Mrs Guinness & Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh had made up his mind to dislike Diana Guinness, the third-born and most beautiful of the six Mitford girls. As the young wife of the brewing scion Bryan Guinness, Diana had already established herself as a dazzling society hostess. She was the epitome of what Evelyn (at that time) despised: rich, frivolous and, as he privately imagined, not very bright.

During Evelyn’s years of friendship with Nancy Mitford, Diana had become a phantom presence in his life. He had read about her antics in popular magazines of the day: Tatler, Bystander and The Sketch, and he did not fail to recognise that her celebrity was in ascent – a dizzying element for a girl who had spent her childhood as the scapegoat for Nancy’s teases and vitriolic putdowns. Evelyn himself was plotting his own coup-de-main in the form of a novel that would parody Diana and her disciples.

Knowing of Evelyn’s desire to witness this set first hand, Nancy invited him and his wife, Evelyn Gardner (they went by the monickers of He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn), to Diana’s tropical party on board the Friendship, a riverboat permanently moored at Charing Cross Pier. Out of place in the gaiety of the Friendship, Evelyn observed the misbehaving guests dressed in Zulu costumes and in sarongs, as ordinary commuters scurried along the embankment to catch the last train home. From this first evening with Diana, Evelyn felt he had gained substantial material for his novel. But, most importantly, he had achieved his ambition of catching snippets of how the Bright Young Things spoke – “too, too divine”, “utterly sick-making”, etcetera. The bonus, of which, was hearing Diana’s “Mitford Voice” in person with its swooping intonations, the shrillness of her laughter and the private language she and Nancy indulged in. To Evelyn’s astonishment – and his horror – he found himself captivated by her.

If, at the age of nineteen, Diana was prone to immaturity her generosity more than made up for this juvenile streak. Since the abandonment of She-Evelyn two days after the celebrated Tropical Party, Evelyn was consumed by the breakup of his marriage. And his depressed demeanour, exasperated by the need to stay at his parents’ house in Hampstead, was proving to be a distraction to his writing. So, Diana offered him the solitude of Poole Place, the Guinness family’s seaside home in Climping, Sussex, as an ideal retreat to finish his novel.

Warned by Diana of its “ugliness”, Evelyn set forth to Poole Place in late autumn, undeterred by the freezing coastal winds and the noisy ferocity of the English Channel. Poole Place fascinated him, and he was equally intrigued by the work going on in the nearby fields, where Diana’s mother-in-law, Lady Evelyn, was constructing her vision of a Medieval house. She wanted gnarled trees for the newly built house to nestle in, and they were bought and transferred from afar, carefully replanted in the best soil, bound together in straightjackets of thick straw and tied down with great cables and pegs. The architect, Mr. Phillips, obeyed Lady Evelyn’s strict orders, and he imported squirrels and field mice to give the new trees a touch of authenticity. Eccentricity tickled Evelyn, and the sight of armies of men, lorries and cranes required for the trees was no exception.

When Diana and Bryan motored down to Poole Place to visit Evelyn, he insisted on being driven over to Bramber to see the museum curated by a “disgusting clergyman” who had killed and stuffed tiny animals, modelling them into a variety of bizarre poses, such as a kitten pushing a guinea pig in a pram. Always a lover of animals, it made Diana feel sick, but Evelyn seemed to enjoy the grotesque spectacle. Upon observing his taste for the macabre, she said, “There was sometimes menace in his brilliant eyes.”

The friendship with Diana was formed before Evelyn’s conversion to Catholicism, an act which baffled those closest to him. He must have spoken to Diana about his interest in religion, for she remarked to Lord Berners: “Evelyn prays for me.” The phrase struck a chord of ridiculousness, prompting Berners to scoff: “God doesn’t listen to Evelyn.” At this point in their friendship, Evelyn could see no fault in Diana, and if she was prone to a waspish remark, he did not take it to heart.

