Lady in Waiting, Anne Glenconner
Did you know that Princess Margaret had been a patron of the London Lighthouse, an AIDs charity famous for its association with Princess Diana, and that she used to visit patients there and make them laugh? Or that she could happily, uncomplainingly scramble up scrubby, bramble covered hillsides with her friends? Or that she could be the sort of houseguest who did your hair and laid fires in the grates? This is all very far from the Princess Margaret of legend. The autocratic monster who bickered, sniped, and commanded her way through obituaries, biographies, and The Crown is nowhere to be found in Anne Glenconner’s memoir, Lady in Waiting.
Anne Glenconner knew Princess Margaret her whole life. From her memoir, we see a Margaret who is fun, relaxed, informal. One of the reasons this book was such a best seller is that it is full to the brim with marmalade droppers about the awful things Anne Glenconner’s husband did. Her marriage would have been enough to crush most of us. Princess Margaret knew what it was like to be married to an unpleasant man, and she was a devoted friend to Anne Glenconner. When Princess Margaret and her friend both lived through difficult marriages, the Princess did what most people would do.
Royals are often assumed to be weird. Alan Lascelles was dismissive of the ‘moron who is in continual ecstasy from the discovery that, in ordinary circumstances, Royal personages behave like ordinary people.’ Margaret doesn’t just come across as normal here, but sometimes saintly. When Anne Glenconner’s son got AIDs at the height of the epidemic, a time when considerable stigma attached to AIDs patients, and when people thought it might be contracted through physical contact, Margaret turned up and hugged the boy, treating him as if nothing had changed.
The woman we all know as being unable to go anywhere that didn’t provide her preferred brands of whisky, cigarettes, and chocolate without throwing a tantrum is seen here showering out of a bucket and eating tinned food for weeks on end. The high-strung Princess who snubbed her own grandmother as not being royal enough used to laugh at all the ridiculous, pretentious rituals royal snobs performed when she arrived. There is an especially enjoyable anecdote about a Governor General of Australia who could out do Hyacinth Bucket.
Of course, this account is a little biased, sycophantic even. It doesn’t invalidate the other things we have heard about Princess Margaret. Anne Glenconner hints at Margaret’s more difficult side, but never quite exposes it. The diary entries used in a book like Ma’am Darling are inevitably rather performative, whereas this is the biased but straightforward account of one of her friends trying to show us the less documented side of Margaret’s life.
Like all aristocratic memoirs, the childhood home, Holkham Hall, gets plenty of space, as do the oddities of life as a Duke’s daughter. That’s not why people love this book. Glenconner was a maid of honour at the coronation, helped her husband transform Mustique into a renowned party island, and lived through the deaths of two of her children, as well as helping to revive the third one from a coma. She also comes across as a savvy PR woman when she talks about her work as Princess Margaret’s Lady in Waiting.
There are one or two mentions of the Duke of Edinburgh that are slightly odd. When Anne Glenconner was a young woman, Prince Philip went over to Holkham Hall to photograph her and her sister dressed as maids for a board game he was working on that never saw the light. Later on, when Philip visits Mustique, Glenconner says he made everyone uncomfortable and he knew it.
I won’t do what the blurb does, and give away any of the most astonishing parts of her marriage. Sometimes Glenconner comes across rather oddly, not always sympathetically perhaps, but that’s inevitable in the memoir of the daughter of the 5th Earl of Leicester. Suffice to say, this is a wonderful, quick read. It’s worth it for the anecdotes about the coronation and her time as a travelling pottery salesman alone. And when she suffers, all the frills and frippery of her life fall away and you suddenly find yourself in the ordinary world of despair and tragedy. It’s like Alice in Wonderland in reverse. Not many writers can pull off that trick so well.
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