The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley

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My review of this wonderful book will appear in The Lady in due course but owing to word-count restrictions I am posting my extended review on here. It really is a super book and worthy of the attention it appears to be generating. You can read an extract by clicking here: https://foxedquarterly.com/shop/the-secret-orchard-of-roger-ackerley-no-33/

Diana Petre was a natural writer and confidante to many, however the urge to create was often supressed by her vulnerability when it came to the written word. She killed books before they had a chance. Aged nineteen she married a writer who was in his fifties, and although the marriage was brief he encouraged her talents. Molly Keane’s biographer described Diana as ‘gifted’ and ‘wounded’ as a result of her upbringing. Despite her reservations when it came to the eleventh hour of publishing a book, and her personality flaws (more on that later), we can all rejoice that she wrote her memoirs, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley.

This memoir, although peppered with barmy anecdotes relating to Diana’s life, is centred around her bewitching mother, Miss Muriel Perry. Who was Muriel? Nobody knows. Muriel herself deemed certain things to be ‘common’ and she is a classic example of someone who did not let the truth get in the way of a good story. The truth was ugly and it anchored her to a life she’d rather forget. And so she destroyed evidence throughout the years; passports were cut up, letters were censored, not even her birth was registered. She also had three children fathered by Roger Ackerley, a rich banana merchant also known as ‘the banana king’. The story goes that she kept the books for a respectable pub, and that was how they met. She had been standing in the doorway of his room, and he invited her to come inside to get warmed up. Muriel was soon pregnant, but the baby was stillborn. Twin girls, Sally and Elizabeth, followed (Sally married a future Duke of Westminster, but their true names are censored in the book), and Diana arrived two years later. All three were illegitimate, a damning sentence in those days, and so ashamed by this Muriel would only leave her flat at night-time. They moved a lot in those days, until Roger settled a house for his small family. He had told Muriel he had a wife and children, but this turned out to be a lie: the wife was long dead, and the mother of his other children was his mistress. He had two families, and Diana only discovered this after his death. Sitting on her mother’s bed, at an hotel in Vienna, Muriel revealed that ‘Uncle’ was her father. It seemed at the age of eighteen Diana’s life began, or at least she felt the urge to go on a quest to assemble her parentage. The problem was that both of her parents were mere ghosts, and Muriel gave nothing away.

When the children were young, Muriel vanished and left them in the care of an elderly housekeeper. Aside from her spells of ill health and work during WWI, she moved in with Doris Delevingne. This was at the very beginning of Doris’s pursuits as a courtesan, and Diana herself doubted that Doris knew of Muriel’s predicament. She appeared one day, aghast that her twins were twelve and Diana ten, and none of the children knew what to make of their pale faced, dark haired mother, with long limbs, and a trousseau of exotic clothes. She drank gin in the evenings, when she thought her children were asleep. Diana recalled her roaming the landing like Lady Macbeth, weeping, and going into her bedroom, pressing her face close to hers while she slept. Sometimes it frightened her, and the twins on closer inspection discovered the empty gin bottles stashed at the back of the wardrobe. The twins ran away aged eighteen, and their illegitimacy came to light when the law was powerless in ordering them to return home, as illegitimate children came of age at eighteen and not twenty-one.

Before Diana learned the truth about Uncle, she felt something was a miss. It was a childhood filled with secrets, and she asked Muriel if she was a divorcee. Muriel was furious, and declared divorce to be common. Then she wondered if her mother had been raised in an orphanage, which Diana believed to be on par with a mental asylum. Muriel said Uncle had made her feel safe, but he was often absent, and certainly not involved with the babies until they were older. He, of course, paid for everything: the house, the bills, the children’s school, Muriel’s allowance. When he died Muriel was heartbroken, and on the eve of WWII she remarried a dull widower but living with a man was foreign to her and she escaped by joining the war effort. During WWI she joined the Red Cross and was a nurse, and had an affair with a duke. She did the same during the second war, minus the duke, and was interned in a camp, and was eventually given an OBE. When she was released she came home to London, but her health was bad and her nerves were frayed. Her husband died, but it was not the same as Uncle’s death. The following years were bitter.

After the war Muriel became estranged from her children, with the exception of one of her twins. This twin, named Stella in the book, was Sally, Duchess of Westminster. She was kind to Muriel, gave her money, and paid her hospital bills. Muriel, by then, had invited a widow to live with her in exchange for housekeeping and cooking. The widow-cum-servant was sinister, and Diana did not trust her. But Diana herself was seldom around, only appearing when Muriel was dying of cancer. She appealed to her mother to answer questions about herself, Uncle, and the parts in between but Muriel refused. And so many things went unsaid, and were unresolved. Diana did not go to her funeral but went along with Sally to scatter Muriel’s ashes into the sea.

In many ways the memoir retains an air of sadness but it is not a misery memoir. The prose is witty and often quite light, and written in a conversational way. The foreword explains that Diana presented her memoir as a detective piece, with clues intertwined throughout the text, inviting the reader to help her discover Muriel. I enjoyed the anecdotes, often told out of sync. Many stories were hilarious, and bizarre. In the end I loved Muriel and sympathised with her. She reminded me of the Bolter in Nancy Mitford’s fabled novels, but in the end she came back. I think that says it all.

The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley was first published in 1975 and has been reissued by Slightly Foxed: https://foxedquarterly.com/shop/the-secret-orchard-of-roger-ackerley-no-33/

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The Possessions: A Blog Tour Post

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I freely admit that I love a good ghost story, or a plot which verges on the supernatural. It veers away from my usual reading list of women’s biography, historical fiction, and anything inter-war related. Some of you might be familiar with Osbert Sitwell’s A Place of One’s Own, in which a young woman becomes possessed by a girl who was murdered, and she is using her body to not only communicate with the living, but to seek retribution for the crime committed. In The Possessions, a clever debut novel by Sara Flannery Murphy, Eurydice (Edie) works for the Elysian Society, an organisation which allows the dead to inhabit the body of its living workers to communicate with their loved ones. Edie, cold and without much joy, is committed to her role at Elysian – and is a shell, so to speak. But when a new client, Patrick, a young widower who lost his wife in strange circumstances, begins to use Edie, she comes to life, so to speak. And the premise for the plot, and the character development, begins there. Although the genre could fit into horror, the book is written in an almost light-hearted style, allowing Edie to bring the reader into her confidence before taking them on a warped journey. A lot like her role at Elysian. The author’s prose is confident and engaging, and not a sentence or word is out of place or used in vain. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which arrived the day after I finished the equally brilliant The Roanoke Girls. It is a spellbinding and, perhaps, hypnotic read.

Molly Keane: A Life

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I must admit, having been born in Ireland (N. Ireland, but still . . . ) and harbouring a love for all things Anglo-Irish, pagan, druid, old world et al, I had never heard of Molly Keane. Perhaps I had, in passing, since my heroine Mariga Guinness warrants a mention in the book, somewhere in the 1950s, before the 18th-century had taken hold of her and she’s a shy princess in an Aran jumper and jeans, with her first baby sleeping on the sofa. This easy reference to Mariga should tell you that the book, written by Molly’s daughter Sally Phipps, is a trove of names. But not name-dropping, that’s not the Anglo-Irish way.

The book itself is more anecdotal than biography, however for the first seventy pages or so it does explore Molly’s childhood, her mother’s background in Antrim, and various other things. I did not read this in one go, and left gaps between delving in and out, so, to me, it did seem a bit longwinded. I really felt the book took off after this and I lapped it up in two sittings. The contrast of the two worlds in Ireland intrigued me, and I appreciated the author’s views on both, even Molly herself felt conflicted by a lifetime spent in country houses with servants and the threat of Sinn Fein. But with Molly, who had been accused of being a snob (‘the Irish Nancy Mitford’), she appeared to sidestep those tensions and people loved her, and she loved people.

I particularly enjoyed the asides about the people surrounding her in those days just before and during WW2 (a war she felt emotionally involved in, but was isolated from due to southern Ireland’s neutrality). A servant prays in the kitchen with a plate of dirty rosary beads; the local undertaker uses his hunting horses to pull coffins and often worried about meeting the hounds on the way to the graveyard. She befriended builders, seamstresses, even her house staff, and everything operates on a level that might have been impossible had Molly been more Anglo than Irish. But it is not all stiff tweeds, horse shows, and visits with the gentry (Adele Astaire (Lady Cavendish of Lismore Castle) pops in and out). There is a sting between the pages of Molly’s wit and generosity, and her daughter does not shirk from writing about her mother’s cruel put-downs, her slamming the door in her face, her telling her that she ‘talks a lot of nonsense’. Emotionally scarring, perhaps, but she rises above her grudges to portray a woman who, although brittle on the outside and was prone to flattery, had incredible inner strength.

As I am yet to read anything by Molly Keane – Good Behaviour will be devoured this spring – I felt a bit lost in the literary criticism her daughter deploys in the book. I wanted to learn more about Molly’s traits, but perhaps I am greedy. All in all, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good read.

Molly Keane: A Life by Sally Phipps is available from Amazon as well as all good book stores.

