When I saw 87-year-old Anne Glenconner promoting her upcoming book on The Graham Norton Show last fall, she was so engaging I knew I couldn’t wait to read it. I always enjoy autobiographies and Glenconner’s outgoing, unfiltered personality promised lots of juicy reading. But, it wasn’t due to be released until the following March (2020) so I immediately put my name on the list for when it was available. Six months later, I’ve now binge-read Lady in Waiting and it was definitely worth the wait. I thoroughly enjoyed every single page.
Glenconner has lead an amazing life. As a pretty young aristocrat who grew up keeping company with Britain’s royal family, she served as a lady-in-waiting at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Then, in 1956, she married the ridiculously wealthy and highly eccentric Colin Tennant. If her young life hadn’t been exciting enough by then, it took on an even more bizarre trajectory once she was married.
As the eldest of three daughters born to the 5th Earl of Leicester and his wife, Anne was not eligible to inherit Holkham, the family estate and title because she was female. Primogeniture specified that males only qualified and no matter how distant the nearest male relative is, that’s who inherits. She “came out” (it had a different meaning in those days) at a huge ball on the family estate at the age of nineteen when she was expected to select an appropriate husband from the eligible young aristocrats her age. None took her fancy with the exception of Johnnie Spencer. They became engaged, then he changed his mind and eventually went on to marry Frances Shand Kydd who would become mother to Diana, Princess of Wales.
By the time she married Colin Tennant, Anne was twenty-three, almost old enough to be put on the shelf as an old maid. He turned out to be far more complicated and high-maintenance than she ever anticipated and their fifty-three-year marriage was a roller coaster of great times, temper tantrums and instability. He was prone to vicious rages at the most inappropriate times and although he was never violent with her, his mercurial moods kept her constantly on guard and walking on eggs.
The couple welcomed two boys early in their marriage, followed several years later by a third son and then, twin daughters. Anne was always friends with the royal family. Her mother was a Lady of the Bedchamber for Queen Elizabeth and Lady Anne herself was selected to be Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret, a position she held for nearly thirty years. Her duties included accompanying the princess on her royal duties including overseas trips, keeping her company off-duty, and serving as a confidante and pseudo best friend.
Life with Colin Tennant was a constant whirlwind. He loved parties, spending money, and entertaining. A restless soul, he bought and sold houses constantly which required the family often move with only a couple weeks’ notice. One of his purchases was the isolated island of Mustique in the Caribbean. With only a small village and a few inhabitants, he envisioned creating a private tropical paradise for the wealthy to escape to. There was no electricity, running water, or conveniences of any kind so he set about building a community from scratch.
When Princess Margaret married Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, Tennant gave her a gift of land and a house on Mustique as a wedding gift. It was only when her marriage to Armstrong-Jones dissolved a few years later that she claimed the gift, which eventually became her refuge. Over the years, as new villas were built and infrastructure improved, the rich and famous bought homes on Mustique. Week-long parties were common events and guests indulged with hedonistic abandon. Eventually, Colin spent most of his time in the Caribbean while Anne managed the estate, the London homes, overseeing the children in England and performing her duties as Lady in Waiting.
Despite what seems like a blissful life of wealth, parties, and privilege, Anne Glenconnor’s life was not all roses. Her eldest son Charlie suffered from undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder and became a heroin addict at a young age. Second son Henry died of AIDS. Youngest son Chris nearly died in a motorbike accident and it was only through the intervention of Princess Margaret that he was airlifted back to London for medical attention.
Anne’s husband was a philanderer and his many affairs were obviously difficult for her to overlook. But she was pragmatic. “Rarely, it seemed, were there just the two partners in a marriage. It was an aristocratic curse. Once I knew Colin had changed the playing field, I leveled it.” You go, girl!
Last year I read Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown. It was not a flattering account but instead a collection of gossip, third-person observations, and sniping. We know her life was complicated but we all have flaws and dark sides. Lady Anne Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting is a sympathetic look at life in the sphere of the royal family. Her chapter describing Princess Margaret’s final days and her death is particularly touching.
If you are familiar with the stories by and about the Mitford sisters, then you’ll love Lady in Waiting. You would also enjoy reading The Bolter by Frances Osborne whose grandmother, Lady Idina Sackville was a famous cousin of the six beautiful and famous Mitford sisters. Osborne’s book describes another unconventional and inhibited woman’s life in the mid-twentieth century and was an amazing read.
Anne Glenconner has written an intelligent and informative account of her life. Her recall and uninhibited descriptions of people and events that have become part of history make for a gripping read. While a life of privilege may seem carefree and without the concerns most of us experience on a daily basis, her book reminds us that tragedy and pain are not constrained by economic status. Glenconner’s life was colourful, tragic, and truly exceptional. I loved this book. It’s a great way to pass the time while we’re self-isolating.
Here is a selection of similar books you might enjoy. If you cannot access these books from your local bookstore or library, click on the image below to order from Amazon. Disclosure: If you order from these links, the book will be delivered right to your door, you will receive Amazon’s best price, and I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thank you.