Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret 
by Craig Brown.
Fourth Estate, 423 pp., £16.99, September 2017, 978 0 00 820361 0
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You need​ to be over seventy now to remember the awful thrill of the announcement: ‘I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend.’ For the older generation, Princess Margaret was the unlucky princess. She was our Diana: capricious, passionate, vindictive, doomed to fall in love with rotters, the breakaway royal who hung out with actors and rogues and who was frozen out by a cold-hearted court, finding contentment only in her hospital work and her two children. Both princesses loved the ballet, too, as though the only real freedom lay in the dance. There was a Princess Margaret Set, just as the Prince Regent had the Carlton House Set, Edward VII had the Marlborough House Set, and Edward VIII had the Fort Belvedere Set: three playboys, only one playgirl.

Princess Margaret, followed by Peter Townsend, in 1953.

Princess Margaret, followed by Peter Townsend, in 1953.

It is 15 years since she died, and memories of her are not as sharp as they were. Which makes Craig Brown’s enterprise not only a marvellous freak of literature but a matchless summoner of our yesterdays. It is a collage, montage or bricolage of glittery bits culled from two hundred biographies, authorised and unauthorised, written by cashiered gossip columnists and treacherous butlers and chauffeurs, plus odds and ends such as the complete transcript of the princess’s Desert Island Discs and the catalogue of her jewellery, sold after her death for £9 million.

The effect is like one of those sweeping Klimt portraits, in which the comet trail of colourful fragments leaves a lasting, wistful impression of an era on the skids. The book is extremely funny and extremely sad. As Brown says towards the end of it, ‘It is Cinderella in reverse. It is hope dashed, happiness mislaid, life mishandled. Nothing is as thrilling as they said it would be; no one is as amusing, as clever, as attractive or as interesting.’

You feel the sadness all the more not because the princess is such an endearing character but because most of the time she is so ghastly and ghastly in a way that brings out the worst in other people. As time goes by, being ghastly is so much expected of her that it becomes her party piece. She specialises in insulting her hosts’ every effort to entertain her. In this regard she isn’t snobbish. She is just as rude about the rare 1836 Madeira that Lord Carnarvon pours her – ‘exactly like petrol’ – as she is about the coronation chicken served her at the opening of some sheltered bungalows in Derbyshire: ‘This looks like sick.’

In other respects, her snobbery can reach baroque levels. When her husband nearly sets fire to her dress (on purpose) and says, ‘Good thing too, I hate that material,’ HRH retorts: ‘Material is a word we do not use. We call it stuff.’ Other forbidden expressions include ‘scrambled eggs’ (should be ‘buttered eggs’) and ‘placement’ (should be ‘place à table’). She detested her grandmother, Queen Mary, who had deluged her with presents, and claimed that she suffered from an inferiority complex because she had been born only a serene, not a royal highness.

At first nights, she seldom fails to tell the producer or director how much she loathed the show. To Robert Evans, producer of Love Story, at the Royal Command Performance of the film: ‘Tony saw Love Story in New York. Hated it.’ When Dennis Main Wilson says, ‘Ma’am, I have the honour to produce a little show called Till Death Us Do Part,’ she cuts down his faux modesty with: ‘Isn’t that that frightfully dreary thing in the East End?’ At the end of Carousel at the National Theatre, Richard Eyre escorts her to the door: ‘I’m glad you enjoyed the show.’ ‘I didn’t, I can’t bear the piece.’

She was just as rude and inconsiderate in private, late to arrive and even later to leave which meant that nobody else could leave either, because she was a stickler for protocol, despite her pretence of informality. She insisted on chain-smoking through every meal, ashing out on her neighbour’s plate or person. Like her father, grandfather and great-grandfather, she was a suicidal smoker. At the sale of her effects, Brown counts no less than 37 cigarette-related gilded gewgaws. Having never been to school, not even sharing with her sister in tutorials on constitutional history from the provost of Eton, she was ignorant on most subjects outside the performing arts, but never hesitated to plonk down her opinions.

