The Mitford Society Loves

Is there anything more honnish than an autumnal read? Although I receive many books ahead of their publication date, I prefer to squirrel some away until the right moment. Here are some books which fall into this category.

 

51ar9pco2rl

Drawing on six society hostesses who manoeuvred the minefield of social niceties between the world wars, and revered for their wit, beauty, and often scandalous behaviour, they were far from boring. But it was not all glitz and glamour – Nancy Astor was the first female politician to take her seat in Parliament; Sybil Colefax paved a career as a celebrated interior designer; Edith Londonderry founded the Women’s Legion; Emerald Cunard was a pioneer of the arts scene; Laura Corrigan sold her jewellery to help the French Resistance during WWII; and Margaret Greville remained defiant in her hotel suite as the Luftwaffe dropped bombs around her.

As a social historian, Sian Evans explores the class system, which was ultimately weakened in the aftermath of WWI and, as a result, it became easier to enter those exclusive circles. She eschews singular chapters for each lady, their individual stories are mingled together, and so it is interesting to compare their rise every step of the way, while competing with one another for prestige. Often waspish, and sometimes ruthless, it is easy to forgive the Queen Bees of their weaknesses. An exciting read, Evans has painted a compelling portrait of six inspiring women.

 

91ra4iydvml

When I first received this book I did not know what to expect (mine had a different, more feminine cover) and I wrongly dismissed it as chick lit. But delving into the opening chapter, I was pleasantly surprised. Stephanie Bishop’s novel, based on the true story of her grandparents, presented the other side of immigration. In the 1960s Britons were leaving for Australia in their droves and they were tempted by the promotional messages of year-round sunshine, outdoor living, and spacious homes and grounds. However, Bishop’s protagonist Charlotte, a new mother and expecting another baby, is reluctant to leave her cramped cottage by the sea, to begin a new life. Her husband, Henry, an Anglo-Indian, is restless for an adventure and a new life, and he persuades her to go. There, they struggle to adapt to their new surroundings, and to each other. Although Bishop portrays the life of an émigré searching for a home (or Hiraeth, as the Welsh call it), the underlying element of Charlotte’s post natal depression comes into play. There are things beyond their control tearing them apart, and neither Charlotte or Henry know how to fix it. At 256 pages it is a quick and compulsive read, but the message it leaves behind is far more enduring. I still catch myself thinking about this book. I will definitely read it again.

 

516gKmP50pL.jpg

I am not quite sure what to make of this book. Told by the point of view of three characters, Netty (the mother), Jack (the father), and Annette (the daughter), it evokes an unsettling atmosphere as family secrets come to light. Jack and Netty are dead, but they remain in their home, observing their (now) grown-up daughter, Annette, as she begins, or rather assembles the pieces of her life in her childhood home. But during quiet moments, their own lives are recalled and we learn of Netty’s mysterious illness and of Jack’s infatuation with their male lodger, who is a faith healer. This is an evocative read. I wonder if Ashworth named her character of Annette as a tribute to Osbert Sitwell’s character of the same name in his ghost story, A Place of One’s Own? The two novels could certainly be companions.

51ZkTgG61vL.jpg

This hefty biography is a multi-layered story centring on various characters, each with their own tale to tell and secrets to hide. On the eve of WW2, the foreign-controlled port of Shanghai was a playground for outlandish socialites, all under the watchful eye of the hotelier, Sir Victor Sassoon. The legendary New York reporter, Emily ‘Mickey’ Hahn arrives at the height of the Depression, nursing a broken heart after a turbulent affair with an alcoholic screenwriter and checks into Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel. Convinced she will never love again, Mickey throws herself into the Shanghai social scene. Amidst the hedonism, she meets the Chinese poet, Zau Sinmay, and the two begin a forbidden love affair. Zau Sinmay introduces Mickey to the real Shanghai: a city of rich colonials, triple agents, opium-smokers, displaced Chinese peasants, and desperate White Russian and Jewish refugees. Through Taras Grescoe’s clever juxtaposition, the reader is faced with the excitement of Mickey’s antics and the dangerous undercurrent of political unrest. An intriguing account of a fascinating time and period, which exposes the old world of Shanghai, before poverty and unrest gripped a nation.

