Monday, September 21, 2009

Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Mother

A royal life well lived and well captured

It’s not reality that human kind cannot bear very much of, but niceness. Sweetness of temper, gentleness of manner, a belief in public service, deep love of family. That’s really what gets people’s goats.

Or so it would seem from the reaction to William Shawcross’s biography of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. It is a totally absorbing and highly readable account of a remarkable life. But its arrival has been greeted in some quarters with all the warmth you’d expect from Hugh Hefner welcoming Mother Teresa to the Playboy Mansion: “I’m sure you’re very nice, lady, but you ain’t got quite what we’re selling here . . .”

Shawcross’s book is genuinely revelatory — he has had access to archival material, private correspondence and taped interviews that have not previously seen the light of day — and he uses them to write compelling history. Reviewers with genuine historical expertise, such as Peterhouse’s John Adamson, have lavished praise on Shawcross’s writing.

But several media voices — feature writers on The Guardian, tabloid royal reporters, Richard Ingrams in The Independent, even Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour — have found it hard to disguise their disappointment that Shawcross has presented a balanced, detailed and factual account of a distinguished public life. Why, they chorus, isn’t there more gossip and scandal, more snideness and bitchiness, more backstairs intrigue and princessy haughtiness, more bad blood and pure spite?...

many that royalty can be worth watching only if it’s enmeshed in scandal, sexual intrigue or silliness, we risk missing the really big story, which Shawcross succeeds in capturing.

The Europe into which the Queen Mother was born was a continent of crowned heads. From St Petersburg to Sofia, Vienna to Berlin, Madrid to Constantinople, monarchy was as much part of the natural order as the rhythm of the seasons. All that collapsed in her lifetime, pitching Europe into years of hideous tyranny and slaughter. She understood instinctively that the crust on which civilisation rested was eggshell-fragile. She appreciated, in her bones, the importance of constitutional stability, of providing the nation with a focus of loyalty above partisan and ideological division, and of domesticating the monarchy without cheapening it, so that it could keep pace with the times but never become a victim of fashion. One reason she reacted so viscerally against Wallis Simpson is that she recognised in the Duchess of Windsor precisely the sort of adventuress who saw monarchy as an exercise in projecting glamour, not incarnating service.

The Queen Mother: Her life was filled with optimism, a sense of duty and a love of young people

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