Meet my character by Lyndsy Spence

Hello Mitties! I was nominated by the talented Diana Birchall to take part in this lovely blog post called Meet My Character, please feel free to nominate your fellow writer friends/bloggers to also carry on the theme. It was started by author Debbie Brown of the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog and writers around the world are answering questions about the main character of their work in progress. In my case, the character is the non-fictional, infamous and complex Diana Mitford!


1) What is the name of your character? Is she fictional or a historic person?

A historic person, born Diana Freeman-Mitford, later the Hon. Mrs. Bryan Guinness and Lady Mosley. Judging by the Mitford canon, Diana could also be perceived as a fictional person!

2) When and where is the story set?

The story begins on the day of Diana’s birth in June 1910. She was born at the family’s small London house on Graham Street. The afternoon of Diana’s birth was as dramatic and conflicting as the life she would go on to lead. Diana was born during a ferocious thunder storm which eventually gave way to a blistering hot afternoon. Her mother, Sydney (later Lady Redesdale) cried for she wanted a boy, and the nurse announced: ‘She’s too beautiful, she can’t live long.’ Needless to say, it was not a happy day. When Diana was six she moved with her family to Oxfordshire and experiencing the gradual decline of her father’s fortunes she lived in a series of country houses. Paris, Rome, Naples, Capri and Germany are other locations mentioned in the book.

3) What should we know about her?

Readers familiar with the Mitford story are also familiar with Diana’s story. It is a double edged sword for a biographer because, unfortunately, everything known about Diana is less than flattering. Her friendship with Hitler pre-1939 and her affair with Sir Oswald Mosley is well documented, however, there was a different side to Diana prior to meeting those dangerous men, and I hope to covey that in my book. Clever men fell in love with Diana and amongst her admirers were Helleu, James Lees-Milne, Bill Astor, Randolph Churchill, Professor Lindemann, and of course, ‘Cousin’ Winston Churchill. The latter was not in love with Diana as such, but he adored her when she was a girl.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?

Diana’s non-conformist outlook, an attitude honed in the nursery, would eventually become her downfall. Randolph Churchill bemoaned Diana’s lack of morals and the fact that she did not see a problem in sinning. To escape the boredom of family life in the countryside Diana quickly married Bryan Guinness when she was just 18. By the age of 21 Diana had outgrown her husband and her outlook on life conflicted with Bryan’s gentle, easy-going ways. Diana’s affair with Oswald Mosley, and leaving Bryan to become his full time mistress, was the ruin of her. Her actions provoked scandal, and a lack of sympathy from her once devoted friends, when Mosley’s wife, Lady Cynthia ‘Cimmie’, died. In theory it left Mosley free to marry Diana but he did just the opposite – he strung her a long whilst he carried out an affair with his sister-in-law. During this dubious interval in their romance, Diana decided to go to Munich with her younger sister, Unity Mitford, and the casual trip changed their lives forever. Aside from Diana’s involvement with Mosley and his British Union of Fascists, Diana befriended Hitler, although there was nothing odd in this given that many important people did, in fact, visit the Fuhrer. As an old lady, Diana never denounced her friendship with Hitler (in her later years she condemned his actions in an audio interview) and given the murder of the Jews and the other evil deeds the Nazis committed, quite naturally, not a lot of people were prepared to listen to Diana’s tales of Hitler’s lovely manners, charming conversations and faultless hospitality.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

In my opinion the personal goal of Diana was to live as she pleased. Unfortunately, given the era when Diana was a young woman, and being the mother of two little boys when she made this decision ‘to live for pleasure’ social views on the matter were very dim. And due to this delicate situation, Diana’s goal to have complete independence became warped and she ended up a prisoner, literally and socially, in every sense of the word.

6) Is this a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

Yes, the novel is titled Mrs. Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford. You can read more about it on my agent’s website by clicking here.

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

The book will be published in March 2015 by The History Press.


I nominate my fellow authors on The Mitford Society.

