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 Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon, a marriage more suited to tabloid than ardor. (There is surprisingly little here of Margaret as mother, perhaps because of 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. The princess 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 colored 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 but to rot? Her routine was dominated by tippling and toadies. She could display the most common behavior — rudeness was always paramount — while thinking almost everyone was below her.
A celebrated British journalist and the author of 18 other books (how do they manage to do that?), Brown has done something astonishing: He makes the reader care, even sympathize, with perhaps the last subject worthy of such affection. A wit and gimlet-eyed 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, had she been free at all.
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. His book is big fun, equal measures 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.
Karen Heller is a features writer for The Washington Post.
By Craig Brown. 432 pp. $28.