The book, which she wrote after her encounter with Bonham Carter, is a fascinating, anthropological portrait of the bonkers and privilege-soaked world of the British aristocracy. It is a world where noble families are intertwined and protected by a web of entitlement, where the grandiosity is as casual as the cruelty, and where one simply sells a painting when one is low on cash.
Here, the rooms are walled with Turners and Hogarths, butlers attend at picnics, and the Queen Mother always out-drinks her guests. It is considered rude not to bring your own maid when you come to stay, but in one memorable scene, Margaret is described walking over to a woman (an unknown commoner) feeding the squirrels in Kensington Gardens, and jumping in to whack them with her umbrella. “She hated grey squirrels,” Lady Anne writes, “she had a vendetta against them.”
Speaking on the phone from her home in Norfolk, Lady Anne tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age she “wanted to set the record straight” over Margaret.
“I wrote the book partly because I was so upset by all the things people wrote about her and they didn’t even know her!” she exclaims. “They were brought up in a very grand way, and I think people forget that. She was quite sharp when people were irritating. She loved interesting people.”
Lady Anne says Margaret was fiercely intelligent, an autodidact who had little education but read widely. In her memoir, she says that if Margaret was rude, it was often because she was bored – sent to watch long ceremonies and make small talk with dignitaries when she had a lively mind that craved stimulation.
“I think where she got the reputation for being difficult was when she was married to Tony, because he was not very kind to her, and used to upset her,” she tells me.
Tony, of course, was Margaret’s consort Lord Snowdon, an iconic photographer and terrible husband. He had numerous affairs and eventually divorced Margaret when he impregnated his mistress. According to the memoir, during her marriage, Margaret stopped looking in her chest of drawers for fear of what she might find, “because Tony had developed a habit of writing little notes saying things like ‘You look like a Jewish manicurist and I hate you’.”
“She minded so much, you know,” says Lady Anne.
Lady Anne knew about cruel husbands – hers, Colin Tennant, Lord Glenconner, won the prize. Throughout his life, he had volcanic fits of temper and hysteria that left him unable to function, ending up stuck behind tractors or literally writhing with rage in the aisles of aeroplanes (he was eventually banned from flying with British Airways).
He used to complain about his mistresses to Lady Anne, and when he died, he left everything to his “manservant”, not his family.
As detailed in her book, Lady Anne was a virgin who had recently been crowned “Debutante of the Year” by Tatler when she married. Her sex education consisted of her mother saying: “do you remember Daddy’s Labrador getting on top of Biscuit? Well, that’s what happens when you get married … except you will probably be lying down.”
On their honeymoon, her husband took his young bride to a French brothel to watch a couple having sex in front of them, inviting the British couple to join. “I found myself saying politely, ‘That’s very kind of you, but no thank you,’” she writes.
The episode sets the tone for her marriage, in which she supports and endures every mad and cruel thing her husband does.
It turns out, this makes her a perfect lady-in-waiting to Margaret, who could also be tricky.
But Margaret was a brilliant friend, says Lady Anne, funny and loyal and doting. Later in life, the two women found solace in each other when they needed to escape from their husbands, at one point living together for a year in Kensington Palace.
They had been friends since childhood, their families close for generations because Lady Anne family’s ancestral seat, Holkham Hall (still one of England’s greatest manor houses) neighboured Sandringham House, the royals’ private residence. (Lady Anne makes it clear her family, which dates back to the Elizabethan era, was far posher than her husband’s, which was rich but nouveau.)
Lady Anne was the eldest child of the presumptive earl, but a girl, and therefore useless in the male primogenital system of the aristocracy – she “broke the line”. On her father’s death, her family pile went to a male cousin.
Margaret was only three years older than Anne, and even as a child the princess was “naughty, fun and imaginative – the very best sort of friend to have”.
Lady Anne spent much of her childhood bouncing around the grounds and halls of Holkham, which was so big a butler could put an uncooked egg in a bain marie and it would be cooked by the time he arrived at the nursery.
Her beloved grandfather put his young grand-daughter in charge of “airing the Codex Leicester, Leonardo da Vinci’s 72-page manuscript, a study on water and stars”, which Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, had bought in 1719, and which Bill Gates bought in the 1990s for more than $US30 million. “Once a fortnight, I would retrieve it from the butler’s pantry, where it was kept in a safe along with the Coke jewels and a Bible picture book,” she writes.
