When did the royal family become a soap opera? Your answer probably depends on your age. The under-25s possibly think it all kicked off with Meghan. Those in their fifties might say that the life and death of Diana created an unprecedented media storm. If you are in your seventies, however, you will remember the furor over Margaret’s doomed relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend.
And there are still people around, just, who can recall the 1936 abdication crisis. Was that the real start of Britain’s longest running soap opera? Of course not. Before that we had the philandering Edward VII. And before that? One minor titillation of Gareth Russell’s new book is the revelation (to me, anyway), that the Queen Mother once told friends that she had burned documentary evidence of Queen Victoria not only having an affair with her Scottish servant John Brown, but also secretly marrying him. Enough lurid material there, surely, for several sensational prequels to The Crown.
On the other hand, since Russell’s book derives its title and subtitle (The Singular Wit and Double Measures of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother), plus a considerable amount of its content, from the Queen Mother’s legendary ability to consume industrial quantities of alcohol, you do wonder whether she really did apply the paraffin and Swan Vestas to Victoria’s private papers one dark night in Balmoral. Or was it just the gin and Dubonnet talking?
Either way, Russell’s book — a “life told through 101 anecdotes”, as he calls it (one for each year of his subject’s life) — paints an entertaining and, one feels, mostly honest picture of a woman who divided opinion more than is often realized by those who knew her only as “the nation’s granny”. She was definitely a granny (and before that a wife and mother) with claws. The socialite Stephen Tennant, who knew her when she was plain Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, wrote that “she looked everything she was not … Behind the veil, she schemed and vacillated, hard as nails.” Even Russell, who bends over backward to be fair, admits that she possessed “an Olympian ability to hold a grudge”.
Mind you, there were usually good reasons for Elizabeth’s hatreds. When her brother-in-law the Duke of Kent married Princess Marina of Greece, for instance, Marina (descended from the Russian and Greek royal families) made little attempt to hide her disdain for Elizabeth, a mere Scottish earl’s daughter whom she took to describing as a “common little Scotch tart”. The resulting feud makes the alleged froideur between William and Harry and their respective spouses seem very tame.
The Queen Mother possessed “an Olympian ability to hold a grudge.”
As Russell says, though, that was merely a dress rehearsal for the great feud of Elizabeth’s life – with Wallis Simpson and her husband David, who was briefly King Edward VIII before abdicating, having given his brother Bertie, Elizabeth’s husband (and henceforth King George VI), just 72 hours’ notice of his intentions. Those who take Elizabeth’s side say that her anger was due to the unbearable pressure this placed on the already insecure Bertie. However, according to David (later the Duke of Windsor, spewing bile from his lavish exile in France), Elizabeth’s anger was entirely down to her having wanted to marry him, not Bertie.
She certainly turned down two proposals of marriage from Bertie. That, however, was more because she was dallying between another prince (the King of Serbia’s nephew, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia) and such eligible British bachelors as Henry “Chips” Channon (who, oddly enough, had slept with Prince Paul when both were at Oxford) and the dashing Captain James Stuart, who had won the Military Cross in the First World War.
However, George V’s wife, the indomitable Queen Mary, had decided that the gregarious, charming Elizabeth would be perfect for introverted, stammering Bertie, and simply wouldn’t take no for an answer, even if her son did. Somehow, she fixed it so that the dashing Captain Stuart received an offer of an extraordinarily well-paid job with an oil company in Oklahoma, requiring him to sail for America immediately.
With his chief rival thus dispatched, Bertie was free to propose a third time, and Elizabeth finally succumbed, leaving Stuart heartbroken. According to Russell, he later told friends: “That bitch Queen Mary ruined my life.” If the old Queen’s machinations also upset Elizabeth, that didn’t stop her from using the same tactics 30 years later when she colluded in sending Group Captain Townsend to a pointless job in Brussels to get him out of Princess Margaret’s life.
If the Queen Mother did have an inner core of steel, it isn’t hard to see where it came from. Her childhood in Glamis Castle, one of Scotland’s most rambling and supposedly haunted piles, didn’t just give her a lifelong belief in ghosts (she attended her last exorcism at the age of 99, when she persuaded a local priest to shoo away the unquiet spirit of George VI, or maybe Diana, from a bedroom in Sandringham), but also a group of male friends who were mostly killed in the First World War before she was 18. “I think of my 20 best friends in 1914”, she reminisced, decades later, “only five came back.”
Among those who died was one of her brothers. Three other brothers suffered for years with what was then called shell shock — post-traumatic stress disorder. Russell’s account of those years occupies very little of his book, but it’s by far the most compelling part. And it explains a lot about this most misunderstood of national matriarchs. She may have been an old soak, but she put the backbone into a royal family that was floundering when she joined it.
And she could be funny and shocking. Overhearing two of her gay footmen having a lovers’ tiff, she intervened with the immortal line: “Would one of you old queens mind getting this old queen a drink?” I wonder what old Queen Mary would have thought of that.
Richard Morrison is a music critic for The Times of London