In the summer of 1929, Diana was expecting her first baby, and in the cheerful company of Evelyn and Nancy, the Guinnesses set forth to their flat in Paris, where Diana would begin her dreaded confinement. Although Evelyn confessed to feeling shattered by the unexpected ending of his relatively short marriage, Diana sensed that he showed no signs of heartbreak. He cavorted around the Rue de Poitiers in high spirits, enchanting her with witty stories and doing all he could to keep her entertained.

Inside the flat, Diana relaxed in the quiet splendour of watching Bryan, Evelyn and Nancy work on their manuscripts. Evelyn was struggling to meet his deadline for his travel book, Labels. Bryan was composing Singing Out of Tune, the plot inspired by the failed marriage of the Waughs. And Nancy worked on her first novel, Highland Fling. In her fifth month of pregnancy and overcome with fatigue, Diana spent most of her time in bed, reading their work and dispensing critique, whether it was required or not. When she felt lonely, Bryan, Evelyn and Nancy moved their writing stations into her bedroom. But it was hardly an ideal setting, as demonstrated by Bryan when he shook his pen so violently that the ink spattered the delicate silk curtains.

When Diana experienced a fleeting burst of energy, Evelyn was ready to fulfill his role of dutiful companion. They went for short walks, drives through the French countryside, and to the cinema. But behind Evelyn’s exuberance, he concealed a deepening love that had been growing since Diana fascinated him at the Tropical Party. Ever a trusting friend, Bryan did not think it strange when Evelyn adopted the odd practice of lying in bed next to Diana during her afternoon naps. And, Diana, on her behalf, thought his attentiveness was strictly platonic. She was touched when Evelyn worried about the birth of the baby – hers being the first pregnancy he had observed. “I don’t know what to say about the imminence of Baby G. Dear Diana it seems all wrong that you should ever have to be at all ill or have a pain.”

In London, the close relationship with Evelyn continued. Diana and Bryan treated him to a birthday luncheon at the Ritz, but as her pregnancy advanced, her social life wilted. With Bryan occupied with his career as a barrister, Diana and Evelyn grew closer, and he succeeded in gaining her undivided attention. It was an unusual set-up for its time, but Diana’s condition made it somewhat acceptable for them to spend so much time alone. Diana had a table installed in her bedroom, and she and Evelyn enjoyed private, though miniscule, supper parties. They went to luncheons at his parents’ house in Hampstead, and took silly little trips to the zoo. All too often, Diana grew bored with the confines of Buckingham Street and she called on Evelyn to accompany her on some “carriage exercise” in her chauffeur driven Daimler.

Some years later, Evelyn drew on this unique experience when he wrote Work Suspended. The narrator falls in love with Lucy, the pregnant wife of his friend, who spent her days “lying in bed in a chaos of newspapers, letters and manicure tools”. It was an age suited to parody, and his imagination smouldered with all sorts of silly manifestations. Still, Evelyn peddled on with his novel, naming it Vile Bodies – the title of which became synonymous with the inter-war foolishness of the Bright Young Things. He finished it in time to present the dedication to Diana and Bryan on Christmas morning: “To B.G and D.G” it read. In return, Diana and Bryan gave him a gold pocket watch.

The following month, Evelyn presented the Guinnesses with the complete manuscript of Vile Bodies, bound in leather with its title stamped in gold. But having discovered that his young friend was quite unlike the protagonist of his novel, he wrote to Diana: “I am now convinced that Vile Bodies is very vulgar and I am sorry for dedicating it to you but I will write many more exalted works and dedicate them to you.” The fictional portrayal of Diana played on his mind, and Evelyn wrote to their mutual friend, Dig Yorke: “She seems the one encouraging figure in this generation – particularly now she is pregnant – a great vat of potentiality like the vats I saw at their brewery.”

Inspired by his plans to stay in Dublin to complete his latest manuscript, a biography of Jonathan Swift (it was never written), Evelyn encouraged Diana to recuperate from the birth of her baby at Knockmaroon, the Guinness family’s country house on the outskirts of Dublin, where they “could have fun”.

