It is entirely possible that nobody, not even perhaps Queen Elizabeth herself, has ever known what she was really like, so great the charm, the smiling gaze, the gloved arm, the almost wistful voice, the lilting politeness, yet so strong the nerve, so dogged the spirit, so determined the trajectory. And so many were the gossamer veils that enwrapped her aura that these two extremes invariably melded into a rose-centered sweetness. For nearly 70 years Queen Elizabeth, like most royalty, nurtured the cultivation of a façade. To an adoring mass, she was Titania; few glimpsed the dagger beneath her flower-strewn couch.
In William Shawcross’s majestic and elegantly written biography, we come closer than any other to the kernel of Queen Elizabeth’s being. His diligent research brings her alive. Her early letters, for decades lain in stout towers and distant castles, reveal an amorous playfulness; they become ever more sober and poignant as destiny hurls some dastardly thunderbolts. Now and then the author shows that a heart of steel could beat under Norman Hartnell’s flounces.
Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was born with the good sense and sensibilities characteristic of her class and clan. In youth she did the typical duties of wartime, and in the world- shattered aftermath, attended the typical parties and pleasures needed for forgetting it. There were many flirtations, but her eventual and almost rueful acceptance of Prince Albert (the future George VI)’s repeated proposal brought her into a circle and a court that was largely a male preserve. In it she was the epitome of young womanhood, a weapon she was to use, not unlike her Tudor namesake, with consummate skill.
At a time when her mother-in-law, Queen Mary, was replacing Edwardian plush and fringe with neo-Georgian rep and braid, and George V had just lifted the ban on actors and actresses attending court — he had a bit of a thing about the stage (though it took another 40 years for them to be allowed into the Ritz Hotel in General Franco’s Madrid) — young couples were seeing their first blue-period Picasso, and taking tentative turns to ‘Tea for Two’ on the ‘grammy’.
The new Duchess of York saw that she could gently bring the court up to date — photo shoots for Vogue, dancing with Fred Astaire — yet remain, as the second son’s wife, not too glaringly near a limelight permanently trained on the glamorous, gallivanting, golden-headed Prince of Wales; they would be a handsome, kind, retiring couple with two adorable tots. As another reviewer has pointed out, at the time it was generally assumed that the Yorks would have more children. But in 1935, when the Duke was just 40, his father made his much- quoted remark: ‘I pray that my eldest son [the Prince of Wales] will never marry and have children and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lillibet and the throne’. These words surely imply he knew of a decision that the Yorks would not conceive again.
Conception was proving something of a problem for the next king, the gilded Edward. The writer, Edith Olivier, noted in her diary:
The King seems as mad as George III . . . throwing things about . . . abdicated once then tore it up, has now abdicated again. Patricia [Lady Hambledon] says he has had injections to make him able to have children, and it is these that have sent him mad. It is appalling for the Yorks.
If these trial abdications were appalling, the real thing, when it came, was shattering. There is not much that is new in Shawcross’s account of this ever fascinating drama, but he writes it so well that one’s heart is in one’s mouth with sympathy for the Yorks’ predicament, their distress at seeing a once adored brother and friend becoming seemingly unhinged and deeply unpleasant. Interestingly, contrary to popular myth, Queen Elizabeth was not that vitriolic about the Duchess of Windsor: on the night Wallis died, I asked Princess Margaret what they really thought about that tragic couple. She replied succinctly: ‘It wasn’t her we hated; it was him.’
The intolerable ‘burden’ of kingship, as Queen Elizabeth terms it in letters to Queen Mary — who may not have seen it in quite the same way, having married two heirs to the throne — she shouldered with dutiful brilliance. The author shows how deeply involved she was in all areas of kingly business during and after the war — and she was invariably right, an annoying habit in most people, but less so in a queen — and thus the dazzling charm and sense of fun, her furs and ostrich feathers, ushered the country into a brighter decade. The king’s early death robbed her of the apogee of queenship, but, as her daughter captivated the world with her seriousness and beauty, she herself wisely forged a new role, with her own totally uncompetitive court, surrounded by intelligent, mostly gay male friends and grandchildren, and devotedly served for 50 years by her incomparable page, William Tallon, rumoured to have been a boyfriend of her brother, David Bowes-Lyon, and who, strangely, rates but a few late and very brief sentences in this book.
Instances of Queen Elizabeth’s playful irony are scattered liberally throughout these many riveting pages. One favourite, though, is missing. On becoming Queen, she asked a friend: ‘Now, do you suppose, Lady Cunard will think I’m smart?’
Smart she certainly was. She was, as well, the bridge over troubling waters from the old monarchy to the new. We have much to be grateful for.