Lady in Waiting – My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown

by Anne Glenconner

  • Hodder & Stoughton Zuleika 2020
  • ISBN-13: 9780306846359
  • $32.99 (hb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

Before taking up Anne Glenconner’s (now an international best seller) Lady in WaitingMy Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, it is worth reading Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling – 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret. Where the latter is a riotous romp with laugh-out-loud moments too numerous to count, unveiling Princess Margaret in all her pomposity and eclectic rudeness, Glenconner’s Margaret is a far more ordinary creature, albeit in a life of great privilege. Where Brown entertains by hyping up PM’s outrageousness in set moments both public and private, Glenconner’s plainly written yet intimate snatches of PM’s private world cast her in a more human, even sadly unremarkable ambience.

As the world takes in the 24/7 round of media reports on the latest British Royal Family drama known as “Megxit”, it is hard to appreciate the formalities, the unwritten rules and conventions, alongside pecking orders, deference and rituals that enfold the British aristocracy. What Anne Glenconner achieves in her memoir is an unselfconscious, and disarmingly frank, dive into that aristocratic milieu.

Anne Glenconner was a childhood and family friend of the Duke and Duchess of York’s daughters Elizabeth and Margaret. Members of her family had served various royals over decades. Her friendship with Margaret resumed in adulthood and in 1971 Anne Glenconner was appointed (Extra) Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret and lived a life in close proximity with the Queen’s sister until her death in 2002.

Born in 1932 to the daughter of an earl and a father destined to be the 5th Earl of Leicester, Lady Anne Coke’s (pronounced “Cook”) family home was Holkham Hall in Norfolk – so vast “the footmen would put raw eggs in a bain-marie and take them from the kitchen to the nursery [and] by the time they arrived the eggs would be perfectly boiled”. Much of her early years, however, was spent following her Scots Guard father to different postings across the country where nannies looked after “the ins and outs of daily life”. Her mother appeared from time to time with “treats and days out”. With the outbreak of the war in 1939, her parents disappeared for three years with her father’s posting to Egypt. Lady Anne and her five year-old sister were then sent to live with their Ogilvy cousins in Scotland.

Stories of unacknowledged child abuse are common enough for that era. Yet, it is still something of a jolt to hear of it among the most privileged where it often happened when parents handed over children to unsupervised carers. In Scotland, Anne Coke’s governess would punish her at night – however well she had behaved – by tying her hands to the back of the bed. Too scared of the consequences, both sisters stayed silent.

As snatches of Anne Glenconner’s childhood and teenage life at boarding school unfold, it is easy to see how she developed a tolerance for much of what was essentially bullying – especially at school with its harsh regime. She seems to have accepted the belittling as part of her world where parents at first, then men as the income and status generators, dealt out the measure of the years. Life was certainly comfortable and privileged but knowing and accepting one’s place in this aristocratic pond is all. There would be no “Megxit” for Lady Anne.

Reflecting on her parents having produced three daughters and no son, Glenconner writes: “I had tried awfully hard to be a boy, even weighing eleven pounds at birth, but I was a girl and there was nothing to be done about it … The line was broken, and my father must have felt the weight of almost four centuries of disapproval on his conscience.”

Such are the rules of promogeniture among the titled families of the UK, Glenconner and her two sisters had no right to any inheritance from her father. Yet, such is Glenconner’s acquiescence of the system, it is her father she feels for. In fact, as the years went on, Lady Anne rarely complained and simply moved on, enjoying the comforts and trying to ignore the hurts and unfairness. A life among the aristocracy is not for the faint hearted. In time, Lady Anne’s marriage to Colin Tennant would become just another stage in her way of dealing with a stronger, and this time, cruel force.

In this aristocratic bubble, Lady in Waiting is a wonderful exposé of place and time. The coming out dances and balls, the season as it was known, where flushed debutantes from the upper echelon of British society would be presented to a host of eligible males with every intention of having them suitably married off. Checks of family lineages were common – as if an eye was being cast over them for signs of good breeding stock. A marriage market for the very rich. In time, such marriages would either fail as the sixties and seventies liberated moral standards or persevere with many a blind eye turned in the case of extra-marital affairs.

Asked why she had written Lady in Waiting, Glenconner responded that she was tired of the nasty things that had so often been written about Princess Margaret. But the book is much more. Her chapter on the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, where Lady Anne was one of the Queen’s six maids of honour, is an intimate behind the scenes record of a once in a lifetime event. An event retaining ceremony from centuries when kings not queens were more likely crowned so that a monarch is presented with ceremonial spurs and the Lord Great Chamberlain is the person to help robe the monarch, male or female.

Glenconner’s closeness to the event makes the Coronation accessible to the ordinary person but also enlightens those not accustomed to such rank and pomp as to why it is such an important civic moment. Lady Anne, in her Norman Hartnell ivory silk and gold dress, witnessed moments unseen by the press and public. She gives candid descriptions of the day, its preparations, its homely moments in private, even small asides of a bossy of Prince Philip increasing tensions and causing Royal photographer Cecil Beaton to suggest sarcastically that the Prince might prefer to take the photos himself as he was giving so much advice. Her achievement is to bring the historic occasion to life in ways not heard or seen before.

And then there is her marriage and family life with Colin Tennant.

