99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret
After finishing the Netflix series of The Witcher, we decided to move on to something more conventional and, since neither of us had yet seen it, plumped for The Crown. I suspect I’m not the only viewer of that surprisingly absorbing series who has sought out Craig Brown’s delicious, scurrilous, gossipy, genre-bending biography of Princess Margaret. Although standard, respectful royal biographies hold little interest for me – much better to read about people from a few hundred years ago, because the deference has worn off – this proved to be an engrossing read, bubbling over with bon mots and eye-opening stories. Brown has delved deep into a dizzying range of memoirs, diaries, autobiographies, hearsay, rumours and interviews to create a memorable picture of the Queen’s younger sister. He doesn’t pull his punches, but he is not without compassion for Margaret’s fate. While the result certainly shows Margaret in all her unreformed brattishness, it also has a certain sympathy for a woman who ended up becoming a caricature of herself, with few ‘friends’ whom she could really trust. Fascinating.
[Elizabeth II] must surely have met more people than anyone else who ever lived. Yet, miraculously, the Queen has managed to avoid saying anything striking or memorable to anyone. This is an achievement, not a failing: it was her duty and destiny to be dull, to be as useful and demonstrative as a postage stamp, her life dedicated to the near-impossible task of saying nothing of interest. Once, when Gore Vidal was gossiping with Princess Margaret, he told her that Jackie Kennedy had found the Queen ‘pretty heavy going’. “But that’s what she’s there for,” explained the Princess.
Anyone who has watched The Crown knows about the contrast between our reliable, doughty, serene, uneventful Queen and her tempestuous younger sister. Brown notes that Elizabeth II has become a master at saying nothing in particular (‘the Queen’s technique of giving nothing away has paid dividends. Nowadays, everyone seems content to interpret her silence as wisdom’), while Margaret bubbled over with all that was sharp, opinionated and difficult. While her sister kept as low a profile as possible, Margaret was the partier, the modern woman-about-town, the drinker, the drama queen and the ubiquitous guest at ambitious parties. Brown first came across her while working on other projects, at which point he discovered that Margaret was simply everywhere: ‘Everyone seems to have met her at least once or twice, even those who did their best to avoid her.’ And he became obsessed. He found her in aristocratic circles and among posh people playing at artistic squalor in Sixties London. He saw her as charity patron, awkward dinner guest, tragic lover and terrifying virago. How could he possibly do justice to such an omnipresent, multifarious figure? A conventional book promised to mushroom into something uncontrollable (‘A biography of Princess Margaret is always set to expand, like the universe itself, or, in more graspable terms, a cheese soufflé’).
So Brown simply allows other people to speak up, weaving the story of Margaret’s life together in a stream of consciousness that may irritate those who like their biographies neat and chronological. I probably have one foot in that camp, but I couldn’t resist the bright-eyed, storyteller charm of Brown’s approach. It felt as if he was sidling up to me at a party, grabbing my elbow, manoeuvring me into a corner and whispering, ‘Oh my dear, you’ll never guess what she’s done now!’
There is no doubt that Margaret could be, and often was, unbearably difficult. She had a fierce sense of protocol and could switch in an instant from surprisingly warm openness to withering icy disdain. She insisted on having guest lists for dinners sent to her beforehand, so that she could exercise a veto on anyone particularly dull. She was almost never on time. Other guests were forbidden to start eating before her or to continue after she’d stopped; and Margaret ate very little, very quickly. If she felt that people were expecting her to be grand, she tried to wrong-foot them. If she thought they were being inappropriately chummy, she’d close up like a clam. She had a particular penchant for flouting dress codes and, when one exasperated hostess told her to wear whatever she liked, Margaret arrived in a dress that skated on the borders of outrage. Brown reports the laconic sartorial verdict of a French guest at the same dinner: ‘It began too late and ended too soon.’ She soon became a dreaded guest of honour in diplomatic circles:
On the morning of a lunch in Rome held in the Princess’s honour, the ten-year-old daughter of a senior British diplomat had been taught to say grace. But when the big moment came, she grew tongue-tied. While the Princess and everyone waited expectantly, the little girl whispered to her mother that she had forgotten what to say. ‘You remember, darling,’ replied her mother encouragingly. ‘Just repeat what Daddy and I said before lunch.’ ‘Oh God, why do we have to have this difficult woman to lunch,’ piped up the little girl.