 

A Dangerous Devotion: Venetia Montagu

The following is an edited extract from These Great Ladies (pub. The Mitford Society, £9.99)

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History remembers Venetia Stanley, later Montagu, as a temptress in the Cabinet of Herbert Henry Asquith (known as Henry), Britain’s wartime Prime Minister. From 1912 until 1915 she was, with the exception of his wife Margot, the only woman in England to know his political secrets, and this gave her unreserved power. As the best friend of Henry’s daughter, Violet, she was therefore a significant presence within the Asquith home, and in the platonic marriage of Henry and Margot.

In any era, especially one of political uncertainty and social upheaval, the friendship between the twenty-five-year-old Venetia and the sixty-year-old Prime Minister was a dangerous subject. Adding to this tangled web was Venetia’s closeness to Violet, which many thought verged on lesbianism. Their impassioned letters spoke of their longing to be with one another: ‘I can think of nothing but you at every instant’; ‘Don’t stop loving me’; ‘I do want you SO much’.

There was also the close bond between Violet and Henry, which ousted Margot at every given opportunity, and she had once bemoaned that, during her long marriage to Henry, they had only spent six weeks together. Violet was possessive of her father, and since the age of four she had slept in his bedroom after the death of her mother. Presumably, Violet condoned his interest in Venetia because it caused Margot considerable worry. And behind the scenes at Downing Street there was the topic of rivalry. This came not only from Margot, who felt threatened by Venetia and was jealous of her stepdaughter Violet, but from the unsettling knowledge that Henry’s private secretary, Edwin Montagu, was in love with Venetia, and another, Maurice Bonham Carter, with Violet.

As the most powerful man in Britain, with the exception of King George V, Henry wielded his authority. And, amid his diary being filled with government business and Cabinet meetings, he reserved each Friday for drives with Venetia. It was a bitter pill, not only for Margot, but for his closest advisers who oiled the wheels of his propaganda machine. While young men were being slaughtered on the battlefields of France, Henry was falling in love. This love affair had been simmering for years, ever since Venetia had met Violet during their debutante season. A frequent guest at the Asquiths home and having accompanied Violet on holidays with her father, Henry recalled with crystal clarity the moment his avuncular feelings turned to love. They had been sitting in the dining room, chatting and laughing, when ‘in a single instant, without premonition on my part or any challenge on hers, the scales dropped from my eyes: the familiar features and smile and gestures and words assumed an absolutely new perspective; what had been completely hidden from me was in a flash half-revealed’.

In Conspiracy of Secrets, a book written by Bobbie Neate, the author suspects that her stepfather was the product of Venetia and Henry’s affair. The theories, although at first glance appear outlandish, are backed up with various snippets of evidence. She wrote that Venetia had been confined to the family home and was said to be ill with jaundice, and that letters written by her during this time reveal that she was suffering from a lengthier illness. The author believed this to be pregnancy, and Venetia was therefore adhering to the appropriate confinement before and after the birth. Neate explained that the baby, her stepfather, was given to a foster family, arranged by Venetia’s parents, and that he was possibly the second child born to Venetia and Henry.

Those who knew Henry were aware that he often took an interest in Violet’s friends. A flunky was surprised when he found Henry playing musical chairs with Violet and a group of young girls, one being Venetia. He was known to correspond with them and to consider such young women as companions. Margot herself referred to it as his ‘little Harem’, and his contemporaries dismissed him as a ‘notorious groper’. Lady Diana Cooper, then Manners, was a member of his inner-circle, and even she suspected his feelings for Venetia ran deeper than friendship.

But Venetia was different from the other girls, and her appeal lay in the steadying effect which she had on him during the years of political unrest: Irish Home Rule, the Suffragette movement, the rise of the Labour Party, and the First World War. It was rumoured that, on the eve of Britain entering the war, Henry was not only on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but he was feeling suicidal. Apparently Venetia had lifted his spirits, encouraged his sobriety (political opponents nicknamed him ‘Squiffy’ because of his fondness for alcohol), and was a calming influence during those troubling times. And, unlike the gossiping Margot, she could keep a secret, even political ones. He was known to write to her during debates in the House of Commons and, on occasions, in Cabinet meetings. Amid his romantic prose, he offered her tidbits of his daily life: he spoke of a fretful king regarding the issue of Irish Home Rule; he wondered if he should create a new office for David Lloyd George; and he asked her opinion of a young Winston Churchill, an early boyfriend of Violet’s. All of which, he promised not to act until she had given him her response. Once he postponed a meeting with King George because a letter from Venetia had arrived, and his reading and responding to it took priority over the Crown.

It appeared Margot had suspected for several years, as far back as 1912, that Henry’s roving eye had been caught by Venetia. Tall, dark and handsome, and with ‘a gruff baritone voice’ – the description in which she had been described – Venetia had a masculine energy and a steely self-assurance that came with her background as the daughter of a rich baronet. As the youngest of seven children, she was spoiled, and her behaviour was established early on. A prankster, she was known for her outlandish displays in public, and on one occasion, during a christening, she spoke in a loud voice about ‘drowning the little gorilla’. Home was Alderley Park in Cheshire, with a menagerie of animals including a pet monkey which slept on top of the bookcases or pelmets and dropped on unsuspecting guests, and a bear cub who roamed around the grounds and pounded on doors. Her father, Edward Stanley, a Liberal politician was the heir to three baronies (Alderley, Sheffield, and Eddisbury), and she was a distant cousin of the Mitford girls who, a decade or so later, would run amok through high society. Above all else, she was single-minded and snapped her fingers at the morals of the day. She did not think a chaperone was necessary, she declined several marriage proposals, and, more importantly, she was not threatened by Margot.

If anything, Venetia emphasised the lack of poison in Margot’s venomous bite. Margot herself had confided to her stepson’s wife that Edward Stanley was not Venetia’s biological father and she had been the product of an affair between her mother and the 9th Earl of Carlisle. A jealous woman whose beauty had been obscured in her early twenties by a broken nose, she was reed thin with dark brown hair and was often painted with a crooked mouth, displaying her intolerance. She made enemies, and such feuds were usually the figment of her own imagination and meddling. Oscar Wilde’s former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote a poem in which he referred to her as ‘Merry Margot, bound with lesbian fillets’. And, during Venetia’s spell over Henry, Margot turned her frustration towards Clementine Hozier, for having, as she viewed it, stolen Winston Churchill from Violet.

Venetia herself was privy to Violet’s supposed heartbreak, and it was said that she had tried to commit suicide upon hearing the news of his engagement to Clementine. They were at Slains Castle, in Scotland, when Churchill had broken the news. Violet retaliated by running away, and it was announced she had gone missing along the rocky coastline. Venetia, sensing something was afoot (or having been a part of it), had burst into the drawing room to deliver the news that Violet was in danger. Henry was convinced she had fallen to her death, and Churchill himself considered calling off his engagement. For hours the servants and guests trekked along the rocks, carrying fire torches and calling out, ‘Violet, Violet.’ The press reported that she had slipped on the rocks and had hit her head, thus explaining her faux vanishing act. Margot held the view that Violet, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, had staged the incident, and she would refer to it as: ‘This unfortunate, foolish and most dangerous escapade.’

Although the feud was between Violet and Clementine, Margot’s feelings about the marriage gave Venetia, a cousin of Clementine’s, some clout. Margot dismissed Clementine as having no brains and accused her of being ‘mad’, no doubt this was a jibe at Clementine’s often precarious mental health. But Venetia argued that her cousin was sane to the point of dreariness. Regardless of their dim view of the new Mrs Churchill, Venetia was armed with the knowledge that Margot was emotionally unstable, and she knew of the chinks in her armor. The biggest insecurity in Margot’s life was the doctor’s orders that she must ‘close the bedroom door’ to Henry, indefinitely, due to having risked her life throughout her five pregnancies, in which only two children had lived. Hence Venetia’s presence, and her husband’s preoccupation with this young woman, meant more than an idle fancy.

There were striking similarities, not only in looks but in intellect, between Venetia and Margot which, undoubtedly, Henry found attractive. Margot came from the Anglo-Scottish Tennant family and, like Venetia and Violet, in her youth she had an inseparable companion in her sister, Laura. The two girls entered society together and had belonged to a set known as the Souls, a pre-war group of intellectuals whose main objective was to form a salon where they could meet without arguing about politics. The Souls abhorred hedonistic pursuits, such as violence, alcoholism and adultery, and they regarded the arts as, above all else, the most important thing in life. However when Laura married Alfred Lyttleton in 1885, Margot thought her life was over, and this was intensified by Laura’s death a year later following the birth of her only child. Margot never recovered from the death of her sister and closest friend, and as a result she began to suffer from chronic insomnia, which plagued her for the rest of her life. Venetia and Violet moved at the centre of the Coterie, a group of intellectuals who were the offspring of the Souls, but whose recreational habits were frowned upon. Nicknamed the ‘Corrupt Coterie’, they drank and smoked in an age when it was frowned upon for a woman to do either, and they took drugs which were easily obtainable through a chemist. Morphine and varieties of opiates were often the drug of choice, as was cocaine.

By 1915, Venetia had begun to receive two or three letters a day from Henry. Unfortunately her responses do not survive. Although the first political topic he had discussed with her was the economic budget, the correspondence began in earnest in August 1914 with France’s involvement in the war. Lord Kitchener had sent a telegram to Henry, containing military information, and Henry immediately enclosed it in his letter to Venetia. He spoke of inventing a code which they could use when corresponding by telegram, and he told her he wanted her to know what was happening across the Channel, before anyone else.
Undoubtedly this made Margot feel as though she was being usurped in her role as chief confidante to her husband. ‘My fondness for Venetia has never interfered and never could with our relationship,’ he wrote to Margot. Margot, however, was convinced Venetia was ‘teaching Henry to avoid telling [her] things’.

This loyalty and trust he felt for Venetia had been inspired by tragedy when, in 1909, Violet’s admirer, Archie Gordon, the son of Lord and Lady Aberdeen, had been injured in a motorcar accident. He had been hospitalised, after which he lived for twenty days, with Violet presiding at his bedside during his final hours. They announced their engagement, and Venetia was on hand for moral support. Violet recorded their last conversation in her diary, writing that Gordon said: ‘Venetia will nearly have to live with us, won’t she?’ And, then, he asked Venetia to kiss him.

During Henry’s dependency on Venetia, she was being pursued by another man. Edwin Montagu, Henry’s private secretary, had been in love with her since their first meeting in 1911 and had, on various occasions, proposed marriage. Despite her turning him down, he continued to accompany Henry, Violet and Venetia on their holidays, and on one particular trip they went to Scilly. They played hide and seek in the garden with Edwin, whom Violet thought was ‘the best person in the world to play it with’ and she wrote in her diary that he was ‘so frightened and so frightening’. Around this period, Henry and Violet visited Venetia’s family home, and the press failed to pin any significance to the visit, or to their friendship, and he was photographed with Venetia’s pet penguin. It was believed that Venetia’s mother was unhappy with the devotion the prime minister was showing to her daughter, and she encouraged Edwin’s pursuit.

In the years that Edwin had known Venetia, she did not hide the fact that she was stringing him along. This did little to quell his infatuation, and through time Venetia began to view him as a potential husband. This apparent change of heart occurred on her twenty-sixth birthday, which marked a watershed moment in her life. For, in those days, it would have been considered a comparatively late age for a woman to marry. She was reluctant to acknowledge her birthday, and wrote to Edwin that she hoped her future would be filled with ‘permanent fun’.

With his inheritance, Edwin could offer her all the ‘fun’ she desired, and it would grant her the freedom to continue her unconventional behaviour. And so, after years of refusing his proposals, she agreed to marry him. But she made it clear to Edwin that, not only did she find him unattractive, she did not love him and had apparently warned him that their marriage would be a celibate one. Edwin himself had agreed to such terms, perhaps he did not believe Venetia’s stipulations and imagined that, once they were married, he would take charge of their relationship. This was not to be, and from all accounts he was devoted to her, and she walked all over him.

The news of Venetia’s engagement was badly received by Henry. ‘This breaks my heart,’ he wrote in a letter on the day she had told him. She responded with only one word, which caused him further anguish, and he implored her to write to him. She did, and sent him a ‘most revealing and heart rendering letter’. It appeared they had a disagreement, recorded in their letters, for Henry declared her response as ‘terrible . . . No hell can be as bad’. Perhaps Venetia had suggested they refrain from writing to one another, owing to his feelings about the engagement, for he called their mutual silence ‘cruel and unnatural’. He was glad when they resumed their correspondence after ‘two most miserable days of my life’. Violet was equally disturbed by the news, and she wrote in her diary that the thought of Venetia marrying Edwin ‘filled [her] with horror”. She then listed the reasons for this ‘horror’ and spoke of his ‘physical repulsiveness . . . the thought of any erotic amenities with him is enough to freeze one’s blood’.

Despite Venetia’s mother thinking Edwin would serve as a welcomed distraction from Henry, she, along with her husband, were alarmed by their daughter’s conversion to Judaism. This undertaking was done on behalf of Venetia for materialistic gain, rather than religious reasons. Her late father-in-law had made stipulations in his will, stating that Edwin could only inherit his millions if he were to marry a bride of the Jewish faith. Marrying a Christian would have seen Venetia and Edwin living in reduced circumstances, and so it made sense to her, a shrewd character, to convert.

Henry voiced his disapproval, and he sent a poem to her in which he described her as a ‘Christian child’ who had been ‘too easily beguiled’ by the ‘silken tents of Shem’.¹⁹ The silken tent was a reference to the nickname Venetia and Henry had given Edwin’s lavish family home at 24 Queen Anne’s Gate in London. There were antisemitic undertones, too, as Jews were said to have descended from Shem. His openly expressing such views was deemed acceptable in not only that period but in his class. Venetia’s parents also held a similar disdain for Judaism. Marrying Edwin was one thing, but converting to his faith was another.

Prior to Venetia confirming her engagement to Edwin, Henry suspected something was afoot and he sensed her attention, when responding to his letters, was being spent elsewhere. He warned her not to fail him, for that would precipitate his complete collapse, not only emotionally but politically too. ‘Will you still be the same in 1915?’ he had asked. It is therefore poignant that her letter, containing the details of her engagement, arrived on the day he received the worst press of his political career. And then, feeling as though he had lost his element of stability, his thoughts turned to betrayal. Not only had Venetia betrayed him, but Edwin had too, for he had confided in him his love for Venetia. Henry wrote to Venetia’s sister, Sylvia: ‘I don’t believe there are two living people who each in their separable ways are more devoted to me than she and Montagu: it is the irony that they should deal a death-blow to me.’ Margot had also used Edwin as something of a confidante, years before, in the early days of Henry’s writing to Venetia. She expressed to him her opinion of Venetia, claiming she was a young woman with an immoral outlook, and she said: ‘How I loathe girls who can’t love but claim and collect like a cuckoo for their own vanity.’

Adopting an unorthodox view of marriage, Venetia suggested a prenuptial agreement to Edwin, and they both agreed that she could have affairs with others. He could too, but his love for Venetia prevented him from doing so in those early days, or at least from flaunting them so openly. Although, to a certain extent, she was granted freedom she was reluctant to continue with her plan to marry Edwin. Aside from his religion, his physical appearance came under scrutiny from her closest friends and she worried they would give her up in ‘disgust’. Her friends loyalty was important to Venetia, for her own family, especially her elderly father, had disapproved of her conversion to Judaism. To quote Venetia, her parents ‘boycotted’ both herself and Edwin.

Violet, too, refused to accept Venetia’s decision, and she accused Edwin of blackmailing Venetia into converting. She thought him manipulative, and instrumental in (potentially) ruining Venetia’s reputation, both socially and within her family circle. Edwin resented Violet’s words, and he forwarded her letter on to Venetia. But Venetia misread the criticism as concern for the step she was taking, and she thought Violet ultimately approved. Margot however, did approve of the marriage and she encouraged Violet to refrain from teasing Venetia. Her motives were clear: she was glad Venetia would have a distraction and would be too busy devoting herself to Edwin’s promising political career to give Henry much thought.

With Venetia’s brother’s encouragement, her parents began to come round to the idea of her marrying Edwin. Although they did not accept her decision to convert to Judaism, they realised that Venetia, now aged twenty-eight, and with no suitors other than a married prime minister forty years her senior, would finally settle down. But her extended family remained unconvinced and they accused Venetia of ‘turning Jewish for the sake of £8,000 a year’.

Before the wedding took place, and in the interim of Venetia’s official conversion, she accepted a voluntary nursing post at an army hospital in France, tending to the wounded and dying soldiers. It had been rumoured that, during Venetia’s short stint at a London hospital the year before, Henry did not bid farewell to his son who was leaving for the Front. He had more important matters to deal with: he had gone to the hospital to catch a glimpse of Venetia in her nurse’s uniform.

During her time at the French hospital, in 1915, her letters to Edwin lacked any mention of the conflict surrounding her, or of her feelings for him. Instead she wrote to complain about the ‘dreadful condition’ of her hands, caused by the ‘acids and disinfectants’, and of the pimples and freckles that had developed on her face. The hospital, she told Edwin, was crowded and dirty, and ‘the one real tragedy about the place’, she explained, was the inability to have a hot bath. ‘Isn’t that dreadfully squalid?’

Thinking she might change her mind about marrying him and of her impending conversion, Edwin implored her to confirm a date for her departure from France. But Venetia remained vague and explained that her hospital work was ‘too thrilling’ to leave. In the end, Edwin told her the two rabbis he had engaged for the conversion were leaving for the Front in July, and he encouraged her to submit her application for conversion before the twelfth. She agreed, and returned to London on the 10 July.

Venetia’s arrival in London was greeted with mixed feelings. Edwin was ecstatic, but Henry adopted a high-handed approach when writing to her. He ‘prayed with [his] whole soul’ for her happiness, and he admitted it would have been out of character for him to be disloyal to her. However in his letter he asked her not to respond and to not ‘wish me now to say more’. Then, after what he perceived to be Venetia’s desertion, he wrote to Diana Cooper to offer her the ‘vacancy’ as his mistress. Although fond of him, Diana had no interest in becoming the mistress of an ageing politician. She allied herself with Venetia and Edwin, and for years to come would receive the Montagus hospitality at their marital home.

