Margaret, the Second Best Princess
by Brenda Ralph Lewis
The stroke, fortunately mild, which Princess Margaret suffered
was only the latest in a chronicle of bad luck which has stalked the Queen's
younger sister for many years. Second fiddle was never a natural instrument
for Margaret to play. She was always too lively, too restless and too much
made for the limelight . Yet she was not only the second-born daughter of the
future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother), but second to
an elder sister who had all the staid virtues a future monarch required. While
Margaret was a sparky royal firework, Princess Elizabeth was quiet, dutiful,
shy, traditional and ever so slightly dull.
Had the 'little princesses' as they were once called, been ordinary girls at
a party, it would be Margaret - pert, pretty, full of personality, born to
shine - who attracted all the attention and all the boys while Elizabeth would
have been the wallflower. There was not much to choose between them when it
came to looks: both sisters were beautiful, but it was significant that
Margaret's beauty was dark and dramatic, two adjectives which aptly described
her later life.
It is difficult to think of a privileged life of wealth and deference as
having drawbacks, but Margaret knew only too well what they were. Her royal
birth denied her the outlet for musical and acting talent which in a different
life would have made her a showbiz star. In her youth, and even in today's
more open monarchy, it was inconceivable that the daughter of a king would
tread the boards. It was only among her family and friends that Margaret could
use her gifts of mimicry, her skill as a pianist and her ability to entertain.
Her father, King George VI, found her perennially amusing. The public view of
her had to be different, and much more decorous. As a result, pictures of
Princess Margaret looking bored proliferate, and from time to time she was
depicted in the press as a royal waste of money who refused to perform
sufficient public duties. The charge was unfair - it was not for nothing that
the Queen awarded Margaret the Royal Victorian Order for public service in
1990 - but like most ideas which make controversial headlines, it stuck.
In the public view, Margaret was the rebel who baulked at toeing the royal
line, and was shown up daily by her dutiful elder sister. Margaret's tragedy,
though, was that she was far from being a rebel in this particular way. Of all
members of the Royal Family, she has always been the one most on the watch-out
for lapses in due deference. All a friend had to do to earn Margaret's ire was
to refer to King George VI as 'your father' or the Queen as 'your sister'. The
miscreant would be sharply reminded of the full majestic title - 'I take it
you mean His Majesty King George VI' Margaret would say - and would mostly
likely be crossed off the royal guest list there and then.
Much more sombre proof that Margaret was mindful of her royalty came with the
Townsend affair of 1953-1955. Had she truly been the rebel so often depicted,
she would have snapped her fingers at those who tried to stop her marrying the
divorced war hero and gone off to live happily ever after with the one man she
truly loved. As is all too well known, though, she renounced Group-Captain
Peter Townsend for the sake of her family, the monarchy and the church, none
of whom could give her anything meaningful to replace him.
From her own personal point of view, giving up Townsend was a wrong turning
in her life and Margaret never worked her way back to the main road. When she
finally married, at 29, in 1960, it was almost an act of defiance which even
the Royal Family could not deny her. It was significant that when she became
engaged to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the future Lord Snowdon, Margaret told the
Queen and Prince Philip of her intention. This was not the normal way royal
marriages are made. The newcomer's suitability needs checking first, All the
more so because Armstrong-Jones was not just a commoner, but one who had no
family links to the aristocratic pool from which many royal spouses had been
chosen in the past. Margaret and Tony, as they came to be known, came from
two different worlds and those worlds collided violently. She doubtless wanted
to join in the freer, less circumscribed life his career as a leading society
photographer gave him, but her royalty got in the way. He could never settle
down to 'stuffy' royal existence, and the sad outcome was the first divorce,
in 1978, to come really close to the English throne.
At that juncture, and far too late, there was talk that had Margaret not been
denied the chance to marry Peter Townsend, both she and Lord Snowdon would
have been a great deal happier. As it was, the Townsend affair gave the first
push to a roller coaster of frustration and failure which hurtled faster and
faster down the slope as time went on. After the divorce, Margaret drank and
smoked too much, giving rise to health scares. She had controversial love
affairs - notably with the much younger Roddy Llewellyn - which inevitably
ended in grief and scandalous headlines. Latterly, Princess Margaret has been
a model of healthy living - no smoking, little drinking, plenty of dieting to
keep her weight down - but with her stroke, the excesses of former years
caught up with her just the same.
A sad story, even though attempts have been made to depict the 67-year old
Margaret as a matriarch beaming fondly on the happy marriages of her two
children. But perhaps that is the saddest fate of all - to start life with so
much promise, talent, beauty and privilege, and end up an old lady getting her
pleasures vicariously, through the lives of others.
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