Craig Brown, a British satirist and humorist who has written for The Spectator, Private Eye and nearly every London daily newspaper at one time or another, has produce a very witty and catty book about Queen Elizabeth’s wayward younger sister, called Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.
In her lifetime Margaret was famous for being rude and disagreeable to nearly everyone she met. As Brown says, it was in a way her trademark or party piece. People came to almost hope for bad behavior from her to make for a juicy anecdote.
Brown’s book is certainly chock full of haughty and arrogant behaviour from Margaret, most of it verifiable or at least believable.
He also throws in some parodies and whimsicalities including counterfactual speculations on what life would have been like had Margaret married Group Captain Peter Townsend, her true love, or Jeremy Thorpe, the British politician accused of plotting to kill his gay lover.
(In real life, when told that Margaret had married Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Thorpe wrote, “What a pity… I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.”)
One of the books funniest parodies is a fictional passage from a biography of Pablo Picasso (who really did say he had erotic dreams about Margaret and her sister the Queen) detailing his madcap marriage to the Princess.
Most of the stories are gleaned from Brown’s voracious taste for published diaries by writers, actors and politicians who met Margaret in a variety of circumstances. He points out that Margaret was drawn to louche, bohemian figures, often gay, many of whom were assiduous diarists. “Chips” Channon, Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, Ken Tynan and Kenneth Williams are just a few of Brown’s sources.
Brown is somewhat sympathetic to Margaret’s inferior role in the Royal Family, stuck with royal duties a few rungs below her mother, sister and brother-in-law, Phillip.
When Margaret played herself attending a charity event for an episode of the radio soap opera The Archers, her performance was lacklustre.
After their first run-through, the producer, William Smethurst, gathered enough courage to say, “That’s very good, Ma’am, but do you think you could sound as if you were enjoying yourself a little more?”
“Well, I wouldn’t be, would I?” replied the Princess tartly.
Margaret interrupted her “punishing schedule of drinking and smoking,” as Brown calls it, for official and social events but always hated everything. She complains loudly about the “disgusting” food and wine she is served (“Tastes like petrol!”). She goes regularly to the theatre but hates everything she sees.
“Like a grand guignol version of her elder sister,” Brown says, “she took a perverse pleasure in saying the wrong thing, ruffling feathers, disarming, disdaining, making her displeasure felt.
Horrible behaviour is of course a staple of British humour and Margaret’s pomposity and spitefulness can be very funny, except that it is always aimed from above rather than below. She reminds her children and husband, for example, that they aren’t royalty but she is. She insists that her lovers still address her as “Ma’am,” hence the book’s title.
“Her snappiness was instinctive and unstoppable,” says Brown, “like a nervous twitch. “‘I hear you’ve completely ruined my mother’s old home,’ she said to the architect husband of an old friend who had been working on Glamis Castle. To the same man, who had been disabled since childhood, she said, ‘Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?’”
Brown confesses to an “appetite for royal kitsch” and his book does veer occasionally into that territory, but his layers of facts, spoofs, rumours and sheer oddity are artfully arranged so as to give a more compelling version of Margaret’s life than many of the more conventional biographies.
Her colourful life was, he decides in the end, “pantomime as tragedy, and tragedy as pantomime.”
Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown, Fourth Estate (HarperCollins)