While researching the Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, for an upcoming documentary that seeks to re-present the princess in a sympathetic light I read Craig Brown’s 2018 tome Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.
Brown is a renown satirist and columnist whose stock-in-trade is imaginary conversations between the good, the bad and the ugly in the public eye and much of the Margaret book is written as a ‘what if?’ that uses Princess Margaret as sport for the acid drops in his pen.
Brown imagines how it might have been had Margaret Rose been born before Queen Elizabeth II which seems rather a pointless exercise as are much of the fantasy sequences in the book. Suffice to say, most of the glimpses of Princess Margaret are detrimental to her character: portraying a spoilt, entitled woman of whom her father King George VI said, ‘Lilibet is my pride and Margaret my joy’.
As Princess Margaret ages and moves further down the line of succession, Brown’s princess becomes embittered, louche and eclipsed as the Windsor glamour puss by the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Having just finished Ma’am Darling, I rather warmed to the lady who was born third in line to the throne and whose mischievous side was positively encouraged by doting parents, grandparents and talkative nanny Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford.
We learn Princess Margaret believed in the divine right of kings and queens. She was a religious woman whose veneration for monarchy was often misconstrued as arrogance. Brown is gracious enough to say that Princess Margaret’s friends were fiercely loyal to her. I met one of Princess Margaret’s ladies-in-waiting who said they had been instructed from the late Queen Mother down to never complain or explain no matter how much maligned their princess was by gossip and innuendo.
The facts as they stand are simple to me. Princess Margaret’s romance with her father’s equerry Peter Townsend was the love of a father figure; King George VI having died when the princess was a teenager. Townsend was twice Princess Margaret’s age and a divorcee. Any idea of marriage was crushed by the Palace.
I found it unbearably cruel of the Crown to separate the two for two years and expect their love to endure until Princess Margaret’s 25th birthday when she no longer needed HM The Queen’s permission to marry. For me, the villain of the piece is Anthony Armstrong-Jones who Princess Margaret married on the rebound. Townsend had broken his promise to remain single and married another woman half his age.
As Ma’am Darling tells it, the Snowdon marriage was a disaster. If it had a pulse, Tony slept with it be that a man or a woman. He used to leave notes in books Princess Margaret was reading simply saying ‘I hate you’ or – most damaging – saying she looked like a Jewish manicurist. So we find a princess who smokes and drinks rather too much on account of a bum deal at the altar making the best of things.
There are countless tales of Princess Margaret insisting on protocol while at the same time indulging in the haute Bohemia of Swinging 60s London. Her role cutting ribbons and planting trees evidently bored Princess Margaret whose only pleasure lay in the ballet, cigarettes and Old Famous Grouse.
I recall Princess Margaret morphing from a regal sister to the monarch into a rather blowsy character running around with pretty young boys such as Roddy Llewellyn making Ma’am Darling a prototype cougar. Who could blame her when Tony Snowdon’s party piece was to flick lighted matches at his wife?
A bad romance the ended in divorce was more than Princess Margaret’s character could bear, I suspect, hence the toy boys and the vacations on Mustique. The public – and Private Eye – depicted Princess Margaret as a Tennesee Williams frowsy old trout drinking and smoking to pass the time surrounded by sycophants. This was not true as Princess Margaret’s many friends would have said had they permission to be interviewed by Brown to give a more balanced picture.
At the end of Ma’am Darling I felt desperately sorry for Princess Margaret. Even the fun must have been a whole lot less amusing than it looked. Imagine the bitterness of a woman denied the right to marry the man she loved due to divorce who then lives to see two nephews and a niece divorce.
Interesting, isn’t it, that there’s little mention that Princess Margaret’s children forged happy, stable marriages compared to the omnishambles of HM The Queens offspring. Princess Margaret obviously made a rather marvellous mother. But Brown chooses not to point this out.
My question at the end of the book was what precisely Brown and his ilk would have liked Princess Margaret to do? She was born into the age of deference that passed before her eyes. Princess Margaret did swing with the 60s and who could begrudge her some pleasures on the island of Musitque in an otherwise untenable position trapped in the gilded cage?
Ma’am Darling was beloved by her friends, a very good mother, a doting grandmother and a very loyal sister to HM The Queen. Yes, she stood on ceremony but can you blame her for withdrawing into herself after hideously burning her feet in an incident on Mustique? Princess Margaret’s end was undignified and bitterly sad. Would it not be kind to remember her glamorous years – as depicted in The Crown by Vanessa Kirby – and draw a veil over the sad old lady Princess Margaret became?