I’m not really caught up in the Jubilee excitement yet, which is a bit peculiar as I usually love that sort of thing. I’ve started eyeing up Jubilee mugs, tins and tea towels though so perhaps it’s just about to hit me and we’ll be buried beneath a landslide of commemorative ware by the end of the week.
One thing that I have bought is the latest Kate Williams book about the Queen, which like her earlier book Becoming Queen about the young Queen Victoria, focusses on the early life of Elizabeth II, arguing that it is the upbringing and youth of a monarch that determines what sort of ruler they will be become. I’m not sure that this is entirely true but it’s a nice theory and gives us an excuse for a really detailed look at the often ignored or skated over formative years of queenly figures.
Young Elizabeth: The Making of our Queen is, not entirely unexpectedly, an engrossing read and carries the reader from the childhood of the Queen’s awkward father Bertie through her childhood as the adored pet of the usually formidable George V and Queen Mary, on through her adolescence during the Second World War and then romance with the dashing naval officer Prince Philip to her glorious Coronation in 1953, giving us a potted social history of the country along the way from the often rather limited point of view of the Royal Family. It’s a fascinating tale of unrequited love, badly behaved Kings, revolution, war and dogs and although academic enough not to feel patronising, is also on the right side of gossipy so you don’t feel sullied by reading it. Don’t you find that you feel a bit grubby after reading some biographies of the Royal Family?
This isn’t whitewashed though – the pre-marital romantic interludes of both George VI and Prince Philip are dealt with in a matter of fact way and the relationship of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson isn’t romanticised at all, with Wallis coming across as a rather nasty piece of work in this book. What is really touching though is the way that Williams discusses the romance of Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend – how very sad it must have been. There’s a mention too of Margaret creeping through the side doors of Buckingham Palace that made me laugh as my grandfather used to do guard duty there and at Clarence House and saw Elizabeth, Philip and Margaret all the time. He apparently saw Princess Margaret fall drunkenly out of a taxi on at least one occasion. She was superb.
Other anecdotes that I really enjoyed included the abdicated Edward VIII sitting by the radio listening to his brother’s Coronation in his place while calmly knitting a blue jumper for his Wallis; Prince Philip taking to the sofa at Treetops in despair when he heard the news of his wife’s accession to the throne and draping a copy of the Times over his face and Queen Mary’s unhappiness at having to return to London to ‘be Queen Mary again’ after her time in the countryside during World War Two. There are snippets like this all through the book, some of which are well known but others that were fairly new to me.
Above all though this book really brings to life the character of Elizabeth the young Queen and paints a touching and vivid picture of a serious, rather shy, good humoured and above all dutiful girl who adored animals and her family and felt betrayal (particularly that of her once favourite uncle David and then former governess Crawfie) very very keenly. Her careful and rather infantilising upbringing was a stark contrast to that enjoyed by her grandchildren now – her parents didn’t want her to appear too ‘intellectual’ (the opportunity to have an honorary degree from Cambridge was turned down as they didn’t want people to perceive her as a bit of a bluestocking) so her education was surprisingly rudimentary all things considered. She also shared a room with Princess Margaret and wore matching clothes until well into her teens and at an age when she ought to have been enjoying coming out balls was still considered part of the nursery.
I think this is underlined by the fact that she was fourteen when she made her famous address to the children of the Commonwealth in 1940, but sounds much much younger. ‘We know, everyone of us, that in the end all will be well; for God will care for us and give us victory and peace. And when peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place. My sister is by my side and we are both going to say goodnight to you. Come on, Margaret. Goodnight, children. Goodnight, and good luck to you all.‘
Oh man, that makes me cry every time. I’m actually sitting here with a little tear snaking down my cheek. I can’t even begin to imagine how people at the time must have felt to hear that. When US soldiers came to the UK during the war they were instructed that under no circumstances whatsoever should they EVER say anything critical about the King, Queen and Princesses. Times have changed and not always for the best, but it can be hard in these cynical times to recall that there was a point when we absolutely and fervently adored our Royal Family. It’s amazing that when Elizabeth got engaged to Prince Philip, several thousand young women, many of whom were also brides to be, sent her some of their precious clothing rations to put towards her dress. They all had to be returned as transferring rations was illegal but even so, would we do that today? I’d like to think that we would.
I also love that amongst the couple’s splendid wedding gifts there was two burnt pieces of toast sent by a pair of sisters who burned their precious bread ration as they were so excited by the news of the royal engagement being announced on the radio and promptly sent the burned pieces with their congratulations to the palace.
Anyway, I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the Queen and in particular her youth. It’s a great read.
One thing I will say though is that I read it on Kindle (downloaded from Amazon) and was really annoyed by how badly edited it was – it felt at times as if the Kindle version had been put together before any editing had even happened as there were occasional words, sentences and even, I believe, entire passages completely missing so I had to keep rereading paragraphs to try and make sense of them. There was also some pretty dodgy grammar – I know I take liberties here but you don’t pay to read this and I do most of it deliberately. I don’t blame the author at all for any of this but feel that her publisher has let her down a bit.
However, all this aside, I’d definitely still recommend this book.