Mrs Hemingway

In the dazzling summer of 1926, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley travel from their home in Paris to a villa in the south of France. They swim, play bridge and drink gin. But wherever they go they are accompanied by the glamorous and irrepressible Fife. Fife is Hadley’s best friend. She is also Ernest’s lover.

Hadley is the first Mrs. Hemingway, but neither she nor Fife will be the last. Over the ensuing decades, Ernest’s literary career will blaze a trail, but his marriages will be ignited by passion and deceit. Four extraordinary women will learn what it means to love the most famous writer of his generation, and each will be forced to ask herself how far she will go to remain his wife…

Luminous and intoxicating, Mrs. Hemingway portrays real lives with rare intimacy and plumbs the depths of the human heart.


Lately I’ve been enjoying this trend for historical fiction which has always existed in the publishing world but now it seems to have taken a different direction in which the author writes about a fictional character at the centre of factual events, or places them amongst factual people but this time Naomi Wood has written a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s tangled love life. Mrs Hemingway, the clue is in the title, is told from Ernest’s wife, Hadley’s point of view.

Narrated by Hadley, the prose is written in a brief, blunt style which mirror’s her thoughts. The chapter headings are also styled after their location and the date. It reads very much like a report or a treatment for a movie or documentary as opposed, to say, a flowing account of Hadley and Ernest’s life together. Hadley is very much an outsider looking in, even though as Ernest’s wife, she is supposed to be at the centre of things. This style has allowed Wood to radiate Hadley’s paranoia and frustration through the text and the reader feels as stifled and as out of place as she does. I felt as though I was keeping one eye on Hadley….the narrator….and one eye on Ernest and Fife, dreading what was going to happen next.

This will appeal to fans of Z: A Novel which really started this mainstream trend for historical fiction. Many books have followed such as The May Bride and The Winter Garden, incidentally they are new releases. Look out for my review of The May Bride in this week’s issue of The Lady. Mrs. Hemingway does not feel as fluid as Z: A Novel, but it’s a great read nonetheless.

Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon and the Dress of Emotion: Guest blog by Tessa Arlen

Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon and the Dress of Emotion


Tessa Arlen



Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon is infamously known for the scandal surrounding her escape from the Titanic in an almost empty lifeboat with her husband Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon and her secretary. The three of them were among twelve people in a lifeboat that could have packed in at least forty. Criticism after the disaster suggested that Sir Cosmo boarded the emergency boat ignoring the chivalrous ‘women and children first’ code. Worse still the Duff-Gordon’s life boat failed to return, after the Titanic sank, to rescue those still struggling in the water. But what made matters more complicated was that Sir Cosmo had generously offered the crew in his life boat compensation, a gift of five pounds apiece, to replace the kit they had lost when the boat sank. After a protracted court-room session the British Board of Trade’s inquiry into the disaster accepted Sir Cosmo’s denial that he had offered a bribe, as there was no evidence to the contrary, but Duff-Gordon never quite recovered from the scandal.

Lady Duff-Gordon, however, was made of far sterner stuff. Unlike her husband she did not retire crushed by public opinion from society. She displayed the same strength of purpose and entrepreneurial focus that had made her the most successful English dress designer of the early 1900s and the owner of Maison Lucile, an internationally famous brand of its day in London, Paris and New York.

Left a near-penniless single mother and divorcée by the collapse of her first marriage, Lucile Wallace began her fashion career cutting out dresses on the floor of her dining room. Using her few connections in society she began to build a list of clientele that represented the rich and titled wives of the aristocracy. The super-rich wives of the arriviste flocked to her not only for her dresses but her instruction on how to walk, dress, act and speak as if they had been born to the privileged life their husbands’ had acquired.  She dressed society’s matrons, their daughters and their husband’s courtesans. Her versatility was boundless: she designed seductive tea-gowns, dainty little dresses for debutantes and sophisticated models that looked like the last word in wickedness. In later life she said she believed her success was due to her instinctive ability to design a gown to suit the personality of its wearer.

