopf, 2009

The British historian William Shawcross (whose account of the US involvement in Cambodia remains the best book on the subject) has written a thousand-page ‘official’ biography of the late Queen Mother Elizabeth, the mother of Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth II; he was given unfettered access to all the Royal archives in England and Scotland, and the private libraries of the whole of Burke’s Peerage were cordially opened to him. He has managed to be very thorough without being in the least inquisitive, so the great thing he has written instantly achieves exactly the same proportion of truth and stagecraft as its subject for nearly the whole of her 102 years on Earth. It is not a mirror held up to its subject, since a) mirrors don’t lie and b) mirrors contain the implicit drama of who’s doing the holding; rather, it’s a floating simulacrum, a vast and erudite piece of propaganda done on a scale and with a verve that would certainly have won Shawcross a job from Joseph Stalin.

The allure of such a job offer would not have been the main reason to accept it – that reason would have been bald fear for your life if you refused. One can almost picture the corresponding scene in Buckingham Palace: our aged historian sitting contritely, sweating nervously under the Teutonic glares of all those painted Windsors past, glancing away from them only to face much worse at shin-level, a steely row of black, soulless Corgi eyes contemplating his soul as if it were a kibble treat, and above them, behind a polished expanse of desktop, another set of eyes, oddly Corgi-like, utterly unblinking in their concentration.

“You’ll do Mummie proud,” comes that grim voice so familiar from Christmas broadcasts, “or we shall make an example of you. Is that understood?”

“Yes Ma’am,” the hapless scribe stammers, then sidles out backwards to begin the epic whitewash that will save his life and the lives of his family.

Since no such scene (alas) can have taken place, we may – indeed we must – ask just exactly why a historian of Shawcross’ standing would undertake a task at once so large, so predictable, and so whalebone-corseted.

And we shall ask that, but first, let’s look at the result, shall we? I’ve spent the last fortnight hefting this thing everywhere – it shielded my head from the rain in Charing Cross; it doubled as a handy food-tray near Euston Station; its sheer size made it a reassuring safeguard against a bad-tempered Corgi (was I being watched?) in Piccadilly. It is a great heavy book about a woman who spent the better part of a century waving at strangers, and you’re not fifteen pages into it (probably a good deal less, if you’re the cynical sort) before you start to wonder if she could possibly deserve all this fuss. The Queen Mother was never queen in her own right, only Queen Consort to King George VI, and that largely ceremonial status was rendered completely ceremonial the instant her daughter Elizabeth came to the throne in 1953. There followed for Queen Elizabeth (Shawcross follows the standard terminology throughout: Queen Elizabeth is Queen Elizabeth until the moment Princess Elizabeth becomes Queen Elizabeth, then Queen Elizabeth becomes the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth becomes simply the Queen) the tinny drama of being the Queen Mother: appearances, court functions, dairy shows, lines of carefully-rehearsed young spelling-bee champs, the occasional ship to be launched.

The one element entirely missing from the diurnal rigmarole of it all – the one element indeed intentionally and professionally excised from it all by the nameless, faceless Buckingham Palace experts who keep “The Firm” up and running – is drama. This seems far more the stuff of a quick 200-page book (like the gossipy little number whipped up by Ann Morrow in 1984, which my mother bought and was forever meaning to read) than the 1000-page behemoth Shawcross has produced. It can be wondered if the Queen Mother herself might have balked at the length (in a revealing comment made very late in her life, she wondered about the hoopla surrounding her every move, saying “I was just doing my job”).

She was born Elizabeth Bowes Lyon in Scotland in 1900, the ninth child of the heir to the thirteenth Earl of Stathmore and Kinghorne, who called Glamis Castle (of Macbeth fame) home. The ancestry was, as Shawcross mildly puts it, “colorful,” full of impecunious husbands and strong-willed wives and all the little mysteries to which Scotland has ever been enamoured. When discussing Charlotte Grinstead, who was Lady Glamis when she was widowed with four young children in 1834, Shawcross footnotes:

The legend of the ‘Monster of Glamis’ which originated in the nineteenth century may have arisen from the birth and death of the first child of Lord and Lady Glamis in 1821. The story ran that a deformed creature was kept alive, hidden in the Castle, until some time between 1865 and 1876. There appears to be no credible evidence for this story.

In dealing with royal biographies, especially official ones of 20th century royalty, it’s a good idea to keep the Monster of Glamis in mind, and it’s obvious Shawcross knows this, otherwise he would hardly have appended such a solemn note to such a silly story. Because it might, just might, not be silly; when it comes to royalty, there are always hidden rooms, secret passageways, shuddering hemophiliacs and epileptics, an alternate history unfolding tantalizingly out of reach of the public record. The Windsors are the most discreet monarchs who ever lived, and reading about their intentionally bland rounds of luncheons, functions, and commemorations inevitably produces the strong impression – maybe even the hope – that these people are radically different when behind their many closed doors. Surely one of the reasons for the Queen Mother’s lifelong popularity with the British people was her personal degree of apparent transparency: she tramped her lands, talked with everyone, danced until dawn, and made no bones about being fond of what Lord Asquith once referred to as “a good strong drink, administered hourly.”

But it’s only apparent transparency: behind the smiles and the fruity laughter (in every eulogy, she was remembered for her omnipresent laughter, an unprecedented thing for a British monarch) and the periwinkle shawls and the fresh flower bouquets, at least in public, there were … more smiles, more shawls, more jonquils ad infinitum. In a thousand pages, you keep expecting Shawcross to dig past the veneer and deliver the raw flesh of research, but he never does it. Page after page, incident after incident, he never does it – the aversions pile up like lumber waiting to be chucked into the fire, but we only ever get the raw fuel, not the combustion. He knocks on all the usual doors in the mansion that is official royal biography, and he cannot have done all this research without knowing where, exactly, to find the Monster of Glamis … but that door is discreetly avoided.

