Royal insider Anne Glenconner: ‘I’m not frightened of anything’

If Anne Glenconner had been born a boy, she’d own the pub that we’re meeting in, the surrounding estate of Holkham, the fifth-largest in England, and the title of the Earl of Leicester. Instead, all she received from Holkham was a third of a set of china.

“My father was old-school: women got nothing. We didn’t count, really.” It wasn’t the last time Lady Glenconner would be denied. When her husband Colin Tennant died in 2010, she found he’d left his land on the Caribbean island of Mustique, which they had made into a celebrity-strewn bohemia, to his valet. “It was a humiliation.”

This has been the pattern of Glenconner’s life: at birth, she disappointed men; ever since, they’ve disappointed her. So she compensated. She spent three decades as lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. In her late eighties, she has excelled as an author, writing a riveting memoir and two page-turner novels.

I’d worried that Glenconner, now 89, would be a frail interviewee. I thereby join the list of men who have underestimated her. She leads me from our designated table near other diners to an empty dining room behind a curtain. “Do you think I could order a glass of white wine, please? Sauvignon Blanc, medium,” she tells the waitress the moment we sit down. Seventy-one years after Tatler named her debutante of the year, the poise remains. She sits opposite me with a sleek bob, pearl drop earrings and a long purple scarf. She has no doubts about her own stamina, but a few about my voice recorder’s. “I do rabbit away, so I hope the batteries are going to stand up.”

She canters through anecdotes: war, men, monarchy. I knew she’d outdo me on etiquette — but on energy? “You just press my button and off I go. No trouble interviewing me. Although I’ve got to be careful. They said don’t drink too much.”

Next year Britain celebrates the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. But the monarchy is unsteady. Prince Philip died in April; the Queen has been unwell. Prince Charles’s charity donors are under scrutiny. Harry and Meghan have left for America. Andrew has not, because he faces a civil trial there for alleged sexual abuse. Meanwhile, aristocratic privilege jars with the age of diversity schemes.

Glenconner is more articulate about the top of the British class system than the royals themselves. Her life has been an exercise in the question “why me?” Her fortunes have been extreme; so have her misfortunes. She was a maid of honour at the coronation. But her eldest son, Charlie, was a heroin addict. Her second son, Henry, was diagnosed with HIV shortly after coming out as gay. Before they died, her third son, Christopher, had a motorbike accident, spending four months in a coma.

During lunch, more darkness emerges. But her mood is light. Since Margaret’s death in 2002 and Colin’s in 2010, Glenconner has blossomed. “I’ve been in the shadow all my life. I’ve always been somebody trying to make it OK for other people. Suddenly, yippee, I came out with a bang!”

Queen Elizabeth with her maids of honour on her coronation day in June 1953. Glenconner is pictured third from the left © The Print Collector/Getty Images

Her 2019 memoir Lady in Waiting has sold more than half a million copies. “I’m a gay icon in America! I have a lot of letters. I’m a sort of agony author. Young gay men who find it difficult to tell their parents . . . I say quite orrf-ten the parents know.”

What my recorder can’t capture are the eye-rolls, the pulled faces, for subjects she deems beneath her — including her husband. “Colin would be so jealous of me. He was banging on about his memoir for years. There was no question of me ever thinking of writing anything.”

I’d planned to ask Glenconner about assisted dying. Instead I realise that our theme is unassisted living. “I warned Charlie about drugs, I warned Henry about gay people taking protection, I warned Christopher not to have a motorbike . . . Now I’m on my own, no men, except you, giving me lunch. It’s not that I don’t like men! But ones that are near to one are absolutely maddening.”

Glenconner orders sardines — “my favourite”. I choose lentil moussaka. Outside, pink-footed geese and RAF planes fly in formation. Holkham is rewilding. “I hate rewild . . . oh, I mustn’t say that. I tried rewilding some of my garden. All I got was nettles and brambles.”

She portrays the aristocracy as “custodians” of Britain’s great estates, burdened by worry for them. Her youth at Holkham was not that jolly. Her father was traumatised by his time in a foxhole in El Alamein. “My mum said, ‘You mustn’t mind.’” At boarding school, Glenconner was “always hungry” and “freezing cold . . . I can feel it now.”

One suitor cut Glenconner off, fearing that her family had “mad blood”, on account of distant relatives in a mental hospital. Along came Tennant, a more lowly aristocrat, full of charisma. She married him when she was 23. On the second night of their honeymoon, he took her to a Parisian brothel to watch a couple have sex. In later years, he’d complain to her about his mistresses. In her memoir, and in interviews since, Glenconner has described Colin as having a “temper”. Obituaries described him as an “eccentric”. The truth is more chilling.