The conversion was, as Venetia had warned Edwin, a farce. She went through the motions in order to save his family fortune and, as she had told him, to restore the relationship with his mother, whom she met for the first time on her wedding day. Religion, she explained, meant nothing to her, and she proclaimed to have none. When he requested their future children should be brought up Jewish, she called him a hypocrite, for Edwin himself did not practice his faith, and she said she would raise them without religion. ‘I go through the formula required,’ she wrote to him, ‘because you want it for your mother’s sake and because I think one is happier rich than poor.’ But there were other factors at play which threatened to undermine Venetia’s religious conversion. She complained that she could not study the book that ‘Old Joseph’, the rabbi, had given her because it was too boring. This caused Edwin considerable worry, but in the end she memorised enough of the text to pass the test and was therefore received into the Jewish faith.

Two days before the wedding, Venetia visited Henry in person, and it turned out to be their last meeting for some years. Afterwards, he wrote to her that he valued her companionship and that she had given him ‘unforgettable and undying memories’. She married Edwin in a traditional wedding ceremony, and absent among their small gathering of family and close friends were Henry and Violet, who chose not to attend. Instead, Henry sent Venetia two silver boxes with a brief note: ‘With all my love and more wishes than words can frame for your complete and unbroken happiness.’

In the years following Venetia’s desertion and marriage, Henry had begun to write his memoirs and, naturally, Venetia featured. He struggled with his portrait of her, aware that he could not speak frankly about the true nature of their relationship. Instead, he focused on her personality traits and of her much publicised conversion. He wrote that ‘she had no sense of sin; no penitential moods; no waves of remorse; no mystic reveries . . . ‘

Although in its day and with a degree of hindsight Venetia’s relationship with Henry has been analysed, her marriage to Edwin has also come under scrutiny in various publications. Some believed that the marriage was never consummated and that Edwin, a man torn apart by self-hatred and hypochondriac tendencies and who sensed he would die comparatively young, was satisfied with whatever crumbs Venetia offered him. Although intelligent and with a political mind, she found him a boring politician and took little interest in his work. He appeared to have had a mistress named Pearl, and by whom he had a child – ‘Pearl has just given me a little daughter and we are very happy about it’. Edwin’s admission, by letter, was written before Venetia gave birth to her own daughter, Judith. Despite the claims that Edwin was asexual and pined for Venetia, it seemed he had forged his own life in London and during his political tours of foreign countries.
Venetia, too, was conducting her own affairs, and a significant admirer was the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, whom she trusted with her investments and who offered her financial advice. They travelled around Europe, often accompanied by Beaverbrook’s close friend and employee, Viscount Castlerosse, and their mutual friend Diana Cooper. Although she would be replaced by Jean Norton as his chief mistress, the two would enjoy a lengthy friendship which outlasted their affair.

In 1923 Venetia gave birth to her first and only child, Judith Montagu. It was widely accepted that she was the daughter of William Ward, later the 3rd Earl of Dudley, and Venetia did not dispel such rumours. Judith, however, was brought up as the child of Edwin and he settled a trust fund for her. It was a timely gesture, for in 1924 he died at the age of forty-five from unknown causes, but it was believed to have been the result of blood poisoning. His death did not upset Venetia, and she settled into widowhood with a generous inheritance which granted her the freedom to live as before, and to travel extensively around postwar Europe. She entrusted her baby daughter into the care of nannies, and Judith herself claimed her mother treated her with an air of indifference. Regardless of Venetia’s parenting skills, she would ensure Judith was given a good education and was taught to be independent, as she valued those qualities above all else.

After the death of Edwin, Venetia and Henry resumed their friendship. Although it was not as intimate as before, he visited her at her country home, Breccles, and made the acquaintance of Judith. Judith recalled the tears on Henry’s face as he said, ‘This, then is the child.’ It was an emotional visit for both Venetia and Henry; he was in ill-health and had suffered the loss of movement in one leg, and upon arriving at Breccles he could not exit the car without assistance. Although he knew his days were numbered, he did not disclose his illness in great detail to Venetia, and she sensed he was fading away. He died three months after their final meeting. ‘It was most good of you to take me in,’ he had written in his last letter to her. His death closed a chapter in her life, though in those days it was a select group of friends who knew the true nature of their relationship. And Venetia herself, as daring as she could be, did not kiss and tell. Refusing to be bound by her gender and class, she continued to live with the freedom she had always known.

Until her death from cancer in 1948, Venetia travelled around the world in her own private aeroplane, smoked, drank, gambled, and pursued various love affairs. Beaverbrook remained her ardent admirer long into their old age, and she always retained a fondness for him. But it was Henry Asquith who had captured her heart.

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These Great Ladies

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‘Oh dear,’ said Evelyn Waugh of his society friends, ‘these great ladies.’ In this book of pen portraits the reader is introduced to obscure ladies who were society stars in their day. From the Churchills to the Mitfords, British and European Royals, to international playboys and film stars, these ladies knew everyone. And everyone knew them, for better or worse.

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Margaret, Duchess of Argyll: Famous for her naughty polaroids, and whose divorce from her Duke saw 88 men named as her lovers.

Mariga Guinness: A bewitching German princess with a harrowing childhood, who fought to preserve Irish buildings and became an icon.

Sylvia Ashley: A girl from the wrong side of the tracks who married two English lords, two Hollywood stars, and a Russian prince.

Joan Wyndham: A bohemian aristocrat who shunned a debutante existence to live a life of debauchery in Chelsea.

Enid Lindeman: An Australian wine heiress who married four rich and titled men, and buried them all.

Venetia Montagu: A society girl who moved at the centre of H.H. Asquith’s wartime government.

Irene Curzon: A ‘poor little rich girl’ who dared to break the rules and challenge her brother-in-law, Sir Oswald Mosley.

Jean Massereene: A dazzling viscountess whose association with Sir Edward Carson almost ruined her reputation. A true eccentric, fashion icon, and champion of the spiritualist movement.

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Only The Sister: Angela du Maurier

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Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV

When one thinks of groups of sisters throughout history, it is often their social lives that come under scrutiny, and then their literary output. It is as though they were half expected to write a novel or a volume of memoirs to compensate for their celebrity status, whether they were talented or not. Fortunately it was the former with the du Mauriers, and both Angela and Daphne (though to a larger extent) would write books. As with Nancy Mitford’s novels, predominantly The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, the du Mauriers books were largely inspired by not only their childhood and events in their lives, but of the landscape in which they lived and had visited.

Like the Mitfords, Angela (1904), Daphne (1907), and Jeanne (1911) had an unusual childhood not in the depths of the countryside but largely spent at Cannon Hall, in Hampstead, where fascinating guests filled the home, and their father Gerald dominated the girls, for better or worse. Except for a few terms at Miss Tulloch’s school, their education was confined to a governess as Gerald did not wish for his daughters to be exposed to the wicked world. The Mitfords would also be kept at home, but for different reasons: their father did not want them to develop thick calves from playing hockey. However, unlike the Mitfords, the du Maurier girls were exposed to the arts on the domestic front and there was nothing unseemly about a trip to the theatre, or harbouring an ambition to go on the stage. Whereas Farve went up to London once a year to see a play, taking his daughters with him, and often critiquing it on the journey home – ‘That foolish boy, Romeo…. and that damned nurse, bloody bitch. She was probably an RC!’ Gerald du Maurier was an actor-theatre manager, and he also had a brand of cigarettes named after himself. Their aunt Sylvia Llewelyn Davies was the mother of the five boys who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and this fed the girls’ imagination. They identified themselves as a tribe, in the vein of Barrie’s Lost Boys, and Daphne and Jeanne thought of themselves as boys, whereas Angela was happy to be a girl, even if she did think herself unattractive. And, as with the Mitfords, theirs was a feral upbringing of secret societies, schoolroom antics and silly nicknames. Angela, the eldest, was Piffy; Daphne, the middle girl, was Bing; and Jeanne, the youngest was Bird. Their mother, Muriel, was a vague presence in their lives; a former actress, she was beautiful and aloof, and did not pander to her children except when critiquing them. The same was true for the Mitfords, as their mother, as well as their beloved nanny, often told the six beauties that nobody was looking at them (especially Diana, the most beautiful). Muriel was often exasperated by her daughters’ appearance, especially Angela’s heavy build and lack of fashion sense – she was once mistaken for the nanny when she accompanied her sisters to a birthday party.

Angela’s innocence lasted all of her life, and she believed in the mythical figure of Father Christmas long into adolescence. Unlike the Mitfords who were quite cynical as children and when they were taken to see Peter Pan they would yell ‘No!’ when the cast called out, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’ Angela herself did believe in fairies and, after a well-meaning servant placed ‘fairy circles’ in the garden to enchant the children, it was her younger sister Daphne who discredited the stunt and said there was no such thing. Angela however dissolved into tears and accused her of speaking ill of the fairies. She was the only one out of her sisters who believed in the afterlife and often spoke of being reunited with spirits on a supernatural realm. Daphne, as imaginative as she was, scoffed at her ideas. Despite her inability to keep up with the quick wit of her family, her childhood home represented security and a barrier against growing up. Something the Mitfords could not relate to, for each girl, with the exception of Pamela and Debo, was aching to break free. ‘The finish of security. Doubt lies ahead. Adieu les jours heureux,’ Angela wrote in her diary. In a way, she would always retain a childlike enthusiasm, and throughout her life, as in the nursery, she was seldom without an idol to worship.

The ‘business of growing older’, as she referred to it, represented more than double figures to Angela, and she was apprehensive about swapping her childhood clothes for a grown-up trousseau; ‘one was a fish out of water, too young to listen to sophisticated conversation, at the same time not wishing to play cricket on the lawn with younger sisters and their friends’. She was sent to finishing school in Paris but she was stifled by homesickness and it was to be a miserable experience. Like Pamela Mitford, Angela was the scapegoat for her sisters teasing and the other girls’ antics, and she had no ambition to be a bright star on the horizon. Her spirits were momentarily lifted when her parents and sisters arrived to take her on holiday to the south of France and then on to Algiers. Daphne thought it a great adventure and was spellbound by the architecture, Jeanne was too young to appreciate it, and Angela, having read The Garden of Allah, was determined to fall in love. The object of her affection was Roland Pertwee, a married man whose wife had left him, and he took up with Angela and Daphne, acting as a tour guide and chaperone. But Angela’s idea of a chaste romance fizzled out when Pertwee decided she was an unsophisticated schoolgirl and, after accompanying her to Paris, he dropped her at her finishing school and vanished.

When Angela returned home she became interested in politics, having met Peter Macdonald, an MP for the Isle of Wight, and she became a Young Conservative. Throwing herself into the political campaign, she travelled to darkest Southwark but was appalled at the poverty she was subjected to, and she began to question her Tory ideals. Many doors were slammed in her face. A man shouted that he ‘voted for Labour and always would’, Angela’s only response was to sigh and say, ‘Yes, so should I.’ Thereupon, she became a converted socialist and argued with Macdonald, with whom she thought she was in love despite the fact he was married. She proposed a deal to him: if the Tories won all would be well with them, and if Labour won they would go their separate ways. This was reminiscent of Unity and Decca Mitford, albeit through a sisterly bond, they agreed to disagree when it came to politics, but each one agreed to shoot the other if they had to for the sake of their ideological cause. To Angela’s dismay Labour won the 1929 General Election and Macdonald was no longer the focus of her thoughts, but it marked a watershed in her romantic life. Around this period she began to branch out from her family, as painful as it was, and to visit friends at their country houses. On such a visit to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s home, where a group of young people were staying, Angela, who was aged nineteen, was kissed by Lord Dunglass. It had taken place in her bedroom, and she was convinced she would become pregnant. Harbouring this secret, she wrote to her aunt who reassured her that she could not.

Although she held a romantic ideal of love and dreamt of having children, she was appalled by sex – this was prompted by an acquaintance telling her about reproduction and she felt sickened by the biological facts at play. ‘My father would never do such a thing,’ she said. Then, when she absorbed the information told to her, she felt ‘betrayed’ by her parents ‘because the truth was so HORRIBLE that they couldn’t bear to tell it to me’. When her mother found out she ‘harangued’ her for having learned the truth and said she could never trust her daughter again. Adding to this wretchedness, when she was twelve-years-old and walking in the woods, a German soldier whom she saw was wounded and went to help him had exposed himself to her. After this, she felt confused and distressed, and ashamed of what had happened but she knew she must keep it a secret. By her own admission it had stunted her social development.

Furthermore, Gerald had always confided his infidelities to Angela and Daphne, telling them of the young actresses whom he was stringing along, and he invited them to mock the women’s naivety, thus dividing their loyalties to their mother who knew nothing of these chats. This added to Angela’s mistrust of men, and the view that all men, once they had caught a young woman, would move on to someone else. Yet, despite their talk of his affairs, and the girls’ referring to the young women as ‘the stable’ (as in fillies vying to win a race), Gerald was pathologically jealous of his daughters’ coming into contact with young men, especially Angela who was not as loyal to him as Daphne. She recalled him watching from an upstairs window as she returned from a party, and cross examining her whenever she walked through the door. He wanted to know if anyone had kissed her, or had made a pass, or indeed if she found a young man attractive. And he warned that she would ‘lose her bloom’ if she had done so, for a man’s attention would somehow tarnish her looks and everyone would know she had been corrupted. Soon after her coming out in society, he began to call her a whore, and when she complained of pains in her stomach he accused her of being pregnant – it turned out to be appendicitis. The Mitfords father, too, could be frightening when his daughters sought love matches with men he disapproved of, and during their youth he was forever calling their male friends ‘sewers’ and threatening to horsewhip them but he did not cross the threshold of causing psychological harm.

As a debutante she attended dances in London and found a friend in a young Cecil Beaton who, despite his waspish nature, was charmed by her wholesomeness. It was the Jazz Age, and the young ladies of her generation were dressed in the height of 1920s fashion, but Angela was to suffer in the stays from her childhood corsets and flouncy dresses. She failed to become engaged, or to even find a suitor, but she developed a crush on Gwen Farrar, an actress on the West End stage who was notorious for her lesbian pursuits. Her parents, regardless of their theatrical backgrounds, did not approve of the friendship with Gwen, and they put a stop to it. Angela was heartbroken, and in many ways she shared a childish vision of romance with Nancy Mitford, her contemporary. Nancy herself pined for an unsuitable man who was not only gay but treated her badly, and yet she loved him and thought they would marry. This innocence has been attributed to the sheltered upbringing of girls of their generation. Daphne, although younger, believed life as well as love was ‘no fun unless there’s a spark of danger in it’. I think Diana and Decca Mitford certainly agreed with her sentiment.

In an attempt to distract Angela from the business of politics and her ‘unsuitable’ friendship with Gwen Farrar, Gerald suggested she play Wendy Darling in the annual Christmas and New Year performance of Peter Pan at the Adelphi theatre. Nancy would also experience a helping hand on the career ladder when she was given a job at her grandfather’s magazine, The Lady. Angela was undaunted by the task ahead, and although she was an untrained actress the play was so familiar to her that she was word perfect. Gladys Cooper was cast as Peter, and the social world of the theatre appeared to be the tonic she needed. There were rehearsals every day, and parties every night, and Angela was once again in love, this time with Ian Hunter who had been cast as Mr Darling. But the director’s vision of the play did not match Angela’s childhood memories of the story and she clashed with him. After weeks of preparation, she felt nervous and uncertain of herself in the part, and her lisp was intensified and she spoke quickly and forgot her lines. The nepotism on Gerald’s behalf in casting his daughter ahead of classical actresses proved disastrous when, on opening night, she struggled with her wire and flew into the orchestra pit. She was battered and bruised, and embarrassed by the spectacle but, regardless of her personal feelings, she carried on with the show. Although she would never make it as an actress, Angela had somewhat fallen prey to theatrical types and she was conned by a photographer in to posing nude. She was ashamed and upset by the results of her modelling.

As was her wont, Angela retreated back to the family home and into her childhood world. At the age of almost thirty she appeared content to stay at home and write in her diary, and she lived off her yearly allowance of £150. It was the era of the celebrity debutante and her fellow debs, who were now young wives and prominent London hostesses, were serving as muses for painters and photographers alike. Nancy Mitford, too, had succumbed to the alter and married an entirely unsuitable man, but at least she had finally married. Angela had no such luck, or interest. But she played the part of a jolly upper-class girl and Cecil Beaton asked Angela and Daphne to sit for him, and he photographed their blonde heads peering out from behind wineglasses. The surreal composition, though artificial to the untrained and perhaps modern eye, was thought of by Angela as the most flattering portrait ever taken of her.

It would be wrong to portray Angela as a loner, for she had a collection of close female friends whose company she sought. There was a ‘romantic adventure’ with her best friend, Angela Shaw, and her Pekinese, Wendy. They motored in Angela’s MG Midget on their way to the west coast of Scotland and the Isles of Mull and Skye, but this was cut short by a collision in Yorkshire. The car, hurled into a ditch, was so badly damaged it was possible the women and dog survived because of its open top and they were thrown clear. Angela suffered a head injury and was badly concussed, and the rescuers at first thought she was dead. Her first words, when she came to, was to ask about Wendy. Shaw, though conscious, and in agony from a smashed collarbone, resented Angela’s concern for the dog. They were taken to Ripon Cottage Hospital, where they convalesced in a children’s ward, and Wendy was placed in a cot by Angela’s bed. Shaw, high on morphine, cried out that she was at the ‘end of her tether’.

Perhaps a bitter blow to Angela’s confidence was the progression of Daphne. Like Nancy Mitford, her younger sister Diana had triumphed in many areas where she herself had not. Angela was not a natural writer, but she showed a creative flare, and she wrote her first novel A Little Less, which was rejected by publishers. Around this time, Daphne’s debut novel, The Loving Spirit, was published and her great literary career began. With the publication of Daphne’s fourth novel, Jamaica Inn, Angela’s second attempt at fiction, The Perplexed Heart, was accepted by publishers hoping to cash in on the du Maurier name. Eventually her first attempt was published a decade after it was written and it provoked parental outrage when they discovered its theme of a young woman’s love for another. How could sheltered Angela have known of such things? her parents wondered. The publishers’ rejection letters matched the sentiments of the du Mauriers: the lesbian theme was ‘too unpleasant’. And on the romance front Daphne had excelled where Angela did not. She married Sir Frederick Arthur Montague Browning, known as Tommy, and would have three children. Likewise Jeanne became a talented painter, and as with Angela, she did not marry but lived for the rest of her life with a woman. Pamela Mitford would do the same, leading to speculation as to the nature of the relationship with such companions. As with Pamela and her volatile marriage to Derek Jackson, an alpha male, Angela and Jeanne’s difficult dynamic with their father had disillusioned them towards the male sex. Angela’s case was far more complex, she was neither of her parents’ favourite – Daphne was her father’s golden child, and Jeanne, the easy-going baby of the family, was her mother’s pet – and so she was constantly searching for affection and a place to belong.

