Nightshade Upon Magic: Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling

Reviewed by Max Dunbar

The online OED defines starstruck as ‘Fascinated or greatly impressed by famous people, especially those connected with the cinema or the theatre.’ There are variations – in the HBO Western Deadwood, hardass bar-keep Al Swearengen uses an expression ‘c***struck’ to describe, I think, a man lost in love or lust. A word needs to be coined to describe British fascination for its monarchs.

Monarchy is a rock on which credible minds break. Here is Alastair Campbell, from his diary entry in Prelude to Power, when he encountered Princess Di:

There was something about her eyes that went beyond radiance. They locked onto you and were utterly mesmeric. She had perfect skin and her whole face lit up when she spoke and there were moments when I had to fight to hear the words because I’m just lost in the beauty.

Stephen Fry, when told that Prince Charles was coming over to his country house for tea, rose his other guests and had them rushing about the six-bedroom residence in a cleaning frenzy. There is a surprise: Charles has brought his wife with him. ‘She wears cowboy boots that suit him very well. The Prince does not wear cowboy boots, which suits him very well,’ Fry happily gurgles. Even Martin Amis wrote a howling piece on Diana’s death, which he was moved to include in his recent essay collection The Rub of Time, and contains sentences like: ”This will be a fixing moment in your lives,’ I intoned to my two sons, Louis and Jacob (I was thinking, naturally, about their two contemporaries, William and Harry). ‘You will always remember where you were and who you were with when you heard this news.’ He also says: ‘Diana was a mirror, not a lamp. You looked at her and saw your own ordinary humanity, written in lights.’ Gawd bliss ‘er!

Biography, Craig Brown writes, is ‘the most sheepish and constrained of the arts, and the least like life; and royal biography doubly so.’ The difficulty is that royalty consists of ordinary people placed in an extraordinary situation, and because they’re royalty, everything they say or do must be extraordinary. Brown waded through a ton of royal biographies before writing his own, and found that often a simple adjective will do: the Queen Mother was so often described as ‘radiant’ that she could have been some super new biofuel or fission plant: ‘she might have popped out of the womb radiant, and continued radiating morning, noon and night.’ Simple incidents are freighted with sycophantic whimsy. ‘In other biographies, anecdotes are employed to highlight idiosyncracies; in royal biographies, they are more likely to be there to celebrate the commonplace; the punch-line is that there is no punch-line.’ He quotes a few examples: ‘The Queen and Prince Philip drove themselves to the polo ground… Sometimes, instead of changing into polo gear at the castle, Philip was seen changing, quite uncomfortably, in his automobile… On another occasion, the passenger door refused to open…’ When Diana wears cowboy boots, it’s news. When Charles doesn’t wear cowboy boots, it’s still news. The secret is that there is no secret.

But we must never say so. Bagehot said of the monarchy that ‘its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.’ Brown is fortunate that the subject of his biography is genuinely interesting. Margaret was the Queen’s younger sister, grew up in her shadow and never got to sit the Iron Throne, but that was probably a liberation – she could at least travel, have affairs, and hang out with famous bohemians. Reading and writing other books, Brown noticed Princess Margaret appearing in the indexes of the most disparate biographies – Warhol, Kenneth Williams, Gore Vidal, Peter Sellers, Dusty Springfield – and in the diaries of notorious London socialites and gossips, and also in fiction: she makes a fantastic cameo at a dinner in Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope, during which an ambassador accidentally spills venison sauce over her dress. Margaret commands the poor man to kneel before her and clean it up, and when the hapless diplomat offers an apology, the Princess replies: ‘Oh, are you still here’. Brown knows that novel, but somehow neglects Sue Townsend’s The Queen and I, in which the monarchy is overthrown and relocated to a Leicestershire sink estate. When Margaret complains about their somewhat reduced circumstances (‘I’ll kill myself’) the Queen appeals to the shade of their old governess: ‘what would Crawfie think if you did?’

‘Who cares what that evil old witch thinks about anything? Anyway, she’s dead,’ burst out Margaret.
‘Not for me, she’s not. She’s with me at all times, Margaret.’
‘She hated me,’ said Margaret. ‘She made no secret of it.’
‘You were a hateful little girl, that’s why. Bossy and arrogant and sly,’ said the Queen. ‘Crawfie said you’d make a mess of your life and she was right – you have.’

Harsh words, but they reflected common judgements about Margaret, the wicked wayward sister to good Elizabeth II. Author Selina Hastings said that in childhood ‘she was very spoilt and indulged and made to feel a very special person indeed, while simultaneously being clearly given to understand that it was her sister who was important.’ She was a VIP, but also very firmly kept in her place, and overcompensated with a reliance on royal protocol coupled with an extravagant rudeness. Her duties consisted of ‘the naming of the more out-of-the-way council building, school or regiment, the state visit to the duller country, the patronage of the more obscure charity, the glad handing of the smaller fry’ – which she did with bad grace. When she socialised, she’d keep exhausted guests up long into the night, knowing that by protocol no one could retire before she did: she drank to excess, and smoked to excess, even smoked during courses at restaurants, her lit cigarette propped against a glass or table between mouthfuls. The counterculture loved her because she was royal, and also because her behaviour provided sparkling material for diaries and gossip.

But reading Ma’am Darling I had a growing sympathy for the Princess, who for all her faults seemed fun to be with, and had her disappointments, too – she had to throw over a man she loved, and then married the Earl of Snowdon, who gaslit and bullied her relentlessly: ‘On another occasion he left a note in her glovebox saying ‘You look like a Jewish manicurist’ and on another, a note tucked inside her bedside book, saying simply, ‘I hate you.” Brown’s book has many chilling moments, and they don’t all come from Margaret’s thoughtless ego. Consider the story of Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford, the dependable governess. She raised the little princesses for decades, before finally being granted leave to marry, in her late thirties. Retired from royal service, her husband encouraged her to write tell-all books about her experiences. The Royal Family cut her off. In time, her writing career fell apart, her husband died, and Crawfie herself attempted suicide. It is as if some ancient curse exists, that haunts those who mess with the monarchy. ‘At her poorly attended funeral,’ Brown writes, ‘wreaths from the Royal Family were nowhere to be seen. Asked about her later in life, Princess Margaret replied simply, ‘She sneaked.’

Craig Brown is a formidable newspaper parodist, but works best in long form. In Ma’am Darling he has done what the sycophants and courtiers could not do: make the monarchy relatable in a democratic world. Towards the end of her life, Princess Margaret took to burning old letters in a trashcan. It’s a blessing for Brown’s readers that some escaped.

Max Dunbar blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com

Craig Brown, Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Fourth Estate, 2017). 978-0008203610, 432pp., hardback.

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