Portrait of a Lady
27th November 2021
On the publication of her third book, Lady Anne Glenconner discusses becoming an author in her ninth decade, family tragedy and why she’ll always be a Norfolk girl. Harriet Cooper reports
To say that Lady Anne Glenconner has led a colourful life would be an understatement. There’s the childhood spent at Holkham Hall, as the eldest daughter of the 5th Earl of Leicester. Her marriage to Colin Tennant, Baron Glenconner, with whom she transformed the Caribbean island of Mustique into a private paradise. Not to mention, of course, three decades spent as Princess Margaret’s devoted lady-in-waiting.
And now, at the age of 89, she has just published her third book, A Haunting at Holkham. Described as “a gripping novel of wartime secrets, intrigue and deceit”, it tells the story of Lady Anne Coke who, after finding her beloved grandfather dead at the bottom of the stairs at Holkham Hall, is determined to unlock the mystery of his death. Full of rich historical detail, it is based on Lady Glenconner’s own experiences growing up at Holkham, brilliantly blending fact with fiction.
“It was wonderful to have the opportunity to go into more detail about my childhood in Norfolk,” says Lady Glenconner. “Writing this seemed to be the perfect way to share more of my early life and my memories of a place that is incredibly special to me.”
“I hope that readers will be entertained by it and gripped by the mystery of the plot. But I also hope that they will gain more of an insight into what it’s like to live in a large house like Holkham, with all the goings on upstairs and downstairs.”
Of course, Lady Glenconner is no stranger to the publishing world, having brought out her first novel Murder on Mustique last year, and her extraordinary memoir Lady in Waiting in 2019, which stayed in the Sunday Times bestseller list for 32 weeks. “I was overcome by it,” she admits, of becoming an overnight literary sensation. “I still feel humbled that people enjoyed the book. It’s been such a thrill to become an author in my ninth decade and, in many ways, I am happier now than I’ve ever been.”
Born Lady Anne Coke in 1932, she spent her formative years surrounded by Palladian splendour at Holkham. Though she was unable to inherit the estate as a result of primogeniture, her memories are fond. “My dear sister Carey and I used to ride our tricycles and bicycles along the vast corridors. We would also spend hours up in the attic making dens,” she recalls. “We loved riding our ponies in the park and playing among the ilex trees – which Holkham is famous for.”
At the age of 20, she was sent off by her mother on the Queen Mary to America to be a travelling salesgirl, selling Holkham pottery, returning home in 1953 to be a Maid of Honour at the Queen’s Coronation, before marrying Glenconner in April 1956. Just two years later they acquired Mustique and set about turning the island into a playground for the rich and famous, hosting the likes of Mick Jagger, Led Zeppelin, and, of course, Princess Margaret.
Indeed, Lady Glenconner was appointed Lady-in-Waiting to the Princess in 1971, accompanying her on state occasions and foreign tours, a role in which she remained until Margaret passed away in 2002.
Life has not been without heartache. Her marriage to Glenconner was tempestuous, and of their five children, two died prematurely. “My biggest regret is losing my two beautiful sons Charlie and Henry [Charlie died from Hepatitis C following a drug addiction and Henry died of AIDS]. They were both so young and I miss them every day.”
I ask whether writing her memoir proved cathartic. “Very. It’s always hard to revisit the saddest and toughest moments in my life, but writing the book forced me to do just that. Family has always been the most important thing in my life.”
An adventure-packed life, yes, but it’s Norfolk – she lives in a farmhouse near Holkham – that has Lady Glenconner’s heart. “All round the coast it’s a wonderful mixture of sea, sand and marshes, full of birds. I love making trips to nearby towns and villages – popping to the shops in Wells-next-the-Sea or returning to the beach at Holkham and the surrounding pine woods.”
A Haunting at Holkham by Anne Glenconner is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99.