Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown by Anne Glenconner

When I found out there was a non-fiction book about someone on the inside of the royal family, I was curious. How could that happen with all the non-disclosure agreements I assume people who work with the royals have to sign. Well, Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown worked for Princess Margaret, not Queen Elizabeth, so that explains how the book would be written.

Lady in Waiting is the story of Lady Anne Glenconner, from her childhood in Scotland frolicking with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, to her adult life, frolicking with Princess Margaret on the Caribbean island of Mustique, which was owned by Lady Anne’s husband, and later becoming one of the Ladies in Waiting for the princess.

Glenconner’s life is extraordinary, not just because of the circles she hung out with, but with the amount of garbage she had to deal with. Namely with a husband who was clearly mentally ill. Seriously ill. From biting taxi drivers to flying off the handle at the littlest thing, to lying down on the floor of a plane and having a temper tantrum because he wasn’t in first class, there’s a lot not to like about Lady Anne’s husband, Colin. But no matter how much crap he did to her, Glenconner still maintains that she had a happy marriage, even though her husband left his estate to his manservant and not his children.

In fact, many of the people Lady Anne hangs out with are certifiable, bound by societal and cultural norms for the aristocracy of the time. And Glenconner speaks well of them all, even after describing their appalling behavior. Even her own father, who at the end of the book, describes him as a sweet man, earlier says, ” He always said slightly the wrong thing and never exactly filled me with confidence… On my wedding day, all he could muster was ‘I suppose you’ll do.'” Her father was always disappointed that Anne wasn’t a boy, someone he could pass his title and estate on to, but he did give her sound advice when she got married to the not-so-reliable Colin to buy a house of her own, which she did. If she hadn’t held on to the house in Norfolk, she’d have had no place to live today.

While Lady Anne and Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth knew each other and occasionally saw each other socially, it wasn’t until Colin bought the island of Mustique that Princess Margaret became a closer confidante. Colin offered the princess some land on the island, and several years later, Princess Margaret took him up on the offer. The resulting house was the only home the princess ever owned, and loved spending time on the remote island in the Caribbean, free from the prying eyes of the press.

After several years of hanging out in Mustique, and after Lady Anne had finished having her children (three boys and twin girls), Princess Margaret asked her to become one of her Ladies in Waiting, a role that would last, with a few minor breaks, for 30 years.

There really isn’t any dirt dredged up in Lady in Waiting about Princess Margaret that isn’t already known, but rather anecdotes that let us see a side of the princess that isn’t commonly heard about in biographies of her. And there’s detail about how things at court are run and the various protocols of travelling with a royal. Lady Anne was part of the procession of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation so there’s a whole chapter about the pomp and circumstance, and her mother was Lady of the Bedchamber for the Queen, a fairly high position in the royal court.

But the dirt in Lady Anne’s life, namely with her clearly mentally ill husband, makes for scintillating reading. He would, from time to time, buy them a new house and sell the old one, without consulting his wife. And the above mentioned atrocities, temper tantrums, biting people, spending extravagantly. I’m no armchair psychiatrist, but it just screams Bipolar Disorder. And Lady Anne just tells the tales as a matter-of-fact and mentions there was a lot of good about Colin and how lucky she was to be married to him for 50 years.

Then there’s Glenconner’s children: the heroin-addicted, OCD-suffering oldest son, Charlie, whom her husband disinherited, the gay son Henry who was a victim of AIDS in the late 1980’s when the stigma against victims was still great, to the son Christopher, who suffered a terrible motorcycle accident (with no helmet) that left him in a coma for four months, and a full five years to recover to the point where he could carry on his life. To lose a child must be heart-breaking, two lose two, unthinkable.

The main thing I got from Lady in Waiting is that whatever life throws at you, look at it as a gift. Lady Anne Glenconner is a ferociously happy person, so reading about all the drama in her life was tempered by her positive attitude in any situation. In one passage, she describes her husband Colin’s atrocious behavior, and says, ” That wasn’t the first or the last time he had got into a bad situation and I always wondered whether anybody would one day turn around and retaliate, but Colin never changed… I once asked him why he screamed at people, and he replied, ‘I like making them squirm. I like making them frightened.’

It was a shocking sentiment that I couldn’t begin to relate to, but I concentrated on the good things about him, which Colin had predicted I do. I once asked him why he had picked me, when he had millions of sophisticated girlfriends. He could have married any of them. Why was it that he wanted to marry me?

He replied, ‘Well, I knew that with you, you would carry on, you would never give up.'”

And that, in a word, is why this book is fascinating. Lady in Waiting is the story of a woman who never gave up, who always looks on the bright side of life, and has survived nine decades because of it.

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