I GOT NINETY-NINE problems but Margaret ain’t one, thank God. Sounds like she was a doozy of a problem for the House of Windsor, a standing argument for why British taxpayers should not be footing the bills for the lifestyles of the royals.
Brown cites early in his book the portrait of Margaret that appears in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope—domineering, insulting, insisting on the observance of protocols regarding her royal person while taking every liberty herself—and provides an abundance of corroborating examples. But some of the glimpses are of other sides of her, intelligent, generous, thwarted, locked in a role she never asked for but from which she could never escape.
As its title suggests, Ninety-Nine Glimpses is not a conventional biography, but a collection of vignettes, a few fictional, the sequence roughly but not strictly chronological. Brown is a writer—he was at Private Eye for quite a while—and the vignettes lean largely towards Margaret’s acquaintances and frenemies in the literary-artistic-cultural milieu, whose many volumes of letters and memoirs testify repeatedly to Margaret’s pricklier and bitchier moments. But she had her defenders, too—Gore Vidal, for one, a man not at all inclined to flatter.
What I most appreciated about Brown’s book is that it is neither an unctuous dollop of reverence nor a sniggering scandal-fest—that is, it avoids both the Scylla and Charybdis of royal biography and so does justice to a complex person in a complex situation during an era of rapid change. When Margaret was born in 1930, many people then alive would have remembered Victoria, and the empire was intact; by the time she died in 2002, the empire was gone, and the royals’ sleazier moments were routine tabloid fodder. Her circumstances were hardly likely to bring out the best in anyone.