These were the days of the great courtesans for whom men ruined themselves, the days when a man would order a thousand guinea sable coat as a peace offering to his mistress after a slight quarrel. Married women discretely entertained their lovers during the fashionable hours of cinq a sept, dressed in Lucile’s soft filmy, flowing tea gowns, with no corsetry to impede the business of undressing. Neither was the heavy, cumbersome underclothing of the Victorian era suitable under the softer lines of the new century.  Lady Duff-Gordon’s line of lingère even though hardly skimpy by today’s standards was lighter, and delicately made of sheer silk and lace. Not all husbands were enthralled by the prospects of their wives in such minimal undergarments; the stuffier ones were appalled. Some even insisted their wives return such immoral undergarments to Maison Lucile; horrified that their wives might do more than just catch cold without the protection of layers of heavy cotton.

Maison Lucile’s fitting rooms in Hanover Square were part of a luxurious private house furnished in classic style where Lucile’s clients could relax in elegant rooms carefully strewn with lovely accessories to complement the clothes she had made for them. The lingère boudoir had an ornate gilt bed, once owned by Marie Antoinette, to give the right atmosphere for choosing pretty underclothes and diaphanous sleepwear.

And it was from these pleasant afternoons among her friends trying on her delicious creations that the idea for the fashion show was born. For Lucile’s was the first house in London or Europe to use a live mannequin in a fashion parade; Lady Duff-Gordon invented the catwalk. Most of her mannequins were young respectable working girls, each picked for her startling good looks. Lucile taught her girls to walk with unhurried grace and languid poise; she rehearsed them until they were perfect. Then she designed gowns for them, gowns that complemented their individual physical characteristics as well as their personalities.

Once she had created her season’s collection, she went about setting the right scene for her fashion parade. The lighting was romantic, but clear enough to be able to see the clothing her girls modelled; each one the epitome of voluptuous glamor, demure grace, or languid beauty, as they posed on a miniature stage with misty olive chiffon curtains. She created what she called ‘gowns of emotion’ and gave each a luscious and evocative name: “When Passion’s Thrall is Over,” “Red Mouth of a Venomous Flower,” “The Sighing Sound of Lips Unsatisfied.” Women’s haute couture had never been so seductive.

And when all was ready, Lady Duff-Gordon sent out pretty invitation cards, keeping the illusion that she was inviting friends to a party at Hanover Square house. Within six months of starting her fashion parades she doubled her clientele, and nearly trebled her revenue.

This remarkably temperamental and dynamic woman thrived at a time when it was unacceptable for the upper classes to earn an income from trade, unthinkable for a lady to make her own living. In 1900 she married Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, baronet, landowner and sportsman. Whether it mattered to the new Lady Duff-Gordon or not, it was out of the question that she be presented at court, because despite her marriage, she was a working woman.  But a very successful one: she opened salons in New York and Paris; took business away from the top fashion houses in Paris; designed theatrical costumes for the stars of the day; wrote a fashion column, and became confidante to society’s elite on both sides of the Atlantic.

She was on her way to her salon in New York when the Titanic collided with an iceberg sending over 1,500 souls to the bottom of the sea. But she survived and continued to create exquisite clothing, her salons flourished and her business grew.  The beginning of the Great War in 1914 put a temporary halt to the extravagance of haute couture and when the war ended the new fashions were a far cry from Lucile’s wafty, delicate dresses and her popularity as a designer diminished.


Tessa Arlen is the author of DEATH OF A DISHONORABLE GENTLEMAN A story of revenge, blackmail and betrayal to be released in January 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.Click here to visit Tessa’s blog Redoubtable Edwardians and here to visit her official facebook page.

A New York Winter’s Tale

One night in New York, a city under siege by snow, Peter Lake attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it is empty, the daughter of the house is home . . .

Thus begins the affair between this Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead; A New York Winter’s Tale is the story of that extraordinary journey.


