Granted special access by Queen Elizabeth II to her parents’ letters and diaries and to the papers of their close friends and family, Sally Bedell Smith brings the love story of this iconic royal couple to vibrant life. This deeply researched and revealing book shows how a loving and devoted marriage helped the King and Queen meet the challenges of World War II, lead a nation, solidify the public’s faith in the monarchy, and raise their daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret.
When King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936, shattering the crown’s reputation, his younger brother, known as Bertie, assumed his father’s name and became King George VI. Shy, sensitive, and afflicted with a stutter, George VI had never imagined that he would become King. His wife Elizabeth, a pretty, confident, and outgoing woman who became known later in life as “the Queen Mum,” strengthened and advised her husband. With his wife’s support, guidance, and love, George VI was able to overcome his insecurities and become an exceptional leader, navigating the country through World War II, establishing a relationship with Winston Churchill, visiting Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in Washington and in Hyde Park, and inspiring the British people with his courage and compassion during the blitz. Simultaneously, George VI and Elizabeth raised their daughter Princess Elizabeth, who spent her childhood watching and learning from her parents to become the future queen. She fell in love with Prince Philip at thirteen.
George VI and Elizabeth (Amazon US) (Amazon UK) (Audible)
Sally Bedell Smith is no stranger to the Royal Family. She’s written several books about various members of the family, and this time concentrates on Queen Elizabeth II’s parents, King George VI and the Queen Mother. She had unfettered access to documents including letters in order to tell a more complete story of the man and woman who led Great Britain following the abdication crisis and during World War II. Having access to these letters and papers makes for a compelling dual biography.
When you dive into a 700-page book, you have to take your time or it will feel like a drudge, which is something I forgot momentarily and I dived in. The early part of the book, especially the protracted courtship of Elizabeth and Bertie seemed to drag on forever, but maybe I just felt that way because it really did take a long time for the two to get to the alter. Bertie had to ask Elizabeth THREE TIMES before she said yes. Let’s remember that.
The scope and breadth of this book is incredible, from Bertie and Elizabeth’s childhoods, through their courtship, early marriage and births of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, their idyllic life before the abdication crisis, and then taking the helm of the country. Leading the country through World War II with the help of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and then dealing with the post-war austerity.
On the one hand, I’m not a big fan of Queen Elizabeth’s “ostriching” for which she was ever famous. If she didn’t want to deal with something unpleasant, she just ignored it and wished it away. That caused many problems over the years with various members of the Royal Family and certainly is not the healthy way of dealing with things. On the other hand, she had the gumption and strength to support and advise her husband throughout their marriage and his kingship.
One thing I found interesting with this book, and I hope that this new history reflects it for the future, was that King George VI was not a “weak” king, or not that smart, who couldn’t handle the position thrust upon him when Edward VIII abdicated the throne. While it was somewhat shocking to him that he would become king in the weeks leading up to the abdication, he was the son who spent the most time with George V and knew some of the duties that entailed. He was more equipped to become king than his brother, David. He was a conscientious study and poured over every document that was in his red boxes. He had a thorough understanding of every situation that came his way. He restored public confidence in the monarchy and wisely led his country during wartime.
With every new book I read, I find out more about the disgraceful actions of the Duke of Windsor. He bugged Bertie again and again about money, claiming poverty, when in fact, as Prince of Wales, he had squirreled away about a million dollars from his earning from the Duchy of Cornwall. Parliament wouldn’t pay the Duke anything so George VI paid him an allowance out of his own pocket, only to find out that his brother had lied. The king’s allowance as Duke of York had been a pittance compared to the Prince of Wales and had very little money saved when he became king, and economized, especially during the war.
If you don’t know anything about George VI and Elizabeth, this book is for you. If you know the basics about their life, this book is still for you because of new revelations. I’ve frequently read or seen documentaries that mention Bertie was not in robust health his whole life. I had no idea until I read this book that during the entire time he served in the Royal Navy, something like 8 years, he was only on active duty for 16 months. And that he smoked upwards of 50 cigarettes a day. Looking back, I can see how the king’s health failed at aged 56, which his wife always blamed on the stress of being king, but really, it was a lifetime of health problems and an addiction to smoking which did him in.
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