Muv in Wonderland by Kathy Hillwig

Everyone knows of the Mitford girls – and the Mitford girls knew everyone. There were few celebrities of the early twentieth century that at least one of the Mitfords had not met. One is less inclined to think of Sydney Redesdale (née Bowles) in those terms, yet she also knew an assortment of the famous and colourful people of the time, including Lewis Carroll, the nom de plume of Charles Dodgson.
 
Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Sydney Bowles was not born when the book was published, in 1865, but her father, Thomas Bowles, was a friend of Charles Dodgson. Remaining in touch with Dodgson, he naturally took an interest in his friend’s offspring.
 
In May 1891, when Sydney was eleven-years-old, Dodgson sent her a letter, and enclosed was a copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground. Perhaps, given that her birthday was in May, it was a birthday present from the author. From the tone of the letter, it is evident that Sydney had not met Dodgson, for he writes that he ‘didn’t know of your “existence” before ‘hear[ing] that you had sent me your love!’
 
Formerly a mathematics tutor at Cambridge before finding fame as a novelist, Dodgson had a predilection for young girls. Having met Mary Prickett, he was introduced to her three charges Ina, Alice (the inspiration for his novel) and Edith, where he visited the Liddell family home and photographed the girls without their mother’s consent. He would go on to take nude photographs of the then fourteen-year-old Ina – again, this was not uncommon in the Victorian era. It was also fairly common in the Victorian era for an adult male to take a fancy or become engaged to a female child (perhaps in her teens) and wait until she was of age to marry. However, his fixation with the eleven-year-old Alice was a daring one, even in those days. A book, The Looking Glass House, written on the subject of the Liddells, Dodgson and their governess Mary Prickett, who loved him and saw her charges as her rivals in love, was written by Alice Liddell’s granddaughter, Vanessa Tait. On the subject of letters to his ‘child friends’, it should be noted that Dodgson’s love letters to Alice were discovered by her mother, hidden in her dollhouse. His visits and association with the family came to an abrupt end.
 
Back to his correspondence with Sydney, the letter is fairly unsettling by today’s standards. He writes: ‘If only I had known you were existing, I would have sent you heaps of love, long ago. And, now I come to think about it, I ought to have sent you the love, without being so particular about whether you existed or not.’ Perhaps, a lonely man himself, he felt an infinity with Sydney: a young, motherless girl, who spent her childhood on her eccentric father’s yacht, sailing the Mediterranean and the Orient. Whatever the nature of his feelings and the truth behind his motives of befriending Sydney, it amounted to nothing.
 
The letter is dated May 22 1891, and is reproduced in Sophia Murphy’s book, The Mitford Family Album. On the facing page is a picture of an eight-year-old Sydney Bowles, looking very much like Dodgson’s romantic vision of Alice. The letter and book – which Dodgson notes is ‘the book just as I first wrote it, with my own pictures’ – seem just another example of the Mitford way of being, quite effortlessly, in the thick of every interesting event.
 

Kathy Hillwig lives in eastern Kentucky. Her dream holiday would be a week at Chatsworth, drinking tea and binge-reading the sisters’ correspondence.

A Fly in the Ointment: A Mitford Tease

Words by Lyndsy Spence & Meems Ellenberg

(Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol III)

The echoing footsteps of Mabel along the long, narrow hallway of Rutland Gate caught Farve’s attention. The sound of his Puccini aria spinning on the gramophone did nothing to dispel an impending sense of doom. As he watered his window box of fascinators – the seedlings he had scattered the year before – he made a mental note to check on Mr Dyer tending to the boiler in the basement. Being a fellow who was susceptible to the supernatural he pondered if Dyer, who lived a subterranean existence below the seven floors, was dead. It was a distinct possibility. Before leaving the library he locked his cold cup of coffee in the safe, lest some money’s orphan should remove his suckments.
Farve passed Mabel, who held in her hand a lilac-coloured envelope. ‘So gauche, so noveau-riche,’ Muv had groaned when these bizarre envelopes had first started to appear on the tray of post. They were always addressed to Miss Nancy. ‘What a stench!’ Muv had choked, reacting to the overwhelming scent of tuberose. She knew with certainty, as she knew most things from her days on the high seas, that tuberose was responsible for many a debaucherous deed. ‘Another one?’ Farve approached Mabel, he was looking especially exotic in his paisley print dressing gown, sipping tea from a thermos and puffing on a gasper. He took the letter and examined it. A scattering of letters rudely cut from a magazine were glued to the lilac page. ‘You are a charlaten and I hate you,’ it read, though charlatan was spelled incorrectly. Having read only one book in his life, Farve failed to notice. ‘I am a Mitford and I despise you,’ the venom dripped off the page, or was it runny glue? ‘You are ALL I despise,’ it added once more in case the message wasn’t clear.
‘Who do you suppose it is?’ Mabel asked. ‘Not Jicksy, I should hope.’

