Since its first season premiered on Netflix in 2016, The Crown has garnered attention from viewers, critics, and from the members of the royal family whose lives it portrays. The series’ fourth season, which was released late last year, has reached the top of Netflix’s “Most Watched” list.
Spanning the time period between 1977 and 1990, season four gives an insiders’ view of the happenings within the royal family, most notably the courtship between Charles and Diana, and Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Some critics are calling into question the historical accuracy of the plot, with sources close to the royal family claiming that the show is “trolling on a Hollywood budget.” Amongst the more subtle, yet provocative subplots is that of Princess Margaret’s internal, existential struggles. Her romantic failures, health complications, and some shocking family news are the catalysts that initiate her interior wrestling with questions about faith, identity, and morality.
We find the Princess (played by Helena Bonham Carter) at the start of episode seven making herself up in her boudoir with sultry music playing in the background. The princess is awaiting the arrival of her friend, Derek “Dazzle” Jennings, with whom she finds herself to be quite in love. After downing some flutes of champagne and dancing, they settle on the couch as she starts to draw in for a kiss. He stops her abruptly, telling her he has “a gift,” some gossip.
Much to Margaret’s dismay, Dazzle has converted to Roman Catholicism and will be entering the seminary. She complains to her sister, Queen Elizabeth, at breakfast the next morning that she’s lost another love interest, this time, to God. “That’s the second reason he wasn’t the right man for you,” comments Elizabeth.
“The first being?”
“Well…he’s a ‘friend of Dorothy’…” she replies sheepishly, employing the phrase used in the 1980s to imply that someone is homosexual. It then dawns on the princess that the way Dazzle looked at her with “great big adoring eyes” was not because of his romantic attraction, but rather his “raging snobbery.”
Princess Margaret was known for her extravagance, consecutive love affairs, and at times hedonistic tendencies. Her emotional dependency on whisky and excessive chain smoking (up to 60 cigarettes per day) lands her in the hospital, and she comes out committing to give up her vices and focus on what is most important: her “duty as a royal.” Having lost hope in love, which for some is a “tender kiss” but for her is a “sharp axe,” her royal duties are the only thing that can’t let her down and that will “keep her afloat” and fill the “yawning void” of her days with “a sense of meaning”… or so she thinks.
Soon after, Queen Elizabeth visits Princess Margaret with some unfortunate news. According to the 1937 Regency Act, Prince Edward (who just came of age) must replace Princess Margaret as Counsellor of State. “Don’t take that away from me. It’s all I’ve got!” she cries out.
“You will have time to concentrate on your convalescence,” says Elizabeth, attempting to console her sister. The conversation takes a spiritual turn, as Margaret unveils her deep existential discontent… which one could even call an Augustinian restlessness.
“Don’t you… see? Time, it scares me. It fills me with dread. I want something to fill it with.”
“Well, you still have your interests…and your friends, your charities…”
“Oh, please!” exclaims Margaret, hinting at the vacuousness of her glamorous escapades, with which she attempts in vain to cover over the demands of her heart’s yearning.
“Friends! The ones worth knowing, they’re fed up with me…Charities? They don’t want me either. No, not now that we have the Princess of Wales, who’s younger, she’s nicer, prettier. No. Nobody wants this…I asked you for just one thing. To give me work! A purpose! Dignity.”
After the princess begins unraveling emotionally and returns to her usual vices, family members recommend she see a psychotherapist. The therapist begins their first session asking about mental health issues in the royal family, and then goes on to bring up Katherine and Narissa Bowes-Lyons, the developmentally disabled daughters of John “Jock” Bowes-Lyon (brother of the Queen Mum, Margaret’s uncle). Princess Margaret leaves the session in shock, wondering why she’s never heard of her first cousins, whom the therapist tells her are currently institutionalized.
Margaret interrogates her mother, who believed them to be dead, but then decides to investigate for herself. She enlists Dazzle, who’s now in priestly formation, to accompany her on a visit to the mental institution at which her cousins allegedly live. She sends him in alone, and he comes back to report that Katherine and Narissa have photos of her and Elizabeth hanging by their beds. He also discovered that there are three other family members living in the institution.
The Princess, utterly scandalized, confronts her mother, demanding an explanation. “Five members of our close family locked up and neglected!”
“What do you expect us to do?”
“Behave like human beings!?”
“Oh, don’t be so naive. We had no choice.” The Queen Mum goes on to explain that the abdication of Edward III had damaged the royal family’s image in the press, and that any further controversies would only make matters worse. Margaret’s moral outrage stems from her disillusionment with often being treated as a black sheep for her decadent lifestyle and complicated interior life. She intuits her need for something more noble, more objectively valuable, than “respectability” and the mere keeping up of appearances.
“You were too young to understand. It’s complicated.”
“No, it’s not! It’s wicked, and it’s cold-hearted, and it’s cruel. And it’s entirely in keeping with the ruthlessness I myself have experienced in this family. If you’re not first in line, if you’re an individual character with individual needs, and God forbid an irregular temperament…If you don’t fit the perfect mold of silent, dutiful supplication, then you’ll be spat out, or you’ll be hidden away, or, worse, declared dead! Darwin had nothing on you lot. Shame on all of you.”
Her mother goes on to explain that the family’s real concern was “the integrity of the bloodline.” Were the public to think that the gene pool were not “100% pure,” they might determine that the British monarchy has become “untenable.”
