Being very common, I have something of a mania for aristo-lit: a passion for stories about big houses and the wanton eccentrics who inhabit them that began in childhood with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, continued into my teenage years with all things Mitford, and now finds ongoing sustenance mostly in diaries (Chips Channon, I salute you, and all who sailed in you). Nevertheless, I have to admit to being somewhat unprepared for Lady in Waiting, in which Anne Glenconner muses on her stiff upper lip and how it saw her through a marriage lasting 54 years to a man whose idea of a honeymoon treat was to take her – a girl who had been a virgin only hours before – to a fleapit of a hotel to watch two strangers having sex (“That’s very kind, but no thank you,” she said when invited to join in). Is her memoir a horror show or a delightful entertainment? A manual for how to live, or how not to live? In truth, I’m not sure even she would know the answer to these questions.
The eldest child of the fifth Earl of Leicester, Glenconner was maid of honour at the Queen’s coronation and lady-in-waiting to her childhood friend Princess Margaret. She grew up at Holkham Hall in Norfolk – a house so huge that if the footmen put raw eggs in a bain-marie as they walked from kitchen to nursery, they’d be boiled on arrival – and, aged 23, married Colin Tennant, later Lord Glenconner, the owner of a Scottish castle called Glen and of the Caribbean island of Mustique. Tennant was, she tells us repeatedly, great fun and so generous. But it can’t have been too much fun when he deliberately trapped her in the fold-up bed in their cabin on a train, or when he took her to a cock fight (one of the cocks attached itself to her head, causing it to bleed; far from being sympathetic, he was furious that she’d ruined the betting).
What of his generosity? Well, there were certainly lots of parties, attended by Bianca Jagger et al. My favourite story, however, involves the visit to Glen of his aesthete kinsman, Stephen Tennant. Uncle Stephen being not at all keen on the purple of the heather, Colin kindly sprinkled the moors with blue paper flowers. “Oh, darling!” said Uncle Stephen. “That’s much better, isn’t it?”
Glenconner knows that she’s privileged, and if the staff, the houses and the holidays come with a price in the form of a man who lies in the foetal position when he cannot get his own way, and who wears paper knickers (in order to be able to eat them for a party trick), so be it. She can cope. She has a Gypsy caravan into which she can escape when it gets too much – and later, she takes refuge in her duties for Princess Margaret, that great lover of prawn cocktail and Antiques Roadshow. (HRH, incidentally, is another of those she insists was great fun, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.) Additionally, she has her stoicism – which is where it all gets interesting. Much as I loved reading about the way, say, that she and her mother, the countess, would gather jackdaw eggs using a ladle attached to a walking stick (apparently, they’re as delicious as plover’s eggs, though since I’ve tasted neither, I can’t possibly comment), after a while there’s no ignoring the painful and widening disjunction between the outward whirl of her life and the repeated tragedies that befall her family.
Her first son, Charlie, a heroin addict, dies of hepatitis C. Her second son, Henry, dies of an Aids-related illness at just 29 (as a photo caption helpfully reminds us, her husband informed her that Henry was ill just moments before the couple donned fancy dress for the Peacock Ball they were throwing to celebrate his birthday). Her third son, Christopher, following an accident during his gap year, ends up in a coma for four months; it takes him years to learn to walk again. These are unimaginably terrible events, and it’s impossible not to admire her fortitude as she deals with her fear and her grief; as she patiently sits by Christopher’s bedside, refusing to believe he will never wake up. But as she admits, her two older boys were also the victims of a system, cold and inflexible, that insists on nannies, boarding schools and a certain emotional distance on the part of their parents (“There I was, immersed in royal life, while my eldest son was running wild,” as she understatedly puts it).
As a girl, Glenconner spent years away from her mother and father, having been evacuated during the war; they left her with a nanny who tied her by the wrists to her bed every night before she went to sleep. But though she remembers vividly the pain this caused her, somehow she cannot avoid visiting on her own children a similar fate. When they cry as she drops them at boarding school, she weeps too – and yet still she drives away. In the end, her book isn’t only a record, funny and sometimes dazzling, of a way of life now almost disappeared. It’s an unwitting examination of English repression: both of how it gets you through and of how it can slay you.
• Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian