Here’s a challenge to any writer. How do you write a book about someone famous who never did anything? Craig Brown found an answer with his book, Nine-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.
In this book, he provides not a biography but a set of impressions of Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister as they were recounted by the people around her. It’s as if she only existed in her reflection. And he lays out these impressions in a series of 99 brief but poisonously pleasurable chapters. The result is a feast for the reader and a model for writers of how to make something out of nothing.
Another thing I like about this book is that it undercuts some of my own critique of the meritocracy, which I frequently belabor in this blog. Nothing like looking at minor royals to make meritocracy look pretty good. At least people do something to gain their renown.
Brown says he came upon the idea for this book while researching another one, when he kept finding Princess Margaret listed in a vast array of books about the UK in the late twentieth century.
It is like playing ‘Where’s Wally?’, or staring at clouds in search of a face. Leave it long enough, and she’ll be there, rubbing shoulders with philosophers, film stars, novelists, politicians.
I spy with my little eye, something beginning with M!
Here she is, sitting above Marie Antoinette in Margaret Drabble’s biography of Angus Wilson:
Marchant, Bill (Sir Herbert)
The reflections she left in these sources are anything but pretty. As Brown puts it,
It has been said that history is written by the victors, but, on the most basic level, this is not quite true: it is written by the writers.
Princess Margaret had the misfortune to be surrounded by catty people who were eager to leave a written record of their encounters with her — for consumption by people like me who love to read gossipy accounts about the one percent.
In part these accounts serve as a welcome counterpoint to the typical syrupy stories promoted by the royal family, for example,
The queen mother:
Along with radiance, she emitted delight. Her authorised biographer, William Shawcross, chronicles this trail of delight. Wherever she goes, she delights everyone, and they are in turn delighted by her delight, whereupon she is delighted that they are delighted that she is delighted that … and so forth. If you shut his book too abruptly, you’ll notice delight oozing out of its sides.
But from the age of twenty-five, Princess Margaret was rarely described as ‘radiant’, other than on her wedding day, traditionally an occasion on which the adjective is obligatory, to be withheld only if the bride is actually hauled sobbing to the altar.
Most of the stories follow another arc: the Princess arrives late, delaying dinner to catch up with her punishing schedule of drinking and smoking. At the table, she grows more and more relaxed; by midnight, it dawns on the assembled company that she is in it for the long haul, which means that they will be too, since protocol dictates that no one can leave before she does. Then, just as everyone else is growing more chatty and carefree, the Princess abruptly remounts her high horse and upbraids a hapless guest for over-familiarity: ‘When you say my sister, I imagine you are referring to Her Majesty the Queen?’
At times, the reader feels sorry for the princess serving as everyone’s favorite punching bag. As a royal, your status is purely at the mercy of birth order, establishing your position in the line for the crown.
How odd, to emerge from the womb fourth in line, to go up a notch at the age of six, up another notch that same year, and then to find yourself hurtling down, down, down to fourth place at the birth of Prince Charles in 1948, fifth at the birth of Princess Anne in 1950, then downhill all the way, overtaken by a non-stop stream of riff-raff – Prince Andrew and Prince Edward and Peter Phillips and Princess Beatrice and the rest of them, down, down, down, until by the time of your death you have plummeted to number eleven, behind Zara Phillips, later to become Zara Tindall, mother of Mia Tindall, who, if you were still alive, would herself be one ahead of you, even when she was still in nappies. Not many women have to face the fact that their careers peaked at the age of six, or to live with the prospect of losing their place in the pecking order to a succession of newborn babies, and to face demotion every few years thereafter. Small wonder, then, if Princess Margaret felt short-changed by life.
Her life was defined by deficit.
She remained conscious of her image as the one who wasn’t, and to some extent played on it: the one who wasn’t the Queen; the one who wasn’t taught constitutional history because she wasn’t the one who’d be needing it; the one who wasn’t in the first coach, and wouldn’t ever be first onto the Buckingham Palace balcony; the one who wasn’t given the important duties, but was obliged to make do with the also-rans: the naming of the more out-of-the-way council building, school, hospital or regiment, the state visit to the duller country, the patronage of the more obscure charity, the glad-handing of the smaller fry – the deputies, the vices, the second-in-commands. Her most devoted friends praised her stoicism for assuming the role of lightning rod. ‘For nearly five decades,’ said Reinaldo Herrera, ‘she bore with great dignity the criticism and envy that people dared not show the Queen.’
But sympathy for her situation is hard to sustain for very long, when she spends so much of her time putting other people down.
Her antennae for transgressions were unusually sensitive, quivering into action at the slightest opportunity. ‘I detested Queen Mary,’ she told Gore Vidal. ‘She was rude to all of us except Lilibet, who was going to be Queen. Of course, she had an inferiority complex. We were Royal, and she was not.’ Unlike her, Queen Mary had been born a Serene Highness, not a Royal Highness. The difference, invisible to most, was monumental to Princess Margaret, who treasured the definite article in Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret. Lacking that ‘the’, her grandmother was in some sense below the salt.
Far more than her sister, she was given to pulling rank. She once reminded her children that she was royal and they were not, and their father was most certainly not. ‘I am unique,’ she would sometimes pipe up at dinner parties. ‘I am the daughter of a King and the sister of a Queen.’ It was no ice-breaker.
Margaret had been born to the King-Emperor at a time when the map of the world was still largely pink. Her sense of entitlement, never modest, grew bigger and bigger with each passing year, gathering weight and speed as the British Empire grew smaller and smaller, and her role in it smaller still.
As a result, she played her role as an awkward mix of princess and bohemian, leaving those around her on edge about whether she was going to go high or go low.
She was of royalty, yet divorced from it; royalty set at an oblique angle, royalty through the looking glass, royalty as pastiche.
She was cabaret camp, Ma’am Ca’amp: she was Noël Coward, cigarette holders, blusher, Jean Cocteau, winking, sighing, dark glasses, Bet Lynch, charades, Watteau, colourful cocktails at midday, ballet, silk, hoity-toity, dismissive overstatement, arriving late, entering with a flourish, exiting with a flounce, pausing for effect, making a scene.
It is languid, bored, world-weary, detached, bored, fidgety, demanding, entitled, disgruntled, bored. It carries the seeds of its own sadness and scatters them around like confetti. It looks in the mirror for protracted periods of time, but avoids exchanging glances with itself. It is disappointment hiding behind the shield of hauteur, keeping pity at bay. ‘I have never known an unhappier woman,’ says John Julius.
Read the book. You’ll have a hard time putting it down.