Lady Anne Glenconner was maid of honour at the Queen’s coronation, and served as a lifelong friend and companion to Princess Margaret. Now she’s telling the story of her own remarkable life. Alice Cairns finds out more.
Have you read Lady in Waiting? Lady Anne Glenconner’s bestseller is that rare thing – a memoir that really is stranger than fiction. From her war-torn childhood to her tempestuous marriage, every page of this jaw-dropping autobiography contains fresh revelations about life in the shadow of royalty. So why did she wait almost 90 years before telling her story?
“I couldn’t have risked it if Colin [Tennant, her husband] or Princess Margaret had been alive” Lady Anne tells me. “In fact, I didn’t even consider it until a young man I was sitting next to at a weekend party asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a book. I said ‘no, of course not, I’m 87!’”
But Lady Anne changed her mind, and Lady in Waiting is the welcome result. Chelsea residents will enjoy Lady Anne’s memories of living in Tite Street, taking her children to play in the grounds of the Royal Hospital and accompanying Princess Margaret on regular shopping trips to Peter Jones. The book has also made a splash with international readers, published to rapturous reception in Europe and beyond.
“Lady in Waiting has travelled all over the world – it’s in Russia, Japan, France, Romania, and it’s got a great following in Finland! One of the added pleasures is that I receive so many letters: I’ve become a sort of ‘agony author’. I get a lot of letters from young men who are gay, who don’t dare to tell their parents, because I wrote about my son Henry dying of AIDS. In fact, I even gave a talk to the gay community in Milwaukee over Zoom recently!”
This outpouring of good feeling came as some surprise to Lady Anne, who had feared that her colourful memories might cause pain to those around her.
“I tried to keep it as amusing and light as possible, but I was terrified that my children would mind what I’d written about their father. Luckily, when they read it, they all said ‘oh mummy, you’ve been too kind to dad!’”
Indeed, Colin Tennant emerges from Lady in Waiting as a complex figure – a charming, fun-loving husband who is nevertheless plagued by demons, and who initiates his young wife into married life by dragging her to a Paris brothel on their wedding night. Lady Anne told that particular story on The Graham Norton Show in 2019, to a raucous reception:
“The actor Chadwick Boseman came up to me afterwards and said “Gee whizz lady!’ And I thought, well, I’ve arrived!”
In recent years, Lady Anne has delved into the world of crime fiction, motivated by a lifelong love of Agatha Christie (“I’ve always wanted to be Miss Marple”). Her latest novel is A Haunting at Holkham, a semi-autobiographical murder mystery set in her childhood home. The titular haunting is based on Holkham’s resident ghost, Lady Mary, who Lady Anne assures me is “very real.”
“I never saw Lady Mary, but my sister did. In fact, the present Lady Leicester, who lives at Holkham, has had to have a priest out to exorcise her daughter’s bedrooms!”
And it’s not just ghosts and murderers who stalk the pages of A Haunting at Holkham. Lady Anne has also used the book to explore her shocking experiences at the hands of her childhood governess.
“I had this really awful, sadistic governess while my parents were in Cairo during the war. She was absolutely wonderful with everyone else, smiling and making up to my grandfather, but every single night she’d find an excuse to tie me up. I assumed that my mother knew what she was doing and approved of it, which was a horrifying thing.
“For a long time, the memories were so painful to me that I didn’t like to think about what happened, but I actually found that writing about my experience was very therapeutic. I realised I could simply kill her off at the end, which was wonderful!”
Discussing the decision to blend fact and fiction inevitably leads us onto The Crown – a sore subject for Lady Anne, who’s had to swear off the Netflix Original for the sake of her blood pressure.
“The latest series have been completely fictitious” she tells me. “I don’t mind if they want to make things up, but they should admit that’s what they’re doing!” She approved of Claire Foy’s portrayal of the Queen, but claims Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret is “a bit over the top”, while Olivia Colman is “absolutely hopeless.”
“She knew she wasn’t any good. She just wasn’t right for the part, and she thought that too. Her smile is too gummy!” she tells me with a shrug.
Luckily, Lady Anne is too busy with a whirlwind of book tours, appearances and parties to worry for long about The Crown. Having worked as a travelling salesman (selling the pottery her family hand-made at Holkham) she’s more than happy to travel the UK to discuss her books with readers – even as her 90th birthday approaches.
“Being married to Colin, one was invisible – and of course, it was one’s job to be invisible around Princess Margaret! And so to finally be noticed, to have people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed my books – well, I’ve left it rather late, but I’ve never had such a good time, ever! I just feel very lucky that I’ve had such a wonderful life, and that I have something to write about!”