Can this really be true? Or, like many good stories, has it actually been brushed up for greater impact? Who knows? History, after all, is just a series of stories that have captured the imagination, regardless of how true they may actually be. Fans of The Crown will, however, be pleased to hear that one story really does seem to be true: the manner in which Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend’s romance was given away to the press. For those who don’t know, she was seen picking fluff off his jacket at the Coronation, which set off alert bells for bright journalists. Brown accepts that such an act would hardly attract attention nowadays, but the 1950s were different times: ‘It was hardly Last Tango in Paris, but in those days interpersonal fluff-picking was a suggestive business.’ I could almost see the twinkle in his eye, above the serious expression, as he wrote large portions of the book. There are also pithy judgements on other matters, such as the Queen Mother (‘It clearly takes a certain steeliness to be quite so radiant, quite so delighted twenty-four hours a day’), or John Fowles’s snide comment about Britain joining the European project (‘The British sit like a fat pasty-faced bespectacled girl at the European party’), or, perhaps most memorably, Kingsley Amis’s acidic description of Lord Snowdon as ‘a dog-faced tight-jeaned fotog of fruitarian tastes such as can be found in dozens in any pseudo-arty drinking cellar in fashionable-unfashionable London‘. Ouch.
I completely understand that you might be thinking this actually sounds like a bit of a bitch-fest and that it isn’t right to kick a woman when she’s down or, in this case, dead. And I agree. But hold your judgement a moment. Brown certainly reports the scandals, the shocks and the embarrassments, but like all biographers he has developed a sympathy with his subject, and that becomes more and more apparent as the book goes on. For the most part, he’s repeating the words of others, people who knew the Princess well enough to be intimate with her. And, without ever actually saying it openly, Brown invites us to think about these people, these ‘friends’, these ‘anonymous sources’ in the press, who so readily served up tales of the impossible Princess: ‘She had a small circle of lifelong friends, loyal to the last. Though they forgave her faults, they also liked to store them up, ready for repetition to others less loyal.‘ What exactly, I wonder, does betrayal of a friend involve? Suddenly you find yourself feeling rather angry on Margaret’s behalf, that even those she trusted were secretly waiting for the chance to spill the beans. Wasn’t there anyone she could trust? Even when she made friends among ‘normal’ people in the Sixties, she didn’t really belong. And were they friends at all?
Her royal presence was enough to gratify the snobbish tendencies of the bohemians, while her snooty behaviour let them laugh at her behind her back, thus exonerating themselves from the charge of social climbing… The presence of the Princess would endow a party with grandeur; her departure would be the signal for mimicry to commence. Beside these laughing sophisticates, the Princess could often appear an innocent.
Yes, as time goes on, you realise that Brown actually has considerable sympathy for Margaret. One of the more controversial aspects of this book is his decision to write chapters about ‘what if?’ scenarios. We have the chance to peek into Margaret’s lives that could have been: romances that could have flourished into marriage; admirers who might, had the stars aligned and Margaret actually been interested, have become husbands. These are clever and entertaining and they fit perfectly with the freshness and originality of Brown’s approach – I’m reminded of the similarly original approach to biography or history taken in the excellent HHhH. And one can’t help feeling that Margaret might have done better in a couple of these scenarios than she did in real life, especially when Brown reveals the (apparent) extent of Lord Snowdon’s gaslighting of her. That shocked me, as I had no idea. Without ever exonerating Margaret from her faults, Brown shows us the misfortunes that had shaped her: that she was prickly, proud, unfulfilled, lonely and trapped. I started the book wanting to be deliciously shocked by her extravagances; I finished it feeling a surprising flood of emotion towards this woman who lived an impossible life, whose gifts went unrecognised, and who consequently had very little chance of coming out on top. Besides, as I said earlier, history is written by those with the sharpest pens. Our view of Margaret is nowadays shaped by those who wrote about her and, as Brown notes, they often weren’t the most sympathetic:
Princess Margaret felt most at home in the company of the camp, the cultured and the waspish. It was to be her misfortune that such a high proportion of them kept diaries, and moreover, diaries written with a view to publication.
A far more interesting woman than I’d expected – not just the petulant princess of ‘common knowledge’ – Margaret is well served by Brown’s vivacious account. It may disappoint fans of conventional biographies, and shock those used to more deferential tomes, but it’ll delight those who come looking for a book written in the spirit of the woman herself. Ideal for fans of The Crown, looking for a bit of extra background; for those looking for an endlessly quotable glimpse into royal life; for those looking for entertainment during the lockdown, or a clever blend of gossip and compassion. If you fit into any of these groups, you’ll find an entertaining few hours here, along with some stories that will leave you laughing out loud, and others that will leave you wishing that Margaret had had just a few more people around her to protect her. Fabulous and memorable, rather like its subject.
And, yes, Princess Margaret really was photographed wearing a tiara in the bath – by her then husband, Lord Snowdon…