The Last Intellectual

Rosemary Hill

  • Counting 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.’

What she learned instead of academic subjects was how to charm, disarm and deflect criticism by pointing out her faults in an amusing way. ‘I don’t know much and I’m most stupid,’ she wrote cheerfully to Poignand’s mother before the exam, ‘the best plan would be for Miss Poignand to let her hair down, put on a short frock and do it for me.’ From her mother she learned another useful way to cope with difficulties. On outings Lady Strathmore would say to her children: ‘“You must look at these two houses” … One was ugly and one was beautiful in her eyes. So we had to learn … to “bypass the ugly one”.’ Bypassing the disagreeable became a lifelong strategy. Had her life turned out as seemed most likely when she was born, as just another line on a long but largely uneventful pedigree, such studied optimism might have been merely another layer of insulation in an already sheltered existence. But her generation was lucky only ‘in a way’. An ability to find happiness, comfort and the will to engage with life through shattering bereavement, illness and social change on a scale unknown in living memory to any of her contemporaries, turned out to be a vital resource and not just for herself but for the royal family and so to some extent for Britain.

The First World War broke out on her 14th birthday. At first it meant little more than turning Glamis and the family home in Hertfordshire into hospitals. She was too young for serious nursing duties, and her letters dwell on jolly card games with patients and their propensity to fall in love with her and occasionally she with them. As her teens went on the horror increased with her capacity to understand it. In September 1915 her brother Fergus was killed at Loos. Another brother, Mike, was reported missing, though later found to have been taken prisoner. As a debutante in 1918 the social round of introductions that marked her coming out was simultaneously a litany of goodbyes. In March that year, after ‘the last dance for some time’, she wrote to Poignand that she had enjoyed it very much. Yet ‘such a lot of these boys are going out quite soon – in fact nearly everybody I know. I suppose they expect fearful casualties. They are so young … do write soon, and cheer me up for losing my young men.’ With everyone in the same situation it was not done to complain, and she didn’t, though she later recalled that like most of her contemporaries she had felt at 18 that her life was over.

After the war, amid the shrill contrasts of the 1920s, the hunger marches and the hectic society life, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon became the most frantic of flappers. Tennis, Paris, the tango (‘one is suddenly hurled in the air, & then bounced on the floor till one is gaga, ooh la la!’), ‘Limehouse Blues’, late ‘breakie’ in bed and fun, fun, fun. Unlike many of her female contemporaries she didn’t experience the shortage of men as a lack of romance and took a slew of marriage proposals in her stride. Prince Albert, Duke of York was ‘quite a nice youth’ but he hardly stood out from the crowd. It seems to have been sheer determination that made Bertie, the stammering, nerve-racked and less than handsome second son of George V, persist in proposing to the woman he had decided, almost on sight, was the only person he would ever marry.

With her eventual acceptance Elizabeth, equally determined in her way, had to bypass a number of unattractive facts. The king was a martinet on bad terms with all of his sons and the straitlaced, almost literally unbending Queen Mary a formidable mother-in-law, yet neither stood a chance against her flood tide of affection. Other references in the letters make it clear that she considered her husband and brothers-in-law the only ‘human’ members of the royal family, that she knew all about the king’s ‘Monarchical temper’ and disliked Balmoral, where she suffered from the excessive formality and the cold, a result of the queen’s ‘thing about heating’. Despite which she wrote to her in-laws as if theirs was a supremely happy family and by applying the soft soap with a trowel succeeded, it seems, in making them at least less unhappy. ‘My Darling Mama, I want to thank you so very very much for my delightful fortnight at Balmoral … It was the greatest fun, and I enjoyed every moment of it.’ A rare miscalculation when she and Bertie were spotted at a nightclub, causing, as she confided to her diary, ‘an awful row’, was soon squared with ‘dearest Papa’: ‘I hate to think of you being annoyed with us, or worried in any way … it is very kind of you to ask us to luncheon … I do hope your cough is better.’ To her husband she wrote: ‘Keep calm and don’t be bullied.’