On the 16th of March 1930, Jonathan Bryan Guinness was born. Evelyn was touched when Diana and Bryan agreed to his suggestion of Jonathan as a name, and he was further elated when Diana asked him to be godfather to her son. The other godfather, Diana’s cousin Randolph Churchill, became embroiled in a bitter feud with Evelyn – a feud which only ended when death separated the two men.

In early summer, London’s social events were in full swing, and with youthful gaiety, Diana launched herself back on the scene. Bryan had reservations about parties, balls, tea at the Ritz and endless trips to the theatre once again consuming their lives. Evelyn, too, disapproved of her eagerness to indulge in such frivolity, and it caused friction between the two. Like Bryan, he preferred to have Diana all to himself, to sit in a quiet corner where they could talk. But Diana, by her own admission, was “pleasure loving”. Evelyn’s jealously transferred on to Bryan, and he was not happy when Diana began passing over his luncheon invitations in favour of her husband, with whom she dined at the Savoy Grill during his afternoon break from his barrister duties at the Temple.

The former close friends were reunited on Diana’s twentieth birthday that June when Evelyn presented her with a charming Briggs umbrella. However, inspired by his feelings of resentfulness, he recorded in his diary that she broke the umbrella the following day – an untrue account; she cherished it for years until it was stolen. Two weeks later, at a supper party given at Buckingham Street, Evelyn continued with his unusual behaviour. He instigated a fight with Randolph Churchill in the servants’ hall, resulting in both men punching one another until the brawl was broken up. Diary entries written by Evelyn detail the breakdown of his friendship with Diana, and reveal the bitterness which blighted their meetings:

“D and I quarreled at luncheon.”
“D and I quarreled at dinner.”
“Quarreled with D again and left.”

Four days after recording the last event in his diary, Evelyn avoided Diana at Cecil Beaton’s cocktail party. It pained her when he did not lapse into their old, familiar rapport and he simply bid her goodnight and left. Diana must have featured heavily on his mind, for later that evening, Evelyn sent a letter to Buckingham Street. His bad behaviour, he wrote, was due to his unease with himself, and the parting words “don’t bother to answer” left Diana with little doubt as to how she should proceed. His petty behaviour enforced her firm belief that “in friendship there must be neither possessiveness nor jealousy. Either would wreck it”.

Thirty-six years later, a month before his death on the 10th of April 1966, Evelyn offered Diana some closure when he wrote to her, shouldering the blame for the ending of their friendship. He broke it off out of “pure jealousy”, provoked by an infatuation with her. She had shown him kindness and empathy during a turbulent time in his life, and this inspired him to see Diana in a romantic light. She had become the “unobtainable object” of his desires, and even though a sexual relationship was off limits, he wanted her all to himself as an “especial confidante and comrade”. That, as Evelyn told her, was “the sad and sordid truth”. Except for his letter, they never spoke again.

Abridged extract from Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, The Thirties Socialite. Originally printed in The Mitford Society: Vol. II.

Short Stories by Three American Authors

22208260The Mitfords would have called Edith Pearlman an ‘intie’, and that is what she is. Pearlman is a scholar and a New Englander by both birth and preference, and she gives us an insight into everyday America that we non-Americans rarely get a chance to discover. In Honeydew, her latest offering of twenty short-stories, she writes of struggle, inner-conflict, grief, poverty, the challenges facing women-of-a-certain age, and other unpleasant things. Pearlman strips away the all-American backdrop to reveal the bare-bones of society, human relationships and the sacrifices we make for love and friendship.

 

Tom Barbash’s Stay Up With Me takes us to New York City and offers the insight of human relationships from a male perspective. Observant, funny and moving, Barbash’s thirteen short-stories look at the everyday men and women we all know, their inner-lives and the myriad ways they seek to connect. Brief but poignant, Barbash gets to the 15824461root of human-nature. His portrayals are both honest and alarming.

