Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother edited by William Shawcross (Review)

The life of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother spanned the entire twentieth century. From her childhood on an Edwardian Scottish estate through her marriage as Duchess of York and Queen Consort to her fifty year widowhood after the death of King George VI, the Queen Mother was an enthusiastic letter writer. She corresponded with family and friends alike in a breezy, cheerful style, revealing her keen observations about her travels, the monarchy, world events and her social circle. William Shawcross, author of Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Mother: The Official Biography has selected the key letters from the Queen Mother’s surviving correspondence, placing them within the context of her life and times. Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters Of Elizabeth The Queen Mother is an insightful and often entertaining account of a century of aristocratic and royal life through the eyes of one of the most beloved members of the royal family.

Shawcross intersperses Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon’s childhood letters with excerpts from her interviews with Eton College Provost Eric Anderson, which were recorded in the 1990s. The Queen Mother’s memories of how she and her eight surviving siblings “all liked each other tremendously” inform her letters about daily life in Glamis Castle and St. Paul’s Waldenbury. In a 1913 letter to her younger brother David at Eton, she wondered what Christmas gift to select for their elder brother Fergus because “It’s so awfully difficult to give a man something which he really likes, except guns and motors” then joked, “Good thought. I might send him a motor. Shall we give it between us? Only a few hundreds . . .”

The outbreak of the First World War was difficult for this united family as it meant the departure of Lady Elizabeth’s elder brothers for the front and constant worry about their safety. Fans of the television series Downton Abbey will find this period of the Queen Mother’s life particularly interesting as Glamis Castle became a convalescent home for during the First World War and Lady Elizabeth helped the patients with their correspondence and played cards with them in the evenings.

When Lady Elizabeth accepted the third marriage proposal from King George V’s second son, Prince Albert, Duke of York, her letters demonstrate that she had difficulty adjusting to public scrutiny that accompanied royal life. As the first British aristocrat to marry a senior member of the royal family since the seventeenth century, the new Duchess of York attracted attention from the press and public alike. She wrote to her former governess Beryl Poignand in 1923, “I did not have time to let you know I was engaged, before it was announced in the paper . . .I’ve had a ghastly time this week with reporters and photographers curse them, but hope they will very soon get tired of us.” Needless to say, concern about press intrusion into her family’s life remained a constant theme in her correspondence.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Queen Elizabeth assumed an important political role, raising morale by visiting the East End during the Blitz and encouraging the women of the United Kingdom, British Dominions and Empire to contribute their skills to the war effort. Although the Queen questioned women’s participation in the workforce during the Great Depression, she was convinced of the necessity of women’s labour in wartime. Shawcross’s selections reveal Queen Elizabeth’s full contribution to the war effort as he provides the texts of her speeches as well as her wartime letters. In contrast to previous British royal consorts, Queen Elizabeth was present during King George VI’s weekly meetings with the Prime Minister, sharing her husband’s political duties.

Canadian readers will be particularly interested in how the Queen Mother’s correspondence demonstrates her enduring love of Canada and the Canadian people. Shawcross includes numerous letters from Queen Elizabeth to her daughter, Princess Elizabeth during her 1939 cross country Canadian tour with King George VI, praising the majestic scenery and friendly people. This correspondence also demonstrates Queen Elizabeth’s keen interest in Canadian affairs as she wrote about federal-provincial relations and French Canadian attitudes toward the monarchy along with her delight in landscapes that reminded her of her native Scotland. She maintained her interest in Canada throughout her widowhood. When Princess Margaret visited Canada in 1958, the Queen Mother wrote to her, “I have a feeling that Canada gives one a boost. . .do you agree? They are so nice, & so loving, and the Mounties are so beautiful & so romantic.”

The letters the Queen Mother wrote during her widowhood focus on her family and her travels. Prince Charles was a particular favourite and she described the events of his childhood in her letters. As the Prince grew older, the Queen Mother wrote to the Queen and Prince Philip with her thoughts about his upbringing and schooling. She maintained an extensive correspondence with her grandson while he completed his studies at Gordonstoun, Geelong, Cambridge and Aberystwyth, providing sympathy and understanding during difficult times. Prince Charles maintained a close relationship with his grandmother until her death at the age of 101 in 2002.

Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters Of Elizabeth The Queen Mother is an essential addition to any royal library. The Queen Mother witnessed immense social and political change throughout the 20th century. Shawcross’s selections from her letters, diaries, speeches and interviews provide a unique window into the thoughts of a Lady, Duchess, Queen and Queen Mother throughout her long and fascinating life.

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