In an age and a class where letter-writing was obligatory she was a versatile and ingenious correspondent, learning to put a dab of jam on the most bread and butter communication. That mainstay of royal correspondence, the thank-you letter for an endless succession of varyingly interesting gifts, was raised in her hands to an art form. ‘The chocolates that you kindly sent me are too excellent for words … . The extraordinary thing is, that they are all so good. I have never had a box … before which didn’t have pink-flavoured with bath salts, or nougat made of iron filings & sand.’ The vagaries of official tours became an enduring comic theme. ‘Excellent food,’ she wrote from Sweden in 1929, ‘if I can ever discover where we are, I think that I shall come back some day.’ As she got used to royal life she came reluctantly to accept what her granddaughter-in-law never did, that a combination of ‘Press and Precedent’ must seriously limit her scope for action. She compensated by finding pleasure elsewhere, discovering in her early thirties that ‘suddenly’ she loved Shakespeare. ‘In fact, I am only just beginning to know what I like, which is a sign of great age, & is very exciting indeed.’ Her intense appreciation of landscape, colour and light was reflected in a growing taste for painting that was neither easy nor conventional. She became a patron of living artists including Matthew Smith and the Neo-Romantics, writing of Paul Nash’s Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, that it was ‘slightly “magic” … it changes towards evening in a most mysterious manner.’

Meanwhile the stilted relations within the royal family reflected a national postwar generation gap. Four of Queen Victoria’s children were still alive when the Yorks married, the family name had been changed from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor only six years before, while the party-going, plus-foured Prince of Wales paraded the casual manners and morals of the Jazz Age in his elders’ faces. Elizabeth contrived to sympathise with both sides. From the beginning she was shrewd about the position of the monarchy. After a visit in 1928 to Stoke Newington, a very ‘Red’ area, she reported ‘huge & frenzied crowds … I really do think that their politics makes very little difference to their loyalty.’ But if loyalty was not party political neither could it be taken for granted. With the king’s death it took more than optimism to bridge the gulf within the family, and the spectre of Wallis Simpson loomed too large to be bypassed. At first she was merely incredulous at her brother-in-law’s refusal to modify his behaviour, but disbelief deepens through the letters into dismay and a dawning awareness of what his decision to abdicate would mean for her, as she and Bertie, ‘inadequate but unfrightened’, ascended unwilling and by many people unwanted, to the throne.

Doubt was later cast (not least by Simpson) on Elizabeth’s supposed reluctance to be queen. She certainly took to the role with relish and gave it up with reluctance, but when the events are seen from her point of view it is clear and understandable that she was initially appalled. As queen her scope was in some ways yet more limited. Obliged to be discreet, she complained that she had hardly any friends and ‘so few people to let off steam to’. Since these letters are ‘selected’ and many are printed with omissions, what little she did commit to paper is further reduced and so the most historically interesting part of her life makes for the least satisfactory section of the book. What is clear is that she met the double shock of monarchy and impending war with her usual optimism and threw herself into bolstering the confidence of her husband and of the country.

In May 1939 Bertie, now George VI, became the first British monarch to visit the United States, on a tour intended to pave the way for a future alliance against Germany. There is a glimpse of the extremes the new queen was attempting to draw together in a letter home asking Queen Mary if she has read Mein Kampf, ‘very soap-box, but very interesting’. When war came she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt with the combination of warmth, spontaneity and calculated effect she had now honed to precision. The letter emphasised Britain’s resilience while welcoming American sympathy and the fact that ‘the United States is gradually beginning to realise the terrible menace of the Nazi way of living.’ It ended by tying the political firmly into the personal, recalling those happier times ‘when I was with you all last year’.

At home she had no need to explain what it meant ‘to see yet another generation going cheerfully off to face death’. Inspecting the Black Watch she had an unsettling moment of déjà vu, seeing her nephew in uniform. ‘I thought for an awful moment that it was my brother Fergus who was killed in France when serving with the same regiment. It was only for one second – a flash, a family likeness, but how tragic.’ Such flashes of memory and premonition were the experience of thousands of middle-aged Britons; ‘what a lot of war we have seen in our generation,’ she wrote to Osbert Sitwell, noting how her own daughters were growing up as she had done, puzzled and alarmed by their parents’ sadness. Her contemporaries were always her most consistent admirers. This shared experience of war was surely the reason and this the moment when for them she became identified with the century itself.

