Lady Anne Glenconner has lived her life ‘in the shadow of the crown’. She is a friend of many members of the royal family and was, for thirty years, a lady in waiting to Princess Margaret. Her memoir, however, is written in the shadow of The Crown, ‘the popular Netflix series’ in which she was played by Nancy Carroll with Helena Bonham Carter as Margaret. In the book’s prologue, she describes Bonham Carter, who ‘as it happens’ is a cousin of Glenconner’s late husband, Colin Tennant (Lord Glenconner), coming for tea and taking copious notes. It was at this moment, as she tried to recall useful details such as the princess’s smoking style (‘rather like a Chinese tea ceremony’) that she began to consider writing about her own life. She is in her late eighties, so time was of the essence, but the historic moment was also opportune. In the decades since Crawfie, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret’s governess Marion Crawford, was unceremoniously cut off by the royal family for publishing her recollections, The Little Princesses (1950), attitudes have not so much changed as gone into reverse. From the occasional discreet hint dropped by ‘palace sources’ to the full-blown War of the Waleses in the 1990s, the royals have got in the habit of leaking information, which has led to a tide of unchecked and uncheckable tabloid stories and tales of what the butler says he saw.
Princess Margaret belonged to the generation that didn’t talk to the press, but the press talked about her, and after her scandalous romance with the divorced Captain Peter Townsend they talked in ever less respectful terms. She was cast as the id of the Windsors, beside her twinkling mother and impeccably dutiful sister. Margaret moved with the ‘fast’ set, drank, smoked and sometimes looked bored at official events. By the end of the 1960s she was lampooned as Monty Python’s ‘pantomime Princess Margaret’ lurching around ‘in the wild’ wielding a shotgun. Over time, as she divorced Tony Snowdon, took up with Roddy Llewellyn, drank more, smoked even more and put on weight, she became a figure of camp fun, a caricature that took on a life of its own after her death in 2002. Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, a witty life-in-anecdotes (reviewed by Ferdinand Mount in the LRB of 4 January 2018), is marketed by the publishers as ‘the hilarious, bestselling royal biography, perfect for fans of The Crown’.
If Glenconner was angered by Ma’am Darling, she doesn’t say. As her memoir makes clear, her capacity ‘to get on with life and not dwell’, even in the most extreme circumstances, is heroic. There is, nevertheless, a vein of quiet anger. The book is a retaliation as much as a reminiscence. It is also a finely drawn double portrait. Margaret is in the foreground, spotlit, while behind her Glenconner’s life plays out with such self-effacing matter-of-factness that it takes time for the reader to realise that of these two intertwined biographies Glenconner’s is by far the more remarkable. The book is not, as a whole, what the publishers have made it appear – another gossipy ‘behind the scenes’ royal memoir. It’s more of an apologia for a life and a way of life now slipping into history. Not that there aren’t anecdotes. Three generations on from Crawfie, it doesn’t count as lèse-majesté, even for such a loyal courtier, to reveal that the Duke of Edinburgh was a nuisance at the coronation, fussing around everyone, or to patronise him: ‘I think he … thought he was helping.’ Glenconner was one of the queen’s maids of honour, attending rehearsals in Westminster Abbey – where it became apparent that the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Marquess of Cholmondeley, was not up to the job. The job was to help the queen change into her various ceremonial robes. The marquess, who had probably never had to ‘dress himself, let alone anybody else’, was completely flummoxed by the hooks and eyes, which had to be replaced with poppers, and the queen reported afterwards that the violent way he pushed her every time he did one up was ‘tiresome’.
