Wednesday, June 14, 2006

It's what you make of it.

Princess and pauper: who had the richer life?

Richard Morrison

Beauty, vivacity, wealth, privilege: how can you go wrong if you are blessed at birth with those assets? And while you ponder that question, let me lob its converse at you. Ugliness, depression, poverty, persecution: how can you go right if you are blighted by that quartet of misfortunes?

By a fluke of timing I have been thinking about two 20th-century women whose lives offer contrasting answers to those contrasting questions. The first is Princess Margaret. Her hoard of baubles, bangles and beads — not to mention Fabergé clocks, Cartier cigarette cases and Wedgwood teapots — is under the hammer at Christie’s today and tomorrow. The sale is ostensibly to pay the £3 million death duties on her estate, though the auctioneers can scarcely contain their gleeful expectation that it will raise up to ten times that figure.

And the other woman? She is nothing like as well known, but should be. In the 1930s, while Margaret was toddling round Buckingham Palace, Nina Lugovskaya was growing up in a slum Moscow flat. Those were the years of Stalin’s political purges, when two million Russians were imprisoned and 40,000 executed. Nina’s family was seen as dangerously free-thinking, her father continually in prison or exile. And in 1937 the 17-year-old Nina was also incarcerated, along with her mother and two sisters: sentenced to five years’ hard labour in a Gulag camp, followed by seven years’ exile in Siberia.

None of which we would know today were it not that, from the age of 13, Nina kept a diary, like Anne Frank a decade later in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. It is an astonishingly well-written and perceptive chronicle of what life was like under Stalin, as well as what life is like for teenage girls everywhere in every era. When Nina was arrested the diary was confiscated and the passages where she rages against the State’s lies and iniquities, or contemplates poisoning herself, used as evidence against her (suicidal tendencies being regarded as a “thought crime”). It was recently discovered in the KGB’s archives and is now published by Doubleday in an excellent new English translation titled I Want to Live. Everybody should read it. Especially teenagers.

Bizarre though it may seem, I see both Nina and Margaret as victims — of their circumstances and of a callous century. Margaret’s lifestyle, swanning round Mustique and London’s swankiest watering-holes, may not immediately suggest her as a worthy recipient of sympathy. But you can’t survey the 890 items in the Christie’s sale without being struck by the hopeless hollowness of her existence. All those pointless jugs from far-flung colonial outposts of an evaporating empire. All those ceremonial scissors for a life of snipping ribbons. All that expensive but tasteless tat, inherited from a weird family that had started the century ruling a quarter of the world and ended it as little more than a mega-budget soap opera.

And in the middle of all this pompous nonsense, not some pliable Stepford Wife but a wilful, passionate and strikingly attractive woman. (The auction’s most celebrated item, the Annigoni portrait of Margaret as a luscious, ruby-lipped Renaissance goddess, may be idealised, but it isn’t a complete fabrication.) Yet she was a woman compelled by duty to suppress her true emotions, and at the same time to accept smaller and smaller bit-parts in a royal roadshow that was itself becoming irrelevant. Born and bred to bask in the limelight (at the age of 7 she was two heartbeats away from the throne), she was later unceremoniously elbowed into the wings. And she hated it.

By contrast, Nina’s childhood held the promise of nothing except a life of gathering gloom. Perpetually cold, half-starved, one shoddy dress to her name, and living in dread of the ominous knock on the door, she was also acutely conscious of a congenital squint which (she felt) made her the laughing-stock of boys she fancied. Yet in her diary she lacerates the shortcomings of the system with such sardonic wit that the reader senses that she will have the indomitable spirit to survive anything that Stalin throws at her. And she does. The trauma of having her diary used against her apparently ended her dream of becoming a writer. But in exile she fell in love with a fellow prisoner, a painter. They married, settled in a remote town and she, too, became a respected landscape artist (a book of her art was published in the West), living long enough to see the Soviet Union collapse.

So she turned her life around. Margaret’s trajectory, by contrast, went the other way. Brittle, haughty, spoilt rotten, trapped by status, she frittered her inner life on doomed relationships and then fell into a long, lonely, alcohol-soaked decline. Very sad. She started with so much, but was able to do so little with it.

Their stories have nothing in common, of course, except for this moral: when people are forced to play a role that is not truly themselves, it is impossible for them to unlock their full potential as human beings. Princess or pauper, political prisoner or modern wage slave, they are living a lie — a certain path to unhappiness. But how many of us have the courage to break out, as Nina Lugovskaya did, and be ourselves?

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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