As she grew older, Angela’s debilitating homesickness left her and she travelled around continental Europe, staying in luxurious hotels. It has also been said that Gerald’s death in 1934, although a great loss for Daphne, had liberated Angela from his put-downs and teasing. She would live with her mother until Muriel’s death in 1957, and be a constant presence in Daphne’s life. The sisters, including Jeanne, might not have been as candid with one another, as say the Mitfords, but they were prolific letter writers. In her later years her common sense and strength of character made Angela the sister they could all rely on. She would outlive both Daphne and Jeanne, dying at the age of ninety-eight in 2002. The landscape of the places she visited, most especially western Ireland, had become embedded in her imagination and in her work. She continued to write, whether her novels were well received or not, and in her lifetime she published eleven works of fiction and two autobiographies. Friends warned her to censor her life, thinking she was (surprisingly) too advanced for the modern reader. She heeded their warning, and censor it she did though it was far from dull. Having plucked up the courage to live the life she dreamed of in the nursery, Angela would never entirely shed the insecurities of her youth, but she bravely took the reigns of her destiny. Her best-known book, an autobiography, was inspired by those who diminished her work in favour of Daphne’s. Its title, Only the Sister, verifies just that. But she was so much more…

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Available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

The Mitford Society’s Christmas Reads

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Written by historian and author extraordinaire Essie Fox, this beautiful book is loosely based on silent screen vamp Theda Bara and the strange rumours that were affixed to her screen reputation. However, before Leda Grey returns to the spotlight, we spring forward to 1976 when a young journalist named Ed Peters meets Theo, a mysterious shopkeeper who deals in film memorabilia. Looking for a photograph of Bette Davis, his late mother’s favourite, Ed is drawn to a photograph of Leda Grey, who is Theo’s sister, and the seeds of curiosity are sewn. In the seaside town of Brightland, on top of a rocky cliff resides Leda, who has lived as a recluse for several decades. Theo hints that darker elements are at play, such as the curse surrounding the story of an Egyptian queen, the silent film which brought Leda fame. Ed goes to see the reclusive Leda, whose crumbling house is a museum dedicated to her heyday when the great film director Charles Beauvois had made her a star, albeit for a brief moment. She welcomes Ed into her home, and slowly reveals the events which led her into a life of obscurity. I was especially touched by the merging of the two worlds: the ‘has-been’ actress and the bright young man struggling with his mother’s suicide, and the parallel universe of the young girl onscreen and the old woman who has found a captive audience. Fans of Essie Fox will be familiar with her knowledge of and love for the Victorian era, and although her latest book is set in a different time period, her flawless aesthetic remains true. This is a magical read that will hold your attention long after the story fades to black.

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In the heyday of 1930s Hollywood Carole Lombard’s star shone bright. She found stardom as a comedienne opposite John Barrymore in Twentieth Century, and the title of this book is a nod to that. I’m quite pleased to say that I chose the title! But moving along . . . As with many Hollywood ladies, Lombard’s legacy has somewhat been overshadowed by her famous husband, Clark Gable, and the tragic plane crash which cut her life short. This book, although it mentions the plane crash, veers away from dwelling on the cause of Lombard’s death (for a book on the crash I recommend Robert Matzen’s Fireball). What we are presented with is a detailed look at Lombard’s private life as a human being and her many struggles which ring true today, and ultimately her rise as a film star. I discovered after reading this book that I not only know more about Lombard, but I have found a person whom I admire both as a private individual and a lead player in her industry. A fitting tribute to a woman who should be revered in her own right.

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I admit that I knew nothing about Astrid Lindgren before reading this volume of wartime diaries but I was drawn to the cover because of her resemblance (at least in this photograph) to Daphne du Maurier. As one of the most famous and loved children’s writers of her generation Lindgren championed the qualities of love, hope, understanding, and kindness in her books, and when war is declared with Germany in 1939 she is forced to put the aforementioned into practice. Her diary, published for the first time in English, displays not only the violence that is sweeping Europe, but the perspective of a woman on the Swedish home front. The topics that she writes about are relevant today: racism, fascism, intolerance, and how we individuals can take a stand against evil. During her work at the Swedish Mail Censorship Office, and her domestic world as a wife and mother, she came up with the idea for Pippi Longstocking – a bright note in this, to quote Lindgren, ‘…poor plant in the grip of madness’. Perhaps it is due to the English translation but I found the sentences very clean and straightforward, a quality which I like. It is so common for diarists, who are expecting to be read in the future, to embellish facts or dress up their thoughts and feelings, but Lindgren, although candid, is to the point. A no nonsense woman in a world gone mad.

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As Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote a frank memoir (Slipstream) before her death in 2014, one can be forgiven for asking what else can be added to a factual study of her life. At first glance and from the opening chapters alone it seems the question is to be vain, for Artemis Cooper borrows heavily from her subject’s memoir. However, as the book picks up its pace and Howard grows up, or, rather, makes a series of foolish decisions, it is clear that this is no ordinary biography. With access to Howard herself, and using letters and diaries, Cooper examines a women who tried to make sense of her life by putting it into her fiction novels – most famously the Cazalet Chronicles. She looks at those who were in Howard’s life and who, perhaps, have been unfairly portrayed in past works – this makes Howard herself a far more complex, and indeed sympathetic, character. DuriI ng her lifetime and in her writing Howard did not pretend to be a good person, or even a nice person, but her honesty often disarmed her harshest critics, and Cooper’s biography does the same. Devoted fans of Howard might not learn anything new from this book, but they will certainly develop a deeper understanding for their heroine. It is a fitting tribute to one of our greatest writers.

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I freely admit that my head is often turned by pretty books and this was no exception. Reminiscent of Judith Lennox’s family sagas, The Last Debutante is set during the years when debutantes and ‘coming out’ were the singular most important event in a young aristocratic woman’s life. The prologue, set in 2014, introduces us to an elderly Kit and sets the tone for family secrets. Regressing back to the 1930s and then through to the Second World War, the book’s setting has a sprawling landscape, taking place in the Dorset countryside, London, Germany, Iraq, Oman, and the West Indies. As with most historical fiction, especially aimed at women or about women from that period, secrets and lies drive the plot and this is no exception. In 1936 Kit, then aged thirteen, is confined to the nursery while her elder sister, Lily, has been initiated into the grown-up world. But there is more to Kit’s banishment than her age, for the guests are German and with Britain on the verge of war, they are therefore outcasts. Her parents, Lord and Lady Wharton, are having financial difficulties and so it is important that Lily marries well. And this potential husband happens to be German. Within six months she is married and is living in Germany, and now a Nazi sympathiser she becomes friends with Unity Mitford. Kit realises the social impact this will have on her future, and she is pulled further into the web of lies when she is dispatched with an uncle to bring Lily home to England. But something happens and changes her life completely, and it will have consequences for her future descendants. I am always a bit dubiois of books set in the far off future which travel back in time as I fear they stick to cliches, but Lesley Lokko’s writing was engaging and Kit was very likeable. This was defnitely a surprising read and I think one for fans of the Cazalets and Jane Thynne’s Clara Vine series.

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Before reading Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women last year I was not much of a short story fan. That has changed. This elegant little hardback is pleasing to the eye and would make a beautiful gift. With seven stories contributed by famous writers it has a variable tone and a different theme throughout. Each story is a joy to read and each theme will strike a chord within the reader. A surprising little read, I definitely recommend it.

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Renowned for writing biographies of great figures from the twentieth century ranging from Beryl Markham to the Churchills, and of course the Mitfords, Mary Lovell focuses her attention on a building. The Château de l’Horizon, to be exact. Built for and presided over by Maxine Elliot, it was an exclusive haven for famous and infamous people alike. Elliot played host to Winston Churchill during his ‘wilderness years’, Noel Coward and Cecil Beaton were frequent visitors, as were the naughty society girls Daisy Fellowes and Doris Delevingne. Lovell details the lively atmosphere of the 1920s and ’30s heyday of the Riviera when it was a playground for aristocrats, heiresses and artists. If you are anything like me and have read extensively on the period many stories will be familiar to you, but it’s nice to see them compiled in one place. After Elliot’s death in the 1940s, Aly Khan bought the Château and it’s from there that he wooed Rita Hayworth, and it became a hideaway for Hollywood stars and playboy moguls. Lovell expertly chronicles the two worlds: the past where those with wit, background and breeding dominated the scene, and the present when everything has the shiny veneer of the nouveau riche. What is definite, and she makes this clear, is that the Château was the catalyst for all that is en vogue. Although a host of characters flit in and out of the text (too many to name), Lovell dissects their lives and curates the interesting parts, bringing together the crème of high society. A sparkling biography detailing a bygone era.

 

Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979

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 Bubble Carew-Pole said to me, “Do let’s run away. I’ve got a hired Daimler coming. With a chauffeur.”