Entering the drawing room, Farve asked the girls to gather around the fire. It was serious, Debo concluded, for they were allowed to abandon the jars of dripping jam on the sideboard and crumbs remained on the good table cloth.
‘Such a bother,’ Muv bemoaned. ‘I should sooner send the table cloth up to Edinburgh than have beastly Harrods charge me a king’s ransom.’
No one remarked save Mabel, who may have been heard to mutter, ‘Penny pinching peeress.’
Nancy, taking a break from her preparing an article for The Lady magazine, slithered into the room. ‘I say,’ she rubbed the ink stains on her hands, ‘I wish Snell would up my pay. This cheap ink is too too sick-making.’

Nobody spoke, presumably nobody cared. Nancy’s constant complaints were what were too, too sick making, thought Decca, although her pique may have been due to another all-nighter reading Dorothy L. Sayers. So much bickering ensued about who said what to the Londoner’s Log about Diana’s impending nuptials to Bryan Guinness, Pam’s broken engagements and Nancy’s fledgling literary career, that Farve had to bellow for silence. But, having to have the last word, Unity sneezed. ‘Hatschie, Geräusch beim Niesen,’ she said.
Delphine Ale-Stout, the letter was signed. Nancy and Diana wracked their brains but failed to place the name. ‘Watney’s Red Barrel,’ Pam piped up and everybody laughed. She liked three-worded names: Purple-Sprouting-Broccoli, in particular.
‘Perhaps we met her on the cultural cruise?’ Debo suggested.
Unity and Decca wondered if Delphine Ale-Stout was a white slaver. ‘It certainly sounds a white slaver name,’ Decca mused.
‘Sie sicherlich,’ Unity agreed, something she seldom did.
‘In English!’ Muv exploded in a rare bout of bad temper. ‘In English,’ she said once more, repeating that, along with the King’s English, she supported the Church of England, voted Conservative and believed in the afterlife – ‘I should like to see Cecily,’ she mused. ‘And Uncle Clem.’ She spoke of the afterlife as though it were a meeting of the hounds, and certainly very English.
Ever since Nancy had started working for The Lady, Delphine Ale-Stout began to send her poison-pen letters. It all began rather incoherently, a jumble of letters and initials. ‘HstCE,’ one said in reference to that flippant tart Hamish St. Clair Erskine. ‘NFM,’ Nancy Freeman-Mitford retaliated. Though, as Blor pointed out, it could very well mean something else. ‘Errr,’ she scolded, ‘no one will want to be your friend if that’s how you talk.’ retaliated. Though, as Blor pointed out, it could very well mean something else. ‘Errr,’ she scolded, ‘no one will want to be your friend if that’s how you talk.’
Then the letters spiralled out of control. Threatening words slipped through, warning that Delphine and her followers would kill her. Nancy vaguely remembered that one had the name of a colonial drink. ‘It puts heaven in a rage,’ Diana sighed.

Nancy was most vexed. Delphine Ale-Stout, a puzzle. Delphine Ale-Stout, a cipher. Delphine Ale-Stout, a rival writer. Delphine Ale-Stout, only a name in a sea of articles, never a fot. Delphine Ale-Stout: perhaps she did not have a photography face? Pathos personified. ‘She eeees,’ Nancy murmured.

