Setting out to write a biography of Her Royal Highness, the Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, Craig Brown was confronted by contradictory accounts: She was “exquisitely beautiful” and a “little pocket monster”; she was a “midgety brute” and “a huge ball of fur on two well-developed legs”; she was “quite splendid, droll … beguiling” and “tiresome, spoiled, idle and irritating.” Rather than deciding on any one version, Brown has let the effervescent biography “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret” expand “like the universe itself,” ranging freely from certified fact through opinion, speculation, gossip, fantasy, dreams, fiction and flights of counterfactual whimsy.

The defining event in Margaret’s life was her decision, more or less forced on her by Church and State, not to marry the divorced Group Capt. Peter Townsend. If it did not shape her life, it shaped her image, and all her subsequent racketing around with high-flying bohemians seemed to be a what-the-hell reaction to that crushed prospect. Margaret’s doings were relentlessly recorded as “diarists hovered around her like hornets.” Just about everyone agreed she was a snob and mistress of the scathing put-down. She was, Brown writes with typical brio, “a grand guignol version of her elder sister,” Queen Elizabeth, whose “duty and destiny” it was “to be dull.”

Margaret’s wounding insults were legendary, instances of which became collectors’ items, and Brown presents a full set. She alternated wildly between bon homie and hauteur; one minute informal, the next insisting on rigorous protocol, keeping people waiting to sit down, to make the first remark, to leave. And, increasingly, people did long for her to leave — once she had finally arrived. She was always late, “delaying dinner to catch up with her punishing schedule of drinking and smoking” — not that dinner interrupted either as she drank and smoked throughout meals, putting her cigarette out in other guests’ plates.

How, really, did she get this way? Innate character or social station? If Margaret had been born first and become queen, would she, Brown asks, “have become the dutiful monarch, and Elizabeth the wayward bossyboots? Or would Queen Margaret I have been a chain-smoking, high-camp, acid-tongued, slugabed monarch?”

It’s impossible to say, but Brown, a brilliant parodist, does offer us “HM Queen Margaret’s Christmas Broadcast, 1977,” a masterpiece of petty grievance which concludes with the queen wishing her subjects “a happy Christmas, not because I really want to, but because I suppose I must.”

In addition to giving us a fantastical portrait of a woman painted by many hands, this wicked, thoroughly entertaining book presents a rich, unwholesome slice of social and cultural history of Britain, especially from the 1950s to 1970s. It was a pivotal period of social leveling, loosened moral codes, and pop culture, one which saw the beginning of the Royal Family’s devolution into a sideshow.

 

Katherine A. Powers is a Minnesota native and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She writes for the Washington Post, Barnes & Noble online and elsewhere.

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret
By: Craig Brown.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 423 pages, $28.