Poignant parody of the life of a royal sex symbol
Biography: Ma'am Darling, Craig Brown, Fourth Estate, €18.99
To describe conventional royal biographers, Craig Brown has coined the excellent word "oleaginist". As a prime example, he cites William Shawcross's official biography of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, which describes how she delighted everyone she met, and how delighted she was by their delight, and they by hers, and so on. "If you shut his book too abruptly," Brown observes, "you'll notice delight oozing out of its sides".
Brown is no oleaginist, and Ma'am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret is a far from conventional biography. Most of it is factual, but perhaps out of boredom, or because he cannot resist deploying his parodic skills, he occasionally introduces counter-factual elements, such as a Christmas Broadcast by Queen Margaret: "I'll wish you all a very happy Christmas, not because I really want to, but because I suppose I must."
It is not entirely a hatchet job. Brown allows that the Princess could be a loyal friend, and quotes Hugo Vickers's judgment that she was "nicer than she thought she was". And he is sympathetic to the Princess's lack of any employment other than cutting ribbons to open things less grand than those opened by her sister; smoking; drinking; and singing off-key.
She tried to combine the smoking and drinking by gluing matchboxes onto tumblers, so she could strike matches while drinking. When she sang Let's Do It at a party given by Lady Rothermere in 1977, she was booed by Francis Bacon ("Someone had to").
But Brown does not shirk the fact that Margaret was an exceedingly awkward customer. "She never knew," said an unnamed friend, "whether she was meant to be posh or to be matey, and so she swung between the two, and it was a disaster".
She was a notoriously demanding guest, often keeping the company up until 4am, as it is not done to leave a room until a royal personage has done so.
Cynthia Gladwyn, wife of the British ambassador to Paris, noted in her diary in 1959: "She wishes to convey that she is very much the Princess, but at the same time she is not prepared to stick to the rules if they bore or annoy her, such as being polite to people."
"It was almost as though, early in life," writes Brown, "she had contracted a peculiarly royal form of Tourette's syndrome, causing the sufferer to be seized by the unstoppable urge to say the wrong thing". He supplies many instances, of which the most wince-making is probably the time she asked an architect who had been disabled since childhood: "Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?"
Sometimes the wrong thing was said by others. Michael Holroyd sat next to her at dinner, and was amused by her imitation of Edna O'Brien. When she began another impersonation, he dutifully laughed: "If I may say so, Ma'am, I think that's your funniest yet." She was speaking in her own voice. Brown inevitably devotes much of his narrative to the Princess's unhappy love life. He rehearses her engagement to the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend and her marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon, whom Brown calls "a sort of upper-class Mod" and Kingsley Amis called "a dog-faced tight-jeaned fotog of fruitarian tastes".
By 1950, Margaret had been adopted as a "national sex symbol". James Lees-Milne wrote to John Betjeman that he found her "very, very, very frightening but beautiful and succulent like Belgian buns". When she presented Betjeman with the Duff Cooper Prize in 1958 he was reduced to silent tears, moving his friend Maurice Bowra to write a parody of Betjeman's In Westminster Abbey: "Green with lust and sick with shyness, Let me lick your lacquered toes. Gosh, O gosh, your Royal Highness, Put your finger up my nose..."
"It was in the early 1950s," begins one chapter arrestingly, "that Pablo Picasso first began to have erotic dreams about Princess Margaret. Occasionally he would throw her elder sister in for good measure." He was obsessed with her for more than a decade, and seriously wanted to marry her. This inspires Brown's next chapter, from a counter-factual biography of Picasso: "Picasso made repeated clandestine visits to Kensington Palace, often sporting a false-nose-specs-and-whiskers mask..."
Jeremy Thorpe also hoped to marry her, and when her engagement was announced, sent a card to a friend: "What a pity... I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other." Another chapter parodies a feature in Hello magazine, entitled "Lord Thorpe of Barnstaple and HRH The Princess Margaret, Lady Thorpe, Welcome Us Into Their Beautiful Home".
Brown considers a number of her actual or supposed lovers. Colin Tennant gave her some land on Mustique, where he recalled her wearing "a whalebone thronged [thonged, surely?] garment, laced at the back with a short, frilled skirt of her own design", which "appeared to be armour-plated".
Robin Douglas-Home killed himself 18 months after they broke up. She sent Peter Sellers even madder than he already was. And when another, Roddy Llewellyn, briefly took up acting, it was said of him: "He's got a small part in Charlie's Aunt."
Then there was John "Biffo" Bindon, a violent criminal whose party trick, according to Margaret's biographer Tim Heald, involved hanging beer tankards from his erect penis. Another biographer, Noel Botham, reckoned it involved "balancing three half-pint glasses". Bindon's own biographer, Wensley Clarkson, thought it was "five half pints of beer", and Christine Keeler agreed. But Auberon Waugh maintained that Bindon "never managed to balance more than one small sherry schooner in this way". Brown muses that such disparities "might lead some to question the very nature of biography".
Sometimes he seems exasperated by his subject, who turned into "a nightclub burlesque of her sister". But he never quite loses the necessary sympathy with Margaret, whose life, he decides, was "pantomime as tragedy, and tragedy as pantomime".
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