Yet throughout her life, the glitterati and literati were gagging to meet her, and despite her rudeness kept on coming back for more. Knowing that she was on the Aga Khan’s yacht moored below the windows of the villa in Sardinia where he was staying, Cyril Connolly was desperate to clamber aboard, saying that not to meet the Snowdons was ‘like being in the Garden of Eden without seeing God’. Marlon Brando persuaded Kenneth Tynan to ask her to dinner à trois and then was so tongue-tied that he couldn’t address a word to her except through Tynan: ‘Would you ask the princess what she thinks of …’ Tynan himself wanted to postpone his daughter’s birthday party until Princess Margaret was back in town. The TV interviewer Russell Harty on his deathbed had his tracheotomy tube removed, in order to be able to tell Alan Bennett that the princess had asked how he was, twice.

Every celebrity seems to have fantasised about sex with the princess. Eddie Fisher claimed that he had had an affair with her. When her marriage was breaking up, Peter Sellers was besotted with the idea that he would be her next husband, besotted with the idea rather than with her, I think. He even tried to persuade his pet astrologer to discover favourable auguries for the match. John Fowles, typically, fantasised about seducing her and imprisoning her underground, not necessarily in that order. Pablo Picasso claimed that only the princess would be a suitable bride to be the châtelaine of his vast new villa, La Californie. At 5’4”, he would have towered over her. He made paper crowns for the vinegary art critic Douglas Cooper and his scarcely less acerbic biographer John Richardson, and taught them how to bow properly for his royal wedding (another example of how artists’ jokes are almost as unfunny as musicians’).

Brown takes the fantasy a stage further by imagining how married life would have worked out for Pablo and Margaret. This is one of a series of counterfactual episodes spattered through the book: what if she had married Peter Townsend after all, what if she had married Jeremy Thorpe, another improbable contender for her hand, what if she had become queen instead of her sister? These capriccios melt beautifully into the text, because we are immersed in a land of dreams. Being a communist or a homosexual is no barrier here to imagining yourself walking up the aisle of Westminster Abbey with the royal trumpeters at full blast.

With typical puckishness, the novelist A.N. Wilson once asked Princess Margaret whether she, like everyone else, dreamed about the queen. Instead of biting his head off, she answered, rather surprisingly: ‘Yes, she said, and it was always the same dream. She dreamed that she was disapproved of, she knew she had done something truly awful, something that transgressed everything that she had been brought up to believe, something which had made the queen angry … she could not rest until she had heard her sister’s voice in waking life.’

Her camp followers – never was that phrase more apt – scarcely waited till she had left the room before they started bitching about her, usually in snobbish terms. The snobbery is equally distributed between left and right. Christopher Isherwood called her ‘quite a common little thing’. Richard Eyre said that ‘if it weren’t for the sharp English upper-class voice, you’d say she looks like a Maltese landlady.’ Cecil Beaton described her as vulgar and later as ‘a poor midgety brute’ who had ‘gone to pot … her complexion now a dirty negligee pink satin’. Only matched by Alan Clark’s diary entry: ‘fat, ugly, dwarflike, lecherous and revoltingly tastelessly behaved’ (from a master of deportment). The emphasis on her small stature was almost universal. It was the cruellest thrust, and one suspects a deliberate one, when her husband (himself no giant) made a TV documentary about midgets, which Margaret gamely described as ‘not my cup of tea at all. Bit too near home, I’m afraid.’ Yet they all went on angling and wangling. Her presence lured every star in Hollywood to the party Tynan threw for her. At her funeral and memorial service, the camp followers were out in force, scurrying home to their diaries to confide afterwards how awful she had been.

She had been a wilful and mischievous child, unlike her dutiful elder sister. In that notorious book The Little Princesses, their nanny Marion Crawford, ‘Crawfie’, who looked after them for 15 years, described how she would mimic Lilibet’s methodical preparations for going to bed. Crawfie was never forgiven for the book. There was no royal wreath at her funeral. Margaret said simply: ‘she sneaked.’

Whatever she was like to start with, it is clear, I think, that she went downhill after she was not allowed to marry Townsend. It was a hammer blow to her morale. It was also the most interesting thing to happen to the royal family between the abdication and the death of Diana. It soured her for good. It also left the nation in a state of suspended moral animation for years. The affair was an episode in the history not only of divorce but also of deference and authority. Social historians neglect it at their peril. David Kynaston in Family Britain 1951-57 gives a pretty full account, but in Peter Hennessy’s Having It So Good: Britain in the 1950s the only Peter Townsend in the index is the sociologist of that name. Even Brown does not quite do justice to the ramifications.

Townsend was the most genuine of war heroes. Born in 1914, he had joined the RAF at the age of 19 and helped to shoot down the first Heinkel to crash on British soil. He claimed two more Heinkels that spring of 1940 and was awarded a DFC. He got a bar to his DFC for shooting down four more aircraft and was himself shot down three times. He was also extremely good-looking.

From left to right: Princess Margaret on her 26th birthday in 1956; at a film premiere in 1951; with the Queen Mother in 1951.

From left to right: Princess Margaret on her 26th birthday in 1956; at a film premiere in 1951; with the Queen Mother in 1951.

That much we probably knew, more or less. What may come as a surprise is that he had been appointed equerry to King George as early as 1944, when Margaret was only 14. By then, he had a wife, Rosemary, and a small son. Margaret said, much later, that she really fell in love with him in 1947 when he accompanied the royal family on their tour of South Africa and they rode across the veld together. He himself claimed to have noticed the first spark between them at a picnic at Balmoral in August 1951. At all events, they had known each other for nine years by the time she was spotted picking fluff from his lapel on Coronation Day, 2 June 1953. The version in Townsend’s memoir is that it was only after his divorce from Rosemary in December 1952 that their love had been allowed to blossom. Brown is forgivably sceptical: ‘Had this impetuous young woman really managed to hide her feelings for a full five and a half years? And had the group captain somehow exercised a similar restraint?’

In a footnote, Brown adds a recollection from the princess’s chauffeur, John Larkin, who asked her whether she wanted to keep the same number plate when she replaced her old Rolls-Royce with a newer model. ‘No,’ she said,‘ it refers to something in my past best forgotten.’ The number was PM6450, which Larkin interpreted as ‘Princess Margaret 6 April 1950’. Could this be the day she lost her virginity? If so, a sporting flourish, to say the least. Brown does not mention the persistent report that Rosemary was aggrieved at having to play the guilty party in order to save the reputation of the royal family, though she did marry her own lover a few months after the divorce.

On learning of the affair, Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, private secretary to the new queen, told Townsend: ‘you must be either mad or bad.’ Within a month, he had persuaded Churchill to exile Townsend to Brussels as air attaché, without even giving him time to say goodbye. I once met Lascelles when I was at school, and was startled by his explosion of venom against the Duke of Windsor, whose private secretary he had been before the war. He was memorably unpleasant. The hope was that the separation would cool their love. But on his return two years later, Townsend said that ‘our feelings for one another had not changed.’ By now, Margaret was 25, and was free under the Royal Marriages Act to marry without the queen’s consent. It was time for the establishment to bring up the big guns. On 1 October 1955, Anthony Eden informed the princess that the cabinet had agreed that if she went ahead with the marriage, she would have to renounce her royal rights and her income from the Civil List. In deploying this threat, the government could scarcely be said to be responding to popular hostility to the match. Gallup found that 59 per cent approved of it and only 17 per cent disapproved. So was it the Church of England’s influence? Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher, a famous thrasher in his days as headmaster of Repton, was interviewed on TV by Richard Dimbleby on 2 November, two days after the announcement that the marriage would not happen. Fisher maintained that the decision had been the princess’s alone and that ‘there was no pressure from Church or State.’ This was a barefaced lie. We have seen the blunt financial threat from Eden. True, on her meeting with Fisher on 27 October, the princess did indeed say that she had come not to seek his guidance but to tell him of her decision. But at an earlier dinner with him, on 19 October, he had earnestly counselled her to call it off. There was also an extraordinary leader in the Times on 26 October, which has all the portentous fingerprints of the editor, Sir William Haley.

According to the Times, the queen had ‘come to be the symbol of every side of the life of this society, its universal representative in whom her people see their better selves ideally reflected’. That better self had to be reflected in the queen’s family. If the marriage went ahead, ‘the princess will be entering into a union which vast numbers of her sister’s people, all sincerely anxious for her lifelong happiness, cannot in conscience regard as a marriage.’ Vast numbers? All evidence suggests that public opinion was overwhelmingly tolerant of the match. When three of the queen’s four children got divorced a generation later, there was no suggestion that any of them would have to renounce their titles or emoluments, as Haley urged that Margaret should do. But Haley was not finished. ‘That devout men have argued that it is a wrong interpretation of Christianity is not here relevant.’ So the prohibition was not even rooted in scripture. It was based entirely on what Haley thought the public would stand for.

The two most conspicuous public opponents of the match were Eden and the archbishop. Eden by now had become prime minister by the skin of his trousers. A notable seducer of upper-class married women, he had already barely escaped being cited as co-respondent by his nephew Lord Warwick. In June 1950 his wife, Beatrice, agreed to be cited as the guilty party in their divorce, on the grounds that they had been separated for more than three years. By now he was having an affair with Dorothy Beatty. Her husband, son of the quasi-victor of Jutland, hoped to blackmail Eden into securing him a post in the shadow cabinet. Eden couldn’t or wouldn’t oblige. So Beatty put the detectives on him. Eden fled to Churchill’s house at 28 Hyde Park Gate, where Churchill set up a secret HQ for him, while an officer in the Coldstream, who happened also to be in love with Dorothy, agreed to sit in Eden’s house for as long as it took the detectives to identify him as the adulterous party. The obliging guardee was duly cited in the divorce proceedings, and Eden was able to become prime minister. Phew! But what a crew! Anyone who thinks Eden’s deceit at Suez was out of character needs to think again.

As for the archbishop, he managed to radiate adamantine certainty. In fact the Church’s position on divorce and remarriage was under extreme pressure. The Church of England had landed itself with the sternest prohibitions of any church, having shunned the Catholic let-out of annulment at a price. But what scriptural authority could these rules claim? Yes, Jesus had said that ‘those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.’ But what about those who had sundered? How was the Church to apply its message of compassion to them?

Fisher himself admitted that Jesus had left no instructions. He had left the Church free to find its way, in reliance on his Holy Spirit. Fisher did not wish to shelter behind an unyielding rigorism. Second marriages could be spiritually blessed. In the past, the Church had made exceptions to its rules, but it could no longer afford to do so. Since 1857, the C of E had been pushed in the direction of stricter discipline, because ‘the mounting tide of divorce was threatening to overthrow the whole Christian conception of marriage.’ So the stricter standards were new. They didn’t derive from the teachings of Jesus. They were a last-ditch attempt to hold the line. The royal family was to be deployed as an instrument of social control. And in fact Fisher succeeded in pushing through Convocation two years later an act which sought to deprive priests of their old discretion to marry divorcees.

As it happens, Princess Margaret was extremely devout all her life (without her piety having much visible impact on her conduct). Every time she flew off to the West Indies, she would first go down to the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy to receive Communion from Eric Abbott, the former dean of Westminster. On her deathbed, Archbishop Carey came to give her Communion and left her a bottle of olive oil which his wife Eileen had brought back from the Holy Land. Margaret was thrilled.

