The Last Intellectual

Rosemary Hill

  • BuyCounting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother edited by William Shawcross
    Macmillan, 666 pp, £25.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 230 75496 6

Every generation gets the queen mother it desires, or deserves (to adapt Jacquetta Hawkes’s remark about Stonehenge). Seemingly impassive as any megalith, she waved and smiled through a century. From blushing bride to reluctant queen to the good old queen mum, she was respected, fawned on, laughed at or detested largely according to the prejudices of the beholder. In public she said very little after the magazine interview she gave on her engagement in 1923, which was not felt to have been a success. Her only widely remembered remark, made during the Blitz, was that she was glad Buckingham Palace had been bombed as it made her feel she could look the East End in the eye, thus allowing Spitting Image to present her forty years later as a gin-swilling commoner. Since then death and William Shawcross have done little to humanise her. His biography was pious to a degree and, like his equally fulsome edition of her letters, much too long.[*] Despite all of which a personality, powerful and in some ways admirable and unusual, manages to break through.

She was born Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in August 1900, the youngest daughter and ninth of ten children of Lord and Lady Glamis. When she was four her father inherited the earldom of Strathmore and she became Lady Elizabeth. The Strathmores had houses in London and Hertfordshire as well as Glamis, the Scottish estate granted to an ancestor, Sir John Lyon, by Robert II in 1372. While not especially wealthy by the standards of the aristocracy of her day, they can have had no anxieties about their place in society, any more than Elizabeth, tucked snugly in towards the bottom of a large and affectionate family, seems to have suffered from any personal insecurity. ‘You feel very safe in a big family,’ she remarked in her nineties, ‘it was a great thing to be loved.’ If there was a mainspring to her character, that perhaps was it. She seems as a child to have absorbed affection like stored heat and continued to radiate it for the rest of her life. It became a modus operandi, and at times a weapon.

‘In a way,’ as she recalled during the same conversation, ‘my generation was very lucky.’ The luck was that her childhood coincided exactly with the long Edwardian age, remembered as a last idyllic summer before the Great War. Those years were in fact politically troubled and the weather not especially good but childhoods like hers gave substance to the myth. The early letters to her adored mother and other relatives are redolent of picnics and pinafores, nursery teas, ponies and ‘dee-licious peppermints’. Shawcross has included too many of them and the reader goes through the first part of the book with clenched jaws like a whale through krill, hoping that some particles of interest will be filtered out of the soup. There are a few. Certain lasting enthusiasms emerged early. Food in general and cake in particular loom large and by 15 she was a shrewd judge of brooches. ‘Father gave me a little horseshoe in pearls and diamonds for my birthday … It’s very pretty stones, tho’ it would have been prettier not a horseshoe.’

Her education was minimal and undertaken mostly at home with ‘short forays to small schools’. At 16 she was sent to Hackney to sit the junior exam of the Oxford Local Examinations Board, which she failed. ‘Gott strafe Miss Jemima Goodman’ (secretary of the exam board), ‘Gott strafe Dalston Junction,’ she wrote to her much loved governess Beryl Poignand. Thereafter she was dismissive of formal education. Much later, when Queen Mary remonstrated with her about the neglect of her own daughters’ schooling she was unrepentant. ‘I don’t know what she meant,’ Princess Margaret’s biographer reports her having said, ‘after all I and my sisters only had governesses and we all married well – one of us very well.’

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[*] Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross (Pan, 1120 pp., £9.99, July 2010, 978 0 330 43430 0).