Her education was minimal and undertaken mostly at home with ‘short forays to small schools’. At 16 she was sent to Hackney to sit the junior exam of the Oxford Local Examinations Board, which she failed. ‘Gott strafe Miss Jemima Goodman’ (secretary of the exam board), ‘Gott strafe Dalston Junction,’ she wrote to her much loved governess Beryl Poignand. Thereafter she was dismissive of formal education. Much later, when Queen Mary remonstrated with her about the neglect of her own daughters’ schooling she was unrepentant. ‘I don’t know what she meant,’ Princess Margaret’s biographer reports her having said, ‘after all I and my sisters only had governesses and we all married well – one of us very well.’ Despite her low regard for education she was the last member of the present royal family to have any serious and sustained cultural or intellectual interests. The creation of a public gallery at Buckingham Palace was her idea.
The First World War broke out on her 14th birthday. At first it meant little more than turning Glamis and the family home in Hertfordshire into hospitals. She was too young for serious nursing duties, and her letters dwell on jolly card games with patients and their propensity to fall in love with her and occasionally she with them. As her teens went on the horror increased with her capacity to understand it. In September 1915 her brother Fergus was killed at Loos. Another brother, Mike, was reported missing, though later found to have been taken prisoner. As a debutante in 1918 the social round of introductions that marked her coming out was simultaneously a litany of goodbyes. In March that year, after ‘the last dance for some time’, she wrote to Poignand that she had enjoyed it very much. Yet ‘such a lot of these boys are going out quite soon – in fact nearly everybody I know. I suppose they expect fearful casualties. They are so young … do write soon, and cheer me up for losing my young men.’ With everyone in the same situation it was not done to complain, and she didn’t, though she later recalled that like most of her contemporaries she had felt at 18 that her life was over.
After the war, amid the shrill contrasts of the 1920s, the hunger marches and the hectic society life, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon became the most frantic of flappers. Tennis, Paris, the tango (‘one is suddenly hurled in the air, & then bounced on the floor till one is gaga, ooh la la!’), ‘Limehouse Blues’, late ‘breakie’ in bed and fun, fun, fun. Unlike many of her female contemporaries she didn’t experience the shortage of men as a lack of romance and took a slew of marriage proposals in her stride. Prince Albert, Duke of York was ‘quite a nice youth’ but he hardly stood out from the crowd. It seems to have been sheer determination that made Bertie, the stammering, nerve-racked and less than handsome second son of George V, persist in proposing to the woman he had decided, almost on sight, was the only person he would ever marry.
With her eventual acceptance Elizabeth, equally determined in her way, had to bypass a number of unattractive facts. The king was a martinet on bad terms with all of his sons and the straitlaced, almost literally unbending Queen Mary a formidable mother-in-law, yet neither stood a chance against her flood tide of affection. Other references in the letters make it clear that she considered her husband and brothers-in-law the only ‘human’ members of the royal family, that she knew all about the king’s ‘Monarchical temper’ and disliked Balmoral, where she suffered from the excessive formality and the cold, a result of the queen’s ‘thing about heating’. Despite which she wrote to her in-laws as if theirs was a supremely happy family and by applying the soft soap with a trowel succeeded, it seems, in making them at least less unhappy. ‘My Darling Mama, I want to thank you so very very much for my delightful fortnight at Balmoral … It was the greatest fun, and I enjoyed every moment of it.’ A rare miscalculation when she and Bertie were spotted at a nightclub, causing, as she confided to her diary, ‘an awful row’, was soon squared with ‘dearest Papa’: ‘I hate to think of you being annoyed with us, or worried in any way … it is very kind of you to ask us to luncheon … I do hope your cough is better.’ To her husband she wrote: ‘Keep calm and don’t be bullied.’
In an age and a class where letter-writing was obligatory she was a versatile and ingenious correspondent, learning to put a dab of jam on the most bread and butter communication. That mainstay of royal correspondence, the thank-you letter for an endless succession of varyingly interesting gifts, was raised in her hands to an art form. ‘The chocolates that you kindly sent me are too excellent for words … . The extraordinary thing is, that they are all so good. I have never had a box … before which didn’t have pink-flavoured with bath salts, or nougat made of iron filings & sand.’ The vagaries of official tours became an enduring comic theme. ‘Excellent food,’ she wrote from Sweden in 1929, ‘if I can ever discover where we are, I think that I shall come back some day.’
In May 1939 Bertie, now George VI, became the first British monarch to visit the United States, on a tour intended to pave the way for a future alliance against Germany. There is a glimpse of the extremes the new queen was attempting to draw together in a letter home asking Queen Mary if she has read Mein Kampf, ‘very soap-box, but very interesting’. When war came she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt with the combination of warmth, spontaneity and calculated effect she had now honed to precision. The letter emphasised Britain’s resilience while welcoming American sympathy and the fact that ‘the United States is gradually beginning to realise the terrible menace of the Nazi way of living.’ It ended by tying the political firmly into the personal, recalling those happier times ‘when I was with you all last year’.
At home she had no need to explain what it meant ‘to see yet another generation going cheerfully off to face death’. Inspecting the Black Watch she had an unsettling moment of déjà vu, seeing her nephew in uniform. ‘I thought for an awful moment that it was my brother Fergus who was killed in France when serving with the same regiment. It was only for one second – a flash, a family likeness, but how tragic.’ Such flashes of memory and premonition were the experience of thousands of middle-aged Britons; ‘what a lot of war we have seen in our generation,’ she wrote to Osbert Sitwell, noting how her own daughters were growing up as she had done, puzzled and alarmed by their parents’ sadness. Her contemporaries were always her most consistent admirers. This shared experience of war was surely the reason and this the moment when for them she became identified with the century itself.
In the 1930s she described herself as an ‘anti-feminist’ believing that jobs should go to men and writing airily to her old friend D’Arcy Osborne that ‘women can be idle quite happily – they can spend hours trying their hair in new ways & making last year’s black coat into this year’s jumper.’ Osborne, no sycophant, wrote back drily that he thought it unlikely she could get women to go back to ‘tea and buns’. Now as the queen dowager, suddenly cut off from politics and ‘inside information’, ‘having lost all one’s interests’, she found that she too needed more to occupy her than the dressing table and the workbox.
The last part of the book traces her slow recovery from bereavement and the much more rapid transformation act that produced the queen mother, a title she announced almost at once that she would adopt to avoid the ‘slight muddle’ of her having the same name as her daughter. She stayed on rather longer than expected at Buckingham Palace (‘you would hardly know I was there’) and proceeded thereafter to become, if not quite the rogue royal of Spitting Image, then a somewhat loose and very expensive cannon. For the next half-century she deployed her optimism and the often self-fulfilling assumption of being loved to tremendous effect. Seeking out new interests she bought a small Scottish castle and some horses whose stabling was surprisingly costly. In 1958 she became the first member of the royal family to go round the world by air and wrote to the queen from New Zealand with the news that she had just been given another racehorse. ‘I thought of you & Margaret saying “what has mummy done now!”’ Some version of that expression must often have rung round Buckingham Palace over the next forty years.
She continued to play her mistakes for laughs. ‘Sense of humour balances everything,’ she wrote, and if tours without her husband were at first ‘hell’, the comedy soon broke through. In New York she had to escape surging crowds of admirers in a department store by hiding in a lift: ‘Jean & me, 2 secret service people, four NY policemen & the manager! We decided to make a run for it, & as we got out on a top floor, the doors of the other lift opened, & a mad rush of ladies roared out. It was exactly like a Marx brothers film.’