Take the two biggest crises of the Queen Mother’s life (apart, that is, from the death of her husband, about which she touchingly wrote “I suppose that one will never feel the same again. I talk & laugh & listen, but one lives in a dream, & I expect that one’s real self dies when one’s husband dies, and only a ghost remains”). In 1937 the unthinkable happened: King Edward VIII, the older brother of Elizabeth’s husband, abdicated in order to devote his life to Wallis Warfield Simpson, “the woman I love.” As Shawcross understates it, “Bookshelves have been filled with works about Wallis Warfield Simpson” – and yet, his own account carries an expertly-handled tension and makes for fascinating reading no matter how often one has read about the subject before:

Although the British press still observed a total and astonishing silence on the affair out of deference to the monarchy, the American press rejoiced in the story and in London society the whispers grew louder. People in and around the Court talked of Mrs Simpson’s total control over the Prince. The King confronted his son, who denied any impropriety.

The abdication made Elizabeth’s husband King George VI and Elizabeth herself his Queen Consort – roles neither one of them wanted to play, destinies that filled them both with “horror.” The letters to and fro during this crisis were extremely numerous, and Shawcross has read them all. Those by Elizabeth are uniformly sympathetic to everyone involved – a reader of this book would never guess that the whole sorry affair ever angered Elizabeth; the recorded responses are almost unholy in their angelic empathy. Elizabeth must have hated Mrs. Simpson – can it be possible that Shawcross came across no hint of that perfectly natural emotion on the part of his subject, not in the 1930s or even in more freewheeling reminiscences many decades later? Or did he come across the many such outbursts of contempt and outrage to which royal gossips have always alluded – and kept them to himself?

Likewise the bizarre interlude of Diana Spencer’s meteoric rise to royal celebrity, brief stay in that role, and equally abrupt departure from it: here was young woman of excellent background, spirited and beautiful, initially welcomed into the family. Shawcross is effectively succinct on the “breath of fresh air” she was meant to provide (and he’s appreciably sly in reminding his readers that it was hoped the young Elizabeth Bowes Lyon would provide a similar meteorological uplift):

It was a welcome diversion from the economic and political difficulties of the time. Nineteen-eighty-one was a hard year. The Thatcher government’s radical, monetarist attempt to address Britain’s structural and financial problems was leading to a large rise in unemployment. Discontent grew and there were riots in London, Liverpool and other towns in protest against what seemed to many to be harsh economic measures.

Fairy tale usurped reality, at least for a time …

But when the fairy tale ended, and Diana became first disillusioned with her marriage and then bitter about it, she took an unprecedented step: she began feeding journalist Andrew Morton juicy tidbits of her private woes, in preparation for a series of articles and a book. Shawcross dutifully points out that this could only have offended Queen Elizabeth’s Edwardian sensibilities:

… the washing of dirty linen in public was utterly abhorrent to Queen Elizabeth. Her entire life was based upon obligation, discretion and restraint. The Princess’s public rejection of her husband and his life was contrary to everything that Queen Elizabeth believed and practiced.

All of which is certainly true, but nowhere do we get a hint that Queen Elizabeth might have voiced that abhorrence, even to any of the close personal friends with whom Shawcross had so many conversations in the preparation of this book. On this and many other subjects that might, fully aired, show a less beatific human side of the Queen Mother, her official biographer stays well within the velvet ropes, nodding and smiling at all the approved moments, gently but firmly maintaining that there seems to be no credible evidence for the existence of the Monster of Glamis.

Make no mistake: this is a splendid, unexpectedly readable book, one of the most engaging official royal lives ever commissioned, and it owes these qualities in equal parts to is author, whose prose style is sharply and aptly magisterial, and its subject, who never fails to come off as fundamentally good company (something which profoundly cannot be said of her husband; even in John Wheeler-Bennett’s impassively tactful official life, George VI is clearly revealed as the mother of all prigs). It’s true that there are simply too many pointless elaborations – if Shawcross so much as comes within a country mile of another living person, we get their CV whether we want it or not. The unhappy result is that every little yipping dog in the royal show gets a caesura like this:

Lady Margaret Ida Montagu-Douglas-Scott, daughter of the seventh Duke of Buccleuch and elder sister of Lady Alice, the future Duchess of Gloucester. She married Captain Geoffrey Hawkins in 1926.

But such things are easily elided, especially once the book’s largest question begins to loom unavoidably, so we return to ask it: what would prompt a historian like Shawcross to take on a subject like Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother? As long as he had open access to all those archives, and as long as he was going to devote so many years of his life to the task of a royal biography, why not spend the time on, say, Princess Margaret, whose life encompassed both bitter heartache and the dark acerbity it often generates? Or perhaps Prince Charles, who will, theoretically, one day be king? Or for that matter the Queen herself, who has been head of her nation now far longer than her mother was Queen Consort to the head of hers? Why take such a long and yet studiedly conventional walking tour of this woman’s admittedly very long life, when that life so often amounted to nothing more than fairly tedious ceremonies interspersed with unselfconsciously luxuried ‘vacations’?

And the answer? Noblesse Oblige, of course. Did you ever doubt it?

Ian Manfred St. Cyr is a London-based freelancer and avid royal-watcher.