Not Enjoying Herself

Jenny Diski

  • BuyPrincess Margaret: A Life Unravelled by Tim Heald
    Weidenfeld, 346 pp, £20.00, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 297 84820 2

And now for the other princess: the one who failed to stop all the clocks in Kensington Palace and Mustique, and grew old.[1] In doing so she became sick, fat, grumpy, drunk and unloved. This, you might think, is the fate of many people who leave dying to their later years. But in a princess these flaws, if not the necessary concomitants of age then surely an entitlement of age, are particularly disappointing. We like our princesses young and adorable, and if possible witty and talented, though we’ve had to settle for the former. While she was young, Margaret Rose was the apple of her father’s eye, enchanting to all who met her, talented, witty, artistic, they said – and then one day she was middle-aged, frumpy, snobbish, self-centred, a raddled old gin tippler and a bore. So much apparent promise, so little follow through.

However, all was not as it seemed to readers of Nanny Crawfie’s tales about Princess Margaret Rose in the 1940s, and to excited observers of the teens-and-twenties princess in the 1950s. Her elevated station also elevated her qualities. Not that she wasn’t a looker in her youth. Big beautiful eyes, good bones, a serious nose, a large, modern mouth and a figure to die for. Short though. A pocket Venus, they called her, barely five feet tall. But, according to Tim Heald, her latest biographer, who has previously committed to paper the lives of Brian Johnston,[2] Denis Compton,[3] Barbara Cartland[4] and Prince Philip,[5]

like the other four biographical subjects she was also a household word in her day. This had nothing to do with hard work and natural ability – as, I would argue, it did in the other four cases – and everything to do with the accident of birth. The other four were all, with the possible exception of Compton, prodigiously hard workers and they all had exceptional talents, deployed in often original forms. Princess Margaret was not a spectacularly hard worker and possessed no out-of-the-ordinary ability.

All that talk of her being a gifted musician, a fine pianist, a talented actor and a quick wit was just royal nursery hyperbole. At which point, so that we can all get on with reading and thinking about more important or at least more intellectually stimulating matters, both the biography, for all that it hasn’t actually started (the quote above is from the introduction), and this review might as well finish.

Yet … convinced by page xix that there was nothing interesting about Princess Margaret, I was surprised and intrigued to learn that, in spite of the four full-length biographies already written about her, Tim Heald nevertheless persuaded a publisher to commission him to write another one. She may have been, as he says, ‘a classic also-ran, second best’ and finally ‘a sad and enfeebled elderly woman in a wheelchair’, but Heald based his argument for yet another biography on the view he claims the world has had of her since her death as ‘a Diana before Diana’. This is a pitch of sorts, sure enough, but what grips me is why he would want to do it. Imagine making the effort to think of a reason to write a biography of Princess Margaret. Imagine committing months of working life to gathering the material and writing the words of such a book. Of course there is the matter of earning a living, but if you can find a way to sell a biography of Princess Margaret to an uncaring world, surely you could come up with a proposal to write about someone you do not regard as talentless and idle? Perhaps Heald is a man who relishes a challenge. Where’s the fun in writing about Sarah Bernhardt or Gertrude Stein when you could set yourself the puzzle of finding enough words to fill 300 pages about Princess Margaret? Certainly, his research methods, to say nothing of the results, suggest a penchant for being tested by the dull and a preparedness to overcome swamps of tedium in order to produce chapters and chapters of brain-numbing information.

He did talk to some people. Lord Snowdon, for example, and Princess Margaret’s former private secretary, Lord Napier and Ettrick (who apparently is just the single person), as well as a couple of former ladies-in-waiting. There were also those who chose to remain anonymous, for all that Heald understands that ‘this can pose problems for outsiders who will think this is a bluff and that no such secret informants actually exist.’ But most of his research was done while being carefully supervised in the Royal Archives in Windsor. The Queen gave Heald permission to consult the papers relating to Princess Margaret, and consult them he did. Interestingly, though this suggests that he is considered a safe pair of hands by the palace, it does not, he insists, make the book ‘an “authorised” or “official”’ biography, thus not killing it stone dead. He doesn’t waste his access to the archives, where all the notes, memos and plans for Princess Margaret’s official engagements at home and abroad are filed for posterity. He gets 11 pages out of the papers referring to the 1947 royal tour of South Africa. On the boat Tommy Lascelles read Trollope and in Cape Town Princess Margaret danced with the minister of economic development. He quotes extensively from two letters she wrote home to Queen Mary (‘Darling Grannie, I thought I must write and tell you how we are getting on in this lovely country’), but after several more anodyne paragraphs about the heat and riding horses, the unauthorised (or perhaps the covertly authorised) nature of the biography becomes apparent: ‘The Royal Archives have asked me not to transcribe the remainder of this letter, not on the grounds ofits content but because I am “not writing an official biography”.’ Heald maintains a modicum of independence by summarising what seems to be a complaint of boredom at the endless round of meeting and greeting town officials, and adding that ‘the princess admits that she had previously no experience of black people and had been apprehensive, even frightened, about meeting them. After her time in South Africa, however, she had come to like them very much. She particularly warmed to their enthusiasm and their singing.’

