Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret at the Royal Lodge in Windsor in July 1946. Photo: Lisa Sheridan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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‘Elizabeth & Margaret’
In his new Royal biography, Andrew Morton reveals the dichotomy between the Queen and her younger sister, and draws parallels to other fractious relationships between “heir” and “spare” / BY Leanne Delap / April 1st, 2021
This story of the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, feels poignant and timely, reflecting the difficult dynamic between this generation’s “heir and spare,” nicknames their mother, Diana, called William and Harry. Biographer and journalist Andrew Morton explores the dualities at play in his new book Elizabeth & Margaret: The Intimate World of the Windsor Sisters, the true-life tale of the two young princesses as they grew to accept their separate, but equally confining, destinies.
“They were partners down the years,” Morton says in a phone interview from his home in Pasadena, Calif. (He and his wife split their time between SoCal and London these days.) “The relationship changed because of their different titles.” In no scenario is birth order more determinative of one’s life parameters than within the British system of constitutional monarchy.
“William is serious, stoical, even-tempered, like the Queen,” says Morton. “Orderly, measured, aware of so many people relying on her. As for Margaret, the defining characteristic of her life was a search for purpose. She was rebellious, glamorous, devil may care. Loved singing and Old Grouse. But later in her life, in a way she found it, in her loyalty and service to the Queen.”
The story of William and Harry is at a critical juncture, but they are still young, and much remains to be written. “There is an interesting parallel there,” says Morton. “It’s not exaggerated, and it extends to their characters.”
Morton is king of the celebrity biography, most famous, of course, for Diana: Her True Story, the 1992 book that stirred a cyclone in the Palace halls (and, it was later revealed, was written with the permission and secret active participation of Diana herself). He began his biographical journey in 1983 with a now-prescient take on Prince Andrew called The Playboy Prince. In addition to tomes on Hollywood, London and Washington newsmakers such as Posh and Becks, Monica Lewinsky, Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise and Madonna, his other royal subjects have included William and Catherine (timed to their 2011 wedding), Wallis Simpson, Kensington Palace, the Windsors and the Nazis, and, in a book he also released timed to her wedding, Meghan: Hollywood Princess.
The latest book came about when he was researching Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who Edward VIII fell in love with and voluntarily abdicated the throne in order to marry in 1936, leaving little brother Albert to pick up the sceptre. After all, the lives of Albert’s two children – Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret – changed irrevocably the moment Simpson walked through the Palace gates. Morton wanted to dig in to their change in fortune and how internal and external forces shaped them into the people they would become and the roles they would fulfill.
The research for this book, Morton admits, was difficult to do, in a pandemic year when libraries and the all-important National Archives in Britain were closed. At a time where the Royal family has reached peak saturation through factual and fictionalized accounts, from the massive Netflix hit The Crown to a slew of documentaries and biographies, Morton cleverly begins by exploring the years we don’t know as much about.
He covers the dynamic between the Queen’s father, Albert, who displayed opposite traits to his playboy brother, David, the heir to the throne. Albert, the Duke of York, was steady, faithful, made a good love match to a reliable woman – Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – and became a good family man, while David led a life of debauchery across Europe and beyond.
Morton says Elizabeth was “the Shirley Temple of her day,” even before she was earmarked for the ermine robes of Queen, and the Yorks were a tight family unit. “This contributed to Elizabeth’s ability [later] to become Queen, as the product of a strong-willed mother and a dutiful father.”
Morton says George V did not want David to take the throne. “He had a very ambivalent relationship with his son, as often was the case between king and successor, and as one could argue is the case between the Queen and Prince Charles.” The King, Morton explains, “took a dim view of David’s reckless manner, the fact he did not care to find a bride to continue the dynasty.” Meanwhile, Albert, his second son, “found a woman he absolutely adored and had two absolutely charming children.”
From the moment of her birth, he says, “Elizabeth captured the imagination. Everything she did was written about, and photographed. She appeared on matchboxes, playing cards, postcards, mugs, this very pretty blonde-haired little girl.” She arrived on the scene during the Depression “and provided a distraction to the woes of the public.”
Digging back into the family dynamics over the years, and the role of parenting in crafting monarch skills, Morton explains that, “The steady hand her father had on the nation in times of crisis,” was very influential to Elizabeth. “She and Margaret spent their teenage years during the war meeting people who were going up into battle and never returned. They were cloistered and exposed to reality at the same time.” Albert, who was crowned King George VI after David – King Edward VIII – abdicated the throne, “wanted Elizabeth to know what was ahead of her.” In other words, says Morton, he used the war as “a teachable moment.”
By contrast, Margaret “was a second child and so she was always neglected, got the off-cuts of everything, and second billing.” Her father made this up to her, Morton says, by allowing a warmth in the father-daughter bond that he didn’t share with Elizabeth. (As a side note, Morton mentions that Elizabeth was very much doted on by her grandfather, George V, whom she called “Grandpa England.”)
It all goes back to childhood, as any good therapist will assert. As for the Queen Mother, Morton says, “She treated both of them as twins. She dressed them alike. Even up to her late teens and early 20s, Elizabeth dressed like her sister.” He suspects she “wanted to infantilize them for longer,” to protect them and keep them with the family.”
Then we get to the place things often fall apart, in middle age. The Queen is so often unknowable due to her personality, her reserve and discretion, and the protective walls around her. Margaret lived hard and in the open. Her romances and losses were public. “She was in the spotlight, one of the Top 10 best-dressed women in the world back when those lists mattered,” says Morton.
For a time, he adds, “she hit the zeitgeist, hosting actors and musicians and poets, the Beatles, in her fashionable salon. But then, the caravan moves on. One minute you are cock of the walk, the next you are a feather duster.”
So the media that had loved her turned on her, criticizing her for cavorting in Mustique while the Queen vacationed in chilly Norfolk. “She didn’t arouse rancour,” says Morton.
They came, in later life, to lean on each other more. “You can understand the Queen through Margaret a bit more. The fact is the Queen is not an imperious, tough woman. She is quite kind and quite thoughtful of her sister and cared for her sister and was exasperated by her sister. There was a kind of a genuine motherly fondness for Margaret, because Margaret was always getting it in the neck.”
Princess Margaret died on February 8, 2002, at the age of 71. She had suffered three increasingly debilitating strokes in the years before a fourth claimed her life. Queen Elizabeth lost her closest confidant just two months before their mother died at 101. Morton describes Margaret’s funeral, where a single tear reportedly slipped down the Queen’s cheek as she stood with Margaret’s daughter, Sarah Chatto. Morton says the loss of her sister left the Queen without the one person who understood her the most. “For all their differences,” he writes towards the conclusion of his dual biography, “both sisters shared one enduring deeply rooted trait: loneliness. Both sisters were universally known and almost constantly surrounded by people. Yet in so many ways, they remained indecipherable to everyone but each other.”
As for the Queen, Morton says she continues to grow in her role as she approaches her 95th birthday on April 21. “I think it has been the Queen’s finest year. She has steadied the nerve of the nation, and spoken very eloquently. She is more active now to the general public than she ever was before. COVID-19 has jet-propelled her popularity.”