Sometimes spiteful, often hilarious, a new biography of Princess Margaret to savour

Review: Vivien Horler

Ma’am Darling– 99 glimpses of Princess Margaret, by Craig Brown (4th Estate)

princess margaretFrom a South African perspective, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, was something of a fringe character in the saga of the British royal family. Yet, says author Craig Brown, she pops up in every other British memoir, biography and diary written in the second half of the 20th century.

Unlike her sister Queen Elizabeth II, who has to be diplomatic and silent and wise, Margaret was able to be imperious, haughty, outspoken and often rude.

It follows, then, that any biography of Margaret will be a lot more fun and readable than one of the queen.

Eton-educated Brown is a satirist best known for parodies in Private Eye, but he has also written for The Tatler, the Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement. He has a wicked eye for detail and has produced a biography that’s funny, often mildly spiteful, and a delight to read.

Elizabeth and Margaret were the granddaughters of King George V, with Margaret fourth in line to the throne. She moved up a place when her grandfather died and her uncle, her father’s older brother, became King Edward VIII early in 1936.

But in December that year her family’s lives changed forever: with the abdication of Edward to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, her immediate family were propelled from being a relatively minor branch of the royal family to the royal family itself. The girls’ father became King George VI, with Elizabeth and Margaret first and second in line to the throne.

Margaret was pretty, sociable and drawn to people in the theatre and the arts. She was also, of course, fabulous social currency if you could attract her to your party. So people flattered her, fluttered about her, and fed her ego.

Brown writes: “Throughout her adult life… 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. Hers was a name to drop, generally to the sound of a tut-tut.”

As she was royalty, people could not leave a social occasion, such as a dinner, before she did. She would often arrived late, delaying the food from being served, and then smoke throughout the courses, leaving her cigarette burning on an ashtray in front of her.

The drinks flowed and then, writes Brown, just as everyone was growing more chatty and carefree, the princess would abruptly upbraid a hapless guest for over-familiarity. “When you say my sister, I imagine you are referring to Her Majesty the Queen?”

During the royal family’s visit to South Africa in 1947, when she was just 17, she fell in love with her father’s equerry, the married father-of-two Peter Townsend. He was 16 years older than she. In 1953 he divorced his wife and asked Margaret to marry him. She agreed, but in a sad rerun of the “abdication crisis” featuring Margaret’s uncle in the 1930s, the Anglican church and the government maintained such a wedding was out of the question because Townsend was divorced. This time and unlike her uncle, the royal decided to remain in the fold, and Townsend was send packing. Many people believed Townsend was her true love.

In 1960 Margaret married the society photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones, with whom she had two children. The marriage didn’t last, and ended in divorce and bitterness.

Brown recounts a story of how Margaret was a guest at a 1960s dinner along with the famous model Twiggy and her boyfriend Justin de Villeneuve. “The Princess ignored Twiggy – at that time one of the most famous women in Britain – until the very last moment. She then turned and asked her what her name was.

“Lesley, Ma’am. But my friends call me Twiggy.”

“How unfortunate,’ replied the princess, and turned her back on her once more.

Armstrong-Jones, now Lord Snowdon, “never the most loyal husband, leaned towards de Villeneuve. ‘You will get this with the upper classes, he said’.”

But sometimes she got as good as she gave. Another story has Margaret visiting her mother at the Scottish castle she had bought after being widowed. Margaret said: “I can’t think why you have such a horrible place as the Castle of Mey.’

The queen mother replied: “Well darling, you needn’t come again.” And, reports Brown, Margaret did not.

Brown has drawn on books, accounts and official biographies for this volume, including the account of the princesses’ childhood, The Little Princesses, written by their governess, Marion Crawford. So outraged were the family by this 1950 volume that none of them ever spoke to her again.

If she hadn’t been a princess Margaret would have been known as a socialite. When her marriage was collapsing she was said to have had affairs with many famous men, including Mick Jagger, Peter Sellers, her daughter’s godfather, David Niven and even Warren Beatty.

The post-marriage relationship with whom most people associate her was that with Roddy Llewellyn, a society landscape gardener 18 years younger than she. Photographs of the pair at her Caribbean island hideaway of Mustique prompted the formal end of the marriage to Lord Snowdon.

So the woman who was not allowed to marry the man she loved, because he was divorced, ended up divorced herself. Her official biographer Christopher Warwick suggests her “most enduring legacy” was that she paved the way to public acceptance of royal divorce – including those of Prince Charles and Diana (and his remarriage to the divorced Camilla Parker-Bowles), Princess Anne and Prince Andrew.

After several strokes Margaret died in February 2002, just a few weeks before her mother.

Any reader with the slightest interest in the British royal family will find Ma’am Darling funny, delightfully bitchy and occasionally moving.

And I’m not going to stop this review without – spoiler alert – recounting the funniest joke in the book. Brown writes that as Margaret’s relationship with Roddy Llewellyn was hotting up, it was said in upper class circles: “Have you heard Roddy’s going into acting? He’s got a small part in Charlie’s Aunt.”

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