She indicates her left ear. “I can’t hear at all in that ear. I didn’t write about what Colin did to me. It was too difficult for the children.” She has Christopher and twin daughters; they thought her book was “very generous” to their father. Colin beat her? “Oh God. He beat me up with sticks. And I can’t hear.”

The horror is incongruous with our genteel setting, her sardines delicately arranged, my moussaka a little hot. I want to ask more. But with a courtier’s firmness, Glenconner sweeps forward: “Anyway, there we are.” Like an incoming tide revealing a shell on the beach, she gives a glimpse, then rolls on.

We return to the topic. “I remember once a doctor telling me that it was as if [Colin] had one skin too few. Sitting here with Colin, whether it would be something making a noise, or if we were waiting here too long . . . ” She mimics an explosion.

Anne Glenconner with her husband Colin Tennant on the Caribbean island of Mustique in March 1973 © Slim Aarons/Getty Images

She insists that he was “wonderful in lots of ways . . . If he was here, he’d be clever, funny. Having being brought up at Holkham with all my father’s shooting friends, I’d never met anyone like that. Completely seduced me.” He was “absolutely wonderful” with Christopher, after the latter’s bike accident, because he “felt he wasn’t a threat to him”.

Colin was not the first person to abuse Glenconner. When she was a child during the war, she was sent without her parents to Scotland for three years. For a year, a governess called Miss Bonner tied her hands to the bedpost at night. “It was appalling. I still wake up sometimes like this” — she holds her hands behind her head. “You either survive or you don’t. I perhaps fortunately have survived. But nowadays people complain about not having pigs in blankets for Christmas. They complain about anything!”

Glenconner wrongly assumed that her mother knew about Miss Bonner’s abuse. “I tried to talk to her about it, and she said, ‘Oh, darling, things happened in the war.’ That was it.” But her mother definitely knew about Colin’s violence. “My mother, once or twice when he was particularly abusive to me, did say, ‘It’s your last chance.’ But Colin was terribly exciting.” We’re off the smooth asphalt of memory lane, into the thorny thickets. I’m sorry, I say. “But anyway.” She pauses. “That happened a lot, I think.”

The Victoria

Park Road, Holkham, Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk

Tomato juice £2.90

Sauvignon Blanc x5 glasses £39.20

Grilled sardines £17.75

Red lentil and aubergine moussaka £17.25

Ratatouille £4

Chocolate cheesecake with cherry sorbet £7.75

Poached pear with orange sorbet £7.50

Americanos x2 £7

Total (inc service, less staff discount) £100

It was Princess Margaret, fresh from her separation from Lord Snowdon, who gave Glenconner a counterbalance. Boarding a flight back from the US, a raging Colin was dragged from the plane. Margaret simply “pulled down the blind so I couldn’t see him, and said, ‘I think we’ll probably need a drink.’ And we didn’t see him for four days.”

In Glenconner’s second novel, A Haunting at Holkham, a character comments that the aristocracy “spends a lot of time pretending not to notice things”. “Absolutely true. When [Colin] came back after four days, nothing was said.” Colin was banned from BA. “Luckily Virgin was just getting going.”

Read in one way, her books reveal the silliness of England’s upper classes: neglectful parents, semi-arranged marriages and constant affairs. People who excel in complex etiquette but struggle with simple ethics. Glenconner describes infidelity as “an aristocratic curse”. “We just take it for granted. My father used to pick up ladies on the train going from here to London. My mother said, ‘I don’t mind about the ladies coming up to lunch, but I’m left with their husbands, who are so boring’ . . . One minds. I minded about Colin. But you work round it. The thing is, we didn’t get divorced.

“One knew that men have affairs. And if it gets too bad, then one has one oneself. ” She had her own “dear friend”, with whom she shared a weekly lunch and the odd “wonderful weekend”. “[Staying with Colin] was for the children. It’s quite a grown-up way to behave. You shouldn’t have children if you’re not prepared to sacrifice quite a lot for them.”

She tells the story of one woman who left her aristocratic husband because she didn’t want to live in his stately home. “She said, ‘I’ve become a socialist, I don’t believe in big houses.’ I said, ‘Well, I wish you’d thought of that before you married him.’ I mean, it’s hopeless.”

All this explains her hurt at Colin’s will, even though a judge later awarded Glenconner’s grandson some of the fortune. “That was The Absolute End, because it hurt the children so much.”

