The 20th century is rich with iconic figures, but in many ways no one, at least not in the former British Empire, embodied it better than the child born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon on Aug. 4, 1900. Queen Elizabeth II’s mother was born on the cusp of the century and turned 14 on the day the Great War began. Thrust unexpectedly into prominence by her brother-in-law’s abdication and widowed for almost half her life, the last empress of India lived through all of Britain’s modern changes, dying at the age of 101 in 2002. As William Shawcross points out in his massive official biography Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (HarperCollins)—1,096 pages weighing in at two kilograms—the organizers of her 100th birthday celebrations got it just right.
About 450 adults and children—some in dress-up, some the real thing—paraded the 20th century past Elizabeth on her flower-bedecked dais: First World War troops, ballroom dancers from the ’20s, a Blitz-era fire engine, VE Day revellers from 1945, Enid Blyton’s Noddy in his postwar yellow car, James Bond’s 1960s Aston Martin, punk rockers and—more bizarrely—Hells Angels on motorcycles. Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters flew over, while the band played on.
But Elizabeth’s personification of her era was more than a mere matter of longevity. There was also the extraordinary range of her social circle, as reflected in the volume of her correspondence—the main reason Shawcross’s book has the literal heft it does. That remains true even though her daughter, Margaret, burned many of the letters royalty watchers most wanted to read—entire bagfuls of them sent by Diana, the unhappy princess of Wales. The Queen Mother wrote everyone from playwright Noël Coward to undiscovered spy Anthony Blunt to poet laureate Ted Hughes, and not just about her passion for horse racing: “I am starting to read the unexpurgated edition of Mein Kampf,” she wrote her formidable mother-in-law, Queen Mary, from the ocean liner taking her and her husband, King George VI, to Canada in May 1939. “Have you read it, Mama?”
She was born to privilege, of course, and had an unabashed enjoyment of the good things in life, from a spectacular art collection to dry martinis. But she was also born to duty. From innate temperament and because it was the way Elizabeth believed queens should behave, she was incurably cheerful: “Ah, Cold Lake!” she beamed at worried Canadian officials when bad weather diverted her plane to the Alberta military base in 1985. “I’ve always wanted to come here.” The Queen Mother maintained her optimism with a defiant avoidance of bad news—her family nickname was “the imperial ostrich.” When things went wrong, “amongst members of the family in their marriages or whatever, she hated it,” explains Shawcross. The 1990s, with their royal divorces and scandals, were distressing; worse still was the younger generation’s willingness to discuss it in public. “It’s always a mistake to talk about your marriage,” she declared.
Elizabeth’s sunny outlook kept her interested in making friends her entire life. She was in her 80s before she met Hughes, vilified in much of public opinion after the suicide of his wife, poet Sylvia Plath. He was 30 years the Queen Mother’s junior, but it was he who was strengthened by the relationship: “When I remember your words, ‘We must be strong!’ I feel it like a huge smile of joy, like a surge from a tremendous battery,” he wrote her. At his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, 98-year-old Elizabeth walked the achingly long aisle on the arm of Prince Charles.
Even as her health deteriorated—she had two cancers removed (a colon tumour in the 1960s, and one in the breast in 1984), and her eyesight was almost gone in her last decade—and she outlived her friends, Elizabeth refused to think too far ahead. When, during the ’90s, Princess Di told her that everyone was looking forward to a grand 100th party, Elizabeth responded, “Oh, you mustn’t say that, it’s unlucky. I mean I might be run over by a big red bus. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you’d spent all your life doing everything you were supposed to do, and suddenly you were run over by a big red bus? As the wheels were crunching into you you’d say ‘Oh my God, I could have got so drunk last night!’ That’s the way you should live your life, as if tomorrow you’ll be run over by a big red bus.” No one followed her advice better than she did.
With Patricia Treble