Anne Glenconner remains ready for anything. She has been an inveterate and venturesome traveller for 60 years and never goes anywhere without a bottle of vodka for emergencies. Her eloquence is simple and unadorned. She does not pity herself or repine; whenever possible, she gives thanks. Her humour is crisp, but she is devoid of malice. Lady in Waiting is gentle, wise, unpretentious, but above all inspiring. It will make all but hard and selfish readers remember their own mistakes, and count their blessings.
Those expecting the sort of dishy gossip Craig Brown served up in “99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret” or the diva turns wrought by Helena Bonham Carter in Season 3 of “The Crown” will find “Lady in Waiting” more of a challenge. The pleasures of Glenconner’s tales must be winkled out of her sturdy if occasionally clichéd prose: revelations of the strange juxtapositions of an unexpectedly upstairs-downstairs aristocratic life... Despite its madcap romps, “Lady in Waiting” can make for sobering reading, and the downside of this privileged life, with its potential for tragedy, looms over three of Glenconner’s five children. After years as a drug addict, her eldest son, Charlie, embarked on a new, clean life as a husband and father only to contract a fatal case of hepatitis C. Another son, Henry, succumbed to AIDS. And a third son, Christopher, spent four months in a coma after a motorcycle accident in Central America.
The first (pre-marriage) chapters of this book are marvellous too, proving that some people are just born writers. Anne’s descriptions of a charmingly unambitious girls’ boarding school and a finishing school in Devon are as sure as that of a top novelist. I’ve often heard stories about the great distances food had to be carried in stately homes, but Anne uses a single illustration to convey this: at Holkham, raw eggs were put into a bain-marie, and by the time the footman had delivered them from the kitchen to the nursery they were cooked.
Indeed, discretion and honour emerge as the hallmarks of Glenconner’s career as a royal servant, culminating in this book which manages to be both candid and kind. Above all, she demonstrates a remarkable readiness to own up to her own mistakes. In particular she worries that the classic absentee mothering style of the aristocracy, involving nannies and boarding schools, may have been at the root of her eldest son developing the drug addiction that eventually killed him. If only, one can’t help thinking, members of the present royal family would follow their admirable servant’s example of honest self-reckoning and personal responsibility.
... she has her stoicism – which is where it all gets interesting. Much as I loved reading about the way, say, that she and her mother, the countess, would gather jackdaw eggs using a ladle attached to a walking stick (apparently, they’re as delicious as plover’s eggs, though since I’ve tasted neither, I can’t possibly comment), after a while there’s no ignoring the painful and widening disjunction between the outward whirl of her life and the repeated tragedies that befall her family... In the end, her book isn’t only a record, funny and sometimes dazzling, of a way of life now almost disappeared. It’s an unwitting examination of English repression: both of how it gets you through and of how it can slay you.
To be more generous, the author, aged 87 and completely untutored in book-writing, has produced a candid, witty and stylish memoir. It is as richly spiced with malice — I doubt if Bianca Jagger will relish the put-down of her own princessy ways, or Jerry Hall the spiky comments on her lack of social grace — as it is darkened by the tragedies that befell the author’s three sons, two of whom predeceased her. But the glory of this book — a banquet of imperious egos — derives from her reports from the front on life with Princess Margaret and life with, and quite often, without, her own late husband. In picking prizes for selfish awfulness of the kind that turns a disrespectful reader’s mind to guillotines, it’s hard to know which of these two entertaining monsters would merit first place in the tumbril.
Early interest in the book has focused on the author’s long friendship with Princess Margaret. They first met at the age of two or three, because Lady Anne’s childhood home at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, was only half an hour from Sandringham. They played practical jokes together, springing out at footmen as they passed with heavy silver trays (and were told off by sensible Princess Elizabeth).
Margaret, who died in 2002, is often portrayed as selfish and difficult, but a much warmer picture emerges here. She certainly had what are referred to as “royal moments”. When the Glenconners marked out land for Margaret on Mustique, she moved the boundary posts to make it larger. However, she was also happy to pitch in with household chores: washing the car was a particular favourite.