Extravagant, excessive, eccentric and on many occasions outrageous are words to describe Colin Tennant. In marrying Tennant – heir to the Tennant baronetcy, in time making him Lord Glenconner – Lady Anne was to find a challenge. Abruptly so when taken to a Paris brothel, a day or two after their marriage, in order to watch a couple having sex and being invited to join in, which she ever so politely refused. It was Tennant’s way of instructing his still almost virginal wife how to behave better in bed. He gave her no warning of what he was doing as if she was just a child he was taking on an excursion. Although pregnant after three months into an aborted six months honeymoon, the whole experience for Lady Anne comes across as more full of shocks than pleasurable.

Colin Tennant, a close friend of Princess Margaret, was for a time reported as a possible husband for her. However, in spite of their friendship, Margaret regarded him as rather disreputable. She was at first concerned for Lady Anne when she heard they were engaged. Yet, nothing Tennant put his wife through over more than fifty years of marriage would shake her support of him. “I married all of my husband,” she writes. “Colin could be charming, angry, endearing, hilariously funny, manipulative, vulnerable, intelligent, spoilt, insightful and fun.” Tennant often said he had chosen Lady Anne as he knew she would stand by him.

Tennant, as his wife described him, “found any excuse to hold a party”. A friend of Ian Fleming and Lucien Freud, he was among London bohemia’s most respected. He was the ringmaster, both in his marriage and among his coterie of friends and associates. He courted Lady Anne in a Thunderbird, giving her romantic notions of love. But his moods and temper tantrums were not just histrionic. They were legendary. Lady Anne reflects that she married Tennant having no idea he had spent time in a Swiss clinic for his mental breakdowns. On one occasion he had run to hospital through London in his pyjamas claiming that his heart had stopped.

Over years, his tantrums took on extraordinary proportions. While Lady Anne sat in first class on a plane journey with Princess Margaret on one occasion, a disturbed Colin Tennant was relegated to economy. With PM saying sternly to Lady Anne, “Sit Down, Anne,” they heard Tennant making uncanny noises from the floor of the aisle behind them. As they prepared for take-off, Collin could be seen on the tarmac, under arrest, screaming, “Anne! Help me.”

On another occasion, in St Lucia, Tennant became so incensed that his dinner guest had not arrived and the restaurant was about to shut, that he went along the cliff throwing tables and chairs into the sea. He then, without any luggage, immediately boarded a plane for England and arrived home in London with tomato ketchup all over him – which he explained had got there during the tantrum.

It was a marriage of many parts indeed. Glenconner writes, “The problem was that all the time he was being fun and engaging, I would be wondering at what point his mood would change … Anything in his vicinity became hostage to a cataclysmic bombardment of anger.” Early in her marriage she ran home to her mother only to be told, “Go straight back. You married him.” For so many such privileged women, life was tied inextricably to the husband and provider. In London, Tennant would sell their house and advise his wife they had to pack – the first she would have heard of the deal. On one occasion, he did the packing before telling her he had sold the house.

Anne Tennant found ways to survive. Her attitude to her marriage was the reason it continued. Ignoring extra marital affairs was part of it; she even listened quietly while her husband complained how inconsiderate one mistress was shortly after a canoeing holiday he had taken the mistress on while she had a broken leg. Lady Anne just rolled with the punches.

Life with Tennant, coupled with her life among the elite of Britain and the world after Tennant bought the Caribbean island of Mustique, where he held lavish parties and built a house for Princess Margaret as a wedding gift, has provided Anne Glenconner with much more than a book to resurrect Princess Margaret’s image. It is a story of a survivor of both tragedy and the high life. Lady Anne’s three sons would involve her, over years, in separate and serious crises. The experience of bringing her youngest son back to life after a near death accident – with the help of a rota of friends and Barbara Barnes who was a nanny for Princess Diana’s sons – saw her writing a piece for the medical journal Lancet.

There are some glorious snatches of social observation in Lady in Waiting. For an Australian, one such is Glenconner’s description of staying at New South Wales Government House with Princess Margaret in October 1975. The Governor was Sir Roden Cutler whom Lady Anne describes as “frightfully grand”. Lady Anne was told to use the servants’ stairs except when accompanying Princess Margaret on the way down. Apparently, the governor had no idea that a Lady-in-Waiting for a Royal was invariably a member of the aristocracy and far above his station in many ways. Glenconner’s description of the two Cutlers standing to attention at the foot of the stairs, on either side, each time PM descended is quite comic. A bunyip aristocracy indeed.

Lady in Waiting is quite in achievement. And, Glenconner’s intention to give Princess Margaret a fairer hearing does come off. She has recorded both quaint and sad moments as they spent many times together. At Glen – the pile inherited in Scotland with Tennant’s baronetcy – PM would insist on laying the fires saying she was the girl guide and knew how to do it best. On Mustique, she was invariably happy in ways never seen in the UK. And, in the early days there, she was all too happy to shower using a bucket tipped by a rope. This is a very different Princess Margaret from that portrayed in Craig Brown’s hilarious book.

There is no protest in Anne Glenconner’s account of her life, times and many she has known. This makes her book all the better. Readers can assess for themselves. Whether she is judged to have been far too dominated by the system and her choices, or whether she made the best of what life offered is no matter. The record is all. As a “lady in waiting”, nothing broke her nerve. Not even the final cruel act by Tennant of disinheriting his family and leaving all he had – except the baronetcy – to his assistant, Kent Adonai, in the Caribbean.

Remarkably, Glenconner concludes: “I have no regrets. I am very much at my happiest and intend to live to a hundred although always wondering, ‘Whatever next’?”

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History