In the rollicking, irresistible, un-put-downable?Ma’am Darling, the brilliant British satirist Craig Brown takes as his fertile subject Princess Margaret Rose, the late sister of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
I grew up fascinated by Princess Margaret’s harebell blue eyes, her Minnie Mouse white shoes that fractionally elevated her diminutive form, and her mallard raw-silk drawing room (revealed in a Sunday supplement story and, of course, the perfect backdrop to Those Eyes). My grandmother was endlessly tut-tutting that poor Margaret had never been able to marry the man she really loved, Group Captain Peter Townsend, her father’s equerry and an older, divorced man. Following the scandal of the abdication, when her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, renounced the throne to marry the twice-divorced, hatchet-faced Baltimorean go-getter Wallis Simpson, the royal family, quietly dominated by the fey-slash-steely Queen Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother), were acutely conscious of projecting an image of propriety and conventional family life. Edward VIII’s abdication, of course, had propelled his retiring younger brother George VI to the throne and the unwonted limelight and changed the destinies of Margaret and both Elizabeths forever.
The dashing, dishy Group Captain was banished to Belgium, where he soon met and married a pretty local aristocrat a decade younger than Margaret. On the rebound from this slight, Margaret married the randy society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, whose uncle was the whimsical designer Oliver Messel and whose mother—a fashion plate muse of Charles James between the wars—became the Countess of Rosse on her second marriage. The sexually fluid Armstrong-Jones moved in bohemian circles and brought taste and up-to-the-minute élan to Britain’s consciously dowdy royal family. He art directed the spiky Medievalism of the Prince of Wales’s 1969 investiture at Caernarfon Castle; the new aviary at London Zoo; and, eventually, the groundbreaking Sunday Times Magazine. He was the polar opposite of Her Majesty the Queen’s marital choice—the lantern-jawed, impoverished Nordic beauty Prince Philip, who has defined stiff-upper-lip butchness, inter-family froideur, and political incorrectness through decades of unflinching service to queen and country.
Margaret and Tony—Lord Snowdon, as he was soon designated by HM—were Britain’s glamour couple in the ’60s and ’70s, frenemies of the Taylor-Burtons, and intimates of the culturati of the day. Snowdon proved to be a photographer of brilliance and distinction but a complicated husband married to a more or less impossible wife. Around their divorce, Margaret found solace with the toy-boy Roddy Llewellyn. She was romantically linked to a number of other men, but as she burnt bushels of intimate correspondence in a late-in-life purge (her mother did the same thing, although perhaps for different reasons), we may never know the secrets of her heart. Heigh-ho, there are many others to step into the fray and fill in some of the gaps.
Craig Brown’s book, available only as an import from the U.K., was initially inspired by the endless references to the princess that he came across in a highly eclectic assortment of memoirs and biographies of the princess’s peers. He draws on the observations of friends and acquaintances recorded through the decades, from the more or less harmless anecdotes of a childhood nanny (whose subsequent memoir was considered the ultimate betrayal by the royal family), a queeny footman who documents the teenage princess’s life of almost Tsarist indolence and intermittent, very grudging public service, and on and on through the various courtiers and cultural figures who fawned in the princess’s company and hurried home to skewer her in their not-private-for-too-long diaries. Knights Cecil Beaton and museum director Roy Strong dip their pens in the bitterest poisons.
Margaret emerges as a chain-smoking, chain-drinking, man-eating monster with flashes of wit and unsteady charm. It appears that she was also shockingly ill-educated—inexplicably, neither she nor her sister were given any serious schooling at all, which is astonishing, when one considers that Elizabeth’s namesake, Elizabeth I, was, in her era, among the most learned women in the known world. The princess’s party trick seems to have been to lull people into a false sense of security and camaraderie and then demolish them with regal, rank-pulling put-downs that are masterpieces of the art. Brown speculates that many of her circle only put up with her so that they could compare notes on her nastiness in the giggling aftermath of her tirades. Dinners with Margaret seem to have been Bu?uelian tortures—royal protocol determined that guests could not leave before she did, and if she was in the mood (having languished in bed most of the morning), she could regale them with her wobbly soprano until the early hours of the morning.
Where her sister is almost excruciatingly conscientious and bent on duty, Margaret—the prettier, glamorous one—was bent on pleasure, and the generally elusive pursuit of fun and happiness. She raised two fascinating children, had some truly devoted (if long-suffering) friends, and seems to have developed genuine cultural interests through the years. But old age was not kind to her looks or her health, and one cannot help thinking that this was a life unfulfilled in many ways. When Margaret’s spoken words are transcribed by Brown—she was a guest on the long-running radio show?Desert Island Discs?(I urge you to listen to it on the BBC’s website: It’s priceless), and appeared in a cameo as herself on the rustic radio soap opera?The Archers—he wickedly writes them phonetically, giving one an acute taste of her mouthful-of-marbles, antebellum speech patterns. He also has special fun imagining some fictional scenarios for Margaret and the paths she might have taken had she married alternative suitors.
For anyone like moi—royalist or republican—who swooned to Netflix’s?The Crown?and is on tenterhooks for season two (where dreamy Matthew Goode steps in as Lord Snowdon to Vanessa Kirby’s feisty Princess Margaret), this book will be manna from heaven.