To tell the truth, I never warmed to Princess Margaret. By the time I became aware of her, she had already begun to look matronly and rather bored. Stories about her insistence on being called ‘Ma’am’ even when flirting with bohemia grated. I’ve sat at dinner tables (well, one dinner table) when lively, warm-hearted friends of hers compared notes about her visits to their houses. She was a demanding guest who required a seamless supply of Famous Grouse and an electric blanket.
Another thing that made me wary was her preference for Chesterfields, a 60-a-day habit that would have fogged my affection. I know this because my mother was a Chesterfield smoker (her other preference was for Jim Beam bourbon), and, like the Princess, she had a wild streak which her children struggled to find endearing. Still, when Princess Margaret died, I found myself studying the glamorous pictures with a mixture of sadness and regret. Here was a woman who had been so beautiful in her youth, but the fatal trio of cigarettes, booze and disappointment had robbed her of the kind of looks that live on into old age, a woman cursed with too much privilege and not enough purpose.
Then last year (mea culpa, mea culpa), I watched The Queen’s Sister. Described as ‘creating a powerful image of a woman trying to find her soul’, it portrayed Princess Margaret as a spoiled, raunchy, rude and dissolute woman with nothing better to do than wreak emotional havoc. Prince Philip was shown as the go-between, and, if you believed any of it, you’d think that the Queen only saw her sister on state occasions. Those grotesque images still lingered in my mind a year later when I began reading about the sale of all her stuff at Christie’s.
My first reaction was how on earth can her children do this? Surely a few discreet sales and gifts to museums would deal with death duties otherwise what are Farrer & Co for? But when it was all over, I popped into the new Christie’s office in Bury St Edmunds to have a look at the catalogues: two lavish volumes of the objects for sale accompanied by evocative pictures of the Princess wearing them. From the Cartier watch (Lot 5 – remember when women wore watches over gloves?), to Queen Mary’s rivi, the necklace of 34 diamonds (Lot 191), the two volumes are an eloquent biography of Princess Margaret and the era in which she lived. I loved the five rows of pearls given by Queen Mary with Beaton’s photograph of the Princess on her 18th birthday, the Poltimore tiara on the Princess bride.
By the time I’d studied the 650 pages of jewellery, silver, dishes, pictures and furniture, I was left with two overwhelming feelings. The first is that Princess Margaret suffered from being in that limbo generation when women weren’t seriously educated, but had known the snakebite of freedom that they could only express with cigarettes, the tinkling of ice in a glass and love affairs. This sad story appears again and again in memoirs written not by the women themselves, but by the children who helplessly watched.
Two children who watched their mother and would have saved her if they could were David Linley and Sarah Chatto. Of course, they were right to sell the mountain of objects that represent another way of life, another world. I was touched that her son bought the Annigoni portrait, but the 894 other lots would’ve weighed down their lives. I keep thinking of the lines of the poet: ‘As the furniture heaves off your life, you will love your deliverance’.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on June 29, 2006.