All the harsher then that she should have been a victim of such strong-armed humbug by the combined forces of Church and State. But an even worse fate was in store for her. Anthony Armstrong-Jones was already well known as a society photographer. He had been to Eton and Cambridge (he had coxed the winning Cambridge eight in the Boat Race). But he was still regarded as a common snapper. Colin Tennant, a founder member of the Princess Margaret Set, had relegated him to the servants’ entrance at his wedding. When Armstrong-Jones tried to introduce himself to the fearsome Betty Kenward, the pseudonymous author of ‘Jennifer’s Diary’ in Queen magazine, she snapped: ‘Don’t you dare address me, I don’t talk to my photographers.’ When she heard that Armstrong-Jones was to marry the princess, she spent the afternoon kicking the wastepaper basket. Her fury was equalled by that of Cecil Beaton, who moaned in his diary that Armstrong-Jones was ‘not even a good photographer’.

Why did she marry him? The reason usually given is that she was outraged when Townsend wrote to tell her that he was engaged to be married to a young Belgian girl, breaking their (not very realistic) pact that neither would ever marry anyone else. Three weeks after their wedding, Camilla Fry, the wife of Armstrong-Jones’s old friend, gave birth to a daughter, the first of his irregular offspring scattered around the country during and after his marriage to Margaret. Lord Snowdon, as he now became (‘In I go Jones, out I come Snowdon’), was as compulsively unfaithful as he became compulsively unpleasant to his wife. He left vicious notes for her around the house, listing ‘Twenty-four reasons why I hate you’ or saying: ‘You look like a Jewish manicurist.’ Brown compares his behaviour in the later stages of their marriage to that of Jack Manningham, the villain in Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight, who sets out by a series of fiendish tricks to convince his wife that she is mad. Snowdon did actually persuade the princess to visit a psychiatrist.

She was in fact perfectly capable of looking after her own interests. She secretly briefed Nigel Dempster to settle old scores, which didn’t stop her being indignant when Diana told all to Andrew Morton. During her first holiday on Mustique, Colin Tennant, who had just bought the island, asked whether as a wedding present she would like a piece of jewellery or a piece of land. She responded without hesitation: ‘a piece of land’. Thinking the plot he gave her inadequate, she pulled up the boundary stakes and replanted them further out. While her back was turned, Tennant silently put the stakes back in their original holes. This to and fro went on until the princess had secured a full ten acres. Snowdon hated Tennant so much that he only visited Mustique once. He may have had a point. The princess herself described her first day on the island: ‘We sat in the brush and whacked mosquitoes.’ The clue is in the name.

Nor did she always receive a warmer welcome within her own family. The queen never ceased to be fond of her and, later, sorry for her, but she was busy being queen. In the Townsend crisis, the queen mother offered her little or no help. The queen’s secretary Martin Charteris thought that ‘she was not a mother to her child. When the princess attempted to broach the subject, her mother grew upset, and refused to discuss it.’ The queen mother’s dislike of unpleasantness was legendary. She refused to visit her most loyal courtiers when they were dying. One old lady in waiting is said to have actually died at Clarence House, just before one of the queen mother’s famous lunches under the cedar tree in the garden. Her body was shunted into a side room and HM was not informed until the lunch was over, so as not to spoil the fun. When they were both invalids, Princess Margaret was more than once spotted pinching her mother’s wheelchair.

At the end of the book, only the hardest heart would repress a twitch of sympathy. To live on the receiving end of so much gush and so much abuse, to be simultaneously spoilt rotten and hopelessly infantilised, how well would any of us stand up to it? So many functions to go to, so much dysfunction to come back to. When Princess Margaret made a guest appearance at the Borsetshire fashion show in an episode of The Archers, the producer said after the run-through: ‘That’s very good, ma’am, but do you think you could sound as if you were enjoying yourself a little more?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t be, would I?’ The princess replied.

It was a backhanded mercy that she did not live to hear the bells ringing to celebrate the engagement of Prince Harry to a divorced American actor of mixed race. Wallis Simpson, too, must be turning in her unquiet grave.

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