The elegant cover of Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow conceals the lives of modern women stripped bare to reveal the turmoil and, sometimes, the unrequited love we feel in all aspects of our relationships. Set in New York City, the fast-paced city life mirrors the swiftness of Heiny’s writing. Fidelity is a strong theme throughout the individual stories, and it bonds the characters to the decisions they make, their connection to other people (also in a non-romantic sense) and how it influences their daily existence. A look at how fickle the human heart can be, Heiny’s flawed characters are saved by her witty observations and subtle use of humour.

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A Place for Us by Harriet Evans

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The house has soft, purple wisteria twining around the door. You step inside.

The hall is cool after the hot summer’s day. The welcome is kind, and always warm.

Yet something makes you suspect life here can’t be as perfect as it seems.
After all, the brightest smile can hide the darkest secret.

But wouldn’t you pay any price to have a glorious place like this?

Welcome to Winterfold.
Martha Winter’s family is finally coming home.

From its menacing opening line “The day Martha Winter decided to tear apart her family began like any other day” we are invited to speculate on the story before it begins. And that, in a sense, has already foregrounded a feeling of unease within the reader. Harriet Evans has written a contemporary family saga reminiscent of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet chronicles. Revolving around the family home, Winterfold, the grown-up children, in-laws and grandchildren receive an invitation to Martha Winter’s eightieth birthday where an announcement will be made. Her children and ex-husband speculate as to what the announcement might be, and each one dwells on secrets and half-truths from their past. With her rich narrative and unpredictable plot, Evans has given us flawed characters that command a degree of sympathy, and empathy, from her readers.

On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life

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Born in 1904, Lesley Blanch died aged 103, having gone from being a household name to a mysterious and neglected living legend. She was writing her memoirs at her death, beginning with her very odd Edwardian childhood. Her goddaughter, Georgia de Chamberet, has now collected that piece and many others, some never published, some published only in French; some letters, some Vogue articles to create On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life which captures the essence of a rich and rewarding life spanning the twentieth-century.

Lesley’s childhood was truly bohemian; her mother was raised by her maternal grandfather who bequeathed to her a sizable fortune only to have the bulk of it stolen by her grandmother’s second husband. It was this fortune that allowed Lesley’s father to wallow in semi-luxury afforded to those with a disposable income at the turn of the twentieth-century; he did not work and spent his afternoons roaming around the art galleries of London. Lesley was sent to one of those ‘progressive girls schools’, which seemed to be springing up all over England, allowing girls from upper-middle-class families to have a formal education. She did not excel at school, nor did she fulfill her mother’s ‘country living dream’ of becoming a debutante. When the opportunity presented itself, Lesley travelled around Italy with a group of friends – as was the custom for well-bred girls – but whilst taking in the charm and culture of Italy she fell in love with an older man and became pregnant. Georgia added a footnote to explain (as Lesley skipped over that part of her life) how she went with her mother to a boarding house where she gave birth to a daughter. Lesley did not want the child, and with the stigma surrounding illegitimacy, the child was cared for by a farming family who were paid an allowance, and then, eventually, the child was adopted by a middle-class family. The set-backs and scandals of her early twenties did not hinder her burning ambition, and with the family’s fortunes floundering, Lesley went to work to support her parents.

Escaping the boredom of convention, Lesley first worked as a theatre designer, she became Vogue’s features editor during World War II. In 1946 she left England, never to return, with her diplomat-novelist husband, Romain Gary. By the time they reached Hollywood they were literary celebrities. Gary left her for the young actress, Jean Seberg. Blanch headed East and travelled across Siberia, Outer Mongolia, Turkey, Iran, Samarkand, Afghanistan, Egypt, the Sahara.

Although Lesley accumulated a collection of famous friends, her story is fascinating without those connections.  She said, ‘I have met everyone, but I know no one.’ To me, she was being modest, but that hardly mattered. Lesley knew what she wanted and she went after it. A real life Auntie Mame, her life was certainly a banquet.

