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Sarah Bradford

Bertie, Lillibet, Margaret and Me

Counting One's Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
Edited by William Shawcross (Macmillan 666pp 25)
Keeping mum

Radiant, charming, swathed in pearls, furs and feathers, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, later Duchess of York, consort of King George VI and finally Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, was a tough cookie. She was the daughter of a large Scottish aristocratic family with a military ethos and deep Christian beliefs impressed on her by her mother, Lady Strathmore. 'Well, darling, it's your duty,' she was repeatedly told. Aged 14 when the First World War broke out, she nursed and entertained wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen when her Scottish home, Glamis Castle, was turned into a hospital. Cecilia Strathmore, daughter of a clergyman who would have become Duke of Portland had he survived, was the chief influence on her life: '[My mother] would say, now darling, you must look at these two houses, we were passing. One was ugly and one was beautiful in her eyes. So we had to learn. This is the beautiful one, you see, and bypass the ugly one.' And so the young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon developed a helicopter view of life, skimming over ugly reality, seeing only the beautiful.

This was part of her charm, which attracted so many, from kings to butlers, millionaires to unemployed Jarrow shipworkers. She had a host of lifelong friends, including writers and musicians, and in her nineties, the poet Ted Hughes, who shared her love of the countryside and fishing ('her secret is ... to be positive about everything,' he wrote). They included her servants, notably William Tallon, who joined the Royal Household in 1951 and remained with Queen Elizabeth until her death on 30 March 2002, a few months short of her 102nd birthday. One of her chief gardeners at Royal Lodge in Windsor Park had known her since he was a wounded war veteran at Glamis.

Not everyone was charmed: Cynthia Gladwyn found her a 'puzzling person. So sweet, so smiling, so soft, so charming, so winning, so easy and pleasant. And yet there is another side, which sometimes reveals itself, rather mocking, not very kind, not very loyal, almost unwise.' The truth is that she was intelligent and tough, 'a steel hand inside a velvet glove', as one of her friends put it. She was also canny. She was always conscious of the importance of being discreet, even to the extent of using mirror writing in her diary when describing a scene made by her father-in-law, George V, when she and Bertie were reported attending a nightclub called Midnight Follies. In consequence, for a historian, these letters are unrevealing for all their charm. She lived through some of the most important and fascinating years of the 20th century. She even attended most of the weekly private lunch meetings between her husband and Churchill during the Second World War. Princess Margaret destroyed her mother's letters to her, which might have shed light on various family crises, including the Townsend affair. The Abdication is more or less glossed over, though her letters to her mother-in-law, Queen Mary, are implacably disapproving of Wallis Simpson; she firmly believed that Edward VIII, by abdicating and bringing Bertie to the throne, had shortened her husband's life.

The letters do, however, reveal her genuine love for George VI and the extent of her support for him in his public life, including her patriotic broadcasts to America and the Empire during the war. She made his life possible by creating a close and loving family with an upbringing so different from his own, and by welcoming Prince Philip into it. Her letter to her daughter on her honeymoon reveals their loving relationship: 'Darling Lillibet,' she wrote,

no parents ever had a better daughter, you are always such an unselfish & thoughtful angel to Papa & me, & we are so thankful for all your goodness and sweetness. It is lovely to think that your happiness has made millions happy too in these hard times ... As you say, 'we four' have had wonderful fun & much laughter even through the darkest times, and I look forward to more fun & laughter with 'us five'.

For his part Philip wrote to her:

Lillibet is the only 'thing' in the world which is absolutely real to me and my ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Queen Mother was her zest for life to the end - her passion for the arts, horse racing, foreign travel and whizzing round the country in helicopters. She cared nothing about money; even the Queen complained wryly about her extravagance. 'There's something about her that's kept very young,' Ted Hughes wrote. Wildly popular as she deservedly became, with an adoring public and a host of friends, Queen Elizabeth remains an enigma, to me at least, even after reading 621 pages of letters selected, expertly edited and introduced by William Shawcross, and almost 1,000 pages of his official biography published in 2009.


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Sarah Bradford is the author of, most recently, Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times


Royal Literary Fund


John Murray