Her Royal Misanthrope
Book Review by Jude Joseph Lovell
Earlier this year, around the time that Britain’s Prince Harry was marrying the actress Meghan Markle, there was a popular Internet meme floating around. It depicted George Washington standing on a bloody battlefield next to the Stars and Stripes. The caption read: “I stopped caring about royal weddings sometime around 1776.”
This generally captures my feelings not only about royal weddings, but also about England’s royal family. Nonetheless, we can thank, or blame, two things for the present review of Craig Brown’s new biography of the younger sister of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.
One is my lovely wife, Kelly, who is an unapologetic anglophile. The second is my own interest, as a some-time fiction writer, in humanity and what makes us all tick. Fiction writers have an irrepressible yen to understand the world without. But to really do so we must continually examine the world within: what makes human beings human, and how we negotiate through an increasingly troubling and complex existence.
Ninety-Nine Glimpses is a stirring, thought-provoking page-turner. It is one of the most compelling books I have read all year. The heart of this book for me is not the debatable relevancy of the British monarchy today. Rather, it is the infinitely intriguing idea of what happens to an individual human being who is born into “royalty” and faces a lifetime of privilege, advantage, and withering external scrutiny.
As the younger sister to the eventual sovereign (thanks to the 1936 abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, in favor of her father, George VI), Margaret quickly realized she had virtually no official role. As Brown, a satirist and the author of many other books, puts it, “Not many women have to face the fact that their career peaked at the age of six.”
He also notes with apparent sympathy the way that, as time passed and nieces and nephews arrived, Margaret’s rank in the hierarchy continued to plunge. This may suggest why, at least for a while, Margaret was the world’s most renowned sufferer of what Brown identifies as “second sisteritis.”
It also appears to account at least partially for how Margaret became the “wild” and “unpredictable” of the royal sisters. By every yardstick the eventual queen was the dutiful, responsible one. Margaret was “naughtier,” in one royal servant’s assessment. Unlucky in love and not close to her family, Margaret seems to have never fully connected with, or had much affection for, anyone.
Brown’s narrative explores the princess’s struggles from several angles, digging deeply into her friendships, romances, various scandals, and innumerable social encounters. Margaret was a victim, he writes, of a “royal form of Tourette’s syndrome, causing the sufferer to be seized by the unstoppable urge to say the wrong thing.” During the official opening of a new housing development for the elderly, she took one glance at a meal called “coronation chicken,” prepared especially for her, and declared, “This looks like sick.”
All of this and more are brought to vigorous life in Brown’s compressed and readable chapters, an appealing substitute to the alternatively stiff or lascivious tomes from most other biographers. I would not call the book flawless, however.
One “glimpse” concerns a single, bizarre anecdote about how Margaret, having read a biography of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had a pilot fly her over the country manse where he once lived. This nugget is then adapted to thirty-two different narrative formats, ranging from journalism to bohemian to a speech by her sister to recipe to limerick. The result is clever and fun, but feels forced. Other glimpses are outright fiction, presented as what might have been, perhaps, but they read oddly, like errant pages cut from a novel Brown opted not to write.
These missteps, though, cannot derail what is a uniquely enjoyable, fresh examination of an endlessly probed subject. Ninety-nine Glimpses raises many intriguing questions, foremost of which may be: How would you behave if everything you said and did was ceaselessly in the public eye?
Can it be any wonder that one of her loyal friends observed: “She suffered from a perpetual identity crisis. She didn’t know who she was.” I wouldn’t have, either.
Photo credits by: historyextra.com and newyorktimes.com (Ron Burton)
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.