Elizabeth: The Queen Mother, A Twentieth-Century Life, by Grania Forbes. Distributed in the United States by Trafalgar Square, P.O. Box 257, North Pomfret, Vermont 05053. 800-423-4525. $35, hardcover.
Few people can claim that their lives have spanned a full century, but the life of Britain’s “Queen Mum” comes close to doing just that. Born on 4th August, 1900, the mother of the present sovereign is still going strong at age 99, and she has become an endearing figure in British life.
Grania Forbes sums up this splendid woman’s life in Elizabeth: The Queen Mother. This compelling biography is well-illustrated with 200 colour and black-and-white photographs, including several by master portrait-taker Cecil Beaton. “Chapter One: A Scottish Lass” sets the stage for what was to come in the life of Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyon, the ninth of ten children born to the Earl and Countess of Strathmore. Forbes writes of Elizabeth’s London birth; her beloved youngest brother, David; the great cultural life she was heir to; the early social calendar she kept; the work she did during World War One as a nurse at Glamis Castle; and the fire she and David helped put out in their parents’ home in 1916. Forbes adds that Elizabeth “was the most sought after debutante of her time,” and early photos show why.
In subsequent chapters, the author deals with the prime of the Queen Mother’s life. Her marriage to “Bertie,” who became King George VI, was a blessing to the British nation, especially during World War Two, when the King and Winston Churchill led Britain with heroic rhetoric and the Queen insisted on keeping her family in London, despite nine separate bomb hits on Buckingham Palace.
The Queen Mother was at her best, though, when raising her daughters. The future Queen, Elizabeth, and her sister, Princess Margaret, did not want for love at home. Very much of that has had to do with the graces their parents bestowed upon them. That older royal generation was not shy about showing their affection toward their children–when they arrived back home after being on tour, or when occasions called for special signs of that affection. They were also decent, day-to-day parents and adoring grandparents. When Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip on 20th November, 1947, the royals were as enthralled as the rest of the world. It was one of many spectacular weddings pre-dating the nuptials of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981.
There has been intrigue in virtually all Britain’s royal romances. For instance, Lady Elizabeth once was seeing James Stuart and even refused Bertie’s first proposal. But Queen Mary, Bertie’s mother, and Lady Strathmore decided Elizabeth was right for the future King, and James was sent to Oklahoma to be an oilfield-rigger. Bertie and Elizabeth dated, he proposed again, and they were wed in 1923.
During her long, regal life, the Queen Mother has seen huge changes. When she was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne, people travelled by horse and carriage, and the Boer War was in full swing. She has lived through two World Wars, the rise and fall of Communism, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the moon landings. She has seen the Court radically changed and the world of her youth turned upside-down. Through everything–including her husband’s awkward ascendancy after Edward VIII’s abdication, Bertie’s early death, the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, and Princess Diana’s early death–she has been the bedrock on which the monarchy and nation have stood, plus a good friend to famous and ordinary folk alike. She is the cornerstone of her family and the most adored grandmother in the land.
Although Forbes says the Queen Mother has been a superb hostess over time, the true measure of why people love her–her grace under pressure–was shown in a safari she and Bertie made in 1924-25. Elizabeth had suffered from chest infections, and doctors had advised a change of climate. The royals journeyed through Kenya, Uganda, and the Sudan, travelling 300 miles by train, then by car and steamer. Elizabeth and Bertie slept in mud huts or under canvas on the deck of the steamer, which broke down. But as a result of that safari, Elizabeth became a skilled hunter and angler, and she grew healthy.
When painter Pietro Annigoni was asked why she was one of his best subjects, he replied “It’s because she has such inner beauty. The Queen Mother is one of the loveliest people I have ever met. It is hard to imagine a kinder, warmer, more appealing human being. She is absolutely perfect.” Grania Forbes–who spent ten years as the Press Association’s Court Correspondent–reminds us why the Queen Mother’s family, the British nation, and the world agree.