‘Oh blissipots!’ Debo bubbled. Nancy’s problems had been nothing to her as she had been invited by Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie to go shooting. Cousin Clementine wrote to say that Diana was welcome at Chartwell. Uncle Wolf wired an invitation to Fraulein Unity, but Muv said nein to ‘going abroad with a stranger’. Decca, darling little D, was already packing for a weekend with the Paget twins. And, Pam, where was Pam? Surely she couldn’t…Nancy snatched the letter. ‘Charlaten,’ her triangular green eyes honed in on the misspelling. Hmmm, poor Pam, she thought, always the thesaurus, never the dictionary.
‘Here I am,’ Pam breezed into the room in slow motion, her presence was as long and lingering as her vowels. ‘I was just across town selling eggs to the Bed of Nails. Say!’ she whipped two newspapers out of her basket, ‘your tiff with Delphine Ale-Stout has made the front pages. Looook!’
It was too sensational, too good to be true. ‘Disney with knobs on!’ Nancy squealed.
Blor, thinking a horrible accident had occurred, rushed into the drawing room. ‘So sorry,’ she gasped. ‘I thought Miss Decca was on the roof again.’
‘Look, Naunce,’ Pam scanned the article. ‘It says here that Delphine Ale-Stout has many occupations. She’s a philanthropist. Haberdasher. And sometime chanteuse.’
‘So non-U,’ Nancy remarked.
Blor sniffed meaningfully.

The crossing to Dieppe was choppy. Decca opened her picnic hamper and noted Muv had packed a whole meal loaf and Pam had boiled up a dozen new potatoes – a fitting luncheon for a farmer in a brown suit. The Paget twins agreed to meet her at the port, and together they would enjoy a motoring holiday around the Channel coast.
In the car, the twins rapidly spoke about a tour of Austria, and Decca listened intently to their itinerary. They would be staying with an elderly aunt, they said. ‘A good alibi if one wanted to forge a naughty letter,’ they added.
‘I couldn’t run away,’ Decca’s eyes widened at the thought. ‘I haven’t lodged my Christmas money for one thing. Besides, Cousin Winston would send a tanker to find me.’
‘The mountains,’ advised the Paget twins. ‘No water to sail a tanker on in the mountains.’
They were brick girls, those Paget twins.

The following week another letter arrived for Nancy from Delphine Ale-Stout. This time she slipped up and included Lady as a prefix. Muv retrieved her well-thumbed copy of the Peerage and scanned through the double-barrel names and the list of those tradesmen who had risen a rank or two. ‘Really,’ she was aghast; ‘the peerage resembles a shopping-list these days.’ There was no Delphine Ale-Stout, no Ale, no Stout…
Farve agreed, commenting that the peerage’s pandering to household brands was lower than the belly of a snake. ‘What next?’ he harrumphed. ‘Women in the House of Lords?’
‘I don’t see why not,’ Pam looked up from polishing the silver. ‘After all, you worked for a lady’s magazine.’ He scowled in reply and reminded himself that Pam’s turn in Rat Week was long overdue.
‘Settle down,’ Muv scolded. ‘After luncheon I shall read Tess of the d’Urbervilles aloud. Or would you prefer White Fang?’
They returned to the sick-making business of Delphine Ale-Stout. She had written a strongly worded, though incoherent, letter to rogue newspapers that dared to paint her as a villain. ‘I committed no crime,’ one of the more intelligible sentences read. She accused the newspapers of rewriting history and claimed that nobody would have heard of Miss Nancy Freeman-Mitford had she not put her on the radar.
Nancy shrieked whether in joy or consternation, was unclear.
Farve’s mind scrambled to his latest list of suspects. The Wid was swiftly added to it and, recalling the sight of a discarded handkerchief in a hedge, he also included the Duchess of Marlborough. He also remembered that sewer with the comb in his breast-pocket. The list was growing.
But there was a twist at the end of this letter. Delphine Ale-Stout demanded a sum of money.
‘Blackmail is such an unfortunate word,’ said Muv.
Nancy could bear the riddle no longer. Delphine Ale-Stout demanded £50. She was explicit in her instructions. £50 in a lilac envelope (enclosed) should be left under an empty milk bottle at the Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street.
‘The Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street?’ repeated Farve. ‘I shall escort you.’