The deadly archives, however, more or less structure the book, which presents Margaret’s adult life as a series of official visits, and describes what she wore, who she shook hands with, the letters of thanks from those who met her, and the odd unwitty comment she wrote in the margins for her ladies-in-waiting to sort out. A pointless life, as Heald suggests, and pointlessly recounted. The archives are censored, the interviewees are mostly on message, and dishearteningly for both the author and his readers, Heald explains that ‘much of the princess’s life passed unnoticed and unrecorded.’

Heald’s main source for her childhood is what he admits to be the highly unreliable Nanny Crawford book, written to get her own back on the family she believed had not seen her right. Much is quoted and then dismissed as untrue. His other source is a book published in 1940 called Our Princesses at Home, photographs commissioned by Queen Elizabeth of family life, with a saccharine and obviously royally approved commentary by the photographer, Lisa Sheridan. ‘We see here a royal duet at the piano. It is a pity that we cannot hear it also. The harmony which exists between the royal sisters is happily symbolised by this picture taken, without their knowing it, during their musical studies.’ The best he can make of this wartime propaganda, ‘idealised to the point of being fey and whimsical’, is: ‘Yet it is interesting, because this is the way in which “our princesses” were perceived.’ He continues to examine the photos with the increasing desperation of a writer who has nothing to say about something that isn’t even remotely interesting:

There is one picture of Princess Margaret at an upright piano, sitting on a stool and smiling a touch insipidly at the camera. She is wearing a neat patterned frock and ankle socks with sensible shoes, which I bet are a pair of Start-rites. Start-rites of Norwich are descended from a leather merchant who, in the 18th century, was the first man in England to make shoes on lasts. Their children’s shoes date from the 1920s, since when they have regularly held the Royal Warrant.

Of course, there is the Townsend business, but nothing new emerges from Heald’s rummaging in the archives. The story is rehashed, Princess Margaret gives up Townsend when threatened with becoming plain Mrs Margaret. Townsend goes off into Belgian exile, and Margaret may or may not have been livid when he married, on the grounds that they had a pact they would remain single. She also may or may not have married Antony Armstrong-Jones out of spite. The only novel comment is from a clearly bored Snowdon (né Armstrong-Jones): ‘I never really thought the Townsend business was all it was cracked up to be, did you?’ The whole thing a teenage crush? Who knows? It caught the romantic imagination of postwar Britain, but even a broken-hearted youth couldn’t sustain the public’s affection for a bad-tempered, spoiled princess for very long. When she made a guest appearance in The Archers in 1984, supposedly attending a charity fashion show at Grey Gables, she read through her lines (The Archers had come to Kensington Palace to do the recording rather than the princess going to Broadcasting House) and the producer, William Smethurst, gave her his notes:

‘Perfect, ma’am,’ he cringed obsequiously. ‘Just wonderful. I just wonder if, when we do it one more time, you might give the impression that you were, well, enjoying yourself.’

Her Royal Highness glared at him. ‘Well I wouldn’t be, would I?’ she said.

Interesting. Yes, interesting. Clearly, the obsequiously cringing Smethurst didn’t give Heald the quote. At last engaged, I turned to the notes for the relevant chapter in order to find the source of this snippet. There is no mention of The Archers or Smethurst. The notes are entirely free-form and intermittent. As Heald explains, partly because some sources wanted to remain anonymous,

I have not provided the sort of notes which cite detailed chapter and verse and then explain ‘confidential source’ or ‘private information’. I find these sorts of notes pointless and frustrating. I am doubtful in general about highly specific source notes. If you gave genuine explanations for every tiny piece of information and interpretation you would more than write the book all over again. I also feel the need for an element of trust. If I say that on such-and-such-a-date so-and-so-happened you have to trust me to be telling the truth. If not, you might as well give up reading.

Now, I don’t know Tim Heald from a Bath bun, and I am not, ask anyone, a trusting sort of person. Moreover, the fact of my turning to the back of the book shows that I have a petty and annoying habit of wondering where writers of biographies get their information from. If only Heald’s feelings about references and what kinds of reader he required had been included in the introduction, I could have saved myself hours of unnecessary labour. As it was, I felt obliged (troublesome superego) to carry on doggedly taking in his words from page xix until page 234, when at last I was released from the book by its author, on account of my lack of trust.

That, I think, is enough princesses.

[1] Jenny Diski’s review of Tina Brown and Sarah Bradford’s books on Princess Diana appeared in the last issue of the LRB.

[2] Gentleman cricket commentator.

[3] English cricketer and footballer.

[4] Sugary romantic novelist and honey taker.

[5] Royal consort.