Norfolk’s Lady Glenconner on success of her memoir and why The Crown has it wrong about Princess Margaret
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press, Archant
Lady Glenconner calls her book 'a love letter to Norfolk' but it's also the story of a Royal friendship with Princess Margaret that lasted a lifetime and an absolutely staggering memoir. In the first of two features, Stacia Briggs speaks to Lady Anne about her extraordinary life.
From her Norfolk farmhouse, Lady Glenconner can see Holkham estate's boundary wall - had she been born a boy, the 27,000 acre stately family pile would be hers.
But the 87-year-old isn't bitter at the patriarchal system which meant that Holkham slipped through her fingers because her father failed to produce an heir - Anne Veronica was the first of three daughters for the future Earl of Leicester and his family line came to an abrupt end due to primogeniture. The estate was inherited by a cousin in South Africa.
"It was just the way things had always been," she tells me, "it was a male-orientated estate and very old-fashioned. My father was so disappointed that he had no sons, and I was the first great disappointment, I suppose. But I loved Holkham then and I love it now, nothing can stand in the way of that."
Lady Anne will appear as a guest on Graham Norton's sofa on Friday evening alongside actresses Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Colman, who play Princess Margaret and the Queen respectively in Netflix's new series of The Crown. She herself is a character in the series and advised Bonham Carter - a cousin of her late husband Colin Tennant - who was researching her role and was keen to "nail" the princess.
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"We talked for few hours and I tried to paint a picture of Princess Margaret for her which would help her bring the role to life," Lady Anne tells me, "and it was after that the idea for a book came about. And really, before I knew it, it was written."
And what a book it is. Initially faced with the prospect of reading what I assumed was just another royal memoir, I picked up Lady Anne's book with, I must confess, somewhat of a heavy heart: 10 pages in and the book and I had to be wrestled apart, it is quite simply, absolutely extraordinary.
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I defy anyone to read Lady In Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown without at least three gasp-out-loud moments per chapter - I drove my husband mad by insisting on reading entire chunks of the book out loud to him. I've told everyone to read it. My eulogising about it has become almost embarrassing.
A jaw-dropping memoir, it scales the heady heights and lowly depths of a life lived in the British aristocracy, with equal measures of joy, tragedy, humour and misery.
It feels as if every single page contains a nugget of gold: we learn never to travel without a bottle of vodka, why biting air stewards is never a wise idea, the perils of painting yourself gold, why the Queen gave someone a toilet brush for Christmas and what the rich do when a guest doesn't like the "vulgar" colour of the purple heather in Scotland (buy hundreds of paper flowers and cover the heather with them).
My copy of the book is now twice the size it was when I began reading, so stuffed is it with post-it notes and folded page corners so that I can instantly return to particularly juicy sections: the bits about Lord Snowdon hiding bitter notes in Princess Margaret's chest of drawers, of the Princess taking against squirrels in Kensington Park and chasing them with an umbrella, of the Queen complaining that her sister had told her to be quiet when she talked over an episode of The Archers.
There are stories of lavish parties on Mustique, husband Colin insisting on wearing scuba diving kit when on flights in case the plane had to ditch over the sea, of the day a hippie band moved in to the estate, of Holkham beach target practice during World War Two which ended in ranks of London buses and taxis being covered in sand to become one of today's picturesque dunes, of a pet elephant and, of course, of a role in one of the most famous moments of recent history: the Queen's Coronation.
As next-door neighbours to Sandringham, the Royal princesses were playmates for Lady Anne and in particular, she and Princess Margaret (who coveted her friend's sparkly silver shoes as a child) became firm friends. The close bond led to her becoming one of the maids of honour at the Queen's coronation in 1953 and, later, lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret for three decades, up until her death in 2002.
"My mother was lady-in-waiting to the Queen, my father was equerry to the King, my great-great uncle was lord-in-waiting to Queen Mary, my uncle was in the Queen Mother's household and my aunt was lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother. We have stood next to the Royal family for generations. It's who we are," said Lady Anne.
"We were intertwined with the Royals, I suppose, and they were just part of everyday life. Princess Margaret in particular was just so special to me and Prince Charles felt like a younger brother. The chance to put redress some of the trashy things that people said about the Princess who didn't even know her was too good to miss."
Far from the party-going spoilt socialite seen in Netflix series The Crown so far - the next series begins on November 17 - Princess Margaret was, she says, a loyal friend who loved to help, a woman who brought her own rubber gloves to clean out the fireplace and wash her lady-in-waiting's car.
Lady Anne introduced the Princess to Roddy Lwellyn (soon to be covered in season three of The Crown, where Lady Anne is played by Nancy Carroll) and in turn the Princess introduced her to Colin Tennant, the son of the 2nd Baron Glenconner. The path to marital bliss was, I think it fair to say, strewn with huge boulders.
"Money is what distinguishes mad from eccentric," Lady Anne tells me, "and Colin was definitely eccentric."
Having read her book, I feel the author is being overly generous: Tennant, the father of her five children and the nouveau riche multi-millionaire who created the Caribbean island of Mustique as a resort for the rich and famous, sounds pretty insufferable.
"One of my husband's many quirks was that whenever he travelled on a small plane, he equipped himself with a snorkel and mask as a contingency plan in case it crashed," she writes.
And then there was the couple's honeymoon, when Colin took Lady Anne to a French brothel and suggested they partook in - ahem - some group activities and then, in Cuba, took her to a cockfight where she was physically attacked by a bird. It ended in style when he slammed her against a wall when she had the audacity to beat him in a game of cards.
"Almost immediately I ran home to Holkham and told my mother that I had made the most dreadful error. She had no sympathy whatsoever: she said 'go straight back. You married him'. So I did," Lady Glenconner tells me.
Colin threw temper tantrums, had numerous affairs, would buy new houses on a whim, charged through money like a team of wild horses and had flamboyant and breathtakingly excessive parties attended by glittering A-listers - but he was also a hugely generous and amusing host and a storyteller like no other.
"I learned how to cope with him, and I had the children to think about, of course," said Lady Anne, "and in those days, you really did just get on with it."
Lady Anne will be appearing at a Jarrold event at The Assembly House, which is apt as the man who designed her Mustique house and the island house that she and Colin gave Princess Margaret and her new husband as a wedding gift - Oliver Messel - was based there during World War Two when the House was an army camouflage school.
"I am looking forward to reading extracts from the book and answering some questions," she said, admitting to having a sore throat after recording the text for an audiobook and being surprised how upset some passages had made her.
"It is wonderful to be talking about my book in the county I love. People say this book is a love letter to Princess Margaret, but I think it's a love letter to Norfolk."
* Jarrold will be hosting an evening in the company of Lady Glenconner at The Assembly House in Norwich on November 27 at 6.30pm
* Next: Lady Glenconner on her life in Norfolk, the tragedies which rocked her life and why wartime Norfolk prepared her for living on Mustique.