Keeping within the theme of the last post which harkened back to Downton Abbey I thought I’d post about A New York Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. Now, you might be asking what has this got to do with Downton? Well not much, except we Downton fiends are well aware that Jessica Brown Findlay aka Lady Sybil Crawley portrayed Helprin’s heroine Beverly Penn in the screen adaptation. JBF also appears on the re-issued paperback version of the book. I have not seen the screen version but I have read the book and it’s a masterpiece from start to (almost) finish…keep reading!

Helprin’s novel is considered a classic: a New York Times bestseller it certainly has a legion of fans and may be considered a cult classic. I admit I had not heard of it until the hype about the film’s release caught my attention. Some say the film was an ill-fitting tribute to the book, I can see why it has its critiques simply because at 768 pages it must have been impossible to incorporate every element of Helprin’s imagery and blatant use of magic into the script.

It is a love story which survives time, death and the channels of lightness and darkness. It is rare for an adult’s book to rely on the stuff of fairy tales but this is what Helprin unabashedly does, this is pretty clear when we’re immediately introduced to Peter Lake’s flying white steed.  The synopsis is pretty straight forward and condensed, but it does not indicate the magical journey which the reader will be taken on. Perhaps the flying steed is a hint for what to expect…

I have not read the entire book yet (I rarely review halfway through), but I greedily snatch any bits of spare time which I may have throughout the day to revisit Helprin’s gorgeous prose. But I’ve read enough to know it’s going to be a brilliant, unforgettable read!


Porchey Carnarvon’s Two Duped Wives: An Interview


The Earl of Grantham’s stately pile Downton Abbey is as famous as any of the characters of the hit TV series but fans of the show might be interested to learn of Highclere Castle’s (the real Downton) other storyline which rivals any of the plots Julian Fellowes dreams up! I was intrigued by the story which first appeared in the Sunday Express so I decided to contact William Cross, the author of Porchey Carnarvon’s Two Duped Wives to inquire further about this fascinating, and relatively unknown, back story.


First of all William can you explain to The Mitford Society how you became interested in the lives of Tillie and Catherine?

My interest in aristocratic women of the past spans several projects. Tilly Losch and Catherine Wendell have been hovering around my study walls over the several years I‘ve spent researching and writing about the occupants of Highclere Castle.

These two women are first mentioned in “The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon”, my full length biography from 2011 of Almina Wombwell, the  indefatigable Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, of Old King Tut fame. Afterall, they were married to Almina’s only son, Henry ( better known as Porchey Carnarvon, who was the Sixth Earl of Carnarvon) : making Almina their mother-in-law.  

My informants who offered up stories about Almina also  swept in tales about  her son’s two wives. Having slavishly written up Almina,  and  revealed her untold story to the world, Tilly and Catherine were relegated somewhat to bit players. Since I was left with many facts, anecdotes and testimonies about these two remarkable ( albeit very different) women it was inevitable,  When I decided to continue the Carnarvon-Highclere  story with a follow up title to “Secrets”, that I would hone in on  them again as the two Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon, and finally give them headline billing.  

What research did you undertake in writing your book, and how long did the creative process take?

Research is a long drawn out ritual, it’s an art. It’s the part of the whole process whose  sum total makes a book credible or not. For the book on Tilly and Catherine it was a mix of culling from hundreds of printed sources in books, especially diaries and memoirs from the timelines of these woman,  delving into newspapers, journals  and  plundering archives in Britain and America. The British Library and National Archives  provided a good deal of the material.  In America the librarians and archivists holding Tilly’s papers at Binghamton University, New York State and Catherine’s family records at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in New Hampshire  were  helpful  and supportive. In the USA I was blessed in having help from another writer  named Joyce Sachs ( the wife of a relative of Tilly )  who is also currently working on highlighting Tilly’s legacy ( for a play ) and  who is  hugely  knowledgeable about the content of Tilly’s letters and diaries ( including those at Binghamton University written in German-  Tilly’s mother tongue).   

