Usually when the word biography comes to mind, it's of a drily written, not too amusing list of facts and dates of someone's life. There might be a few photographs, a bibliography of earlier works about the person, and maybe a genealogical chart showing how they were related to others, if they were important enough. And then there are the scandals, that writers lovingly linger over, wringing out every single word that they can about a misspent life.
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And then, there are the rare biographies about people who would exert great influence over their times, and turn out to be people whom you would actually like to know. And while there might be a few bumpy moments along the way, the admiration for this person is still there by the end.
Such was the case when I finished a new biography about the United Kingdom's Queen Mother, one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century. Author William Shawcross was allowed access to the Royal Archives, where he could go through the papers that the Queen Mother left after her death, and had access to those who worked and lived with her during her very long life. Filled with anecdotes, stories, excerpts from letters and interviews, this massive biography -- it is more than a thousand pages -- reveals a woman who was every inch as regal as her title, and would prove to be the inspiration for a nation.
Born into an aristocratic family in the highlands of Scotland, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was a pretty, winsome child, the next-to-youngest child in a numerous brood of ten. Born in the year 1900, she was raised as a proper young woman would be, with her education more towards the social arts, and a focus on charity to others and a strong belief in church. It was a glorious Edwardian childhood, and she was a bit precocious to boot, charming everyone with her smile, and big eyes. Then the events of 1914 unfolded and the world went to war, and Elizabeth's life at Glamis Castle changed. The castle was turned into a convalescent home for the wounded, and while Elizabeth could not be a nurse, she would visit with the soldiers, finding out about their families and writing letters for them to their loved ones. It was the start of a long relationship between Elizabeth and the armed forces, as the reader will quickly discover. But there would be tragedies as well -- several of her brothers would either be killed or captured in the trench warfare on the Western Front.
When the war was over, Elizabeth resumed the life of a young Society lady, and she attracted quite a few suitors along the way. The most unusual one was the second son of King George V, Prince Albert, called "Bertie" by his friends and family. He was a shy, rather awkward young man, with a bad stammer, but he had seen action in the First World War, and was a determined hunter, sportsman and rider. He was instantly attracted to Elizabeth, and started a very determined pursuit of her. But she wasn't quite so certain that she wanted to marry a Royal, despite finding a kindred spirit in Bertie. It would take several proposals and quite a few exchanges of letters before Elizabeth would finally be persuaded to say yes to her Prince. It would be a match that brought out the best in both of them. Becoming Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of York, Elizabeth found herself becoming a popular member of the royal family, and had to learn the hard way to deal with the press. Privately, with Bertie, she created a close and loving family, with the birth of two daughters, Elizabeth (the current Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret Rose.
But the real test would come when the death of her father-in-law, King George V, and the ascension of Edward VIII as the new monarch. Unlike Bertie, Edward (or David as he was known the family) was socially confident, charming, and preferred to spend time with his friends than perform any official duties. And there was one particular friend, Wallis Simpson, a very clever American divorcee, that David was rumoured to have as a mistress and possibly to marry and make her his queen. The new king's ministers wouldn't have it, the other members of the royal family wouldn't have it, the Church of England howled in protest, and the loudest outrage of all came from the Commonwealth, those countries that had been part of the former Empire and still had close contact with the United Kingdom and had the monarch as a ceremonial head of state. Suddenly, Elizabeth and Bertie and their daughters found themselves much closer to the throne and when Edward VIII had to choose between being a king, or having Wallis for his wife, he decided on exile and marrying his American.
As King and Queen, Bertie -- now King George VI -- and Elizabeth would prove to be popular, and just the perfect couple to be leading their country through the most trying times of the twentieth century. Through the six long years of World War II, as London and England were devastated by German bombers and rockets, they stayed, touring factories, bombed out neighborhoods, hospitals and doing everything that they could to help raise morale. It was exhausting work, and throughout it all, they persevered. By the end of the war in 1945, they were very popular, and their hard work and service for their people would never be forgotten.
The hardest blow would come in 1952, when King George VI died at age of fifty four, worn out by exhaustion and stress, and a lifetime of heavy smoking. Elizabeth, now the Queen Mother, was devastated, and she would mourn for the next fifty years. But unlike other royal widows, who tended to retreat from society, the Queen Mother put her energy into charity work, supporting her daughter's reign, being a grandmother, and being a representative of the Crown to the people of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. She made countless appearances to help raise awareness of charitable causes, toured Canada and Australasia several times, and charmed everyone with her smile and joie de vivre. What is amazing is that she very nearly kept up the grueling schedule until her death in 2002. The world sincerely mourned her passing as a woman who had seen a century full of changes and had endured some crushing blows not only survived, but became a beloved icon to millions.
What makes this biography so good is that William Shawcross places his subject in the events of the day, giving the reader much needed background into the customs and history of the times and revealing the Queen Mother through the eyes of those around her, and the numerous letters and memories that she left behind. What emerges is a woman who was just the right spouse for her King, a loving parent, and knew just how to say and do the right thing at the right time.
The writing moves along quickly, and while there are some arid spots in the narrative, I generally found it to be informative and entertaining. Shawcross manages to be not too reverental to his subject and he reveals the Queen Mother's love of horse racing, a good joke, books and other details that had me laughing at times. Most of all he reveals a woman who was vitally alive all the days of her long life, and did the very best that she could with the challenges in her life.
There are three inserts of black and white photographs, genealogical charts of the Bowes-Lyons family and the royal family, along with an extensive list of notes and a bibliography along with a very thick index.
For those who are already familiar with the Queen Mother, this book will help to fill in the gaps, and gives a rich insight into the personality behind the glamour. Despite the very long length, it is a worthwhile book, and I happily give it a rating of five stars.
If you're interested in seeing a film about this remarkable couple, I would suggest PBS' Bertie and Elizabeth. I would also recommend reading Hugo Vickers' Elizabeth, The Queen Mother and Sarah Bradford's The Reluctant King: The Life and Reign of George VI, 1895-1952. William Shawcross has also written Queen and Country.
The Queen Mother: The Official Biography
2009; Alfred A. Knopf
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