Lady in Waiting: Self-Portrait of a Lady

From The Wall Street Journal:

Lady Anne Glenconner, the 87-year-old daughter of the Earl of Leicester, came from a generation and a class that were not brought up to express emotion. “There were no heart-to-hearts” and no self-pity was allowed, she writes in “Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown.” You didn’t “dwell.” You kept the proverbial stiff upper lip. And, as her stalwart and disarmingly honest book testifies, that is what she did. Nevertheless, emotion resonates through this delightful memoir, which offers a candid, humorous look inside the royal family and the daft world of the British aristocracy.

Born Anne Veronica Coke, she grew up in one of Britain’s greatest manor houses, Holkham Hall, a North Norfolk estate she couldn’t inherit because she was female. (It went to a cousin.) Her father, she writes, “was not affectionate or sentimental, and did not share his emotions. No one did, not even my mother.” In 1939, at the outbreak of war, he was posted to Egypt with the Scots Guards. Anne and her younger sister, Carey, were sent to live with their cousins in Scotland. They didn’t see their parents for three years. Her mother never knew that Anne’s governess bound her hands to the back of the bed every night (the woman was eventually sacked, not for child abuse but because she was a Roman Catholic).

At Holkham Hall, Anne began a close friendship with Princess Margaret when, as children, they would jump out from behind the curtains to scare the footmen. Reunited at Anne’s coming-out dance in 1950, they chatted until the sun rose over the front portico. Three years later, Anne was picked to be one of six maids of honor at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, a ceremony Anne describes with starry-eyed detail (ivory silk dresses with gold piping). The archbishop of Canterbury offered them brandy during a recess and, later, the queen sat down on a red sofa, her skirt billowing, “and when she kicked up her legs for total joy, we did the same. It was the happiest of moments.”

Anne then fell “madly in love” with the charming Johnnie Althorp, but she made the mistake of introducing him to her friend Lady Fermoy, who, like a character out of Trollope, snapped him up for her own daughter. He vanished without telling her that the engagement was off. (Later he would become the father of Diana, Princess of Wales.) On the rebound, Anne married Colin Tennant, eventually Lord Glenconner, a millionaire with a castle in Scotland whose family fortune had come from the invention of bleach powder in 1798. Her father disapproved: Tennant was “nouveau riche.” On a Holkham pheasant-shooting weekend, where guns were “placed by rank,” an enraged Tennant was made to follow behind the lords, dukes and marquesses, walking with the beaters, the men who flush out the birds with sticks.

. . . .

[D]uring their 54 years of marriage Tennant was to lose his temper many times, often lying on the ground in a fetal position and howling. Nevertheless, Anne insists, he was “never boring.” When she asked him why he kept screaming at people, he answered: “I like making them squirm. I like making them frightened.” Why did he marry her? He said he knew she would never give up.

. . . .

In 1958 Tennant bought the island of Mustique in the Caribbean for £45,000 and developed it into a playground for millionaires and aristocrats. As a wedding present, he gave Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones a piece of land where she built a villa, Les Jolies Eaux. After Margaret’s marriage broke down, she created a scandal by staying there with her young lover, Roddy Llewellyn.

Anne was made lady in waiting in 1971, a role she held for nearly 30 years. She was devoted to the princess, whom she feels was much maligned. Margaret was rude when she was bored, but she was also capable of great kindness. Anne saw to all her needs, accompanying her on royal tours and even living with her for a year in Kensington Palace, where one of Anne’s duties was to turn the garden hose on the cats of their neighbor Princess Michael of Kent.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)