The Queen Mother's Odd Letters

With the royal pregnancy announced, a look back at the baby's lively great-great-grandmother.


So the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are having a baby. That's nice. Did you know that Queen Elizabeth, mother of the current Queen, once closed a letter with:

Tinkety tonk old fruit & down with the Nazis
Always your loving

Now there's a valediction I plan on stealing for my holiday cards this year.

This excellent anecdote comes from a series of letters spanning nearly Elizabeth's entire life: her girlhood as a member of the aristocracy (and attending to the WWI soldiers housed on her family's estate), her many marriage proposals as a debutante (including her many pre-acceptance rejections of Prince Albert, Duke of York), her entrance into the royal family, her husband's surprise ascension to the throne, her life as queen, her husband's death, her discovery of horse racing, and her life as Queen Mother, including rehabilitating an old Scottish castle. There are quite a lot of parties and tours of Commonwealth states and thank-you notes for Christmas presents sprinkled throughout. Early 20th-century royals apparently really liked giving each other ash trays.

Even before anyone at The Atlantic opened the proof of The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, anticipation of a fun transatlantic culture gap was high due to the accompanying publisher's note. The proof itself was unusually late, and the American publishers explained that this was because "we were asked to hold them closely by Macmillan U.K., who wrote us that 'these are utterly private letters, only some of which have been quoted from before and then not in full. That we are allowed to publish them at all is a coup. No royal correspondence has been published in this way since the letters of Edward VII who died in 1910!'"

Edward VII, eh? A tough time they must have had with that stampede of screaming tweens and crack investigative reporters on release night. Definitely better to have kept this one under lock and key.

In fact, much about the book reflects the odd space the English monarchy occupies in British and, for that matter, American culture, going by the recent frenzied royals coverage. The intergenerational troupe is portrayed both as stodgy and yet tinged with romance, even by those who otherwise cringe at the idea of one's blood and birth order conferring special status. The people themselves are celebrities without any particular talents, held in place by law, politics, and tradition (and, originally, great violence, though those days are over), yet  who feel their lives defined by "service." They inhabit inherited estates that those whose forbears did not control the kingdom can only dream of, but maintain themselves with budgets subject to public criticism.

The framing of the book itself is a bit quaint -- in the "where's my pitchfork" sense of the word. Shawcross's preface to the work opens with an acknowledgements section that reads like a page out of Burke's Peerage and Gentry, and proceeds to a quick bit of hagiography about Elizabeth's "great loves -- for God, for family, for Britain and for life" that includes praise for her "beautiful clear handwriting" (and, bizarrely, a contrasting dig at Queen Victoria's penmanship) and her "vitality, ebullience and optimism" on the page.

The letters themselves, though -- helpfully explicated by copious footnotes -- are another matter. Though they probably won't melt the heart of a genuine Jacobin, they do offer a fascinating, provocative first-hand glimpse into another world.

It is a world where a king who abdicates for love -- as Edward VIII did, making his brother Albert king and Elizabeth queen -- is guilty of "obstinacy" and irresponsibility. It is a world where beloved mothers are much more familiar than fathers, where governesses are like cherished older sisters, where press reports are almost by definition in poor taste, where in-laws are at least as important as birth family, where even the most devoted mothers regularly spend months away from their infants, and where the fates of nations are seen to hinge on the personal quirks of individual leaders: this is not a view of world history that sees economics and resource battles driving human behavior. It's a world where even aristocrats and kings bow to the needs of war, but aristocrats retain distinct advantages: "Then May [Elphinstone]," Elizabeth writes in 1917, "asked old Princess Christian if she'd write to the Crown Princess of Sweden who would find out quicker if he is a prisoner. Princess C cabled."

Complaining is rare in these letters. Both being bombed and catching a cold are "a bore." To be fair, Elizabeth doesn't seem to mean this frivolously, but rather in the spirit of the most old-fashioned British stereotypes about staid endurance: Though neither Elizabeth nor her husband the king bore the brunt of World War II quite the way many of their "subjects" did, they certainly were bombed themselves, had the same air raids waking them at night, visited many who had lost everything, and accepted rationing along with the rest of the country. Many of these letters are ones of sympathy for horrible losses. Many, too, are full of praise for people who the queen knows have suffered more than she can comprehend, and remain dedicated to the war effort with remarkably little display of self-pity.

Perhaps the most endearing side of the collection is the sheer number of earnest thank-you notes, written for everything from gifts to visits, and a great many written to Elizabeth's mother-in-law, Queen Mary, with whom Elizabeth carries on a warm and intimate correspondence. Elizabeth clearly delights in her friends, and is charmingly quick to offer assistance, take an interest in others' lives, and have a laugh at her own expense.

Of course, plenty in these letters also shows the distasteful side of royal conservatism. "It would be a thousand pities if S. Africa became a Republic," Elizabeth writes at one point, "because the Crown is really the only link now left." A reaction against the racism in South African politics at the time would have been one thing. But that particular sentence reads more like imperialist nostalgia. Or consider another bit of postwar correspondence: "Your account of Italy is very sad. I do wish that we could take them over, & govern them, & give them a start, & some hope for better things." The talk of Indian independence, too, might surprise today's readers: "I wonder what will happen if Gandhi dies? What an old blackmailer, he is, practically committing murder to gain his own ends, it is all very dreadful."

There are also some amusing and occasionally shocking views aired on Americans (very nice, great values, a bit "ignorant" and "politically innocent"), women (they should stop taking men's jobs) and wartime birthday gifts ("I am giving Lilibet a small diamond tiara of my own for her 18th birthday").

But the best reason to read this compilation isn't to judge the lady who writes the letters: Worshippers would find some uncomfortable material, and skeptics a woman of real feeling, if not complete self-awareness. Read it for the sheer entertainment value. Where else do you get such an utterly hilarious cameo as a Soviet spy unintentionally brought in as the queen's private art curator?

I would so love you to come & see the picture gallery here. Anthony Blunt has re-hung the picture, & we have brought the two enormous Van Dycks from Windsor.

Read it for openings like these:

My dear Arthur,

You know that there are various unusual objects which one is mad about, and toasting forks are my real weakness. I simply love your most charming present and send you many many grateful thanks.

I can't quite decide if I'd like the queen more if that were sincere or, instead, insincere, in the fashion of all the best thank-you notes for awkward gifts: Thank you so much for such a thoughtful present -- I've always wanted 12 pounds of macademia nuts / a phone shaped like a hamster / an alarm clock that plays Chopin's études on the electric dulcimer.

Then again, toasting forks do look pretty adorable.

Finally, read it because I think we should bring back casual denunciations of fascists in our daily correspondence. Merry Christmas, one and all, and death to Mussolini! I'm still settling on an appropriately gender-bending pen name to compete with the Queen Mother's "Peter". How do we feel about "Gerald"?