July 15th, 2007

Princess Margaret: A Life Unravelled

By Tim Heald. Self-conscious discretion is not what one wants in a popular biographer

“Poor brute,” wrote Cecil Beaton of Princess Margaret in 1973, “I do feel sorry for her. She was not very nice in the days when she was so pretty and attractive. She snubbed and ignored friends. But my God has she been paid out! Her eyes seem to have lost their vigour; her complexion is now a dirty negligee pink satin. The sort of thing one sees in a disbanded dyers shop window.” Princess Margaret was 43 at the time, a hard drinker, a heavy smoker and about to be a divorcee.

For all Beaton’s notorious spite, this is, on the evidence of Tim Heald’s biography, a fair enough summary of the princess’s story. The pretty and charming Princess Margaret Rose turned fast into a pocket monster, whose adult life was as much farce as tragedy, and ended in extreme ill health and loneliness. She had always been rather surplus to royal requirements, becoming obviously so after the birth of her nephew Charles and her niece Anne when she was barely out of her teens.

It must have been hard to be unnecessary, especially for a young woman brought up with a great sense of her own importance, plus the mixed blessings of beauty, wealth and extreme social status of a kind that is barely understood these days. All this was compounded by her lack of any particular intelligence or talent and her total lack of education. This explains, perhaps, if it does not excuse, her unpleasant and erratic behaviour; however, many aristocratic women then and since (including her niece Anne) have dealt much more gracefully with their lot, and Princess Margaret began to attract, from an early age, a remarkable kind of dislike, as did the man she married, the photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones.

“Such a symbol of the age we live in,” wrote Kingsley Amis at the time of their wedding, “when a royal princess, famed for her devotion to all that is most vapid and mindless in the world of entertainment, her habit of reminding people of her status when they venture to disagree with her in conversation and her appalling taste in clothes, is united with a dog-faced tight-jeaned fotog of fruitarian tastes such as can be found in dozens in any pseudo-arty drinking cellar in fashionable-unfashionable London. They’re made for each other.”

Although Heald never writes so brilliantly or cruelly of Margaret himself, he quotes many such comments, some of them gruesomely funny. And there is little in his account to contradict them. He paints a portrait of a vain, spoilt woman who is overaware of her position and whose adventures are often absurdly at odds with such hauteur. In 1981, for example, she was sent to Swaziland for the 60th anniversary of King Sobhuza’s accession. As Heald writes: “Princess Margaret was a useful emissary for occasions such as this where a royal presence was desirable but not one that was royal enough to suggest that the British were taking it quite as seriously as they might.”

The king was a huge, jolly 80-year-old who had reportedly sired 600 children and went about escorted by lots of bare-breasted women. When the princess was to present him with the KCMG, “he turned up wearing little more than a loincloth, a tiger-tooth necklace and a feathered headdress”.

Margaret had somehow to get the KCMG sash over his befeathered head and find somewhere for the Grand Cross; not easy, because there was only a thin band of goat’s skin to which it could be attached, and “the princess had to be very careful indeed not to plunge it into the king’s chest”. Resourcefully, she hung it on his necklace. “I’m never, ever going to give a medal to a man in a loincloth again,” she said later.

Perhaps it was the tragicomic farce and the tedium of such royal duties that drove her into the arms first of an unsuitable married man (Peter Townsend), a difficult and unsuitable husband (Armstrong-Jones), an unsuitable landscape-gardener toy boy (Roddy Llewellyn) and a rackety, jet-setting life. But happiness eluded her as much as popularity or respectability. Twice in this account, Heald asks himself Brian Redhead’s excellent question for a biographer – “Do you feel better for having known her?” His answer is “a sad ‘not really’”, and so is this reader’s.

A great deal is left unexamined by this book. Although Heald had access to papers in the royal archives at Windsor, he seems to have discovered little that casts new light on his subject, and his chatty, superficial tone doesn’t suggest deep analysis. Something or someone has inhibited him; there is so much he ignores. “She had a brief but passionate liaison with the society photographer Robin Douglas-Home,” he writes, “who subsequently committed suicide.” And that, astonishingly, is all he has to say about that. Rarely can a biographer have hinted at so much and said so bathetically little. Nor does he manage to bring the Townsend affair to life or add to our understanding of it. In his epilogue, he admits that he has said little about the princess and sex, and nothing about cocaine, although both featured largely in her life: “At this point,” he confesses “a certain weariness overcomes me.”

The reader, at this point, feels overcome by a certain indignation; it may be gentlemanly to refuse to speculate about royal sex, and it may be true that outsiders can never be sure of the truth of what has gone on, but such self-conscious discretion is not what one wants in a popular biographer.

PRINCESS MARGARET: A Life Unravelled by Tim Heald
Weidenfeld £20 pp368