by Lori Wieczorek
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Lori Wieczorek, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Craig Brown about his book, Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2018 NBCC Awards.
Craig Brown’s Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret blends parody, dreams, diary entries, famous run-ins and parties to create a sardonically funny and achingly tragic look into Princess Margaret’s life. Brown is both critical of the royal party girl and successfully creates the portrait of a woman who was complex. A woman who could be the life of the party one night and the person no one wanted to speak to the next. Each chapter, or ‘glimpse,’ is exciting and fresh. One section may feature the royal nanny’s diary while the following page details Pablo Picasso’s sexual obsession with the Princess.
I had the opportunity to interview Craig Brown about his process and how he selected his ninety-nine glimpses of Princess Margaret.
Lori Wieczorek: Princess Margaret is one of those figures in history that remains both a mystery and so frequently scrutinized. You encapsulate the idea that her life was completely on display, subject to ridicule and, at times, praise throughout this book. Yet so little is concretely known about her life and much of the information that people do remember of Princess Margaret is conflicted. What initially interested you in writing about Princess Margaret?
Craig Brown: I review an awful lot of non-fiction, and have done for the past 40-odd years. Over time, I noticed that Princess Margaret's name cropped up in a remarkably high proportion of post-war diaries and biographies and memoirs: everyone seemed to have met her. My previous book - Hello Goodbye Hello - was a daisy-chain of 101 people, each one of whom had met the next (eg, Mark Twain met Helen Keller, who met Martha Graham, who met Madonna). Originally, I thought it would be interesting to write a book about 101 people meeting Princess Margaret.
It was only when I came to write it that I began to realise that each meeting was going to be desperately similar, with Princess Margaret keeping everyone waiting, then becoming very informal, and then, in the early hours of the morning, after one too many drinks, retreating into an abrasive formality and often being very rude. Had I pursued this format, the book would have become a version of Groundhog Day. So I changed tack, and the book became something else completely - a sort of Cubist view of her life, seen from all sorts of strange angles, and written in a variety of styles.
You're right that she was subject to both praise and ridicule, and that she had friends as well as enemies, but I think this applies to a great many people. William James once wrote that “We have as many personalities as there are people we know”. I think one of the things that singles Princess Margaret out is that she was in equal measure comic and tragic, and that appealed to me.
LW: What struck me most about Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret was it’s unique form. Each little bit of information that we get is blended so cohesively that I barely noticed the transition from one account of the princess to an entirely different perspective during the exact same event. You have a hilarious passage in the book where you admit to having this dream where Princess Margaret arrives at your house and you fear that she will discover all of the documents you have about her strewn across your library. Was this a dream you actually had?
CB: If you are spending most of your waking hours thinking about a particular person, then it seems to me highly likely that at one time or another they are going to pop up in your dreams. This must surely be true of most biographers, but the straitjacket of more formal biography doesn't allow them to include it. Anyway, the moment I woke up, I jotted the dream down, regardless of what it meant, if anything. At one point, I offered her a drink, and she said she would like a Coloured Flimsy, and then I went into a panic because I didn't know what sort of drink a Coloured Flimsy was. A reviewer in The London Times interpreted this to mean that I sexually desired Princess Margaret and that I was worried that I wouldn't be up to it, hence the “flimsy”. This was news to me, as I have never particularly fancied her, but, then again, who is to say? I took it to mean that I was worried that my account of her life was flimsy, which seems much more likely.
I think every biographer of someone still living, or only recently dead, must feel a certain amount of guilt about intruding on their privacy, or cracking jokes at their expense, or even jumping to conclusions, right or wrong.
LW: Just jumping back to how you organized the information you gathered about Princess Margaret and mapped out the form of the book. What advice would you give writers about navigating vast amounts of information to create a nonfiction narrative that flows? How did you go about mapping out the book itself?
CB: I had no interest in making a linear, chronological narrative, for two reasons. Virtually every Royal biography gets bogged down in incredibly boring detail about their day-to-day lives, glad-handing dignitaries, cutting ribbons, and so forth. There is nothing more boring to read about than a Royal tour of Canada or Australia twenty five years ago. So I devised a method whereby I could ignore large parts of Margaret’s life, and no-one would mind or even notice. Also, on a deeper level, I think there is something essentially artificial about a chronological narrative of anyone’s life. When we think about our own lives, we constantly move backwards and forwards in time: only the most pedantic of us would trail doggedly from birth, through childhood and teenage years, and then on to career, marriage, retirement, etc, etc. Instead, we link something from our childhood to some anxiety we may have about the future, and that may give birth to a thought about something we did as a teenager. The advice I’d give biographers is to at least consider the possibility of a more experimental narrative form: it might not work for every subject, but it certainly would for some. And if you leave room for speculation and playfulness - inventing alternative lives and so forth - then this is a way of breaking the constraints of available information.
