Friday, January 25, 2019

Of Princesses Young and Old

I’m not sure what it is about princesses that have little girls (and many big ones too) so gaga. What is a princess, after all? She has royal relatives, but she does not have the obligation of actually ruling. The big decisions are not hers to make, nor is she the one obligated to function at all times as a dignified symbol of her nation. Instead, her role seems to be to wear nice clothing and look pretty. Outside of the occasional royal duty (like opening bridges and housing projects), her time is pretty much her own.

That’s what I’ve gleaned, anyway, from reading a much-discussed new biography, Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown. Brown, a Brit with eighteen other books to his credit, has a wicked wit and seems to know everyone in the United Kingdom. In writing about the younger sister (now deceased) of Queen Elizabeth II, he sets aside the usual trappings of biographies, the tidy and inexorable movement from cradle to grave. Instead, this is a book full of intimate glances at her royal highness, as seen through the eyes of servants, friends, ex-lovers, and anyone else with something to say. This sort of pastiche makes for some surprising discoveries, like the fact that in her heyday, around the time of her sister’s coronation in 1953, she was considered hot stuff. Not only was there the forbidden romance with an older man, Group Captain Peter Townsend, who was both a commoner and recently divorced, but she also attracted lustful attention in some unlikely quarters. Most memorable to me was the fact that the great Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, apparently developed a major crush.

Among Brown’s “glimpses” are some eccentric chapters that are pure fantasy. One describes in detail Margaret abdicating her royal perks to marry Peter Townsend and live with him in a modest farmhouse outside of Paris. Another shows her wedded to Jeremy Thorpe, a real-life
British politician who years later would be tried for the murder of a same-sex partner. Still another chronicles a disastrous liaison with Picasso, who painted her in all her glory. All of this is great fun to read, but has nothing to do with her actual much-discussed and ultimately unsuccessful marriage to a photographer (and man-about-town), Antony Armstrong-Jones, who was named 1st Earl of Snowdon once he secured Margaret as his bride.

The  place to relive all of this recent history is Netflix’s ongoing series, The Crown. Margaret is by no means the central focus, but I suspect that by the time the series is over, viewers will see her as the bloated over-the-hill party girl she was to become. For more optimistic views of the life of a princess, it’s best to check out pretty much any classic Disney animated feature (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty). These films teach little girls that though they may start out in rags and be threatened by evil queens and stepmothers, they’ll ultimately win their crowns and live happily ever after, with handsome princes at their side and dresses galore in their closets. A hipper, more modern variant is Disney’s live-action The Princess Diaries. Then there’s Audrey Hepburn, looking every inch a princess in Roman Holiday (though, it must be said, her Princess Ann would much rather dress like a shopgirl and ride a motorbike through Rome than attend to the protocol expected of her). Finally, and most romantically of all, there’s Robin Wright looking every inch a royal in The Princess Bride.

Now I think I’ll return to gazing at myself in a mirror, and fantasizing a royal crown.

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