Lesley Blanch is renowned for her bestselling book The Wilder Shores of Love, which has been translated into over a dozen languages. Her other works include Round the World in Eighty Dishes, The Sabres of Paradise, Under a Lilac Bleeding Star, The Nine Tiger Man, Journey into the Mind’s Eye, Pavilions of the Heart and Pierre Loti: Portrait of an Escapist. She was the editor of Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs. She died in 2007.

 

Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society

Happy Australia Day to Our Mitties Down Under!

Below is an extract from The Mitford Society Vol. II.

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In a distant corner of the Empire, in the “Land of the Wattle and the Gum”, Sheila Chisholm, a sensitive and imaginative girl with large hazel eyes and a pale, heart-shaped face would take London society by storm. But that would have to wait for two decades; in the meantime she was busy growing up on Wollogoron, the family’s sheep farm where she was enthralled and horrified by the birth of lambs and the bloody reality of the slaughter-house. It was this combination of her tomboy spirit and the conflict of longing to belong in a male-dominated world that would leave its mark on her life.

To display her bravery, Sheila downed an entire bottle of Worcestershire sauce and then challenged her two brothers to do the same. She was a reckless horsewoman, riding her black mare Mariana with deliberate abandon, and laughing at the grooms who warned her she would “break her bloody neck”. Their prediction almost came true when she was thrown and nearly killed after a motor-car – a rare sight on country roads – spooked the horse. “It did not teach me a lesson,” Sheila recalled. “Nothing ever does.” A favourite expression was, “I will put you on your mettle,” which roughly translated meant, “I double dare you.” The dares were, at times dangerous, particularly at Bondi Beach where, along with her best-friend, she enjoyed body surfing and swimming out further than the restricted line. This cavalier attitude lasted until one day, while defying the rules, the water turned crimson when a nearby swimmer lost his leg to a shark. As Sheila put it: “This episode dampened our enthusiasm for showing off.”

Sheila received a private education at Kambala Anglican School for Girls in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. It was one of the first private schools for girls established in Sydney as debate raged about the ability of young women to handle a male education curriculum. But there was nothing in Sheila’s future that suggested she would put her scholarly training into practice. Her mother, Margaret, warned her that a life of marriage and children beckoned – “Chase and chaste,” she told her.

Before this milestone could be achieved, Sheila’s parents agreed to send her off to Paris and Munich to be “finished”. They even spoke of the possibility of being presented as a debutante at Buckingham Palace. It became clear to Sheila that the sort of marriage her mother spoke of would be one that required social mobility. This outlook had been inspired by Margaret’s visit to a famous Chinese astrologer who predicted that Sheila’s stars belonged in the northern hemisphere. Her father declared it “hokum”, and from there-on-in, they referred to their daughter as “the child of fate”.

This fate had gotten off to an uncertain start when, in the summer of 1914, having spent too much time in Paris, Sheila and Margaret missed all three of the presentations at Court. Undeterred, Margaret rented a flat at St. James’s Court, and a whirl of garden parties and summer balls ensued. There was another opportunity to be presented at Buckingham Palace, but in a crowd of famous society hostesses and young aristocrats, it was difficult for Sheila to stand out.

The declaration of war blighted any hopes for a successful season, and with both of her brothers headed for Cairo, Sheila and her mother made the decision to go there, too. Sheila volunteered as a Red Cross nurse, and she found herself as one of the few women among thousands of men, which included aristocrats. Away from her training, there were cruises on the Nile, night-time drives to see the Sphinx by moonlight, and she rode Arab stallions out to the desert to watch the sunset, or at dawn to watch the sunrise. This air of normality gave an illusion of false security, and lively bars and restaurants provided a distraction to the sprawling hospital campus that Cairo had become. It was in a Cairo hospital where Sheila met her future husband, Francis Edward Scudamore St. Clair Erskine, Lord Loughborough, known as “Loughie”. She summed him up on their second encounter:

“Loughie came to tea the next day. He was tall and slim, with thick brown hair and hazel eyes. He was witty and most attractive. I soon began enjoying his company. We read the Brownings. He pursued me relentlessly and I was flattered by his attention. He told me that he had fallen in love with me at first sight. He constantly said: “I love you and you are going to marry me, you will like England and all my friends will adore you.