LW: Did you know what type of picture you wanted to paint of Princess Margaret before you began? I imagine, since you live in the UK, that you already had opinions about the infamous Princess.
CB: I'd go back to the William James quote: everyone is formed of a multiplicity of characters. Certainly, I had been very aware of Princess Margaret as a public figure all through my life, and I was intrigued by the way that, so soon after her death, she seemed to have become a forgotten figure. Most biographical subjects are born in obscurity, or at least semi-obscurity, and then, through talent or persistence, achieve something-or-other, and become famous. But if you are born into the Royal Family, that process is often reversed. Princess Margaret's birth was marked by the ringing of the bells of St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and a forty-one-gun salute from the Royal Horse Artillery in both Hyde Park and the Tower of London. At the age of six, with the death of her grandfather, King George V, and the abdication of her uncle, King Edward V111, she became second in line to the throne, after her sister Elizabeth. And this, in many ways, was her high-point: when her sister had children, and those children had their own children, Margaret became more and more marginal, until by the time of her death she was 12th in line, and a number of people told me that she was properly disgruntled by this endless decline in her own status.
After her funeral, her corpse was driven three and a half miles to the crematorium. Police were placed at regular spots all along the road, to control the crowds. But no-one turned out, and the hearse passed through the afternoon traffic without fanfare. This downward graph to her life rather fascinated me as I was writing the book.
LW: I loved the section in your book that ‘imagines’ Princess Margaret in different timelines. Her life was full of ‘what-ifs,’ especially when it concerned the men in her life. I’m curious as to why these imagined realities always ended rather tragically? Do you feel that Princess Margaret could never truly be happy?
CB: Someone who knew her well said he thought she was the unhappiest person he'd ever known. This might have been overdoing it, but after the age of 35 or so she certainly seemed disappointed by life. In 99 Glimpses, I write, that her life is “pantomime as tragedy, and tragedy as pantomime. It is Cinderella in reverse. It is hope dashed, happiness mislaid, life mis-handled.” Perhaps in one of the imagined lives I gave her - marrying Peter Townsend, or Picasso, or becoming Queen - I should have given her a happy ending, but there was something self-defeating in her character that would have made it seem bogus.
LW: Aside from her alternate destinies with men, you also include a short vignette that imagines her as the first born. The destined queen rather than Elizabeth. You also present her in a dismal light in this section. Did you write the chapter in this way because you truly believed, after all of the research and varying accounts, that she could stray from the person she eventually became?
CB: Even Royals - perhaps especially Royals - are prone to the question of nature or nurture. I liked toying with the fantasy of what she would have been like if she had been the first-born, and had ascended to the throne? Would she then have been the responsible sister - or would there always have been some crack in her character? Of course, it's impossible to answer, but the question remains interesting. John Updike once wrote that “Margaret would have made a more striking and expressive queen”, and then he went on to ask, “but would she have worn as well, and presided as smoothly?”
LW: You begin to close the book with the very public auction of Princess Margaret’s possessions. For a public that often scorned her actions, they were quite eager to pay enormous amounts of money for a piece of her. Aside from this acting as a sort of postmortem section, what were you trying to say to the reader by presenting us with this chapter?
CB: I originally placed the auction of her possessions near the beginning of the book, but later placed it almost at the end. First, I found it fascinating to list in detail so much that she had accumulated over the course of her life - from a signed copy of the autobiography of Liberace and a Walt Disney Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs tea-set given to her at the age of 7, to a diamond tiara worth many millions of pounds. Second, it showed the strange magnetic attraction the Royal Family still holds over the collective imagination. Third, I hoped it would show the way that all these extraordinary royal possessions - silver candlesticks and oak chairs and Faberge clocks and letters from the Pope - were all dispersed so speedily after her death. For me, the acts as a peculiar kind of memento mori: regardless of what happens in our lives, comic or tragic or somewhere inbetween, we all eventually come to dust.
Craig Brown is a prolific journalist and the author of more than fifteen books. He has been writing his parodic diary in Private Eye since 1989. He is the only person ever to have won three different Press Awards―for best humorist, columnist, and critic―in the same year. He has been a columnist for The Guardian, The Times (London), The Spectator, and The Daily Telegraph, among others. He currently writes for The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday. His last book, Hello Goodbye Hello, was translated into ten languages and was a New York Times bestseller.
Lori Wieczorek is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently receiving her MFA in fiction from The New School.