Glenconner has an eye for detail, and if her picture of Princess Margaret dwells on the positives, it makes no attempt to conceal the difficulties. Having Margaret to stay at Glenconner’s own house in Norfolk was like entertaining a well-meaning but impulsive child. Margaret’s attempt to be helpful by making her own morning tea stalled when she couldn’t work the kettle, and ‘more than once’ she was found to have dismantled the chandelier and to be washing it in the bath. When Margaret was ill and would hardly let her lady in waiting out of her sight, Glenconner asked if she could use the other single bed in the room. ‘She was thrilled and said: “Oh, Anne, is this like boarding school?”’ Glenconner explained that at school it wasn’t usual to lie in bed watching videos. Lady Anne brings out a touchingly naive side of Margaret’s character, visible only to an insider familiar with the realities of royal life. One reason Margaret liked staying with the Glenconners was that she could tramp about in lace-ups and mackintosh and visit interesting churches and gardens or have dinner in Cambridge with the historian Jack Plumb. Her bad temper was due in part to intellectual frustration. She was an intelligent woman and her mother’s refusal to provide her with any formal education was one source of resentment in their generally fractious relationship. Another pleasure of staying with the Glenconners was that they asked her what she would like to do and what she would like to eat. This was a luxury in a life that ran to a schedule drawn up by others, and which required her to make small talk with tongue-tied local notables while eating her way through the elaborate meals thought appropriate for royalty. Left to her own devices she liked a prawn cocktail, convinced that Marie Rose sauce was a ‘far more exotic mix’ than ketchup and mayonnaise.
Over the decades the princess and her lady in waiting became an effective double act. They made a striking couple: at nearly six foot tall, Glenconner towered over Margaret’s 5’1’’. Margaret was easily lost to view at large parties; Glenconner’s job was to find the next person on the list to be introduced and then sail with apparent serenity through the crowd, VIP in tow, hoping to spot the princess from above. An especially high four-poster bed required Glenconner to heave the princess in each night and lift her down again in the morning. But however demanding or at times demeaning her duties may have been, she already had, as she puts it, ‘years of good practice for the role’. When it came to tantrums, eccentricity and outrageous demands, Princess Margaret had nothing on Colin Tennant. At the heart of Glenconner’s account of her friendship with Margaret is a sense of fellow feeling with another woman who found herself living a life she hadn’t chosen, struggling to make the best of things, ‘to jolly well get on with it and not complain’. There was little point in complaining when the obvious glamour and privilege of their circumstances blinded admirers and critics alike to the often grim reality. Her book is partly a meditation on how much or how little she could have done differently. Although regret isn’t in her emotional register, there is an unmistakeable sadness when she remembers certain things, especially about her children, and her ‘heart sinks’.
Born Lady Anne Coke, she was the first child and eldest daughter of the future fifth earl of Leicester, later an equerry to George VI, and his wife, Elizabeth Yorke, daughter of the eighth earl of Hardwicke. The first chapter of Lady in Waiting, covering her ‘idyllic’ early childhood, in which the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were often brought over to play, is entitled ‘The Greatest Disappointment’. The disappointment was herself. Being a girl she couldn’t inherit. After her came two more sisters and so ‘the line was broken, and my father must have felt the weight of almost four centuries of disapproval on his conscience.’ A photograph taken at her christening shows her great-grandfather the third earl, an Edwardian figure in wing collar and watch chain, glaring down at the unsatisfactory baby. Never the hero of her own life, she seems at times little more than a minor character. The true protagonist, perhaps, is Holkham Hall, the family home in Norfolk. For centuries the English country house has been a locus of personal identity, and not only for its owners. Tenant farmers, gamekeepers, indoor and outdoor staff often felt – in some places still feel – deeply attached to an estate, rooted in the place and its past. For Glenconner, Holkham is the immutable fact and she understands it entirely as it relates to her family. Thomas Coke (1697-1759), who commissioned the house, is introduced as the first earl in the fifth creation, but neither William Kent, who was largely responsible for the design, nor Capability Brown, who also worked at Holkham, merits a mention. The Codex Leicester, Leonardo da Vinci’s 36-page notebook containing his theories on fossils, astronomy and much else, was kept, during her childhood, in a safe in the butler’s pantry, from where, every couple of weeks, Glenconner used to get it out, ‘lick my finger and spin through the pages … with interest’. ‘Very sadly’, from her point of view, her father sold it to keep up the estate. The Codex, later bought by Bill Gates, has become much more widely known, but it remains, Glenconner notes with some triumph, ‘covered with my DNA’.