Nancy and Pamela went along with Farve to the Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street. As Pam had errands to run on behalf of Muv, she left Nancy in a Lyon’s teashop and told her to pay attention to the comings and goings at the stores. The morning rush was too divine and Nancy whipped out her pen and notepaper and began taking notes on the conversations on mantelpieces and settees ringing in her ears. She thought of constructing an article for The Lady, or perhaps a future book. Farve contented himself with reviewing the new shipment of entrenching tools.

Meanwhile in Dieppe, Decca had bumped into old Aunt Natty, otherwise known as Blanche Hozier, Farve’s aunt. She was in high spirits, having come into an unexpected windfall of money. ‘You must come to the casino,’ she told Decca and the Paget twins. They agreed, whereupon they were introduced to Natty’s admirer, the local and much-married fishmonger.
‘How lucky to see you,’ Natty said as she rolled the dice. ‘We’ve just returned from our little benjo.’ Pulling pound notes out of her handbag she ordered the fishmonger to place more bets.
‘Where did you get all that money?’ Decca enquired. The Paget twins were competing against one another at the billiards table.
‘I pawned my Kodak,’ said Natty.
‘There must be fifty pounds in there, Decca began to count the pound notes.
‘Don’t count, darling,’ Natty snatched the money. ‘Arithmetic is so unseemly for girls.’

‘Oh look,’ Muv drawled. ‘Decca’s written to say she bumped into Aunt Natty in Dieppe. ‘She said Natty treated her and the Paget twins to a honnish evening in the casino where they went back to her house and gambled fifty pounds playing Snakes and Ladders.’
‘Who won?’ asked Nancy.
‘Oh,’ Muv rolled her eyes. ‘She did not say.’
‘Fifty pounds!’ exclaimed Pam.
‘Such a waste of money. Of course one can’t help it if one’s rich but….’
‘Don’t you see!’ interrupted Pam. ‘Don’t you get it? Delphine Ale-Stout wanted fifty pounds. Naunce, you were at the teashop, tell them what you saw…’
‘Well I…’ Nancy thought for a moment. She decided to embellish the truth. ‘I saw a very tall lady, very well-dressed with a Scottish terrier. She wore a cape over her nightgown, much to my everlasting embarrassment, you must understand.’
‘Yes, and?’ they shouted at once.
‘Well that’s all I saw,’ she shrugged. ‘So sorry.’
‘Natty,’ bellowed Farve.
‘Natty,’ whispered Muv.
‘Telephone Cousin Winston,’ he ordered his wife. ‘We must send a tanker at once!’

Later that evening, Decca was back at Rutland Gate. The Paget twins caught a lift on the tanker and stopped off at Peter Jones to spend their Snakes and Ladders winnings. ‘Five hours was all it took,’ she chirped. Muv was most impressed at the efficiency. Pam said Dieppe was so close it was just like home. Nancy scoffed and said Paris was the place to be. Within the hour, Debo returned, covered in pheasant feathers and pigeons blood and weeping about a gruesome tale called The Little Houseless Match. Unity was upstairs, or so it was assumed by the goose-stepping thuds coming through the ceiling and the repeated playing of ‘Horst Wessel Leid’ on the gramophone.
‘So tell me everything, from the start,’ Muv ordered.
Decca said that Aunt Natty was her charming self and, after suggesting they go back to her house with the fishmonger, and having been hosed down at the front door, they all sat down to a thrilling game of Snakes and Ladders.
‘Not Racing Demon?’ Debo asked.
‘No,’ Decca stated. ‘Oh, before I forget,’ she reached into her pocket. ‘Natty said to give you this.’
Narrowing her green eyes to slits, Nancy accepted the odoriferous lilac coloured envelope. ‘Dare I open it?’ She looked at Muv and Farve. Before awaiting their answer she tore into the envelope and realised there was fifty pounds inside.
‘She is a good woman,’ Muv said.
‘Such a clever cove,’ Farve agreed.
Like rich people, Muv told the children, some people could not help being naughty. Diana and Decca readily agreed and nodded in unison.
‘Well, let’s say we forget the whole ghastly business of Delphine Ale-Stout,’ Nancy tossed the letter onto the fire.
‘Whatever do you mean?’ Decca jumped to her feet. ‘Natty isn’t Delphine Ale-Stout. She simply had no note-paper and the Paget twins came to the rescue.’ With great difficulty she retrieved the half-singed letter from the fire. ‘Money for an old war debt, love Natty,’ she read aloud.
Blor sniffed. ‘The Paget twins, eh?’
Five minutes later there was a knock on the door and Mabel entered, bearing another letter from Delphine Ale-Stout. It was an odd letter, quite rambling in its tone. ‘Dearest Nancy Freeman-Mitford. I don’t know who you are. I have never heard of you. I was impersonated by an old governess wishing to seek revenge and destroy my reputation. Please don’t write back. I have blacklisted you.’
Nancy did not throw the letter onto the fire or tear it up. She added it to her pile of correspondence. ‘One day I shall publish a book of letters, you’ll see,’ she told her disbelieving family.
They all laughed and forgot about the non-U escapade that was Miss Delphine Ale-Stout.
‘One last thing,’ Muv interrupted the jovial scene. ‘What else did Natty say?’
‘Oh,’ Decca beamed, ‘she promised to introduce me to her grandson, Esmond Romilly.’
There were floods. Absolute floods.

