Belfast Telegraph

Princess Margaret's now portrayed as spoilt and difficult, but there is much more to her than that

By Mary Kenny

It was always known among reporters who covered the British royal circuit that the late Princess Margaret was "difficult". She liked to be seen as a royal rebel and "with it" - in the lingo of the time - but people were warned that she'd seem friendly and approachable, and then suddenly pull rank. If those socialising with her alluded to "your sister", she would haughtily correct them with an icy "you mean, Her Majesty the Queen".

A new biography of Margaret, Ma'am Darling, depicts her as very difficult indeed. The author, Craig Brown, reports that on returning from a night's entertainment, Margaret would "touch the television, testing it for warmth, just in case the servants had been watching it when her back was turned". She always demanded water in her whisky - consumed with brio - but it had to be a freshly-opened bottle of Malvern water, and woe betide the host who failed to provide her exact demands. She'd also snub anyone who failed to stock her favourite Scotch, Famous Grouse.

She was competitive, but could throw a tantrum if the competition didn't go her way. On one occasion - as a mature woman - she tossed a Trivial Pursuit board up in the air because a fellow player had outwitted her with the answer to a question about curried soup. (Margaret denied there was any such thing as "mulligatawny".)

She smoked throughout meals - always with a long cigarette holder - but when the actor Derek Jacobi, after a chummy conversation over lunch, attempted to light her cigarette, he was quickly reprimanded: "You don't light my cigarette, dear. Oh no, you're not that close." Despite Margaret's own reputation as a "royal rebel" in her youth, she disapproved of Fergie, Duchess of York, and wrote her a stinker of a letter for "bringing shame" on the Royal Family after an indiscretion.

Margaret and her husband, Tony Snowdon, quarrelled ferociously, sometimes in public. On one occasion he left a note on her desk headed "24 Reasons Why I Hate You". He left another in the glovebox of her car, offensive in more ways than one: "You look like a Jewish manicurist."

And yet, I would say there are positive aspects to her life. As a young woman, she was entertaining and intelligent - Noel Coward said she could have earned her living in musical theatre. Everyone knows about the episode when she had to renounce the love of her life, Group Captain Peter Townsend, a divorced man, then unacceptable to the Church of England. (It's been implied, in TV series The Crown, that Elizabeth pressured Margaret to break with him. Other sources suggest the Queen Mother was the romance killer. Or that Margaret herself wasn't willing to pay the price of being demoted to a commoner. Until the royal archives are opened on this, the exact truth is elusive.)

And for all her excessive boozing and smoking, she seems to have been a good mother: her children, David Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto, are remarkably normal people who lead useful lives. Linley is a craftsman and furniture maker; Sarah is an artist of strikingly unpretentious demeanour - her face free of all cosmetic adornment. While the Queen's children have had three broken marriages out of four, Margaret's offspring have remained in stable family unions.

Margaret also dissolved the taboo about British royals never visiting Ireland, when she came to Birr in 1961 with Lord Snowdon, who had spent childhood holidays in Co Offaly. It's hard to describe, now, just how sensational this was at the time. The IRA, predictably, tried to sabotage the visit, but the people turned out to show a warm cead mile failte. Queen Elizabeth could never have made that groundbreaking State visit in 2011 if her sister hadn't paved the way previously.

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Princess Margaret with her husband, Lord Snowdon

Everyone is affected by birth order and upbringing. Margaret was born by Caesarean section at a time (1930) when it was considered dangerous to repeat this operation, and so, from the start, it was known she would be the last child. Her sister was favoured as the heir, but Margaret Rose was adored and spoiled by her father. She was a pretty little thing who could sing and dance. She was also small, which is cute in a child, but perhaps anxious for an adult: she often overheard the remark "Isn't she tiny?".

So she grew up with high privilege but psychological insecurities. Walter Bagehot, the constitutionalist, warns that princes and princesses are apt to be surrounded by flatterers: they need common sense and self-discipline. Sir Roy Strong, the art expert, says that Margaret was too pleasure-loving and "devoid of the common touch".

"The end was so tragic, a half-paralysed, bloated figure in a wheelchair, but, I suppose 50 years of cigarettes and whisky had effectively destroyed her system."

The stroke that eventually killed her at age 72 probably did have a connection with her lifestyle: and she never recovered from scalding her feet with boiling water in 1999.

Retrospectively, Margaret's life seems to emerge in a harsh light. You can be born a princess, but it is character, not rank, which will define your life.

The Snowdons' marriage became notoriously acrimonious. Yet, towards the end of his life, Lord Snowdon told me: "She was wonderful. Such fun. Such fun."

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