She was seven when the Second World War broke out, and she and her sister were sent to live with their Ogilvy cousins in Scotland. A shy child, she had ‘rather pathetically’ developed a habit of hugging trees and ‘pretending they were my friends’. The relentless teasing this provoked from the ‘boisterous group’ in which she now found herself ‘soon toughened [her] up’. The cruelty for which she was singled out by their governess, Miss Bonner, however, left such mental scars that when, years later, Bonner sent a card congratulating her on her engagement, Glenconner was physically sick at the sight of her writing. As if forever attempting to make up for her failure to be a boy, she carried on doing as she was told. ‘I simply understood what was expected of me’ is the closest she comes to an explanation of her biddability. There were some tantalising byways. Money was always tight and her mother, who had trained as an artist at the Slade, set up a pottery at Holkham that proved artistically and commercially successful. The teenage Anne was not artistic so it fell to her to be the sales rep, setting off in a Mini Minor with her samples. She had ‘no option but to stay in travelling salesmen hotels’, which, she adds, ‘were quite a shock’. The shock was mutual: when the salesmen in the badly lit and smoke-filled ‘lounge’ asked the only woman in the room a few questions about herself ‘their chins would drop to the floor’. After the initial adjustment she began to enjoy herself – ‘the independence, the responsibility, the satisfaction of making a deal … the feeling of being taken seriously’. For the first, and almost the last time, she was an unequivocal success. Soon, however, shades of the prison house began to encroach and she prepared to come out as a debutante in 1950. It’s in keeping with her modesty that Glenconner makes no reference to the fact that she was a striking beauty – tall and auburn-haired with pale skin and delicate features. She was Tatler’s deb of the year but she found ‘the season’, and the pressure to find a husband, a trial.
There were various unsuccessful boyfriends, at whose expense Glenconner allows herself some irony. They include the nightclub singer who made her sit in a gold cage on a swing while he sang ‘She’s only a bird in a gilded cage’. ‘It will be wonderful,’ he promised her, but it was in fact ‘very uncomfortable’. ‘Nigel and I drifted apart.’ The man who broke her heart was Johnnie Althorp, the future Earl Spencer. They fell in love; he proposed; she accepted. At the time, she was living as a ‘paying guest’ (aristocratic for ‘lodger’) in the house of Queen Elizabeth’s friend Lady Fermoy, and made the mistake – fateful in the long run – of introducing her fiancé. Ruth Fermoy’s eyes ‘lit up’ and on Althorp’s next visit lost no time in purloining him for her daughter Frances. The disastrous marriage that ensued produced five children, one of whom was Diana Spencer. Lady Fermoy – who, ‘rather unusually’, Glenconner says with characteristic restraint – gave evidence against her own daughter in the Spencers’ divorce, pursued her dynastic ambitions through her granddaughter, whom she assiduously manoeuvred into the most catastrophic royal match since George IV and Queen Caroline. Glenconner must wonder how different her own life, and part of British history, might have been if she hadn’t invited Johnnie in for a drink that evening.
Marriage was still her destiny and it arrived in the form of Colin Tennant, son and heir of the immensely wealthy second Baron Glenconner. Tall and ‘terribly handsome’, he appealed to a woman whose teenage idol was Heathcliff. He was charming, witty and compellingly energetic. It was the moment, in the mid-1950s, when worlds were beginning to collide. Tennant’s uncle David ran the louche but artistic Gargoyle Club in Soho, where the old aristocracy mixed with the new celebrity. Princess Margaret met Lucian Freud and Ian Fleming; Tennant’s previous girlfriend, Ivy Nicholson, became part of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and Jeanne Campbell, the daughter of the 11th duke of Argyll, went on to have an affair with Fidel Castro. Anne and Colin got engaged. Her father was annoyed because he wanted her to marry one of his old comrades from the Scots Guards (at which even she had baulked). Her mother had more reasonable concerns. Tennant was dangerously volatile. She wrote to Princess Margaret, who replied soothingly that, although Tennant was ‘fairly decadent’, his choice of Anne suggested that he was ‘better already’. Glenconner found the letter only after her mother’s death: ‘It is impossible now to say whether it would have made me think twice.’ In the event the family preference for saying nothing prevailed. The wedding, at Holkham, was done according to the traditions of the landed aristocracy. The bride wore a white Norman Hartnell gown; the long gallery was filled with presents, ‘including a silver inkwell from the queen’. Tenants from both family estates feasted in three marquees in the park, each with its own wedding cake. Princess Margaret, still single, was among the guests upstairs in the house, sulking in a dark blue coat and hat that made her look like a ‘slightly frumpy nurse’, while the official photographer, Tony Armstrong-Jones, was sent downstairs to eat with the tradesmen. Four years later he and Margaret were married.