(Apologies for WordPress’s lack of formatting. It is too, too sickmaking!)

 

Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland

51++PG5+s2L

Published in 1962, this memoir detailed Olivia de Havilland’s transition from Hollywood film star to Parisian resident. Leaving America in 1953, she followed a Frenchman to Paris, where she became Mrs Pierre Galante and set up home on the Left Bank of the River Seine, but has since moved to the Right Bank, where she resides in a house as tall as it is wide. Re-issued by Crown Archetype to mark her 100th birthday, of which was celebrated on 1 July of this year, Every Frenchman Has One is as relevant and funny today, as it was over fifty years ago.

Far from an in-depth memoir of a Hollywood star, de Havilland offers us candid snippets of her life on the domestic front as well as the exciting world that befitted a star of her calibre. We are presented with the trials and tribulations of moving across the world with a young son, to a trip to Alexander, the famous coiffeur, for a haircut, and fittings at Christian Dior. Divided into twenty chapters, she discusses her daily struggles with French customs, French maids, and French salesladies to French holidays, French law, French doctors, and, above all else, the French language. Most puzzling of all, she asks:

How does a girl look sexy without looking sexy?

What must you tell a French doctor?

Do you eat a crepe of wear it?

Where do you keep your bathtub?

What does every Frenchman have one of?

The juxtaposition of such a life is what gives the book its panache, and humour. You can revisit two posts on the book by clicking here and here. Included in this new edition is an interview with de Havilland that reflects on her 60 plus years of living in Paris.

Written with wit and style, above all else Every Frenchman Has One is an elegant tale of an American living (and loving) in Paris.

 

 

 

 

 

Dandy Gilver & A Most Misleading Habit an extract by Catriona McPherson

9781473633414.jpg

Prologue

24th December 1932

There was not a sound to be heard, nor a creature abroad to hear it. The village lay still and cold in the moonlight, the long street a pale ribbon, the cottages on its either side no more than inky smudges, their windows set too deep to gleam. Only on the stained glass of the church did the moon’s reflection catch at the little panes and shatter into spangles.

Inside, silently as midnight came, the villagers bent their heads and clasped their hands. Some were praying, some merely waiting; but others, struck by awe, let their thoughts drift up and out into the moonlight, over the quiet countryside to other churches where other heads were bent in silence, to stables where donkeys might kneel if the legends were true, across the seas to distant lands where prayers were said in strange tongues and people quite unlike themselves were awestruck too.

Peace on earth, they told themselves, thinking of those faraway places. Joy to the world, they thought; the words lately sung, still resounding. Silent night, holy night. If only they had known.

For at that moment, not five miles away, klaxons shrieked and guards bellowed, their boots ringing out on the ironhard ground as they gave chase. Out upon the hills, hunched shapes flitted and darted between the shadows, each one cursing the moonlight.

Later that same night, not five miles away, a bell would toll and women’s screams peal out as flames leapt merrily higher and higher. Black smoke rising in billows from a chapel roof would hide the moon.

And before the morning came, not five miles away, alone in his bed, a man would quietly die.

