Queen Elisabeth, The Queen Mother or just Queen Mum was a household name all over the world. I suppose all of us who read this official biography have followed her life and have personal recollections of her. She war a fixture of royal life and events in her trademark clothes and pearls, always gracious and smiling, a real character and a real lady. Most of us will have formed an opinion about her.
Writing a biography on such a personality is not an easy task. Her first biographer Hugo Vickers had spent too much energy and pages on the Queen Mother's outfits and colour schemes of her dresses. He was all a bit to "loyal" and keeping with the myth, a bit to close to her and bit too admiring. Does William Shawcross fare better?
In my view yes indeed he does, very much so. He managed to get to the bottom of her personality, her basic functioning, and her basic personality: her great zest for life, her liking of people, her sense of duty and great loyalty and her positive approach to life in general, and her great sense of humour. But he is blind to her faults. There is a balance of this book - unless the official biography on Queen Mary he does not focus at length on her childhood and rushes through the "Queen Years". Of course, this is not my first biography of the Queen Mother and therefore not much came as a surprise to me, but there are new elements to discover. First, this is the first biography were one learns about the events and her views through herself - by her fantastic letters. Oh gosh how will future biographies been written? Based on text messages and emails...?? Secondly, the relationship with The King becomes clearer and more balanced. Popular view has it that she was the strong one and that he relied on her. Yes, that is true, but she relied very much on him too. It was a partnership in the true sense: Elizabeth & Bertie, Duke and Duchess and King and Queen together.
Shawcross is critised for having avoided the difficult issues - the abdication, her real political influence, her real political views. Well, I only agree partly. I think with regards to the abdication it is pretty clear where she stood and what she thought about it. Her attitude towards the Duchess of Windsor is as well crystal clear. That she was kind to the Duchess when she stayed in BP for the funeral of the Duke of Windsor is by far no indication of Shawcross glossing over the issue and white washing the Queen Mother. When it comes to her real political influence on running the monarchy with her husband and with her daughter indeed things are a bit more difficult. The Queen Mother was very discreet (or as she put it "very cagey") when it came to putting things into writing on political issues. Her letter exchange with Queen Mary on the abdication proves this quite clearly. The RF talked about it. Furthermore Princess Margret had scanned the writing and ordered many letters to be destroyed. She did what Princess Beatrice did with Queen Victoria's diaries. But I feel that Shawcross could have tried to find other means to find out. The same applies to the more recent ups and downs like the Charles-Diana-Camilla saga. So there is an area which can be explored further.
Before concluding a word on Shawcross style of writing: the whole book is written with a great flow and in very entertaining way. It is easy to read, without being superficial. It is massive (2,5 kg heavy), but never boring.
All in all, I think it is an excellent biography and properly the very best official biography I have ever read. Highly recommended.