Glenconner’s wedding, which she had expected to mark the start of a life like her mother’s, was the end of everything she had been brought up to expect. The honeymoon, planned as a six-month tour beginning in Paris, was Grand Guignol. All she knew about sex was what her mother had told her about Labradors. Tennant’s idea of broadening her mind was to take her to ‘a filthy run-down hotel, with a funny smell’ to watch a couple having sex. She sat bolt upright with her eyes closed. ‘Why he thought I would like it,’ she writes, ‘I can’t tell you to this day.’ The reader may wonder whether he did think she’d like it, or whether he was motivated by a self-confessed pleasure in ‘making people squirm’. Having endured the cockfight he took her to in Cuba and his tantrums if she beat him at cards, Anne was relieved when pregnancy and morning sickness cut the honeymoon short. Home life was no easier. Often ‘fun and engaging’, Tennant would suddenly fly into a rage. She ‘learned to stay still, like a rabbit … until he had finished’. Only once did she turn to her mother for help: she was told to ‘go straight back. You married him.’ To forestall the impression that Lady Coke was a frightful mother, Glenconner adds that ‘this was how my mother dealt with things: she just got on with life … Everyone did.’ In fact not everyone did – her sister Carey walked out of her own coming-out ball and went to a nightclub. Glenconner, however, dutifully stuck it out. The marriage lasted 54 years, until Tennant’s death.
What made them famous and brought her once again into the orbit of Princess Margaret was Tennant’s impulse purchase of ‘a run-down desert island’ in the Caribbean. Mustique, whose name, ominously, derives from the French for mosquito, was not in fact deserted, but its small population lived in tin huts and made a meagre living from fishing and cotton. There was no electricity or mains drainage. For some time the pair camped out, eating beans and fish, collecting rainwater, battling the mosquitos and shinning up trees to avoid the feral cows that roamed the island. Over time Tennant transformed Mustique in the manner of any aristocratic landowner coming into a dilapidated property. He put in a drainage system and electricity, planted trees, built up the cotton trade and arranged pensions for the islanders. Then Princess Margaret came sailing past on Britannia, on her honeymoon with ‘Tony Snapshot’, as Glenconner’s father referred to him. She stopped to visit. The Tennants gave her a piece of land as a wedding present. She was grateful but thought it should be bigger. They made it bigger. The house she built on Mustique, Les Jolies Eaux, was the only one she ever owned. Armstrong-Jones hated Tennant and his island – ‘Mustake’, he called it. This made the place all the more attractive for Margaret when the marriage collapsed and she could retreat there to get away from him.
The cotton trade was in irreversible decline, and to find another source of income Tennant imported the architect Oliver Messel, who built a number of glamorous villas on the island in a style described as ‘Caribbean Palladian’. Tennant retained the freehold in nearly every instance, and set about enticing suitable lessees from among the passers-by. Nelson Rockefeller dropped in. ‘Bob Dylan’s yacht’ – a striking image – moored offshore. After an article appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, illustrated with photographs of Princess Margaret and describing a ‘bohemian atmosphere … with a unique twist of royalty’, Mustique was established as the destination for the celebrity elite. Tennant’s spectacular parties made it an invitation-only Shangri-La. The Golden Ball for his fiftieth birthday in 1976 lasted a week, all expenses paid, and the guests were lodged in the villas. Princess Margaret invited the Rolling Stones’ manager to come and stay. The climax of the festivities was the appearance on the beach of some ‘local lads’ wearing nothing except strategically placed gold-painted coconuts, bearing a litter out of which stepped Bianca Jagger.