Princess Margaret is mostly remembered as rude and rudderless. To Glenconner, the Queen’s sister was a loyal, upbeat friend, and “wonderful” when her son Henry was ill with Aids. In Antony Armstrong-Jones, the photographer Lord Snowdon, she chose a husband arguably even worse than Colin. “One of his mistresses had a baby by him on his honeymoon! . . . Colin had these rages and it was all over. Tony was calculating, he was mean and horrible.” Did Margaret have a happy life? “I think there were very dark moments.”

Glenconner, second from left, waits on the jetty with Princess Margaret ahead of the arrival of the Queen in Mustique in 1977 © Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

I ask if royal life is boring, not glamorous. “Well, I’m not going to talk in any length about Meghan, but that’s exactly part of the trouble. No, it’s not glamorous, it’s not riding around in a coach.”

Is there any truth to Harry’s claim that his family are “trapped”? “No. I think Prince Harry, sadly, it was all to do with Princess Diana’s death.” Prince Charles is “a great friend”, who’ll make a “good king”. He’ll have to balance his beliefs with constitutional neutrality, I say. “He’s going to find it quite difficult,” she smiles. “He realises, obviously, when you’re king or queen, a lot of your opinions have to remain within you.” Charles wants a smaller royal family, which leaves Andrew as “obviously a problem”. Some minor royals may be needed for public duties, but not Andrew. “He’s had it.”

The Queen’s age is unspoken. “There’s going to be the most enormous outpouring. I don’t know if grief exactly is the right word — I’d love to choose a pudding — it’ll be quite extraordinary.” I suggest the Queen has earned a retirement. “She doesn’t want to retire, really. No, no.” I read her the puddings. “I’m not going to have Lord Leicester’s smelly cheeses!”

Will the monarchy still be here in a similar form in 50 years? “How can we say? It might be. It depends so much on Prince Charles, Prince William. It’s what people want instead. They don’t want Mr Trump or something like that. I think when people look at that, they’ll go, ‘Help! Help! We’ll stick to our royal family.’”

The waitress asks for our orders. Glenconner and I are affronted. “We have ordered pudding,” she says. “No, maybe we haven’t!” We realise our wine has taken effect. “We’re obviously having quite a successful time!” I order poached pears, Glenconner fancies chocolate cheesecake.

She attributes her resilience to the war. When Christopher was in a coma, she also had an Anglican awakening. “It was like champagne being pumped through you. Extraordinary . . . At the end of it, I just felt, ‘I can cope.’” Christopher can now walk, but not work. “He always says, ‘Mum, it’s much worse for you. I wouldn’t change my life at all. I’ve met different people.’”

Two hours into our lunch, Glenconner says she found it “quite difficult” when Henry came out. Ultimately, her humanity overtook her prejudice. “One learns a lot. I mean, this is just my take on life.”

She sums up: “Men in my life haven’t come out too well.” An exception is Mick Jagger, who plays cricket with the locals on Mustique and has donated to the school there. “I said to Mick, ‘You’re the only man who comes out well in my book on Mustique.’ He said, ‘That’s the very first time anybody’s said that!’”

Glenconner seems sad that her dessert isn’t more chocolatey. We order coffee. When she mishears the waitress, she blames her poor hearing on old age.

She says that those who lived through the war spoiled their children: “Maybe we all made a mistake, trying to make it all wonderful.” For once, she’s unpersuasive. In truth, she repeated some of her parents’ flaws. When her children were young, she was a distant figure. Reflecting, she concedes she “wouldn’t send girls to boarding school”.

I return to Colin. Would she have liked someone to have sorted him out? “Probably. But then it was a terrible mixture of feeling so sorry for him. To behave like that is so sad, actually. I felt very sad for him in a way. Sometimes he was so sad afterwards. He did say sorry.” She speaks with sorrow, then exhales with understatement. “But I think he could have done a little bit more, actually. Because he was very frightening. Very, very frightening.”

Did she ever snap back at him? “There were moments when one had had a bit to drink after dinner and suddenly didn’t want to have any more. But on the whole, I tried not to. It didn’t help much.” Was therapy never an option? I ask, but she moves on. “There we are. But what he’s done is that I’m having such an amazing time. Because I’m not frightened of anything.”

“I think this table’s been perfect,” she says, as I draw back the curtain. “It would’ve been awful out there. We wouldn’t have been able to say anything at all. We needed to be alone. I’m going to come here with the Duchess of Cornwall on Friday.”

The bill comes with a staff discount — Glenconner’s consolation, I suppose, for not inheriting the place. I go to shake her hand goodbye, but she offers an embrace, and I wonder if it’s one kiss or two. We’re no longer so divided by class, generation and gender; we are just two tipsy souls struggling with our Englishness. Glenconner has a novel variant of old age. May it prove contagious.

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

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