Thanks to the popularity of Netflix’s series The Crown (and the constant drumbeat of stories about Meghan and Harry vs. Kate and William) there has been a resurgence of interest in one of the Windsor family's most fascinating characters, Princess Margaret. Younger sister of Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret has to be arguably the most polarizing royal figure of her era. Alternative portraits present her as a woman frustrated by royal constrictions which denied her any real purpose in life and marriage to the man she loved versus a mean, manipulative society maven who never failed to remind people of her superior rank in a world that viewed her as a camp figure. And both portraits are true. So how does one solve a problem like Margaret? Journalist Craig Brown takes a fascinating approach in Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret (originally published in Great Britain as Ma’am Darling). While serving as a sort of biography of Margaret, a larger, more difficult question that reflects straight back on the reader. How do we tell the story of a person whose existence is essentially defined by how she is perceived?
I say that Ninety-Nine Glimpses is a sort of biography, as the portrait that emerges is skewed into what the Guardian likened as a cubist image—so many perceptions, angles and reworkings that hitherto ‘established’ facts are seen anew. Brown has clearly done his research. Although the biography lacks the notes and index of a conventional work, and the footnotes are characterized as naughty asides, it’s clear that Brown did his research, perhaps to the point of obsession. Ninety-Nine Glimpses sometimes reads as a fever dream. Brown’s writing includes catalog lists, pastiches, catty diary entries of Margaret’s society frenemies, transcripts, parodies, imagined futures, commentary, even multiple choice questions. One chapter boasts thirty different approaches to telling of Margaret’s visit to Coleridge’s cottage, including limerick and spoonerism. Yet all the events of Margaret’s life are there. Arranged in Brown’s funhouse mirror image, it’s up to the reader to take away the image of Margaret they want. Margaret, the woman denied her romance with divorcee Townsend ends up uncomfortably close to the Margaret whose marriage to society photographer Tony Snowdon devolved into mutual loathing and eventual divorce. The cruel and awful Margaret, telling a disabled man, ‘Have you ever looked in a mirror and seen the way you walk?’ versus the one that endured people who paid her court for the sole purpose of rubbing shoulders with royalty and then gossip behind her turned back? Brown offers the glimpses; it’s up to the reader to take away a lasting portrait, if possible.
In a way then, Ninety Nine Glimpses is the most honest biography of Princess Margaret, or really any royalty, that might be conceived. It’s a maddening, whole original book that purists will probably hate, but above all, it is entertaining and thought provoking. If she were around today, Princess Margaret might even approve of it. Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret would appeal most to readers of general biography, British and especially royal history willing to take a risk on an unorthodox approach to its subject.