Admitting he was “wild”, Loughie assured Sheila that with her love “I will be different. I could do great things”. She believed him and was fascinated by him, and seeing how happy they were she thought it must be love. Against her parents disapproval – they feared Loughie’s wayward reputation to be true – Sheila agreed to marry him, telling her mother that she could not “wait six months, wait a year, wait while he goes back and probably gets killed”. And, winning the argument by assuring Margaret her future husband was “sweet” and “fond of animals”, the two were married in Cairo on the 27th of December 1915.

The marriage between a Lord and an Australian girl was a break from the norm of titled men marrying musical-hall charmers and American heiresses. An Australian newspaper noted: “Now it appears they are marrying on the keep-it-in-the-Empire principle.” The happiness was short-lived when, on the morning after the wedding, Loughie attended a race meeting and lost a month’s pay as well as the cheques given by guests as wedding presents. Like his father, the Earl of Rosslyn, he was hopelessly weak-willed, a gambler and an alcoholic. He became immortalised as “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”. Sheila’s new father-in-law told her: “My son has no idea of money, as you will no doubt realise only too soon, if you have not already done so. Has he told you how often I have paid for his debts?” She smiled and said nothing. “Head high,” she told herself. “Walk very tall.” They returned to England to wait out the war.

England was a strange place for Sheila. She found the rigid customs of the country-house cold and uninviting. The guests intimidated her, especially when at dinner Lord Birkenhead asked how many children she had. “None,” Sheila replied.
“You should be ashamed of yourself; a young, strong, healthy, beautiful woman like you. How long have you been married?”
“Four months.”
“Oh…er…I’m sorry. Well, when you do have a child take my tip and have a twilight sleep.”
In time, Sheila bore Loughie two sons – an heir and a spare – and having given up on trying to reform his wastrel ways, she sought solace in a glittering social life.

When Sheila befriended Freda Dudley Ward, mistress of Edward the Prince of Wales, she was introduced to the inner-circle of Royalty, and the upper-echelon of high society. She was paired off with Prince Albert (later King George VI), known to friends as “Bertie”, and the foursome nicknamed themselves “The Four Dos”. Sheila and Bertie’s clandestine affair reached the attention of King George V, and he ordered his son to end it at once. Bertie obliged and was rewarded the Dukedom of York and a plump fiancée in the shape of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

The 1920s barged in, ushering out the sleepy social niceties of Edwardian England. The heartbreak of war and the tragic loss of young men was masked by a new era of decadence. It was an exciting time to be young, beautiful and titled, and Sheila was no exception. Turning her attention to the popular celebrities of the day, Sheila began an affair with the most famous film star in the world, Rudolph Valentino. In London to promote his latest picture, The Eagle, crowds of women flocked to him wherever he went, but it was Sheila’s nonchalance that attracted him. She paraded Valentino around high society, giving dinner parties in his honour and introducing him to London’s nightlife. And, when he returned to Hollywood she followed him. Valentino gave Sheila his lucky gold bracelet, which she wore on her upper-arm, and when he died aged thirty-one in 1926, she believed it was because she had taken his luck.

For the last two years of their marriage, Sheila and Loughie had been estranged. After initiating divorce proceedings in 1926, she suddenly had a change of heart, and remembering how Loughie had made her laugh, she considered calling it off. The Earl of Rosslyn, anxious for the couple to remain married (if in name only), hurried to the court to order the judge to stop their appeal. Worried about this unexpected intervention, Sheila’s solicitor advised her to play the part of “the pathetic, ill-treated little wife”. She borrowed her nursery-maid’s grey coat, skirt and felt hat, and she wore no makeup. Satisfied with the outcome, she remarked: “I certainly looked pathetic.” When it came to swearing on the Bible, Sheila removed a glove and was alarmed to notice she had forgotten to remove her red nail polish. All was well, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the men in the courtroom appeared not to notice her manicured nails.