Although her therapist rules out Margaret’s emotional instability being linked to her cousin’s developmental disabilities, she continues to feel disillusioned with the royal family and with her own life in general. She recounts to Dazzle that the therapist has prescribed her medication to help her deal with her depression.
“You could always just convert and come over to Rome,” he bluntly suggests. “It’s the only thing that’s worked for me…. After I converted, I found faith. The difference is night and day… It’s not just the beauty, it’s the rigor of the Catholic Church. It demands complete submission, which strong, willful characters like mine and, I would suggest, yours, ma’am, need. One cannot fully receive God until one has submitted to something larger, and the moment I did…”
“Don’t tell me,” she responds, sarcastically. “The lights went on, you found happiness?”
“More than happiness. Ecstasy. And the gloom we talked about so many times…the emptiness… has gone. So come over!”
“I would, but in case you hadn’t noticed, Dazzle, I’ve already submitted to something larger,” something which, evidently, is not large enough to fill her emptiness: “the royal family of the United Kingdom. If I became Catholic, it would be a national scandal. There’d be talk of betrayal, second Reformation. No, they’d make me give up my title and kick me out.”
“Would that be so bad? To free yourself once and for all? To find happiness?”
“Why would I? The title, my seniority, the proximity to the Crown is my happiness. It’s who I am. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“No, I don’t understand! You’ve just discovered terrible things about your family. A system that ignored five members of its own to protect itself. Will that same system protect you? No! It doesn’t protect anything except the center. Those away from the center…”
“But I am in the center!” she protests. “I am in the very center. I am the Queen’s sister, daughter to a king-emperor, and I will always be in the center. Now go, Dazzle. Back to your ecstatic new family, and I will struggle on in mine. And I think it would be better if we… don’t see one another again. And…” she adds, cautiously, “should you ever… find a moment…perhaps you will pray for me.”
Fact-checkers have verified that the Bowes-Lyons sisters indeed existed. But historical records prove their relationship with the royal family to be more complicated than the show presents it. The sisters were thought to be dead until the Queen Mum received a letter from the institution staff in 1982. From that point on, she sent gifts to her nieces on Christmas and their birthdays.
Contrary to the abrupt ending of their friendship in the show, Fr. Derek Jennings and Princess Margaret remained close friends for life. The show also failed to depict the princess’s interest in Catholicism, with Fr. “Dazzle” serving as her spiritual director. He went as far as to arrange a meeting between the princess and Basil Cardinal Hume in 1998, which was described as “one of the most rewarding, fascinating and satisfying nights of her life.”
Their relationship speaks to the long relationship between the British decadent sensibility and Catholicism. Scholars like Ellis Hanson and Frederick Roden have highlighted the extent to which decadent artists and writers — many of whom were same-sex attracted — along with those with “irregular temperaments,” were drawn to high church Christianity. Homosexuals and dandies, but also the mentally ill and disabled, the poor and marginalized, found a home in the Roman and Anglo-Catholic Churches — whose “rigorous” doctrines, ethical demands, and elaborate art and liturgy created a more hospitable space for those who didn’t fit the norms of British “respectability.”
As Oscar Wilde (a British convert to Roman Catholicism) once quipped, “the Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone — for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” The sacramental ethos tends to place more emphasis on the “abnormal” reality of the God-made-man — who lived in the messiness of the human flesh — was ostracized, beaten, and bled to death. The doctrine and liturgy — the natural consequences of the paradoxical event of the Incarnation — drew in gay men like Dazzle and emotionally complicated, existentially hungry black sheep like Princess Margaret. It appealed to their temperaments and aesthetic sensibility, as well as their need to affirm a moral good beyond the flimsy promises of either carnal indulgence or royal “respectability” and a “pure” public image.
Perhaps what sustained Princess Margaret’s interest in Catholicism was that it offered something eternal — the eternal-made-flesh —“in the center,” something far more scintillating than national pride. Unlike putting herself or the power of the royal family in the center of her life, putting Christ in the center promised a longer lasting, more “ecstatic” happiness than anything she had experienced before.
“The possibility of madness is therefore implicit in the very phenomenon of passion.” In his 1961 book Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault explores the changing attitudes toward “madness” from the Middle Ages to the dawn of modernity. Foucault draws a correlation between the Enlightenment concept of “pure reason” and the medicalization of madness, juxtaposing it with contrasting attitudes during medieval times. He dedicates a significant portion of his work to the role of the “passions.” Before the Enlightenment, the passions were understood to be subject to perversion by Original Sin. But through mortification and growth in virtue, those same passions can be transformed into tools of sanctity, charity, and communion. Rationalism set reason in opposition to the passions, deeming them to be something to be controlled and, when possible, eliminated rather than integrated.
Foucault continues, “if we try to assign a value, in and of itself… to classical unreason, we must understand it not as reason diseased, or as reason lost or alienated, but quite simply as reason dazzled.”
It was precisely this integration of the passions into the doctrines and worship of the high churches, this “dazzling” use of reason that drew in figures like Prince Margaret and Fr. Dazzle. While the poor, disabled, and debaucherous may have found the door shut to them by the cult of respectability, they found the door remained opened for them in the Church. Their alleged “defects” were not problems to be expunged, but gifts to be welcomed, purified — when necessary, and grafted onto the wounded yet glorified Body of Christ.