Extraordinary anecdotes like this are dropped casually into Lady Anne’s narrative and treated with no great reverence.
The only part where the memoirist gets starry-eyed is the Queen’s coronation, for which she was one of the maids of honour. “I will never, never forget the sight of the Queen, in this ravishing dress, with her beautiful skin and lovely eyes, her tiny waist,” she tells me. “It was like a medieval tapestry.”
The book is dotted with parental desertions – aristocrats of Lady Anne’s generation, it seems, never raised their own children, with the wives of nobility expected to run great houses, organise shooting parties and travel with their husbands.
Lady Anne and her sister Carey are left by their parents for three years during the war, when her father was posted to Egypt with the Scots Guards. The two small girls were packed off to stay with cousins in Scotland, where they endured a sadistic nanny who tied the young Anne to her bed at night. Eventually the nanny was sacked – not for her cruelty, but because it was discovered she was a Roman Catholic.
As a mother herself, Lady Anne sent her children to boarding school and followed her husband to Mustique, away from them for months at a time.
Her husband bought the mosquito-infested West Indian island for GBP 45,000 in 1958 and developed it into an aristo-Bohemian paradise for the rich and famous, hosting decadent parties attended by Mick and Bianca Jagger, Raquel Welch and David Bowie, and photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Margaret visited the island on her honeymoon, and loved it so much that Colin Tennant gave her a piece of land there as a wedding present. She later built a house on it, Les Jolies Eaux (“pretty waters”), and it became a getaway for her. Margaret’s husband, Tony Snowden, never came back to the island, but years later she brought along her younger lover Roddy Llewellyn instead.
Mustique is still a private haven for the famous and the noble.
“The Cambridges come there,” says Lady Anne. “I have great admiration for them, lovely children they have got … [Prince] Andrew actually came when he was courting Koo Stark. It’s wonderful because there is no press there, it can be controlled, so nobody takes any notice of them when they are there.”
As an old woman, Lady Anne reflects on how all this parental desertion affected her children, particularly her eldest, Charlie, who got into drugs at his exclusive boarding school, and never got out of them – he was a heroin addict for many years and died of Hepatitis C.
Her second son Henry died of AIDS in 1990, at a time when little was known about how the illness was spread.
Lots of their friends deserted them, but not Margaret. She still visited Henry with her children, and was not afraid to hug him.
“She used to come with me to the Lighthouse, which was a place where young men went to die, she used to go in and laugh with them,” Lady Anne says. “She wasn’t touchy-feely like Diana but she had her own approach.”
Lady Anne’s book paints such a rich picture of the aristocracy it’s impossible not to marvel at the institution, both in admiration and horror.
Margaret’s boredom on official tours, and her mockery of the local dignitaries (the petty snobbery of the NSW governor is one target) are both understandable and spiteful. At one juncture Margaret gets cross because the present given her by the King of Swaziland (a vase) is not up to scratch. Later, she makes sure the vase meets with an accident.
On the same visit she is miffed when the traditional costume of the locals makes it hard for her to pin medals on the selected honorees.
Lady Anne says the aristocracy is still useful for tourism. “The idea of the aristocracy not doing very much, shooting and fishing and hunting, that’s all gone. These houses are run as businesses now. They work jolly hard.”
She concedes the Royal family is “going through a tiny rocky patch at the moment” but believes Charles will make a good king. Camilla Parker-Bowles is a “wonderful and funny” friend of hers.
Asked about Prince Andrew, disgraced for his friendship with convicted paedophile and sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, Lady Anne clams up.
“I don’t know anything about that at all,” she says. “There have been things in the past and then they go away … it’s ongoing and I really don’t want to comment on it.”
As for Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, who married Prince Harry last year, has spoken recently about the pressures of royal life, Lady Anne says: “I think it’s been quite difficult for her”.
“They are going off to have a time away from everything. We all hope she will settle down. I think it’s quite difficult being an outsider coming in.”
Lady Anne has seen wars, coronations, Parisian brothels and countless episodes of Dad’s Army with the Queen Mum. Soon she hopes to see Australia again, when she comes on a book tour here, planned for next year.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards