LADY IN WAITING
My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown
By Anne Glenconner
It seems particularly apt that Anne Coke Tennant, Baroness Glenconner, was born into an ancient British family whose crest is an ostrich swallowing an iron horseshoe, symbolizing, as she puts it, “our ability to digest anything.” Readers of her sometimes amusing, sometimes appalling, sometimes affecting, sometimes clueless memoir will learn that she was a perfect ostrich: Burying her head in the sand may well have been the only way to endure a 54-year marriage to her terrifyingly eccentric, deeply profligate husband, who would reward her loyalty by disinheriting her, and to remain in the good graces of her notoriously difficult, consummately petulant childhood friend Princess Margaret, whom she served for nearly three decades as a lady in waiting.
Those expecting the sort of dishy gossip Craig Brown served up in “99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret” or the diva turns wrought by Helena Bonham Carter in Season 3 of “The Crown” will find “Lady in Waiting” more of a challenge. The pleasures of Glenconner’s tales must be winkled out of her sturdy if occasionally clichéd prose: revelations of the strange juxtapositions of an unexpectedly upstairs-downstairs aristocratic life. Born at Holkham, the fifth largest estate in England (but unable, because of her sex, to inherit it), young Anne loved riffling through the pages of her grandfather’s proudest possession, Leonardo’s Codex Leicester, and making dens in the attic from old masters “deemed too louche for the walls of the state rooms.” But just a few years later, she could be found lining up with her sponge bag to use the loo at a succession of seedy hotels for traveling salesmen as she set about hawking mugs and plates from the pottery her mother had established to help keep Holkham afloat. While on a similar mission in America via Greyhound bus, she was abruptly summoned home to be a maid of honor at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. For days on end, every step of the ceremony was choreographed and rehearsed at Westminster Abbey, but at night the apprentice courtier traded its splendor for her uncle’s flat, where she slept on a mattress on the floor.
And so this up-and-down life proceeded. After Anne Coke married Colin Tennant, later to become Lord Glenconner, they set off on a three-month honeymoon that wasn’t exactly the grand tour a self-described “conservatively brought up” young woman had expected. In Paris, after discovering that his bride was a virgin, Colin (deemed a “fairly decadent fellow” by his pal Princess Margaret) hauled the demurely clad Anne to a filthy, rundown hotel, where he presented her with a “surprise” — two naked strangers “squelching into each other” as they had sex. In a scene that could have been scripted for “Monty Python,” Glenconner reports that “every now and then they asked us if we would like to join in. So, I found myself saying politely, ‘That’s very kind of you, but no thank you.’” A little while later, in Cuba, Colin took her to a “rather shifty” cockfight, where one of the birds attacked her head, claws bared, sending blood coursing down her face. His response? A furious accusation that it was all her fault, that she had ruined the proceedings. Why didn’t she ditch him then and there? Perhaps Colin explained it best: “We were brought up not to throw in the towel but to bite bullets and fold towels neatly.”