The princess and the pique
Susan Jeffreys wonders why an acid-tongued royal does her duty with so little grace
Saturday 08 February 1997
Princess Margaret is the royal you least want when you've got something to launch or open or commemorate. She has a reputation for turning sullen and whizzing through the whole thing in indecent haste. And, reading this life, I found myself wishing for one of Theo Aronson's other royal biographies - in particular, the late-Victorian scandals of his Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld. Sadly, there are no games of Slap- Bum Poker here. For despite the love affairs and the rumours of wit and sophistication (based mainly on her use of a long cigarette holder), Princess Margaret makes a dull read.
Things got off to an odd start for the princess. She was born in the tapestry room of Glamis Castle in the middle of a thunderstorm. Glamis Castle is where, so legend has it, a curious egg-like creature lives. While the Queen Mother-to-be was in the throes of labour, Labour MP J R Clynes hovered outside. As Home Secretary, one of his jobs was to hang around royal births, making sure back-up babies aren't smuggled in via warming pans. The royal family are thought to have form on this sort of thing.
A jolly, gigglish, extrovert child, Margaret grew (though not by very much) into a good-looking young woman. Aronson's claim that she was like the young Audrey Hepburn has to be taken with some salt, though. Others have been less complimentary - Nancy Mitford, enraged by the Princess's rude behaviour, called her "a huge ball of fur on two well developed legs". Anthony Armstrong-Jones, in the heat of domestic battle, likened her to an overweight Jewish manicurist.
Life might have stayed jolly for Margaret if Edward VIII's abdication had not moved her close enough to the throne to darken her life. Aronson gives a cosy picture of the Yorks pre-abdication: larks and pillow fights with mummy, daddy and the gels, lots of games and not too much messing around in books. Then Edward's shy, stuttering but doggedly noble brother George became king. He and his daughter Elizabeth worked diligently at their duty. Margaret, for all her faults, has always been loyal to her worthy sister.
She doesn't get enough credit for this loyalty. She gets far too much for her supposed wit. Aronson quotes many of her one-liners. They are often acid, rarely funny. Rather, it's the bon mots of others that liven up the text. The Queen asks, on seeing Barbara Cartland, "Who's that? Danny La Rue?" An anonymous wit, hearing that the petit Armstrong Jones had become Earl of Snowdon, said: "They're making a mountain out of a molehill." And, on a visit to Tanganyika, a throne last sat on by Margaret's Uncle Edward is dragged out for a tribal gathering. Stored in a thatched hut, it had all but crumbled away. "People who live in grass houses," comments Sir Edward Twining, "shouldn't stow thrones."
Whether her reputation for wit is deserved, her reputation for sulleness is. I've seen a room full of people upset and deflated by her rudeness. Her lack of graciousness is hard to forgive. The excuse of her thwarted love affair with Peter Townsend is now worn too thin. Forced to choose between marriage to Townsend - in exile, without rank or money - or life without him as a princess, she chose the latter. Look at life chez Simpson in all its footling detail and you can see her point. Consider also, that life in exile would have meant abandoning her sister at a moment of great need. Her father's life was ruined when his brother abandoned him and, for all her faults, Princess Margaret has always been a loyal sister to the queen.
Margaret is tetchy on matters of protocol, turning her back on anyone she considers to have slighted her. But she keeps people waiting, cuts short appointments and often has a brisk and dismissive way with her. She is meant to be an absolute hoot with her own set and is fiercely loyal to them. So what? Most of us can manage that on a fraction of the pay.
The book details the usual round of affairs: Robin Douglas-Home, Roddy Llewellyn, Peter Sellers. The poor woman has had little luck with her partners. One hopes she gets a few more larks than this flaky bunch of lads could supply. Aronson makes vague remarks about Ma'am's Hanoverian appetites, but we don't get any picture of what these might be.
There's talk that Margaret will be more in the public eye over the next few years. It would add a bit of much-needed support for her beleagured sister if Margaret emerged sunny and gracious to see out the last part of this reign. It's all hands to the Royal pump at the moment. Somewhere in the corridors of Glamis, they could even be polishing up the egg man.
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