Before their estrangement, Sheila had tried to help Loughie overcome his demons. They moved to Australia in 1923, but things did not improve. “I had persuaded my husband to have a cure for drink, which he did, but when he came out of the home he was not better at all. Life for me was intolerable. Finally I asked the trustees and his father to meet, and they agreed that it was intolerable and that I should have a house for myself and the children…I have not lived with my husband as his wife since January 1924.” And reflecting on how their marriage soured after the first few months, Sheila confessed: “My husband drank and gambled and got into terrible trouble. He was horrid and abusive to me and drank terribly. It seemed to get worse each year.”

The hearing lasted twenty minutes, and a few weeks later a decree nisi was granted. “I was free – what a strange feeling. I decided that never, never again would I marry anyone, and hummed to myself ‘Wedding Bells are all Bunk’.”

Wedding bells chimed twice more for Sheila. She went on to marry the baronet Sir John “Buffles” Milbanke, known as “the boxing baronet” from whom she was widowed in 1947. Having run a successful travel business in Fortnum & Mason, she remained single until 1954. At the age of fifty-nine she married the exiled Prince Dmitri Alexandrovich of Russia. Their marriage lasted until Sheila’s death in 1969.

Lillian on Life

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From the moment I caught sight of the book cover I was hooked. I’m a visual person so pretty covers always capture my fancy, and this cover is glamorous and beautiful and everything the reader imagines Lillian to be. And she is. Alison Jean Lester has created a character who is not only sure of herself, she is sophisticated, clever, and has no qualms about her position in life. Lillian’s a mistress. What I loved about this book is that Lillian never plays the victim or bemoans her fate – unlike so many books where the aging mistress is on the brink of suicide and is filled with regret that she’s been passed over for the wife. That’s not Lillian’s style. The opening page is brutally honest about the appearance, and physical setbacks, of this lifestyle the said woman approaches 50. The narrative tells us everything we need to know about Lillian’s view of life, and working backwards, we are informed of how she deals with the subject in question. It is not an in-depth narrative, or a deeply complex book, so anyone looking for a fictional book of that variety might be disappointed. But I wasn’t as this is a lovely tome to dip in and out of and you don’t have to retrace your steps even if you finish mid-chapter. Imagine! To give you an idea of the layout the chapters are as follows:

1. On The Dual Purpose Of Things; 2. On The Back Seat; 3. On How To Study; 4. On Getting To Sex; 5. On “Us”; 6. On The Importance Of Big Pockets; 7. On Behaving Abroad, And In General; 8. On English As A Foreign Language; 9. On Remodeling; 10. On The Food Of Love; 11. On Leaving In Order To Stay; 12. On Big Decisions; 13. On The Danger Of Water; 14. On Looking The Part; 15. On The Way To Go; 16. On Not Loving The Help; 17. On White; 18. On One-Night Stands; 19. On Memory’s Mismatched Moments; 20. On Getting Out Of Bed; 21. On Fate; 22. On Overflowing; 23. On The End; 24. On What Happens Next.

Many of the chapters are brief, written as though a sudden memory had burst into Lillian’s head, for example, the chapter ‘On Big Pockets’ is about a dress-fitting she had whilst living and working in Munich.

Lester writes in the voice of Lillian, a woman from the Midwest whose father had served in WW2 and whose mother is a homemaker with a dislike of physical contact i.e. kisses after breakfast are a no no and the children know as soon as mother has her lipstick on (very early in the morning) that a farewell token is nothing more than a ‘goodbye’. The tidbits about postwar America are wonderful – not sprawling descriptions – but mentions of fancy cars, Coca Cola and the white picket fences of middle-class suburbia. It’s easy to imagine that Lillian is a real person, indeed the author could have masqueraded behind her fictional name, to write this book.

I read Lillian on Life in one sitting, very swiftly as though she were telling me her stories and giving me advice. I might have raced through it, but I know I’ll read it again.