Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother is edited by William Shawcross, whose official biography of the Queen Mother was published in 2006.This volume begins the Queen Mother, then Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was a young girl, and continues until a few months before her death in 2002.
The Queen Mother was a prolific letter writer throughout her life, from her childhood to her time as Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, and finally the many years as Queen Mother. She wrote to friends, family, acquaintances, people who worked for the royal family, and people she admired. These letters must have been like a treasure trove for Shawcross while he was writing his biography, and now he has been given permission to publish this volume of them.
I view Counting One’s Blessings as a companion to the biography, which was simply titled Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. The biography itself was a huge book, and clearly there were practical limitations on how much could be quoted from these letters. While the biography gave a thorough and clear account of the Queen Mother’s life, these letters allow readers to understand her even more. The letters are not a continuation of the biography, or even an expansion, but an additional insight into the life and personality of the Queen Mother.
The letters are all fairly short, and on the whole make for quite easy reading. Shawcross states in his introduction that he has not corrected the spelling in the letter from childhood, but has done so where appropriate in the letters from adulthood. Although the childhood mistakes can be a bit jarring, this serves to illustrate the development from child, to young adult, to married woman and member of the royal family. This can also be traced in style, as over the years the letters become slightly less gushing, although they never lose their humour. Reading these letters does allow us a glimpse at the Queen Mother’s sense of humour and her love of life, which shine through in her style and language.
Reading the letters from when she was Duchess of York, it is clear to see her happiness and her pleasure in her family. I am ashamed to admit I was surprised by her frequent references to how much she missed Princess Elizabeth (the Queen) while she was on tour with the Duke while Elizabeth was very young. Of course I had never thought she was hard hearted about it, but for the royal family back then it was simply the done thing, and I suppose I had expected she would just grin and bear it. But she really did suffer at being apart from her daughter, and this gives a very human insight into her.
Her letters from during World War Two are fascinating, and show how much she suffered through worry for her family, the men fighting, and in fact the whole country, just like everyone else did at the time. She hated seeing the devastation wrought by German bombs, but she had great faith in the British, and felt she had to do whatever she could to keep morale up.
Shawcross includes footnotes explaining who relevant “characters” are the first time that they appear either as recipients of letters or as subjects of the letters. He also includes notes when necessary to explain the context of a letter, or events surrounding it. As well as letters, there are also texts of speeches, and each section of the book (it is ordered by life stages – Elizabeth, Duchess, Queen, Queen Mother) is preceded by a few pages summarising the years that that section covers.
While it is not necessary to read the biography prior to reading Counting One’s Blessings, as Shawcross uses these notes and explanatory sections to set the letters in context, I would recommend it. I think that any reader will get a lot more out of the letters if they have a full understanding of the Queen Mother’s life. Aside from that though, I’d imagine that this collection of letters is perhaps a little more special interest than the biography, and is maybe unlikely to be picked up at random by someone who has not read the biography.
Counting One’s Blessings was, for me, a fascinating read. I already felt I knew and understood the Queen Mother from reading Shawcross’s excellent biography, but that has been enhanced by reading her own words at length. Highly recommended for those who have read and enjoyed the biography.
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