October 5

Guardian criticism of biography of Queen Mother

Five years ago in a lecture on “writing the modern British monarchy", the historian David Cannadine argued for investing the royal past "with real historical significance" by treating the subject "historically as well as biographically, thematically as well as chronologically, analytically as well as anecdotally, writes Tristram Hunt in The Guardian (4/10).

He says Shawcross cites the lecture but ducks the challenge. On reading these words I braced myself for a republican rant.

“Hand-picked by his friend the Prince of Wales, he has produced an on-message account of the modern ‘welfare monarchy’ as selfless, devoted, industrious and (as Prince Charles believes) intuitively in touch with the British people,”  Tristram Hunt continues.  "For Shawcross, the Queen Mother is nothing less than a latter-day Esther – "a woman of faith and patriotism, whose piety and courage enabled her to save her people from destruction".

At the foot of the opinion piece, The Guardian promotes Mr. Hunt’s recent biography of Friedrich Engels. All my prejudices were confirmed. 

But no, Mr Hunt restricts himself to his theme.

He does recall the Queen Mother’s “famous account (as revealed to AN Wilson) of how at a palace reading she and the princesses got the giggles when ‘this rather lugubrious man in a suit read a poem called The Desert". "Such a gloomy man [TS Eliot], looked as though he worked in a bank.’"  If that were indeed said, it was ver funny. But how reliable is AN Wilson? 

“It was the Queen Mum's Martini-fuelled love of life and embodiment of sturdily old-fashioned attitudes that earned her the affection of millions, “ he concludes.

“When she died in 2002, the public outpouring of respect was remarkable. But for a life to command such a big book, deeper historical themes need to be explored. Shawcross too often opts for anecdote rather than analysis. If you want to know who the anaesthetist was for the operation to remove the cataract in the Queen Mother's left eye – Mr Leonard Hargrove – this is the book for you. But if you are hoping for a richer insight into 20th-century Britain and the place of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the House of Windsor within it, it will prove a punishing 1,000 pages.”

You may not agree with Mr. Hunt – so far I don’t – but it is a fair point.


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