The Other Windsor Girl by Georgie Blalock Showcases the World of Princess Margaret
What could be more glamorous than life at the side of a princess? American author Georgie Blalock’s new novel about an aspiring historical romance writer who becomes the companion and observer of Princess Margaret’s young adulthood in postwar Britain provides an answer. It is one that deconstructs the British royal family in the era of social change and comparative privation.
Through the character of Vera Strathmore, who gains her place in Margaret’s “Set” as lady in waiting and confidante after a chance meeting with the princess, Blalock balances an insider’s view of palace life with a sympathetic, if often ambivalent, attitude towards the younger daughter of George VI. (The title is a nod, of course, to Philippa Gregory’s telling of the story of Mary Boleyn, younger sister to Anne.) But this novel, dominated by Margaret’s cigarettes and clandestine parties in jazz dens, is clearly closer to The Great Gatsby’s sensibility and atmosphere.
Post-war Britain is nothing like the reign of Henry VIII. Where British historical fiction is dominated by that era, the UK in the late 1940s and 1950s is a rarely explored setting. As Blalock describes it, this was a time of transition when “a little of the old world of Downton Abbey still existed before swinging ’60s London wiped it away for good”. The deprivation of lingering wartime rationing and the traditional social structure needing to adjust to a new reality combine to give Princess Margaret’s story the feeling of a counterpoint to its namesake.
That makes Princess Margaret the perfect avatar through which to examine the period – the spare to the perfect heir was an anti-heroine decades before the type came into vogue. As Blalock describes her behavior in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, “sometimes people act out when they feel trapped, lost or frustrated by the circumstances of their lives … She had no other outlet except her behavior to try to create an identity and a life separate from the one foisted on her”.
The identity Margaret developed was a foil to her older sister’s. Elizabeth was the dutiful princess and then queen, a source of stability for Britain in this period. Margaret had her “Set”, the group of admiring young aristocrats which formed around her when she came of age and attended her parties. Vera blended into the life of the Set more easily than she might have imagined, giving the reader a look at aristocratic parties as well as Margaret’s efforts to sneak away from the confines of the palace to more bohemian haunts. Margaret alternated between intense cynicism about her circumstances and a naivete about the prospects for the two love affairs she carried on during this period, with Peter Townsend and then Tony Armstrong-Jones. In the shadow of her sister’s proper marriage, family life, and eventual royal duties, Margaret appears to have an extended adolescence, which endured through the palace’s attempts at control. Vera, who resists her mother’s pressure to marry and yet puts her writing dream on hold while she commits to stand by Margaret, is a foil to them both.
Blalock acknowledged that she exaggerated certain aspects of Margaret’s relationship with Armstrong-Jones, including moving forward some aspects of their later conflicts in order to characterize him within the scope of the novel. “Much of Tony’s belittling of Margaret happened in the last few years of their marriage when it was breaking down,” she noted.
This tabloid dimension to postwar Britain – the focus on royal family scandal that would grow in subsequent decades to include the Queen’s son, daughter-in-law, and other relatives – is fascinating to imagine in its fictionalized infancy. Reflecting on both Margaret and Armstrong-Jones’s motives for pursuing a relationship, Blalock said that “I believe, based on my research, that they did originally have genuine feelings for each other.” However, both likely saw more cynical advantages: advancement for Armstrong-Jones, a possible solution to a broken heart over Peter Townsend for Margaret. She mused that it is “enough to make one wonder if there was more convenience in the marriage than love.” The degree to which that idea characterized not only Margaret’s broader life but some uncomfortable realities of the era in British national life is striking.
For this novel, Blalock did not seek access to official records about Margaret’s life, not wanting “the strict historical record to become a constraint when I created her as a fictional character”.
Although the contemporary British royal family traces its direct origin and legitimacy to this period, Blalock also noted that it was not aware of the novel while it was being researched and written. She does not anticipate any reaction upon its release. “I have to imagine they’re used to [fictional portrayals],” she said, “and accept it as just one of those things that comes with wearing the crown”.
About the contributor: Irene Colthurst is a California-based writer and tutor.