Although separated by several centuries and menus whose options rarely coincided, the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, and Ivan the Terrible, the first Czar of Russia, were not entirely unalike at mealtimes, sharing an obsession with ritual and casual cruelty that while challenging to endure for those involved, makes for excellent reading for those not.
Princess Margaret and her demanding attitudes find themselves back in the spotlight thanks to Craig Brown’s superb new book Ma’am Darling, 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.
The book may itself have been inspired by a scene in Edward St Aubyn’s magnificent novel Some Hope, in which Princess Margaret appears, chilly and hostile, at a dinner, where she takes an instant dislike to the food placed before her.
“Is it venison? It’s hard to tell under this murky sauce,” she scowls. The French ambassador, unlucky enough to be seated nearby, accidentally transfers a fleck of the offending “jus” onto the Princess’s dress, at which point she orders him kneel and wipe it off. “I thought I couldn’t dislike the sauce more when it was on my plate,” she says, and moans on about “being showered in this revolting sauce.”
Those hoping for further glimpses of the caustic Royal table manner in Brown’s book are not disappointed, as the food and drink provided is met with abundant and breathtaking rudeness.
When offered a glass of Lord Carnarvon’s “rare and precious 1836 Madeira” for instance, HRH considers it “Exactly like petrol.”
Her reaction to a dish of coronation chicken that has been lovingly prepared by some old folk hyperventilating with excitement at being visited by royalty? “This looks like sick.”
It is in her furious insistence on protocol and etiquette, however, that it is hard to avoid comparison with the court of the Terrible.
For neither, nothing happens where nourishment is concerned, independently of their permission.
From Henri Troyat’s book Ivan the Terrible: “When the guests had taken their place around the Czar, they would remain frozen in mystical respect, awaiting his first gesture…Because of the tirelessly repeated rituals, meals sometimes lasted five hours…the obligation to do honour to all the cups sent by the Czar induced in some a stupor bordering on coma.”
This strict formality would have been just the Princess’s flavour.
No one is allowed to start before she does, and she often arrives late.
“‘Nor were her fellow guests permitted to carry on once she had finished,” says Brown.
“The Princess tended to wolf down what little food she ate, which meant that slowcoaches would have to down tools with half their food left uneaten.”
Indeed, so sycophantic were some hosts that if the Princess didn’t want, say potatoes, the potatoes would be removed so no one else could have them either.
And as in Russia, where “In private homes as at court, immoderate eating and drinking constituted the chief diversion” says Troyat, so HRH scoffed her way through house after house.
But even once she’d eaten the suffering wasn’t over.
She loved to carry on late, until 2, 3 or 4 in the morning, and of course no one was allowed to leave before she did.
The art critic Brian Sewell describes such an occasion: “The Princess arrived an hour before midnight for a ruined dinner scheduled for eight; by then the servants from the village had gone home to bed and the rest of us, some half-dozen, absolutely plastered, had to buckle-to and carry and carve the baked meats of sacrifice; she then kept us up until four in the morning, kippering us with her cigarettes.”
Like Ivan, the Princess was quite the social sadist in this regard.
Knowing that protocol dictated no one could leave, she would move toward the door, looking ready to make her departure, only to plunge back in to the centre of the room and immerse herself in conversation for another eternity, torpedoing the momentarily raised hopes of the exhausted guests.
Or having on one occasion been gently encouraged to play the piano she brusquely turned down the request until people began to make subtle signs they would like to leave.
The Princess then had a change of heart and decided she would like to play the instrument after all – “at which point she had beetled over to the piano and played it until four in the morning.”
While one probably took more calories on board with the Russian though, his table sadism was also of a different category.
Having eaten and drunk until fit to burst guests would arrive home only to find “it was not unusual for Ivan to send to their residences, as a token of friendship, more alcohol and food to be downed on the spot, in front of the officers who had brought it.”
And when guests really tested his patience, he could be quite the scold.
“Another time, annoyed by some jest of Prince Gvozdev’s, the Czar poured a bowl of boiling hot soup on his head. The unfortunate prince screamed with pain and tried to flee, but Ivan planted his knife in his chest.
A doctor was called. ‘Save my good servant’ Ivan said to him, ‘I have jested a little too roughly with him.’
‘So roughly’ replied Linsey (the doctor), ‘That God alone can bring him back to life. He is no longer breathing.'”
“Some time later, again at table, the Czar cut off the ear of the voivode Boris Titov, as a joke. Titov never changed his expression but thanked His Majesty for this “gracious punishment.”
Princess Margaret would doubtless have considered this quite appropriate, on the part of both the Czar and his guest.
Ma’am Darling, 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, by Craig Brown, is published by 4th Estate, £16.99