Far from the literary world of Angela Brazil, where jolly hockey sticks and midnight feasts were the hallmark of a girls’ boarding school, this book tells the true story by those who have lived it. Spanning from 1939-1979, Ysenda Maxtone Graham undertook the mammoth task of interviewing the girls who attended these British establishments and who are still marked by the experience. Naturally, during the war years many of the schools were evacuated and the girls’ received their educations in stately homes, one being Chatsworth. In those days, although many of the girls came from rich families who could afford a good education, some were from impoverished backgrounds and relied on generous benefactors to pay for their schooling. The novelist Judith Kerr relates her experience of this, and she recalled the snobbishness that prevailed. However, many girls from the upper echelons of high society were not given the opportunity to attend school and were confined to the school room with a governess. Lady Emma Tennant (then Cavendish), Debo Mitford’s daughter, offers a brief snippet of information in the book and speaks of attending a boarding school as a day pupil, whisked to and from Chatsworth in a chauffeur driven car. In the text pupils ranged from aristocrats and royals (Princess Anne attended boarding school), girls whose fathers were in (whisper it) trade, daughters of the Raj, and a princess from Siam.

After the war, many foreign pupils were sent from Greece, Spain and Africa in search of a good English education, and the overall view of boarding schools changed from that of basically housing children who otherwise got in their parents way, to really climbing the academic ladder and having to compete with the boys’ schools, where a first class education was the norm. Although Spartan conditions prevailed, with inedible food, freezing bedrooms where hot water bottles would be transformed into blocks of ice, some schools allowed homely touches and girls brought their ponies, another hid her rabbit in various cages and increased the bunny population. There was a chain-smoking, drunken headmistress who instructed the girls’ to dance with her father, who’d often forget to attach his prosthetic arms. The same headmistress added rugby to the PE curriculum and demanded, ‘Jump on me, girls! Jump on me.’ Such odd conditions were the norm, and in this particular school the teachers were leaving by the droves, often exasperated by the head, and she roped a 15-year-old pupil into teaching science, and disguising her with make-up to pass a school inspection. Eventually the pupil cracked under pressure and left, and the headmistress was fired for punching a girl during assembly for looking at her the wrong way. In other schools, the teachers were wicked and by today’s standards would be accused of child abuse. The former pupils, now women advancing in old age, agree they were sexually frustrated and took this out on the girls. A clandestine bond definitely existed between the teachers, though in those days such things were not spoken about. A pupil speaks of avoiding certain teachers, who often invited selected girls into the private rooms, to sit in front of the fire and chat. One was afraid the headmistress would ask her of her woes and stroke her hand. Another teacher was praised for her tough approach, but she ‘had a smile like Doris Day’ and taught them husbandry and to not be afraid. During the war, the schools whose grounds were transformed by livestock, expected the pupils to help with the animals.

Lessons were spent wrapped in rugs in the draughty classrooms, and during PE the with girls with ’rounded’ or ‘squint’ shoulders dangled from climbing frames, and having one’s front teeth knocked out during lacrosse was the norm. Academia was shunned in favour of domesticity, such as sewing, setting a table, and making a bed with ‘hospital corners’. The reason for this was that no girl, when grown up and in charge of her own home, would ask a maid to do what she could not. Today the women speak of their fixation with hospital corners. Running away was the norm, with a girl hiring a chauffeur driven Daimler for the occasion and escaping with her friend to a cinema. Another caught a train and escaped to her godfather who lived at the Savoy Hotel.

Today, the women remain the products of their education: some cannot sleep unless their bedroom is freezing, and one spoke of a friend, a former boarder, who asked for her cabin window to be opened – she would rather risk being sprayed by sea salt than sleep in an airless room. They still associate Fridays with fish. And the author herself has a sixth sense when it comes to recognising ‘Old Girls’: their voices, their practical natures, an inner toughness, and the shape of their calves (because of PE). The stories are endless and too many to list. This is by far the most exciting book I have read all year, or in a decade. A perfect companion to those books on English eccentricity, it is a wonderful journey to a lost world.

Terms and Conditions: Life in a Girls’ Boarding School, 1939-1979 is published by Slightly Foxed.

Beaten by Beaton: Doris Delevingne and Her Love Affair With Cecil Beaton

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The year was 1932 and the name Doris Delevingne, or rather, the title of Lady Castlerosse, was synonymous with scandal and debauchery. She had outgrown her marriage to Viscount Castlerosse, the portly gossip writer for the Sunday Express and Lord Beaverbrook’s employee and stooge. Having married in 1928, before the Roaring Twenties ended not with a whimper but a bang, due to the Wall Street Crash and economical depression which followed, the warring Castlerosses were yet to divorce. Although Castlerosse had tried, Doris could not play by the rules, and so their divorce case would drag on for a decade. A powerful but penniless man, the journalistic viscount had all of London on his side, and Doris was something of an outcast. But she had one ally, in the form of Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, the eccentric 14th Baron Berners, who was seventeen years her senior. His estate, Faringdon House, in the market town of Oxfordshire, was a haven for social pariahs. With the tension mounting between herself and Castlerosse, Doris came to look on Faringdon as a second home. Also residing there was Gerald’s long-term lover and heir, Robert Heber-Percy, known as ‘Mad Boy’, who was thirty years his junior. Not in the least effeminate or camp, Doris thought Mad Boy was entirely heterosexual and, when they were formally introduced, she asked with total sincerity whether or not they had slept together, as she could not seem to remember.

Carrying a torch for Doris, Gerald was ready to leap to her defence when others spoke badly of her latest hijinks. Taking her place on the sofa and with Gerald behind the piano, it was the custom routine for Doris to say, ‘Let’s dish the dirt!’ and he would listen to her tales of rascality. After exchanging society gossip, she spoke of her dwindling finances and he offered his financial support. Acknowledging his kindness, she kissed him on the lips and said: ‘Dear Gerald, anything you could do wouldn’t last me two days’. More than a friend, she would serve as a muse and he would include Doris in his farcical novel, The Girls of Radcliff Hall, which included characters inspired by Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel and Peter Watson. She was the only female to feature in the story and, ironically, her character was a male. She was the dancing master, Mr Vivian Dorrick, an oversexed gentleman who was ‘no novice in the art of lovemaking…his personality was veiled, to a certain extent, in mystery’. Gerald wrote the novel while staying at his Roman villa with Diana Mitford, and it was privately published for his friends. Doris laughed at the portrayal, but Beaton did not, and he attempted to and succeeded in destroying almost every copy.

It was at Faringdon where Cecil Beaton had first met Doris, who arrived in her chauffeur driven Phantom Rolls Royce with several trunks bearing a viscountess’s coronet. She carried with her a heavy box containing the precious Cartier jewels she had collected from her various rich lovers over the years. With his spectacular eye for detail, Beaton noticed Doris’s slender legs and he admired her ‘Giselle-like ankles’; her exquisite clothes – suits and dresses – were from Worth and Reville, and she continued to shun skirts in favour of tailored shorts – a daring choice – to display her best features. A Bright Young Thing, Beaton moved at the centre of this set, photographing mischievous young aristocrats, and as the 1930s advanced his status was further elevated when he photographed Queen Elizabeth. But Beaton did not confine his lens to the Court; he worked for Vogue, photographing models, film stars and New York socialites, which ultimately boosted his standing across the Atlantic. The professional merits were many, but his love life stalled. Peter Watson, a wealthy young man who, along with Cyril Connolly, would later co-found the literary magazine Horizon, was the subject of his infatuation. However Watson was not attainable to Beaton, for he was in love with Oliver Messel. And, moving on from Messel, he attached himself to Mad Boy. In an attempt to avert Beaton’s passion, Watson dismissively told him: ‘I’d be delighted if you had an affair.’ Beaton took this advice but, surprisingly, it was not another young man to whom he diverted his attention.

In August, Doris travelled to Venice where she stayed for a fortnight at the Villa Foscari, known as ‘La Malcontenta’, its name derived from the spouse of one of the Foscaris who was imprisoned in the house because she would not fulfill her conjugal duty. The villa was owned by the Baroness d’Erlanger, whose guests for the fortnight included Sir Oswald Mosley, who had since founded the British Union of Fascists, and his wife, Cimmie; Emerald Cunard and her lover, Sir Thomas Beecham; Lady Diana and Duff Cooper; Randolph Churchill; Brendan Bracken; and Tilly Losch, who was estranged from her husband, Edward James. It was a louche circle of wealthy revellers who were interconnected by society marriages and, more than anything, illicit love affairs. Diana and Bryan Guinness joined this set on the Lido, verifying the truth behind the rumours sweeping through high society that she was having an affair with Mosley. There, Watson’s suggestion of an affair came to fruition when Beaton looked to Doris with the hope of making him jealous. But it was not Beaton who made the first move. And, perhaps, owing to his homosexuality he never would have approached Doris in the first place. She took the initiative and, planning her seduction of Beaton, she scattered tuberose – ‘the most carnal of scents’ – on his bed. Beaton adored attention, and he responded to the flattery she paid him. Doris herself refused to believe his sexual orientation would pose a problem, and she told him: ‘There’s no such thing as an impotent man, just an incompetent woman.’ To ease Beaton’s reluctance in going to bed with her, she assured him he ‘wouldn’t have to do a thing’, and she advised him to ‘think of your sister’s wedding’.