I had the assistance of Diana Fitzpatrick,  a friend in America who acted as proxy researcher at Portsmouth and went through dozen of boxes of Wendell papers on my behalf. I was also helped by George Jackson a distinguished journalist and  ballet critic in the USA ( who knew Tilly and her dance history )  and Charles  W Wendell  a member of the Catherine’s wider family  carried out some recognisance work for me on the ground at places in New York associated with Catherine’s parents and other relatives.   It helped that Charles was a notable figure in the Holland Society of New York : the Wendells are, of course,  of Dutch origin!

The people  I’d previously interviewed for my biography of Almina were seen again including her godson, who lived under Almina’s roof for 30 years and knew Catherine and Porchey interactions extremely well. I also interviewed  several  new people including a well informed octogenarian who spent his entire life at close quarters to Highclere and knew the family over several generations.  Some equally aged  members of the British peerage replied to enquiries providing additional details  from their own memories of knowing both women and the notorious Porchey. I also carried out site visits to places associated with Catherine’s childhood years in Hertfordshire.  I even made a pilgrimage to Catherine’s grave.

After sketching an outline I tend to draft chapters as I research. As this book had a good head start it was completed in about a year, including the final stages of  shaping and editing and tracking down images.  My book on Almina took three years to reach  the same stage.  The End Notes in the book set out every detail of the research sources used.

Why did you write a combined biography on the two women as opposed to a single biography of Tillie?

The book is sub- titled “ The Two Duped Wives of Porchey Carnarvon”. The focus of much of the book is  on their relationship/ marriage to  The Sixth Earl and what these women had to endure as Porchey’s  Countesses.  At the outset they were both in the same boat of having to find a husband who was better of than they were but the individual stories of the two women  ( including I hope their indomitable spirit)   is adequately covered in the book and their lives before and after  their  time  at Highclere.  These women were  great survivors and they successfully turned their lives around without Porchey.

There is room for a full length biography of Tilly Losch: she was a very accomplished  star of stage and film  in her time. Rumours circulate in USA. I am told that the references in the late Ann Marie Koller’s long dormant biography of Tilly are being updated by her daughter for publication before the year is up.

We’re aware of the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, and the more recent book on Catherine written by the Countess of Carnarvon, how did that impact your project? Has it been a blessing or a curse?

Downton Abbey has shone a light on many forgotten stories from the past. But Downton is still essentially fiction.  It is an enjoyable romp.  The trouble with the tales outlined  in “ Real Downton Abbey” books  is that these are often just not a  full reflection on how it all was, that’s worse than fiction since the parts left out  are among the most  intriguing, albeit controversial and the family would rather these secrets weren’t disclosed . Those behind the  titles do NOT  offer the complete picture of  life stories of the Fifth and Sixth Earls and Countesses of Carnarvon.  My researches  on Almina and Catherine and Tilly ( and on the two Fourth Countesses  Lady Evelyn Stanhope and Elsie Howard ) and their husbands and families all predate Downton  and I have undoubtedly sold copies of my books on the back of Downton’s publicity machine and its great popularity.  My  take on the Carnarvons is  offered to readers in good faith, warts and all and not to cash in on a TV series.  I hope the legal deposit copies of my books ( and my working papers)  will  stand as a credible history of these people concerned long, long after Downton has ended its run.

Tillie’s name is always appearing in the endless volumes of Mitfordiana but if it weren’t for Downton do you feel the stories of these women would have otherwise been forgotten?

Tilly Losch  is enjoying a renaissance at present, not only because of Downton  The coverage given by Binghamton University in their Newsletter last summer and on their website  is certainly a Downton Abbey spin off.  But she is in the limelight again in her very own right. You can’t keep a girl like Tilly down.  Her famous Tanz der Hande ( Dance of the Hands , and can be see on You Tube )   together with many stunning  photographs of her early days dancing for the Max Reinhardt Company in her native Austria  is the subject of an exhibition currently running in Vienna  ( until 13 March, 2014  at the Bonartes Gallery ).  This  celebrates a notable period of pioneering dance history. The show has an enchanting catalogue of images of  this most stunning creature and her fellow dancer  Hedy Pfundmayr.  I’d love to see  the exhibition  staged  in London and in the USA.  Perhaps the Tate Gallery  or Barnes Museum in  Philadelphia ( or even Binghamton University ) who all  have examples of Tilly’s paintings ( Binghamton have many)   could think about its public appeal. Perhaps Highclere coffers could offer sponsorship for staging a celebration of Tilly,  the amazing dancing Countess of Carnarvon.  

