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November 8, 2009

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The people's favorite

SHORTLY after the British Army's rousing triumph over Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps at El Alamein in November 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned his countrymen to avoid over-confidence. "Now this is not the end," he cautioned. "It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

This sentiment, cited in William Shawcross' official biography, "The Queen Mother," is what many readers may feel when they get to Chapter 10 of this 1,096-page book. That's the chapter where, after all the ripping parties and smashing card games and postprandial singalongs and first-rate trips to East Africa attended by Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyon, wife of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II, Shawcross must finally turn his attention to that awful rotter Edward VIII.

After more than 300 pages of paeans to upper-class Britons, the author is compelled to introduce us to a liar, extortionist and, for all intents and purposes, traitor, a man who ditched the throne of Britain to marry a Nazi-admiring gold digger from Crabcake Corners.

This is the first time the book gets really interesting. But more important, this is the first time one feels that it might be possible to finish reading it. Chapter 10 is not the end. It may not even be the beginning of the end. But it may be the beginning of the middle.

"The Queen Mother" is a labor of love, both for the author and for anyone who tries reading it from cover to cover. The authorized biography of a woman who was born as the 20th century was beginning and died about a year after it ended, it is a linear, you-are-there chronicle of the events of her life. Mostly this means lunches, balls, charity events, shooting parties. She cut cakes, she cut ribbons, she cut the rug. She was a royal.

All this is communicated in a meticulous, sober fashion. Shawcross, a dutiful hagiographer, doesn't venture very far inside his subject's head, other than to suggest that she never forgave Edward VIII for chucking it all because it forced her husband into the family business - killing him, she believed, long before his time. Only when Edward VIII or the Luftwaffe pops in does the narrative become in any way absorbing.

Elsewhere, the prose tends to run like this: "Back at the house there was tea to be taken in the drawing room, which featured an ancient gramophone with long-playing records of such old favorites as the Crazy Gang, and an equally aged television set for watching videos (rarely if ever the news). Ruth Fermoy would play the piano and Queen Elizabeth sang the old favorites °?- 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' or 'The Lambeth Walk'."

The queen mother, a fairy princess in her youth, a fairy queen in middle age and a fairy godmother in her later years, was a favorite of the British people from the word go.

There was something about her that people liked, just as there is something about Prince Charles that people don't like. In fact, everything. The immense affection the public felt for her antedates the central event in her life, when she and her husband refused to flee London during the Battle of Britain, a heroic, enormously symbolic act that helped pull her equally heroic countrymen through one of the darkest moments in their history. No one alive at the time ever forgot her courage, nor should anyone alive today.

That said, the queen mother was never cut from the same cloth as such stirring figures as Elizabeth I or Mary Queen of Scots or even her grandson's wife Diana. She didn't shape the times she lived in; she attended functions during them.

Adhering to the principle that royals should be seen but not really heard, the queen mother seems to have said little that was truly interesting. She had all the strengths and weaknesses of her class.


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