The affair was not confined to Venice, and when they returned to London, Doris and Beaton often stayed at Faringdon. Guests, eager to judge if the affair had been farce, crept to the lovers’ bedroom door and were further astonished when they overheard Beaton squealing: ‘Oh goody, goody, goody!’ The droll antics continued when Beaton threw a party, and the guests were ordered to dress as their opposite. For this, Doris came as a nun. There was also a circus-themed party which Doris and Beaton attended with Lady Diana and Duff Cooper, Chips Channon, Nancy Mitford, and Daphne Weymouth. Doris – along with Nancy, Daphne and Beaton – dressed as an eighteenth-century equestrian, and Beaton chased her with a whip. They were photographed for Tatler, and Doris commented: ‘We all look very drunk, I think.’

However, when she joined Beaton at Ashcombe, his Georgian manor house in Wiltshire which he had taken a fifteen year lease on in 1930, the reception was not as welcoming as it had been at Faringdon. She was shunned by Beaton’s friend, the ageing writer Edith Olivier, who was enraged by this ‘common little demi-mondaine’ attaching herself to him. Edith recalled how she and Lady Ottoline Morrell were invited to lunch by Beaton, who claimed he was ‘alone with Gerald’. When they arrived they found him sitting in the courtyard, with Gerald painting a portrait of Doris, who was sitting on a mattress, her legs on show in a pair of shorts. This confirmed to Edith that the rumours she had heard were true. ‘It is a liaison between the two. “We” always includes her. It makes me feel I can never go there again,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘Why should one put oneself out for her?’ Lady Ottoline acidly noted that Mrs Keppel, at least, was ‘on the grand scale – a king’s mistress’. Doris, Edith bemoaned, ‘is nothing but a woman with a physical attraction which she exploits in a mercenary way’.

Doris defended her affair with Beaton, though she did not admit to the financial awards in which she hoped he would lavish her with – his salary from Condé Nast alone was $12,000 per annum. She was far more forthright in her confession: she claimed she was sleeping with Beaton for his own benefit. In an age when homosexuality was illegal, Doris maintained that she was merely trying to cure him of his sexual persuasion. But, in truth, this ran deeper than money; she had developed a deep and complex passion for him, and in turn he repeatedly warned her that he was ‘terribly homosexualist’. In his diary, Beaton wrote: ‘Peter loves people that are not in love with him and I in my turn am now worshipped and adored by Doritizins [his pet name for Doris] for whom I hold no emotion whatsoever. It seems so terribly unfair that there cannot be a great straightening out and saving of waste.’ In person, however, he played along with her, ‘if only to soothe the ache produced by years of rejection’ by Peter Watson. He went to bed with her ‘in desperation’, and he chastised himself when he realised he ‘could be so celestial with the bedfellow I love’. Although Watson had encouraged Beaton to have an affair, he did not imagine that it would have been with Doris, whom he loathed. It backfired on Beaton, and Peter, ‘so incensed’ by his ‘relationship with Doritizins,’ became ‘so bitter’ and refused to see him.

News of Doris and Beaton’s affair reached Castlerosse, and adopting the view of their contemporaries, he thought it a joke. On one of his outings to a London restaurant, Castlerosse spied his wife dining with Beaton and, turning to his companion, he quipped: ‘I never knew Doris was a lesbian.’ This extramarital affair did little to stir him, and he added Beaton’s name to his growing list of evidence for his much sought-after divorce. In March 1933, a deed of separation was entered into between Doris and Castlerosse, with no financial clauses. They had, for some time, maintained separate abodes, and the legal confirmation of their status was of little consequence to either of them. A month prior, a man had arrived to subpoena Beaton, who had been listed as evidence in their divorce petition. But, he was in New York and thus narrowly avoided being drawn into the lengthy saga.

With Beaton in New York, Doris was momentarily reunited with her old flame, Sir Alfred Beit, but she was more than he could handle and he broke off the affair. He was looking for the stability of marriage and someone with whom he could share his passion for art and philanthropy, and although Doris was in the process of divorcing Castlerosse, she was not the type of wife he sought. He would later marry Clementine Freeman-Mitford, a first cousin of the Mitford girls. To escape Doris, he fled to South Africa ‘to cool down’, for it was only with a great distance between them that he felt safe from her preying clutches. Diana Vreeland, who ran a lingerie shop near Berkeley Square, was friendly with both Doris and Beaton, and she repeated the familiar bon mot that circulated London society at the time: ‘Beaten by Beaton and bitten by Beit.’

Beaton returned from America, and they restored their old routine of lunching at the Ritz Hotel. On one occasion, he and Doris dined with Elsie Mendl and her companion, Johnnie McMullin, the social columnist and fashion editor of Vogue. During their luncheon, Elsie exclaimed, ‘I love whores!’ Doris responded by yelling, ‘What about homosexuality?’ The question was a veiled jibe at Beaton, whose diary she had read. She was still reeling from the shock of learning about his love for Peter Watson. However, aside from the confession in his diary, Beaton harboured another secret which he kept from Doris. He had met a rich American, William Odom, and he invited Beaton on a European tour, all expenses paid. This balancing act of a faux romance with Doris and attaching himself to Odom for self-gain was an ‘exciting game’ to him, and he admitted: ‘I am always fond of anyone who is fond of me.’ Gradually, as she realised the true nature of Beaton’s feelings, Doris detached herself from him. Though, she continued to enjoy his company and appeared good natured about his departure with Odom. She joined Beaton in Paris, where he had callously abandoned his American admirer on the grounds that he was not cultured enough for his cultivated tastes. They went to the ballet with Daisy Fellowes, who was working for the French Harper’s Bazaar in her short-lived position as editor of the magazine. And they mingled with the artist Pavel Tchelitchew, famous in Paris but relatively unknown in London, the poet Edith Sitwell, and the photographer Horst P. Horst, whom Beaton viewed as a rival.

With Doris’s arrival, Beaton declared he had become the ‘envy of the city’; her appearance marked a ‘great sex interlude’ in which he became ‘a peacock and felt so self-assured and even beautiful’. The revelation of Beaton’s diary and, now, the belief that she had become a pawn in his game for self-promotion, conspired to upset Doris. He felt sad that she had suffered for his vanity, but he was not sorry because ‘being the loved one does me good morally’. Doris returned to London and Watson arrived in Paris, and she found herself usurped by the object of Beaton’s affection. But Watson did not reciprocate his feelings, and Beaton wept ‘in a taxi’ and ‘in the bright sunlight of the Ritz bar’.

When they returned to England, Beaton continued to string Doris along. His brother, Reggie, died on 18 October after he was hit by a tube train at Piccadilly Circus underground station. The driver told the inquest that Reggie had held out his hands in front of him and dived under the approaching train. It was believed to be suicide. Beaton heard the news after he had dropped Doris home from a dinner party given by Sybil Colefax for the American socialite, Mona Harrison Williams. His friends were sympathetic, though Beaton remained oddly unmoved by the death. Doris invited him to dinner at Ciros, but he felt it was too soon to be seen socially after Reggie’s demise.

The affair with Beaton fizzled out when he abandoned Doris after realising Peter Watson was not jealous and had become friends with her. They both formed a close bond after Beaton had ‘shoved them away’, though Watson did not shirk from firing the occasional acid remark in her direction. As Doris had displayed with her attachment to Beaton, she did not believe a person’s sexuality stood in the way of romantic love, regardless if they were compatible or not. She had no scruples when it came to sex, for she used it as a ploy to get what she wanted. It was, to her, a means of survival and a way to fund a lifestyle that had become such a way of life that she saw no alternative. To live within her means was foreign to her, and without her materialistic things she felt lost and without a purpose. So, when Castlerosse commented, ‘I never knew Doris was a lesbian,’ he was honest in his observation. However, as time would tell, there was more than a fragment of truth in his statement.

The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne is published by The History Press. Click here to pre-order a copy. This edited extract was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV.

Further Reading

Cecil Beaton: The Authorized Biography by Hugo Vickers

The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff

Castlerosse by Leonard Mosley

A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing by Anna Thomasson

The Mitford Society: Vol IV

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Hello Mitties! It’s that time of year again, the launch of a new Mitford annual. As always, it features the infamous Mitford Tease (Friends and Frenemies) as well as a host of features on the Mitfords and their set. I have included the table of contents below. Next year I will be making a start on Vol. V a lot sooner as it will be a celebration to mark Decca’s 100th birthday! So, there is no time like the present. If you would like to be included in Vol. 5, or have an idea, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! You can purchase the annual on both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Table of Contents

 Friends and Frenemies: A Mitford Tease

The Muse: Diana Mitford and Helleu

A Very Mitford Reading

Lucia Joyce: The Pioneering Modern Dancer That Almost Was

Pam and Betje: An Enduring Friendship

Beaten by Beaton: Doris Delevingne and her Love Affair with Cecil Beaton

The Company She Kept: Unity Mitford and her Friends

Too Naked for the Nazis: How Betty Knox Went From Chorus Line to Front Line

Lady Bridget Parsons: The Pursuit of Love by

Literary Ladies: The Fictional Worlds of Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Lucia Berlin

The Big Tease: How Olivia de Havilland Fell for Nancy Mitford

In The Footsteps of the Mitfords

Debo and Cake:  A Royal Friendship

Lady Irene Curzon: A Dim View of Diana

Private Enemy Number One

Camelot in the Derbyshire Dales

The President and The Duchess

Only the Sister: Angela du Maurier

Nancy Mitford and Harold Acton: A Life-long Friendship