Scandalous Review: The Queen Mother - The Untold Story of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, Who Became Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

Title:  The Queen Mother - The Untold Story of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, Who Became Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
Author:  Lady Colin Campbell

Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press

Pub Date:   April 2012
How Acquired:  New York Public Library

What it’s about:   (from the inside cover)

 Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother has been called the "most successful queen since Cleopatra." Her personality was so captivating that even her arch-enemy Wallis Simpson wrote about "her legendary charm." Portrayed as a selfless partner to the King in the Oscar-winning movie The King's Speech, The Queen Mother is most often remembered from her later years as the smiling granny with the pastel hats. When she died in 2002, just short of her 102nd birthday, she was praised for a long life well lived.

 But there was another side to her story. For the first time, Lady Colin Campbell shows us that the untold life of the Queen Mother is far more fascinating and moving than the official version that has been peddled ever since she became royal in 1923. With unparalleled sources—including members of the Royal Family, aristocrats, and friends and relatives of Elizabeth herself—this mesmerizing account takes us inside the real and sometimes astonishing world of the royal family.

About the Author:   

Lady Colin Campbell, who is connected to the royal family through mutual ancestors and marriage, is the author of the New York Times bestseller Diana in Private—which was the first book to reveal the truth behind the "fairytale" marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales—as well as The Royal Marriages: What Really Goes on in the Private World of the Queen and Her Family, and The Real Diana.

My thoughts:

When I first heard about this book, I wasn’t sure if I was going to bother to read it, despite the fact that I basically will read anything about the Royal Family.  I’d read an article in the Daily Mail about the book which made it clear that the author had an axe to grind with the Queen Mother.  What made me change my mind were two things:  I saw the book at my local library, and I had read Lady Colin’s previous books, much of what she had written about Diana in particular was later confirmed by Andrew Morton’s book. So I thought I would give the book a chance. Well after reading the book, I can say that she doesn’t so much as take an axe to the Queen Mother, but more like a chisel.

She starts off the book with the outrageous claim that the Queen Mother (Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon as she was then) was conceived in a sort of Edwardian surrogate mother situation.  The Queen Mum’s mother supposedly had a bit of a nervous breakdown after the death of her oldest child, and it was suggested that she not attempt to have any more children.  According to Lady Colin, the couple desperately wanted to add to their already enormous brood, so the future Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne conceived not one but two children with the family cook.  The author bases her evidence on the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor used to call the Queen Mum ‘Cookie’ as a rather vicious nickname and the fact that there is some discrepancy about where the Queen was actually born.  She also claims that the Earl, on his deathbed, confessed to his physician that the true story of the Queen’s origins as well as that of her baby brother David.  Oh, and Elizabeth and David were referred to as the ‘Benjamins’ in the family, a reference to the biblical story of Jacob and Rachel (Rachel had offered her handmaiden to Jacob as a surrogate mother since she was unable to conceive).

Her second outrageous claim is that Princess Elizabeth (Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret were conceived by artificial insemination because the Duchess of York as she was then, hated sex and had avoided it ever since her honeymoon.  In her defense, she’s not the first author to come up with this theory.  Kitty Kelly wrote in her book The Royals that Bertie was sterile due to the mumps, which is why the royal couple had to resort to artificial insemination to have a child. Campbell also claims that Queen Maud of Norway conceived her son with King Haakon VII the same way.  Lady Colin also writes that denied the martial bed, Bertie went back to his previous girlfriend, an actress named Evelyn ‘Boo’ Laye for comfort.

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, according to Lady Colin, is a steel magnolia.  She’s all charm and sweetness on the surface, but manipulative and vindictive when you cross her.  Initially, she’d set her sights on the Prince of Wales, but she wasn’t his type of woman.  She wasn’t sleek and sophisticated enough and lacked sex appeal.  Unable to win the grand prize, Elizabeth settled for his brother who had long pursued her.  Campbell states that Elizabeth almost lost Bertie because King George VI and Queen Mary grew tired of the way she strung him along, hoping for a better offer.  Once married, she set out to become indispensable to him emotionally, soothing his rages, helping him with his speech difficulties, forging a tight unit.  If she couldn’t have the Prince of Wales, then she would help Bertie become the best man he could possibly be.  Sort of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear if you will. 