It is no surprise that Tilly ( a blinding star  on the London and New York stage and with several films in Hollywood )  was seen by  the great Society photographer Cecil Beaton ( and others)  as one of the most beautiful women of her time.  As to Tilly’s links with the Mitfords, especially her fling with Tom Mitford, close friendship with Nancy and her falling out with Diana ( over Tilly’s treatment of her first husband, the poet  Edward James, to whom Diana was devoted), my book reflects on all on these overlaps and much more.  I have also recently completed a short tribute entitled “ Tilly Losch ‘ Schlagobers’ Sweet Fragments From Her Life.”  I will add more in years to come.  I doubt I will ever get closure with Tilly.

I for one will carry on writing about such extraordinary woman ( and some men ) whose stories are  less well known, hence my work on the Morgan dynasty of Tredegar House, South Wales which not got an iota to do with Downton Abbey.

Are you currently working on a project? What can we expect in the future?

Yes, several new books in progress for 2014, including  a final look at the Evan, Viscount Tredegar and before that a book on a  gay witch hunt in Abergavenny, South Wales, in 1942.   I am also working on “Rosemary and Alastair: ‘Everything is More Beautiful Because We’re Doomed’ ” ,  the tragic story of the daughter and son of the great Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland.          

William Cross is offering readers the chance to purchase his book for £10 (price includes p&p). This offer will end on 15th April. Click here for details. 

An interview with Helen Peppe, author of ‘Pigs Can’t Swim’

The Mitford Society had the pleasure of reviewing Helen Peppe’s memoir Pigs Can’t Swim. (Click here to read the review) Even though she’s very busy promoting her book, I managed to catch up with Helen for a chat about Pigs Can’t Swim and even more surprisingly, given her hectic schedule, she replied with very detailed answers. Coming from a large family I’m sure Helen could see why we Mitty fans were keen to get her perspective on Life’s Great Unfairness…

For those who are yet to read Pigs Can’t Swim can you tell us what inspired you to write this memoir?

I was writing a different memoir (Naked, Finding My Feet), one about losing weight and food issues, when Debra Marquart, author of Growing Up in a Horizontal World, suggested I write a few personal essays to explore the source of my food issues: childhood. I wrote what is now “The Killing House” chapter, and then I remembered about Waterboro and wrote the “Pigs Can’t Swim” chapter. I sent the personal essays to Debra, we discussed them, and then I couldn’t force my mind back to my original memoir. I kept writing one chapter after another until I had 300 pages. I wrote them all in six months. Once I got the memories on paper, I then went back and shaped everything and removed details and stories about some of siblings and mother that would have hurt them and/or their children to know. For these ethical reasons, I whittled the book down to about 200 pages. When Da Capo bought PIGS, they wanted more of my younger years included, so I added several chapters: the exploding pressure cooker and the puppy who bit me. What’s interesting about PIGS is that my father claims he can remember nothing, including the puppy biting me. I have a deep scar on my eye and nose, and he was embarrassed when I showed him the scar. One of my mentors commented,  “Seems like a parent should remember his daughter getting hurt so that she needed stitches and none were given.” He claims not to remember the molestation either. Forgetfulness is a common coping tool.

I never intended to publish PIGS. It was more prewriting for my weight loss memoir, but the book became my MFA thesis, and then my husband (yup, the same Eric) and my sister who-holds-grudges-longer-than-God encouraged me to get an agent. So, I did, but before anything became public, I took out even more scenes that might hurt my parents or my siblings, and I changed identifying characteristics. I hope PIGS helps people to see the chaos of their own childhoods with less judgement and more humor. Very few people have delightful beginnings. Growing up is HARD.