Her circumstances were of course relatively comfortable. Kenneth Clark made sure that the royal air-raid shelter was tastefully decorated with Dutch old masters. Nevertheless the aftermath of war left her tired and the next few years of austerity and reconstruction were ‘hard & grinding’. Despite her ultimate longevity she was often ill with flu and bronchitis. The king’s health was also badly undermined, though his death in 1952 was unexpected. For a while the optimism faltered. ‘One will never feel the same again. I talk & laugh & listen but … one’s real self dies.’ She had lost more than a husband, she had lost her occupation. In the 1930s she described herself as an ‘anti-feminist’ believing that jobs should go to men and writing airily to her old friend D’Arcy Osborne that ‘women can be idle quite happily – they can spend hours trying their hair in new ways & making last year’s black coat into this year’s jumper.’ Osborne, no sycophant, wrote back drily that he thought it unlikely she could get women to go back to ‘tea and buns’. Now as the queen dowager, suddenly cut off from politics and ‘inside information’, ‘having lost all one’s interests’, she found that she too needed more to occupy her than the dressing table and the workbox. She decided that she would not go quietly, if indeed at all.

The last part of the book traces her slow recovery from bereavement and the much more rapid transformation act that produced the queen mother, a title she announced almost at once that she would adopt to avoid the ‘slight muddle’ of her having the same name as her daughter. She stayed on rather longer than expected at Buckingham Palace (‘you would hardly know I was there’) and proceeded thereafter to become, if not quite the rogue royal of Spitting Image, then a somewhat loose and very expensive cannon. For the next half-century she deployed her optimism and the often self-fulfilling assumption of being loved to tremendous effect. Seeking out new interests she bought a small Scottish castle and some horses whose stabling was surprisingly costly. In 1958 she became the first member of the royal family to go round the world by air and wrote to the queen from New Zealand with the news that she had just been given another racehorse. ‘I thought of you & Margaret saying “what has mummy done now!”’ Some version of that expression must often have rung round Buckingham Palace over the next forty years.

She continued to play her mistakes for laughs. ‘Sense of humour balances everything,’ she wrote, and if tours without her husband were at first ‘hell’, the comedy soon broke through. In New York she had to escape surging crowds of admirers in a department store by hiding in a lift: ‘Jean & me, 2 secret service people, four NY policemen & the manager! We decided to make a run for it, & as we got out on a top floor, the doors of the other lift opened, & a mad rush of ladies roared out. It was exactly like a Marx brothers film.’ In Melbourne her car slowed as it approached a group of waving spectators only to suddenly speed up ‘so all the poor things saw was a pair of white shoes as I was thrown back against the seat & my feet shot into the air’. The various ‘horrid problems’ of Princess Margaret, her love affair with the divorced Peter Townsend, and her perceived reluctance to undertake royal duties, could be similarly teased away. From a sweltering hot Uganda the queen mother wrote to her younger daughter that every dignitary ‘looked gravely at my flushed & streaming face, & my red eyes … and said: “We DID so love having Princess Margaret here.”’

Despite her low regard for education she was the last member of the present royal family to have any serious and sustained cultural or intellectual interests. The creation of a public gallery at Buckingham Palace was her idea, and in later life, between engagements, there was more time for a circle of friends that included the Sitwells, Cecil Beaton, Noël Coward and Benjamin Britten. As time and death thinned the old guard she made new friendships, notably with Ted Hughes, arranging to split the laureate’s traditional allowance of sherry with him. Amid the fun there was an inevitably growing number of letters of condolence or commiseration with illness or misfortune, written with impressive particularity and empathy. The loss of friends and family meant each time ‘a light going out in one’s life’, and yet the days passed and ‘one falls in love with spring all over again.’

In 1978 with his foreword to The Country Life Book of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, Prince Charles was perhaps most responsible for her last incarnation as royal granny, a confection of fondant icing and chiffon. He must have conceived it as a summing up of a life approaching its end. Yet at 78 his grandmother reported that she was not ‘half as tired’ as she had been at 28. Colon cancer and two hip replacements came and went. To what extent her apparently eternal presence, the never diminishing expenditure and the ‘complicated progresses’ round the houses of friends in France strained the patience of those close to her may be imagined, but is not to be deduced from the published letters any more than her thoughts on Princess Diana. Fittingly the last letter here is a thank-you, written after her hundred and first birthday to Charles who had sent her some extra large bath towels, one of the few things a centenarian might both need and enjoy. Still dwelling on the beautiful she wrote back from Scotland: ‘I shall now be able to wrap myself from nose to toes … heavenly,’ and went on: ‘The sun is shining, the sea is shining, and lovely white clouds are floating about.’

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