Fans of the Queen Mum will be most outraged by the claims that she manipulated events behind the scenes to get Edward VIII off the throne so that she and Bertie could rule.  Apparently a woman scorned, she was determined not to lose her place in the spotlight to anyone.  Already she’d had to deal with Bertie’s younger brother George marrying a genuine Princess, Princess Marina of Greece, who supposedly treated Elizabeth with disdain.  She wasn’t about to give way to a twice-divorced American woman.  Lady Colin claims that Elizabeth worked her magic on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, amongst other courtiers who were dismayed not just by the idea of a twice-divorced Queen but because the Prince of Wales had ideas about modernizing the monarchy.   This bit rings a bit true given the flack that Prince Charles has apparently gotten about wanting to limit the Firm to William and Harry and their children, cutting out Prince Andrew’s kids from performing royal duties.  Most egregious is her claims that if Edward VIII had stayed on the throne, he could somehow have prevented World War II from happening or at least kept Britain out of it.

Although this book is half the size of William Shawcross’s biography of the Queen Mother, it feels just as long.  She has a tendency to go off on tangents, about Thelma Furness and Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, the Mountbattens, Princess Alice of Greece, Queen Marie of Rumania and on and on.  When she finally does get back to the main thrust of her story, the Queen Mother, it’s hard to remember what was happening before the tangent.  While Campbell does give the Queen Mother her due during World War II, and that, while she may not have been in love with Bertie, they did manage to forge a strong and enduring bond, she does so begrudgingly.  I agree with her that it was ridiculous for Elizabeth to be adamant that Wallis not be allowed to use the title HRH because if the Duke and Duchess ever divorced it would be embarrassing for her to still HRH, Mrs. Bob Smith.  Campbell rightly points out that both Diana and Sarah, Duchess of York lost the right to use HRH after their divorce.  She makes a point of comparing the two women and declaring Bertie and the Duke of Windsor married similar women, charming, dynamic but who also dominated the two men who were putty in their hands.  This, however, she blames on Queen Mary for withholding affection from her two oldest sons.

Campbell manages to wrap up the last 50 years of the Queen’s life in about 15 pages, most of which are a litany of how the Queen manipulated her way into having a bigger role on the royal stage than previous dowager Queens, how she ruined Princess Margaret’s life by not supporting her romance with Group Captain Peter Townsend, and by siding with Lord Snowdon in the divorce, how she hated Prince Philip calling him ‘The Hun’ and tried to undermine his marriage to the Queen, her promotion of Lady Diana Spencer as the perfect Princess of Wales until Diana proved that she was not a team player, and her devotion to the Prince of Wales at the expense of her other grandchildren who were not as important because they were not the heir to the throne.   She also spends a great deal of time in the book criticizing everything from the way the Queen dressed to the way she parented her children.  At the end of the book, she grudgingly admits a certain admiration for the woman she has spent the previous 400 pages eviscerating.

Most of Campbell’s information comes from people who were no fans of the Queen Mother, such as Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, the Windsors themselves, and other assorted society figures.  She clearly comes down on the side of Duke and Duchess, lamenting the fact that he was ‘forced’ off the throne.  She quotes liberally from Hugo Vicker's and William Shawcross' biographies but solely to bolster her own conclusions. She takes great delight at revealing what they were supposedly too polite to say in their books. One wonders why Lady Colin would want to write a book about someone she so clearly dislikes.

Verdict:  A completely biased and inflammatory look at the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  I would suggest readers check out the Shawcross biography or Hugo Vicker’s biography of the Queen Mother.


KathyRo said…
Thanks for the review. I think I'll give this book a pass.

I read the Shawcross book which, while more factual, is still very much a whitewash. I'm hoping I can find something in between.

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