If anyone reads PIGS and is disturbed by the animal slaughter and abuse, then maybe they will consider not eating so many of them. That will be a positive outcome for animals everywhere.

What creative process did you undertake i.e. how easily could you draw on your childhood memories and how long did it take you to compile the story?

Because I have many life-long issues due to my childhood, especially food and sex, many of those memories are always right there in my brain armed to defeat my resolve to banish them. Our brains like to hold on to traumatic events and flash vivid images into our minds’ eyes when triggered by touch and smell etc. To assist these, I found old pictures, I went back to where I grew up (ugh), and I talked to my sister who-holds-grudges-longer- than-God. Her grudge holding power means she is also a holder of an amazing amount of detail. And the book took about 6 months to write the first draft.

In the style of Nancy Mitford’s postwar novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, did you ever consider writing Pigs Can’t Swim as a fictional book loosely inspired by your real life?

I did consider fiction. Just as Alexandra Fuller and Sue Williams Silverman considered it. However, fiction didn’t work for any of us. The stories lost power because they gained psychologic distance. At the end, before it was published, I asked Eric, my publisher and others if now that I’d written this as truthfully as I could, could we market it as fiction, and they all agreed it wouldn’t sell as well. I also considered a nom de plume, but was shot down.

Did you originally intend to conceal the identities of your many siblings? And on that note what has their reaction been like?

Yes, always. I wanted to conceal the identity of everyone. I even tried to conceal the location, and I purposely left off the last names of the dead people in the cemetery.

I used the descriptive names based on how my parents sometimes referred to the kids. My hope was that everyone might have a sister of poor choices etc and then the siblings could become anyone’s siblings, sort of like an everyman story.

Jessica Mitford remarked that growing up in a large family makes one accustomed to Life’s Great Unfairness. Would you be inclined agree? And what did it teach you?

YES! Everything ALWAYS was unfair. And the unfairness bit at me all the time so that I constantly thought things like, “When I get out of here I am not going to have a husband because I don’t want anyone ever telling me what to do again!” Or, “When I have money, I am going to eat all the chocolate I want.” As you know I failed on the first resolve, but the second one is a success.

For the aspiring writers in The Mitford Society can you describe your publishing journey? Was it easy getting an agent and at any point did you feel like giving up?

Actually, getting the agent wasn’t difficult. I got lucky. My MFA program has agents come in and speak during the last residency, and the agent who spoke at mine loved one of the chapters I’d given her. It was “Bus Number Two.” The part after that took a year, however, because Hurricane Sandy arrived in New York and slowed publishing houses down. Each house took a long time to read. But I never felt like giving up. I am not a giving up type of person, which is why I annoyed my family so much. Just as I tried to convey in PIGS,  I really can be a pest and a nag.

Will you write a follow up to Pigs Can’t Swim?

Yes, I am working on it now. Originally, I had a different project in mind, but so many people want to know how I got out and how my childhood affected me that I’ve decided to do an honest-to-goodness sequel.


Helen Peppe

Helen Peppe is a professional writer and photographer (primarily equine). The former editor of Eastern Equerry and Wordplay Magazine, her short stories, articles, and photographs have appeared in a myriad of anthologies, books, and magazines, including Practical Horseman, Equus, American Trakehner, Arabian Horse Times, Dog Fancy, Dog World, Dressage Today, Equine Journal, The Horse, Lynx Eye, Mused Literary Review, Cats Magazine, and The Good Men Project. Several of her short stories and photographs appear in text books and educational media. She is the author of the limited edition Live on Stage: A History of the State Theater and creator of the Maine Stable Guide, published annually 1995-2005.

Click here to visit Helen Peppe’s official website



Spare Brides *Spoilers*

The Group. Some think the funniness is unintentional and I would love to, since I really loathe Mary Mc & am jealous. But I fear not…It’s full of such gems & a description of the sexual act which makes you gasp for breath with laughing…Oh it’s too lovely. – Nancy Mitford in a letter to Raymond Mortimer, January 1966.


