by Lady Colin CampbellSt. Martin's Press, 2012
Her technique for winning over her future father-in-law was the same one she used on everyone else. She simply turned the full fusillade of her charms upon him. I remember observing Elizabeth doing the same thing to an old codger in the 1970s. By then she was in her seventies, so infinitely less appealing than she would have been at twenty-two. Nevertheless, it was a performance to behold. She was as flirtatious as any young woman confident in her allure. Without exactly fluttering her eyelashes, she batted them seductively. Although she sat up ramrod straight, she would sometimes withdraw provocatively with a gay laugh, her hands fluttering over her bosom, her head tilted to one side as if to say, 'You fascinate me.' A subtle study in perpetual motion, she would then change the pace, seductively leaning in as she adjusted the tilt of her head and the expression on her face. Those facial expressions, believe me, were artistry personified.
These blandishments were less effective, naturally, on King George's formidable wife Queen Mary. Despite a whole file of published letters between the two showing every evidence of affection, Lady Campbell has a slightly more stereotypical daughter/mother-in-law story to tell (with a healthy side-serving of class snobbery):
Even Shawcross acknowledges in the official biography that the relationship between Queen Mary and Elizabeth was more strained than their superficially affectionate correspondence indicated. The fact is, Mary had a withering contempt for Elizabeth's intellectual viewpoint and lack of actual gravitas beneath the wily Machiavellianism. She also despised Elizabeth's flamboyant lack of modesty as she went about her official duties, and ensured that Lilibet [that's Queen Elizabeth II, to you] understood that real Queens are modest and sincere rather than insincere players to the gallery, and that style is no substitute for substance.
The substance of Lady Campbell's portrait is positively Ricardian: that this arriviste from Glamis Castle not only plotted relentlessly to gain the throne but once there used all her power to persecute her enemies – foremost being the newly-christened Duke and Duchess of Windsor. According to Lady Campbell, the Duke's departure from England following his abdication in 1936 was never meant to be a permanent exile – he'd always intended to return and help his younger brother rule:
And what of the Duke of Windsor's version of events? In exile he constantly said that the revisionists were rewriting history. Of course, he had been well educated, so he knew that the victor always imposes his interpretation upon events. What he had not reckoned with when he abdicated, however, was that his renunciation of the throne would be used to turn him into a pariah. Nor had he expected to be cast in the role of adversary of his brother and the other members of the Royal Family. He had struck an agreement with Bertie that he would return after a year abroad and fulfil the role of a younger son. It was this agreement, which Elizabeth would ensure was never honoured, that was not being used by the revisionists to pillory and discredit him, by claiming that he had contemplated renouncing his rights of succession before his accession. He had never had any such plans, and there was, he would point out, not one piece of paper to prove the contention.
“The only people who made these claims, which he denied conclusively,” Lady Campbell continues, “were those who had been a party to the Abdication, or who had profited by it. Why, he would ask, did he tell people of his plans for the monarchy prior to his accession to the throne, if he planned to renounce his rights? And why, once he was king, was he posing for his State portrait, in his Coronation robes, if he planned to abdicate?”The obvious answer to these heated questions – that Edward VIII did all these things because he was incredibly spoiled and completely certain he'd be able to do whatever he wanted once he was King – is patently insufficient for our author. Instead, she detects a “trail of barely visible slime” all the way back to 1929, pointing toward a cold-eyed Elizabeth calculating the best way to get her husband on the throne of England. Res ipsa loquitur, Lady Campbell says: the thing speaks for itself.This vindictive Queen Mother wasn't entirely exclusionary, however. Lady Campbell shot to fame in 1992 with a scandalous life of Princess Diana, and The People's Princess makes several re-appearances in The Queen Mother, always as a younger version of our main character:
Like Elizabeth, Diana hid an ambitious, predatory nature behind a sweet and easy countenance. Both of them had the talent of saying the right thing at the right moment to bring about the desired effect. Both of them also knew how to seize the moment. These are not virtues that can be readily taught.
The Queen Mother, Lady Campbell contends, liked the new blood Diana might inject into her beloved royal family (not to mention her beloved grandson, Prince Charles), although our author, who seems to have all of Debrett's at her mental fingertips, is quick to assure us that blood wasn't exactly new:
She always preferred British aristocrats to foreign royals, and Diana had many illustrious bloodlines in her veins. [Diana's grandmother] Cynthia's father had been the 3rd Duke of Abercorn (whose next duke will be a descendant of the Torby/Merensky/Puskin family), while her maternal line included the earls of Lucan and the dukes of Richmond and Gordon.
On and on, for page after page, the old girl wears her tiaras and carries her flowers and flirts with every man in sight, and Lady Campbell has the backstage story on all of it. She's detectably angry about the white-wash history was already doing on the 'Queen Mum' long before she died – but although anger is easy to spot in this book, simple spite is not. Despite angry counter-blasts from spokespeople connected with the Palace, such simple spite appears nowhere in these pages. Instead, Lady Campbell time and again gives Queen Elizabeth as much credit as she can: she's called a gifted raconteur, a loyal friend to her loyal friends, and an extremely hard-working Royal. She just wasn't, our author insists, the perfect, benign latter-day saint the press have made her out to be.Fair enough, but one of Lady Campbell's main gossip-sources for The Queen Mother was Margaret, the Duchess of Argyll, the former wife of Lady Campbell's former father-in-law, the 11th Duke of Argyll. That Duke's great-grandfather was something of a literary man himself, a dabbler in royal biography, and in his 1902 life of Queen Victoria, he offers a caution in his Preface: “Comment on a character and the attempted dissection of motives and actions on the part of an essayist or historian we must often feel to be an impertinence. Let the dead speak. Do not lecture around their shrines.”Instead of heeding that advice, The Queen Mother throws it out the window and proceeds to clamor around more shrines than a cold November draft. Scandals are revived; ruinous gossip is finally put down in print; privileged confidences are relayed in the hopes of setting the record straight.And none of it matters. That V-E picture wins, no contest.____Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.