Could there be a better a time to peek behind the curtain at royal life than right now? Last October this jaw-dropping memoir by a royal insider shot to the top of British bestseller lists. In a book that shows extraordinary insight into the life of the royals, and of a “spare” — Princess Margaret — Anne Glenconner, now an octogenarian, candidly shared tales of her life as a Windsor family intimate. And what tales they are.
In a logical move, some Canadian booksellers are ignoring the official, March 24 North American publication date of “Lady In Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown,” and placing the “best memoir of 2019,” as the UK press dubbed it, on shelves here several months early (although, if you can’t find it, you can pre-order it). The reward for readers is this fabulously entertaining read — hilarious, appalling, painful.
Anne, named 1950’s “debutante of the year” by Tatler magazine, was a maid of honour at the Queen’s 1953 coronation and spent thirty years as lady-in-waiting to her close friend, Princess Margaret, accompanying her on royal tours. In part, her book aims to redeem Margaret’s image as something of a royal pain. Despite occasional “royal” moments, Margaret comes across as smart, fun-loving, thoughtful, and though not “tactile,” an early supporter of AIDS patients.
An earl’s daughter and childhood pal of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, Anne was keenly aware that her birth was a major “disappointment.” Girls couldn’t inherit, so good-bye to Daddy’s vast estate, Holkham Hall, where King George VI enjoyed regular shooting parties.
And so, just like a Jane Austen heroine, Anne knew she must marry, and marry well. Apart from her brief stint as travelling saleswoman for her mum’s post-war pottery business, marriage was to be her career. She happily gets engaged to handsome “Johnnie” Althorp, before he brutally dumps her for Frances Ruth Roche (who later became Frances Shand Kydd), with whom he fathers the future Princess Diana.
In 1956, Anne, now 24, and still a well-born virgin, marries tall “charismatic” Colin Tennant, the future Lord Glenconner. Life with one of “Princess Margaret’s set” proves unusual, to put it mildly. On day two of their Paris honeymoon Colin brings his innocent bride to a seedy hotel for a “surprise” — a foursome (“no thank you,” she politely declines). A later Paris visit involves a show featuring a man with a donkey. “No thank you” hardly covers it.
Given to sudden, explosive meltdowns — a family trait — imperious Colin “carried on having tantrums all over the world for the rest of his life.” Once, as he wails in the foetal position on a St. Petersburg sidewalk, passing Japanese tourists snap photos. Anne runs home to mother, but it’s too late — she’s already pregnant. She carries on, staunchly maintaining that, despite his difficult temper, she and Colin remained friends and, at times, he could be a wonderful father.
Colin’s impulsive buying and selling of properties turns out well for them all when he procures the island of Mustique, which he develops into the jet-set Caribbean haven that it remains today. When Margaret pops by on her honeymoon, Colin gifts her part of the island which becomes her sanctuary during and after her strained marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon), the photographer nicknamed “Tony Snapshot” by Anne’s father.
Any longings the rest of us might harbour to join the royal family are thoroughly cured by this insider’s account of the world behind the dazzle and the parties. On the Tennant estate on the Scottish borders, Anne escapes the endless demands of visitors by retreating to her caravan — this humble vehicle becomes a room of her own, more treasured by her than any castle.
When, sadly, her second son, Henry, succumbs to AIDS, followed by Charlie, her eldest, who dies from Hepatitis C, the tabloids scream about the “Tennant curse.” The paparazzi hide in trash cans to accost Henry’s son at nursery school, and bang on the church door during Charlie’s funeral.
This witty, honest woman, now living an unextraordinary life in her Norfolk cottage, emerges as immensely likeable, a solid friend and loving mother — and a survivor of an almost vanished world. Almost — but not quite.
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