|Oct/Nov 2010 Book Reviews|
Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Mother.
Macmillan. 2010. 1096 pp.
I am not a "Royal Watcher," although I do enjoy the theatrical pomp and circumstance which Royalty provides. Nor am I usually a reader of Royal biographies. However, I knew Ted Hughes when he was British Poet Laureate and I knew that he got along especially well with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. "She's a great flirt," he told me (she was in her 80s at the time), and he greatly admired her abundant energy and her sense of fun. She also used to send him salmon which she had caught on her Scottish estate. So, I was interested to read more about their friendship.
My other reason for wanting to read this book was that Queen Elizabeth (as she is called throughout the book) was a favourite with my mother who was of the same generation and shared some of the Queen Mum's "indomitable" character traits. When Queen Elizabeth II sent her ninety-three-year-old mother a special stick with a letter saying "Your daughters and your nieces would very much like you to TRY this walking stick," I knew just how she felt.
Shawcross delivers on both my interests. There is a whole chapter entitled "Poetry and Pain" in part of which he writes of Queen Elizabeth's special friendship with Ted Hughes. On Hughes's first private poetry reading for her at a Musical Weekend at the Royal Lodge at Windsor, "he was captivated by her and she by him." Their friendship, Shawcross writes, "was a continued pleasure" for Queen Elizabeth. They corresponded with each other, fished together and shared a love of nature. Hughes would write whimsical poems especially for her, and he clearly knew what sort of poems she would enjoy. The poem he wrote for her eightieth birthday, she said "gave her great joy." She was still re-reading it ten years later and several passages, she said, made her cry every time she read it.
Shawcross delighted me, too, with his accounts of Queen Elizabeth's sense of fun and her love of the unexpected. And, again, I recognized her daughter's worry whenever her elderly mother delightedly "went outside her programme."
I enjoyed many parts of this book; I was lost by the pedigrees discussed in the early chapters but interested to read of the black sheep of the family, who were responsible for fluctuating family fortunes and for some tempestuous and disastrous marriages.
Queen Elizabeth's own early family life was very happy, although one of her six brothers was killed during the First World War, a second was wounded in the foot and suffered badly from shell-shock, and a third had to have a bullet-shattered finger amputated. Elizabeth was too young to train as a nurse but she was responsible for making the soldiers convalescing in her family home feel relaxed and comfortable. She was clearly very good at this and her experiences clearly shaped the way she cared about the ordinary people during the bombing of London during the Second World War.
A good deal of Shawcross's book seems like lists of events which, as official biographer, he clearly had to mention but Queen Elizabeth's character shines through and her great sense of fun frequently enlivens the text. Shawcross uses letters, diaries, and other archive material, and he is good at encapsulating the historical and political events which Queen Elizabeth lived through during her hundred-and two years.
Queen Elizabeth never expected to sit beside he husband as Queen of England, wife of King George VI, and it is interesting to read that when they took the throne after the abdication of King Edward VIII, she and Albert (the name by which the family knew him) were not immediately accepted by the British people. However, she handled this difficult challenge with the aplomb, sensitivity, stamina and sense of duty which eventually made her, in her later years, the most popular member of the Royal Family.
Other reviewers have noted Shawcross's "manful" handling of countless descriptions of clothes, charity work, constant public tours and duties. I did find these over-long and tedious, and the book itself is thick and heavy, but Shawcross is a meticulous historian. What I really enjoyed, however, was the way his book revealed a remarkable woman, a loving wife and mother for whom family was of the greatest importance and especially, a "Granny" who loved poetry, ballet, jokes and unscheduled adventures.