Simanaitis Says

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FOR 30 YEARS, Anne Glenconner was a lady in waiting for Princess Margaret, younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II. Now in her late 80s, Glenconner has got around to writing up her experiences, everything from a kid’s leafing through an original Leonardo da Vinci manuscript to participating in a royal wedding. Quite the life.

Here are tidbits gleaned from Rosemary Hill’s book review, “But You Married Him,” in the London Review of Books, June 4, 2020, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

On Having a Royal Houseguest. Hill writes, “Having Margaret to stay at Glenconner’s own house in Norfolk was like entertaining a well-meaning but impulsive child. Margaret’s attempt to be helpful by making her own morning tea stalled when she couldn’t work the kettle, and ‘more than once,’ she was found to have dismantled the chandelier and to be washing it in the bath.”

At left, Anne Glenconner, London-born 1932; at right, Princess Margaret, 1930–2002. Image from London Review of Books, June 4, 2020.

I’m reminded of Violet, Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess, asking quite innocently, “What is a weekend?” But I also recall Lady Mary’s cooking scrambled eggs after the hog-watering rescue.

The aristocracy is different from us. Maybe richer, but not necessarily in life’s experiences.

Helping at the Queen’s Wedding. Hill writes, “Glenconner was one of the queen’s maids of honour, attending rehearsals in Westminster Abbey—where it became apparent that the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Marquess of Cholmondeley [pronounced ‘Chumley’], was not up to the job. The job was to help the queen change into her various ceremonial robes. The marquess, who had probably never had to ‘dress himself, let alone anybody else,’ was completely flummoxed by the hooks and eyes, which had to be replaced with poppers [snaps to us Yanks], and the queen reported afterwards that the violent way he pushed her every time he did one up was ‘tiresome.’ ”

I suspect I’d be flummoxed as well helping the queen’s quick-change.

At Parties. As a lady in waiting for Princess Margaret at social gatherings, Glenconner had the responsibility of finding the next person on her list to be introduced, “then sail with apparent serenity through the crowd, VIP in tow, hoping to spot the princess from above.”

Fortunately, “… at nearly six foot tall, Glenconner towered over Margaret’s 5’1”….”

Anne Glenconner’s “Greatest Disappointment.” “Being a girl,” Hill notes, “she couldn’t inherent…. A photograph taken at her christening shows her great-grandfather in wing collar and watch chain, glaring down at the unsatisfactory baby.”

Male inheritance, of course, is one of the recurring themes in Downtown Abbey. Although if it’s American dollars….

The Codex Leicester and Anne’s DNA. Anne grew up in Holkham Hall, the family home in Norfolk. Thomas Coke (pronounced “Cook”), 1697–1759, commissioned the house and also, evidently being a bibliophile of the highest order, acquired a collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific writings in 1719. This collection became known as the Codex Leicester, what with Thomas Coke’s being the Earl of Leicester.

A page of the Codex Leicester, 1510, by Leonardo da Vinci.

During Anne Glenconner’s childhood, the 36-page notebook in da Vinci’s hand was kept in a safe in the butler’s pantry. Hill observes, “… every couple of weeks, Glenconner used to get it out, ‘lick my finger and spin through the pages… with interest.’ ‘Very sadly,’ from her point of view, her father sold it to keep up the estate.”

Again, estate economics is a familiar theme in Downtown Abbey.

Hill continues, “the Codex, later bought by Bill Gates, has become much more widely known; but it remains, Glenconner notes with some triumph, ‘covered with my DNA.’ ”

Codex History. The Codex Leicester changed hands, not to say name temporarily, in 1980 when bought for $5.1 million by Armand Hammer. He commissioned a refurbishing of its pages, which subsequently became known as the Codex Hammer.

In 1994, Bill Gates bought the manuscript at a Christie’s auction for $30,802,500. Gates had the pages digitized, some of which were later distributed as screen savers and wallpaper in Windows software.

Returning to its Codex Leicester moniker, selected pages of the manuscript have toured on the museum circuit in Sydney, Australia; Tokyo, Japan; Dublin, Ireland; Phoenix, Arizona; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Raleigh, North Carolina.

No doubt it’s still carrying Anne Glenconner’s DNA. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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