Ma’am Darling – 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

By Craig Brown

  • 4th Estate London 2017
  • ISBN: 0008203636
  • ISBN 10: 9780008203634
  • RRP 22.99 (pb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

It helps to be a fan of Britain’s Private Eye to enjoy and fully appreciate what Craig Brown, the satirist who created “The Diary” for Private Eye, has achieved with his recent portrait of a princess in Ma’am Darling – 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret. As Rachel Cooke for The Observer remarked, “I wonder if he hasn’t reinvented the biographical form.”

The glimpses in this book are from the many who crossed PM’s path – people of status and people of none.  But all in the swim of society – if only as not so humble retainers. For Brown there is no need to lop this tall poppy – his tall poppy sources do it for him. The 99 glimpses come from the personal memoirs, diaries, publications, recorded gossip and so on of people who met, entertained, befriended, were employed by or reacted variously to Queen Elizabeth II’s only sibling. At times, as well, Brown chooses to invent reality much like in his “Diary” – on one occasion having PM marry Pablo Picasso, who in real life lusted after her. On another, imagining PM being the elder sister and subsequently queen giving the 1977 Christmas broadcast “not because I want to, but because I must”.

What emerges is an hilarious romp alongside pathos in a multi-storied portrait of a woman born into ultimate privilege and given a sense of importance she could never justify through any serious public role. An outrageous snob who, nonetheless, endeared herself at times to various admirers, PM is stripped of all privacy and served to the reading public anew to entertain, outrage, attract sympathy and, above all, serve as an icon of her times. Her royal self-indulgence has little chance of revival. Royal biographers are, needless to say, demeaned as sycophants by Brown.

Such was PM’s reputation, potential hosts and guests would avoid occasions where she might be invited. In 1959, accompanying her mother to Paris, the British Ambassador’s wife Lady (Cynthia) Gladwyn was perturbed, and pursued every stratagem to encourage PM not to upset the visit. Among a number of behind-the-scenes incidents which Lady Gladwyn smoothed over, was PM excusing herself as not well enough to attend the formal dinner. But, after quizzing her hostess as to who was coming and discovering the French prime minister, former French president and various other VIPs were, PM suddenly lost her staged croaky voice and said she would attend. Lady Gladwyn recorded, “What was really remarkable was her lack of desire to please.”

Brown’s memoir covers moment after moment of PM’s extreme rudeness and haughty disdain. Hosts would remove dishes from the table that she refused to eat – too bad for the other diners who might like them. No one could eat after PM had finished her plate and she bolted her food. Tough on slow eaters. A neighbour of some friends PM was staying with in Corfu had them all to dinner and went to every trouble to have all types of whisky (she was a whisky addict) available. But, when offered a drink, PM would only have Famous Grouse – the brand the host could not get on Corfu. “Then I won’t have anything thank you,” was her majestic reply and she turned to light a cigarette. In a famous vignette, also re-enacted in the BBC’s Patrick Melrose series, PM insisted that the French Ambassador clean her skirt at the table, after he had accidentally flicked a spot of sauce on it.

That PM could develop such anti-social airs and graces says much about the times and the perceived importance of the British Royal family in the immediate post war era. Today, there would be outrage at any young royal displaying such lack of good manners. King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth had helped hold spirits together in the bleak years of the Battle of Britain and beyond. For all their pomp, as a family the image was one of graciousness and service. But as the fifties and sixties advanced in the era of Queen Elizabeth II, while polite society played to the pecking order of pre-war establishment values, a quiet revolution in the arts and communication was taking place.

The bright young (aristocratic) things of the pre-war world and Evelyn Waugh were quickly being replaced by an assortment of arty types on stage and screen, new inventions such as television and, in the backgrounds of artists, a pacey egalitarian new age elite – some emerging from Oxbridge, like Ken Tynan, some, like the Beatles, from the working class. What mattered was performance and your smarts not what school you went to or if your family was listed in Burke’s Peerage. Meanwhile, the aristocracy was under stress from post-war taxes and estate duties; so-called meritocracy was taking over, alongside a decline in public manners and propriety – Ken Tynan and his ilk aimed to shock.

