A woman greater than her gin and gee-gees image
Shawcross resists applying today's zeitgeist in his portrayal of the Queen Mother, writes Margaret Carragher
Published 14/02/2010 | 05:00
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography
In Spitting Image, ITV's satirical puppet show of the Eighties and Nineties, which lampooned public figures of the day, Britain's royal family came in for particular stick. Prince Philip was routinely depicted as a mad, old Greek in naval gear, forever giving offence; Prince Charles as a leftie tree-hugger in thrall to his plants; and the Queen as a put-upon housewife beset by wayward children and screaming grandkids.
Arguably though, the show's most hilariously irreverent depiction was that of the Queen Mother, who regularly featured as a dotty, common-as-muck old bird with a bottle of gin in one hand and a copy of the Racing Post in the other.
Quite what the royal family's elder matriarch made of such impertinence is not known; though accomplished in the art of small talk, she steered clear of controversial pronouncements and never gave interviews. Nor is it mentioned in her official biography, a weighty 1,096-page tome reputed to have taken its author William Shawcross seven years to complete.
The absence of such references has provoked much in the way of negative criticism; it has been described as "disappointingly bland", "indulgent and ... ultimately unsatisfying", and slated for "making one of the most mischievous and amusing of recent royals seem dull".
This seems rather harsh, particularly in light of the fact that Shawcross's account of the Queen Mother is based largely on her own private correspondence -- a veritable trove of primary-source material stretching all the way back to early childhood. What this depicts -- and what Shawcross meticulously conveys -- is a parallel universe of etiquette and restraint in which privilege is offset by duty to king, country and fellow man, and grace and decorum is all.
Always an avid correspondent, from the age of six the future Queen Mum was dutifully documenting her daily doings in missives to "darling papa", "precious darling mama" and assorted siblings.
As she grew, so too did her list of correspondents. Letters to and from her governess Beryl Poignand, who would become her lifelong confidante, perfectly capture the essence of the times. A typical day featured "chapel -- wearing the prescribed lace cap -- and piano practice, breakfast at 8.45, two hours of lessons followed by three-quarters of an hour out of doors and a further lesson before lunch".
This work-and-duty ethic was reinforced following the outbreak of the First World War; with her ancestral home converted to a hospital for battle casualties, the teenage Elizabeth helped tend the wounded and keep their spirits up with sing-songs, card games and cigarettes.
But for all that, she kept the best side out -- with one of her brothers already killed in action and another one missing, Elizabeth's correspondence from this period reveals an anxious young girl struggling to remain strong in the face of grief and uncertainty.
In a letter to her governess, she wrote: "You know how we love Mike, and it would be so terrible if he's killed. It's horrid and selfish of me to write you a miserable letter, but I'm so unhappy, and added to that I can't help worrying about mother."
This desire to do the right and proper thing -- whatever the circumstances -- was a trait evidently shared with her husband, George VI. Summoned from dinner at the height of the Second World War to be told that his air commodore brother, the Duke of Kent, had been killed in action, the King's first act was to write a note -- "Darling, what shall we do about ending dinner? I'm afraid George has been killed ... " -- and pass it to his wife; she caught the eye of her friend, the Duchess of Gloucester, and discreetly signalled her to rise with the other ladies to leave the room.
In these more socially relaxed and emotionally expressive times, such cast-iron restraint and decorum beggars belief; but it is in the light of the times that shaped her that the Queen Mother must be judged. Her official biography might also be judged by how well its author resists the temptation to apply today's zeitgeist to the life of a person who was born a Victorian and lived by standards, which -- however they may be derided nowadays -- ensured that Britain was able to resist and ultimately defeat, within a generation, the Second and the Third Reichs.
She might have enjoyed her gin -- with Dubonnet and ice -- and her gee-gees (she was an accomplished horsewoman), but the Queen Mother was no puppet. Rather, she was, in the words of her official biographer, "of the last generation of aristocrats who felt able to accept their superior social position with no feeling of guilt but rather a sense of duty and obligation".
Shawcross perfectly captures these virtues, and more, in his fascinating study of a remarkable woman.