Meanwhile, things were not going well at home. Glenconner by now had five children: Charles, Henry, Christopher and the twins May and Amy. Their father found it difficult to be ‘affectionate or tactile’ with them and Glenconner, still following the pattern set in her own family, felt it was more ‘urgent’ to be a wife than a mother. She sent the children to boarding school, even though it made her and them cry, and when Charles began to show signs of mental disturbance, odd fantasies and obsessive compulsive rituals, his parents decided to ignore it, in the hope that he ‘would simply grow out of them’. He was, after all, heir apparent to the Glenconner barony and the family estate in Scotland – a child who had succeeded, where his mother had failed, in being a boy. Perhaps they thought that was enough to guarantee his future. His mental health, however, continued to decline. He slid into heroin addiction and was eventually disinherited, which his mother saw as a public humiliation, ‘an official failure’. He managed to get off hard drugs, only to die of hepatitis aged 39.
His brother Henry contracted HIV and later died of Aids. Christopher had a near fatal accident in Belize and was brought home in a coma from which his mother was told he might never recover. Somewhere in the course of these catastrophes, which are recounted with unblinking frankness, Glenconner decided that motherhood was perhaps more urgent than marriage: ‘I no longer felt it was my job [to be] his wife.’ From then on the stoicism and self-effacement that had made her so often a victim enabled her to be heroic. She refused the advice of a doctor to go home and forget about Christopher and, with a ‘coma kit’ made from fabric and brushes and scents, sat and talked to him day after day, administering gentle stimuli until he opened his eyes. She nursed Henry at a time when the stigma around Aids was still pervasive. On one occasion in A&E at St Mary’s Paddington, when he was too ill to sit up while they waited for a bed, she sat on the floor and cradled him as the room emptied around them. Through it all, Princess Margaret stuck by her lady in waiting. She became a patron of the Terrence Higgins Trust and helped to set up the London Lighthouse in Notting Hill, the first centre and hospice for Aids patients, three years before, as Glenconner puts it, Princess Diana arrived ‘with a posse of photographers in tow’.
By then, however, Margaret’s own health was in decline. She had a series of strokes and by the end of 1999 was almost entirely bedridden, though still capable of being difficult. When the queen came to visit her at Kensington Palace she re-emerged from the bedroom after a few minutes to report to Glenconner that ‘Margaret is listening to The Archers and every time I try to say something she just says “shh!”’ When Margaret died two years later, Glenconner was ‘extremely sad’ and ‘lost in some ways without her in my life’. They had shared so much that perhaps each understood the other as nobody else could. By this time Tennant, now Lord Glenconner, had left Mustique and settled permanently on St Lucia. Without his wife to look after him he found a local man, Kent, on whom he relied as friend, protégé and fixer. He remained ‘very highly strung’. On a visit to Verona he offered to take his wife to a performance of Nabucco, which she thought a touching gesture as he ‘didn’t particularly’ enjoy opera. He failed to enjoy this one to the extent that ‘halfway through the chorus of the Hebrew slaves’ he started howling: ‘I wish Kent was here.’ As the rest of the audience looked on in flabbergasted fury, she snatched the rug off his knees and threw it over his head. Like a parrot he subsided and the performance continued.
When she went to see him on St Lucia in the summer of 2010 he was suffering from prostate cancer but seemed tolerably well. Three days after she left him he died. ‘It wasn’t all bad, was it?’ were his last words to her. She flew out to organise the funeral, after which she discovered that he had left everything to Kent, cutting her, and their children, out of his will. That evening, looking out at the Caribbean and reviewing the half-century of her married life she thought: ‘After all I’d been through – this.’ Finally, ‘against everything my mother had always taught me’, but with the wholehearted support of the reader, ‘I screamed and screamed and screamed into the pitch black night.’ It took seven years for about half of the estate to come back to her grandson. She went home to live in a cottage on the Holkham estate, which she had bought from her father at ‘a discounted rate’ in the early days of her marriage. Like Princess Margaret, she had lived in many houses but only ever owned one. When her father died in 1976, Holkham Hall went to another branch of the family, as she had known was inevitable. The earl had been a difficult and undemonstrative man, but his loss left her bereft. ‘He represented everything I had known. Without him, my childhood home was no longer accessible to me, and with it, the foundation of my identity.’ Nowadays she sometimes visits the house when it is open to the public and stands among the tourists at the foot of the grand staircase, looking up to the landing where she stood at her coming-out ball, and walks along the corridors where she and Princess Margaret once rode their trikes and were ticked off by the future queen.