Spare Brides the latest novel by the Sunday Times bestselling author Adele Parks reminded me of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, a novel which Nancy Mitford loathed to admit she adored. Some reviews on Amazon compare the characters and the plot to a sort of Bright Young Things version of Sex and the City, others were astonished at the author’s use of graphic sex scenes in the latter sections of the book. Some complained they wished it had been more like Jane Austen. I adored it, but then again I do love a bit of camp – and that is not meant as an insult to Adele Parks’ writing.

The story begins in 1920 with four close friends ringing in the new year together. Ava, is part of the new money set who is confident and deemed modern in her views. This is quickly related when Ava sleeps with a married man, who wants to divorce his wife for her, but she simply states: ‘Now, darling, do be quiet. I want to get some sleep.’ Two of the women, Sarah and Bea, are uncomplicated, one has lost her husband in war, and the latter, we are told is ungainly and ‘big boned’ – therefore unattractive and as such is single. Lydia is the wife of an earl who had a desk job during the war, which she believes has cursed them given his lack of sacrifice for his country, and the outcome of this curse is her inability to give him an heir. So far, quite whimsy and verging on chick lit. (Still not complaining!)

Parks fills the earlier section of the book with wonderful descriptions of their palatial houses in the countryside and at Eaton Square and of their beautiful clothes, especially Ava and Lydia’s wardrobes, which are very modern with its satin and lace and Parisian underwear. All part of snaring, and keeping a man, as Ava warns Bea who still wears a corset: ‘For God’s sake, Beatrice, you have to ditch the whalebone corsets. Men won’t dance with you if they can’t feel you. Buy an elastic girdle. How many times do I have to tell you?’ It’s all a distraction from the coarseness of the middle section of the book, which is where Parks exerts her real talent for writing…

Bored and beautiful Lydia embarks on an affair, quite by chance, with a dashing (married but estranged from his wife) sergeant named Edgar. He’s traumatized by war, and uses colourful language, of which Parks incorporates into the prose with the masterful effect of shocking the reader as it contrasts heavily with her genteel images of delicate clothing and stylish salons. F this and F that is dotted throughout the narrative, even delicate Lydia picks up a few four lettered words which she does not hesitate to use in front of her shocked friends. The friends loathe this new sergeant, and poke fun at his shabby dwellings (a boarding house in a bad part of town) and his lack of eloquence. And, as such cautionary tales go, Lydia who was unable to conceive a child with her husband, the earl, becomes pregnant with Edgar’s baby. The drama intensifies!

Her friends are quite shocked. Sarah puts the detectives on Edgar and, as we learn towards the end when he suddenly vanishes, pays him off. But Lydia isn’t one to let a sleeping dog lie; she tracks him down to the docks and meets him for tea. It’s all rather tense, and we think Lydia’s going to let Edgar go (he’s off to Australia) and return home to her stately pile to resume of her life as a countess and let her husband raise the baby as his own, as he gallantly told her, any child born to her whilst she’s married to him would also be his -besides, it might be a girl and as we know, girls are of no real importance. It’s all heading in that direction when, suddenly, her massive coat slips open and Edgar sees that she is pregnant. “‘So the Earl will have his heir,’ Edgar commented. He tried not to let the bitterness shatter his voice. He understood. At last, he understood it all. She was not his. She never had been.”

Just as Edgar is about to board the ship, with thoughts of he beloved Lydia swirling in his mind, she emerges from the crowd. “‘You came back,’ he whispered into her hair.’” Yes, she tells him. He doesn’t board the ship, instead they exchange a few cryptic words: ‘There’s no going back’, ‘I don’t want to go back.’ And, although we’re uncertain of where they’ll go and what she’ll do as a countess, still married to an Earl and pregnant with another (married) man’s child, we’re told with an air of confidence: ‘They held one another tightly. They held their futures.’

I adored this book!