When HRH The Princess Margaret was born in 1930, she was fourth in line to the British throne. In 1936, she moved up two notches after Edward VIII, her fool of an uncle, bolted and was succeeded by her father, making her big sister the heir and she herself the spare. She outranked her uncles, aunts, cousins, and any playmate, except for that big sister. All but a handful of adults dropped either a nod or a curtsy upon her entrances and exits. King George VI said that while Princess Elizabeth was his pride, Princess Margaret was his joy. No one would ever love her performances as much as her father, the sovereign. Her hash was settled.
The king died in 1952 and the big sister—aged twenty-six, married, and the mother of two—was anointed queen. The funny sister, aged twenty-two, had to move with their mother out of Buckingham Palace and into Clarence House around the corner. By the time she died in 2002, after a life of hairdressers, church services, luncheons, audiences, teas, dinners, suppers, dancing, fittings, house parties, receptions, openings, premieres, ship launches, variety shows, parades, point-to-points, Ascot stakes, weddings, funerals, hunts, beaches, planes, drinks, and cigarettes, she was twelfth in line to the throne, going on quietly in Kensington Palace, the aunt heap, where, toward the end, she burned garbage bag after garbage bag of letters she’d removed from Clarence House, still the residence of the Queen Mother. Princess Margaret had been a wife, was a mother and grandmother, but it was her inevitable slide down the ladder of succession and no more Commonwealth tours that most defined her life—or so Craig Brown concludes in Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.
Ninety-Nine Glimpses is not a conventional biography, but rather a series of telling reflections in ninety-nine brief chapters on the royal and the gaze, on how Princess Margaret was viewed and judged over time. “Biography is at the mercy of information,” he writes, “and information about the Royal Family is seldom there when you want it. Or rather, there is a wealth of information, but most of it is window-dressing.” The openness of form that Brown, a satirist and veteran columnist for almost every British paper, allows himself, including techniques of fiction, is as unexpected as his attitude toward his subject and his witnesses.
What she had in common with others born under the same zodiac sign: she “shared a louche, camp, decadent streak with Aubrey Beardsley, and might have identified with Kenny Rogers’ songs about being disappointed in love.” Brown imagines a conversation between Princess Margaret and the man she famously did not marry as a duet of a Clash song. He speculates on her deathbed drift, the “secret chambers of consciousness.” He shows what the 1977…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.