Beauty and ar­ro­gance on pa­rade

Ninety-Nine Glimpses makes read­ers care about Princess Mar­garet

Waterloo Region Record - - Books - KAREN HELLER

In her hey­day, Princess Mar­garet was known for her beauty, ar­ro­gance and in­do­lence, a Noel Cow­ard char­ac­ter birthed for Fleet Street. She was deemed “the world’s most dif­fi­cult guest,” who could de­lay din­ner for hours so she could “catch up with her pun­ish­ing sched­ule of drink­ing and smok­ing.”

Craig Brown’s de­lec­ta­ble “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Mar­garet” is not a novel, though its sub­ject seems like a sublime work of fic­tion, too im­pe­ri­ous to be true. “The re­buke be­came her call­ing card,” he writes. She main­tained two daily hair­dresser ap­point­ments and a fair num­ber of cos­tume changes. At her 2002 fu­neral, art his­to­rian Sir Roy Strong ob­served, “The com­mon touch she had not.” And he was a friend.

Born into the pe­nal House of Wind­sor, Mar­garet was both cursed and freed as the spare daugh­ter. All the fam­ily’s com­mon sense and man­ners were al­lo­cated to El­iz­a­beth, the fu­ture sovereign.

Mar­garet was al­lowed to par­take in swing­ing Lon­don and lol­ly­gag with the louche denizens of Mus­tique (where her skin leathered to an un­royal shade of ba­con), but not at lib­erty to marry di­vorced Group Capt. Peter Townsend, her one true love. In­stead, she paired with pho­tog­ra­pher Antony Arm­strongJones, later Lord Snow­don, a mar­riage more suited to tabloid than ar­dour. (There is sur­pris­ingly lit­tle here of Mar­garet as mother, per­haps due to Bri­tain’s puni­tive li­bel laws and the fact that her two chil­dren, David Arm­strong-Jones and Lady Sarah Chatto, are very much alive.)

Mar­garet was to be ad­dressed as “Ma’am” or “Princess Mar­garet” and never touched un­less she first ap­proached; heaven pro­tect those who didn’t fol­low pro­to­col. (In Bri­tain, the book was pub­lished as “Ma’am Dar­ling.”)

Her days, Brown writes, were “bur­dened with a suc­ces­sion of royal du­ties, most of them bot­tom-drawer and dreary.” A pa­tron of the arts who imag­ined her­self an ac­tress, Mar­garet proved in­ca­pable of masking en­nui. But she was enor­mously en­ter­tain­ing. She was one of the few mor­tals ca­pa­ble of one-up­ping El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor — so we owe her that. Pablo Pi­casso, Peter Sell­ers and the nov­el­ist John Fowles were among the men in­tox­i­cated by her Mar­garet­ness. She liked Diana un­til the hap­less princess coloured out­side the royal play­book, and then Mar­garet was done with her for good.

How peo­ple be­trayed Mar­garet! Though she never did much of any­thing, the princess ap­pears in so many mem­oirs, a Zelig with bouf­fant hair suck­ing on a cigarette holder. The Royal Fam­ily seems to ex­ist for oth­ers to run afoul of them in print, in­clud­ing the help. There’s been a fes­ti­val of Mar­garet on ca­ble tele­vi­sion, in­clud­ing in “The Crown” and “Pa­trick Melrose,” with an ex­quis­ite din­ner scene taken verbatim from Ed­ward St. Aubyn’s ro­man à clef, “Some Hope,” and re­counted by Brown as well.

“In mid­dle age, hurt by life, Mar­garet re­treated into camp, be­com­ing a night­club bur­lesque of her sis­ter,” Brown writes. “She was of roy­alty, yet di­vorced from it; roy­alty set at an oblique an­gle, roy­alty through a look­ing glass, roy­alty as pas­tiche.”

What was there left to do to but rot? Her rou­tine was dom­i­nated by tip­pling and toad­ies. She could dis­play the most com­mon be­hav­iour — rudeness was al­ways para­mount — while think­ing al­most ev­ery­one was be­low her.

A cel­e­brated Bri­tish jour­nal­ist and the au­thor of 18 other books, Brown has done some­thing as­ton­ish­ing: He makes the reader care, even sym­pa­thize, with per­haps the last sub­ject wor­thy of such af­fec­tion. A wit and gim­leteyed ob­server, Brown en­gages in flights of fancy, chap­ters that imag­ine her life as it might have been if she had been free to marry Townsend or Pi­casso.

He con­cedes his work may be folly, “Given time, neu­rol­o­gists may well es­tab­lish a firm con­nec­tion be­tween men­tal ill­ness and the writ­ing of books about the Royal Fam­ily.” It is not folly, but is big fun, equally in­sight­ful and hys­ter­i­cal. The foot­notes are am­brosial. Ninety-nine glimpses may be a dozen or two more im­pres­sions than the princess de­serves, but Brown can’t help it: He’s mad about the Ma’am.

FILE PHOTO

Lord Snow­don and Princess Mar­garet in an un­dated photo.

FAR­RAR HAND­OUT

“Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Mar­garet,” by Craig Brown, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux. 432 pages, $37

Princess Mar­garet and her one true love: Group Capt. Peter Townsend

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