Princess Margaret twirled in this new age society, excited by the risqué or bohemian as she and others labeled it – but always as a princess to the new elite. She once told her children, “she was royal and they were not, and their father was most certainly not”. At dinner parties she was sometimes heard to say, “I am the daughter of a King and the sister of a Queen.” And, while the bohemian crowd she chose to join were flattered by her presence, even sought it out when they could, they mocked her in private for lack of any real talent. It’s hard to say really who was the more shameful.

By the mid 1970s, with her marriage to society photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones close to an end, Gore Vidal threw a fabulous party in Mayfair for fifty illustrious friends – “50 for 50”. The guest list dripped with notables – Lady Diana Cooper, Ryan O’Neal, Tennessee Williams, Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter, Jonathan Miller and so on. But it was Princess Margaret who got to sit beside the birthday boy Vidal – as Vidal’s biographer Jay Parini put it “So much for Jackie [Onassis] and her sister Lee: this was real royalty.”

On Princess Margaret’s other side sat Tennessee Williams. According to Ken Tynan who heard it at lunch the next day, a disgusted Williams claimed his hostess had seated him next to the princess “to give her a bit of a giggle”. Williams added, “I don’t know Princess Margaret, and anyway I expect she’s quite a stupid person.” Brown, enjoying the mix, goes on to add that seven years before “Princess Margaret had told Cecil Beaton that she ‘loathed’ his [Tennessee’s] plays. ‘I hate squalor! Tennessee Williams makes me feel ill.’” So much for getting a giggle out of her.

It is this hypocritical fawning on the part of clever people and PM’s life of rudeness that makes this tapestry such a tragi-comedie. The vanities are with most of the players. At least when PM kicks up, so to speak.

It is when PM is shown to have demeaned those who had no voice that her mismatch with the world she commanded becomes squeamish. Asking two representatives from Sothebys who came to assess her valuables what they thought, she sharply interrupted the thinner man who had begun to reply, saying, “No not you – the fat one.” An architect husband of a friend working on her mother’s family home Glamis Castle, who had been disabled from childhood, was subjected to a command to improve his gait: “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?”

Brown has really done a pile-on simply by dipping into so much that is now in the public domain and bringing it together. A lot of it is fair game – PM dished it out but she got plenty of blowback if only when she was well out of hearing. It left a legacy to haunt her image. That and the wear and tear of a life lived in self-indulgence, protected by a close set of loyal friends but one spent among the decadent if brilliant characters that penned memories of their own for Brown’s readers to be shocked by, laugh out loud at and get a whole new take on this once beautiful but tragic woman.

The effect is to see PM as quite a tough cookie, deserving of the criticisms but saved again and again by her position and connections. True, she was caught by outmoded tradition in not being able to marry the divorced Group Captain Townsend. But Brown leaves his reader feeling that this loss should not excuse the mess PM eventually made of her circumstances. One could reason, from so much shown of her character in Brown’s book, that she might just as easily have found marriage to Townsend inadequate to keep her happy.

Sympathetic friends excused PM, one suggesting that her problem was that “she didn’t know who she was. She never knew whether she was meant to be posh or to be matey, and she swung between the two, and it was a disaster.” For Brown, Princess Margaret is more complex than this:

The rebuke became her calling card, like Frank Ifield’s yodel or Tommy Cooper’s fez. Who wanted to sit through her analysis of current affairs or her views on twentieth century literature? No one: the connoisseurs wanted to see her getting uppity; it was what she did best. If you were after perfect manners, an early night and everything running like clockwork, then her sister would oblige. But if you were in search of an amusing tale with which to entertain your friends, you’d opt for the immersive Margaret experience: a late night show of stroppiness, all ready to jot down in your diary the moment she left, her highhandedness transformed, as if by magic, into anecdote.

Even a later life escape on the Carribean island of Mustique – which she made famous – was not enough. Left by her young lover Roddy Llewellyn, after years of pleasure there, PM suffered a scalding while in her shower at Mustique and never fully recovered. Her excessive smoking and drinking had ruined her looks; and her accident eventually brought her life to an end almost as a recluse.

Strangely, Brown’s book has a double-edged effect. On the one hand, readers will roar laughing, shudder or gasp at accounts of PM’s rude and haughty behaviour. On the other hand, you cannot help but feel that many of her targets deserved their fate. With this, in various ways, Craig Brown has done “Ma’am” a favour. A royal bore she may have been, but she was certainly not boring.

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