Book Review: Counting One’s Blessings, Edited by William Shawcross

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Macmillan, £25

AS THE Queen Mother’s official biographer, William Shawcross was teased by the critics for excessive reverence: “a dutiful hagiographer”, said the New York Times of his weighty 2009 volume.

Undaunted, he contributes to this volume of “Selected Letters” a prefatory essay of impeccably stately courtliness: “Her Majesty the Queen graciously permitted me to compile and edit this collection of letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother,” the preface begins. As for the letters themselves: “Beautiful clear handwriting… teeming with vitality, ebullience and optimism… although by today’s standards her formal education was limited… Princess Margaret ­‘tidied’ her mother’s papers and consigned many of them to black bin-bags for burning.”

And then this final thought: “In letters, each of us sometimes writes things in haste which, on consideration, we would not wish to see published… I have tried to edit these letters with these concerns in mind.”

Crikey, what with Princess Margaret’s “tidying”, the assiduous shredding of correspondence by Frances Shand Kydd, mother of Diana, Princess of Wales, after the princess’s death, and the discreet editorial blue pencil, what on earth can be left to fill 621 pages?

A prodigious quantity of enthusiasm, is the short answer, energetically, if blandly, expressed. From childhood until shortly before her death in 2002 at the age of 101, Elizabeth was an indefatigable ­letter writer. Like the present Prince of Wales, she occasionally allowed herself to hazard an opinion on affairs of state to a government minister, writing in 1936 to Alfred Duff Cooper, then Secretary of State for War, “It is such a pity that the trades union officials etc are so foolishly anti-military – it would solve the problem of these young boys if they would join the Army.”

She was touchingly fond of her children and grandchildren (she wrote to the Queen of Prince Charles, “He is a brave little boy but I think he’s sensitive”), and in later life was devoted to her racehorses (the day her horse Monaveen was put down was “one of the saddest of my life”).

Very rarely, a welcome spark of malice enlivens the unwavering pleasantness: “Mr [Cecil] Beaton is mincing away at some slight war work,” she wrote to Prince Paul of Yugoslavia in 1936. But in general, the pleasure and interest the recipients of these letters must have felt does not survive publication.

Unlike, say, the Duchess of Devonshire – a letter writer of tremendous brio – the Queen Mother seems to have had little natural gift for writing. Her famous charm and sparkle is rather lost in her written observations, which tend towards the conventional, verging on the sententious. She was either constrained by her position to avoid writing anything of interest, or perhaps has been saved from doing so by editorial discretion.

Of course, her letters are of intense interest to historians, but for a general reader, the flavour of this vast correspondence is like that of ­vanilla blancmange: sweet, pleasant, but cloying in quantity. «