Byline: Anthony Howard
QUEEN ELIZABETH THE QUEEN MOTHER: THE OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY by William Shawcross (Macmillan, [pounds sterling]25)
THE THREAT facing all royal biographers is that they will end up producing not so much a book as constructing a literary mausoleum. It is not a fate that William Shawcross has altogether avoided in this authorised version of one of the most longlasting public lives of modern times.
Married into the royal house at the age of 22 in 1923, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon kept a presence on the national stage for almost the next 80 years (she died at the age of 101 in 2002). No doubt the longevity of that public career -- to which Churchill's in the last century was the only conceivable rival -- provides some excuse for the length of this book. Thoroughly researched and dauntingly detailed, it runs to more than 1,000 pages -- or twice the length that Sir Harold Nicolson gave to the official life of George V and half-as-much-again as Sir John Wheeler Bennett thought it right to devote to Queen Elizabeth's husband, George VI.
There is a famous story of a man who once read a book about penguins and, on finishing it, commented ruefully that it had told him rather more about penguins than he cared to know. Many readers, and not merely republicaninclined ones, may feel much the same as they struggle to the shore provided by the "Epilogue" at the end of this exhaustive (and exhausting) volume.
None of which is to deny that its 63-year-old author has taken his responsibilities with great seriousness. The list of the individuals he has interviewed is formidable, he has combed conscientiously through archives held at Windsor, Glamis Castle and elsewhere, and the bibliography of his background reading is enough to strike awe into the hearts of most of his fellow scribblers.
Yet the awkward question still has to be faced as to whether he has managed to come up with anything new, either in terms of knowledge or indeed of interpretation. The answer to that, I fear, must be no -- which presumably is why no national newspaper thought it worth buying advance serial rights to this latest addition to the official royal oeuvre. There are a number of questions, too, to which Shawcross apparently does not think it worth his while to respond. When I was young I recall it being widely wondered whether the then young Duke and Duchess of York might not extend their family from the two daughters they already had to take in at least a third child who might even turn out to be a son (the average family size was then 2.8 children per household, with aristocrats -- and the prosperous generally -- tending to go well beyond that). This, however, is not an area into which the author ever ventures beyond recalling the remark of George V, delivered at the time of Princess Margaret's birth in 1930, that her parents were still young and had "plenty of time to have a son". …