 

Chapter One

‘If you read the newspapers or listen to the wireless,’ Sister Mary began, ‘you might remember the trouble we had here at Christmas time. The newspapermen have tired of it now and turned their attentions elsewhere but our troubles are far from over. The great harm done to our house has weakened us and we are not equal to dealing with mischief as well as recovering and carrying out our duties. We are in sore need of a woman such as yourself and can offer you a measure of comfort here if you should choose to help us.’ It sounded almost as though she wanted me to profess a vocation. I read on. ‘It cannot take much longer. The moor has been aswarm with policemen for a month now and in the end they shall surely prevail.’

Of course I remembered the events at which she was hinting. Either a breakout from an insane asylum or a fire at a convent that killed a nun would be memorable each on its own. Both together, a few miles apart and on Christmas Eve besides, had given the headline writers almost more than they could handle. Still, a little more detail in Sister Mary’s letter would have been welcome. I read it over again to see what I might have missed and found myself tutting.

I had long suspected that women who go in for nunnery had some melodrama about them. The early rising, the lying prostrate on stone floors, not to mention the glamorous costume – for who would not look dashing swathed in snowy white and with her neck hidden? – and this letter did nothing to change my mind. The great harm, the fickle newsmen, the troubles far from over. ‘Aswarm indeed!’ I muttered to myself. Then, finally, I caught the meaning. If policemen were swarming over the moor even now, that meant that the breakout was still in business. There were inmates at large. Did I really want to go and stay in a house full of women then?

‘What’s that?’ said Alec, looking up at my muttering. Hugh was behind The Times.

‘Interesting case,’ I said. ‘Although interesting isn’t perhaps the word, exactly.’

‘Same here,’ said Alec. ‘Interesting, but “case” isn’t perhaps the word, exactly. I’ve been asked to help a friend.’

‘Do it,’ said Hugh suddenly, letting the paper drop. ‘If you’ve the chance to help a friend, Osborne, do it.’ He had a peculiar look upon his face, strained about the eye, and not quite steady about the jaw.

‘What is it?’ I asked him.

‘Friend of mine in the obituaries,’ he said. ‘Sooty Asher.’

‘Oh, Hugh!’ I said. ‘I am sor—’

Hugh shook his head as though to get rid of a fly and went on, sounding angry now rather than stricken. ‘He killed himself. Shot his own head off. Got past the Boers, got past the Hun, settled himself in a good job, rising through the ranks, and then bang!’

‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘Well, you must try to get to the funeral, no matter how the roads are. Where is it?’

‘God knows,’ said Hugh. ‘He lived in Hyderabad. So they’ll probably have it there and send a tin pot of clinker back on a ship. You know what Indians are like. Poor old Sooty Asher.’

‘What was his Christian name?’ I asked. ‘Where are his family? I shall write to them and you can sign it, if you like. But I can’t call him Sooty.’

‘No family,’ said Hugh. ‘At least . . . I think there was a sister, but it was all rather under wraps. He had a patron, you know. We never asked and never cared.’ He glared at me as though I had been unfeeling. ‘So there’s no one to write to,’ he concluded, sounding bleak. Then he rose and left the room.

‘You didn’t deserve a scrap of that,’ said Alec.

‘I don’t mind,’ I replied. ‘Gosh, if one can’t snarl at one’s wife when an old pal blows his head off.’

‘Well, at any rate, I think I shall take Hugh’s advice and help my old pal Tony Gourlay,’ Alec said, but he looked over the letter with no great enthusiasm as he spoke.

‘Help him do what?’ I asked.

‘Keep his neck out of the noose,’ said Alec. ‘His mother writes to tell me I’m their last hope.’

‘What’s he done?’ I said. ‘Wouldn’t a lawyer be better?’

‘If I know Tony, he hasn’t done anything,’ said Alec. ‘He couldn’t, even if he wanted to. There was this one time in— And Tony didn’t even— Just stood there and waited for— If I hadn’t—’

I had grown used to the way Alec spoke of the trenches and was able, just about, to fill in the dreadful words for myself.

‘But what has he been accused of?’ I said.

‘Murder,’ said Alec.

‘And he protests his innocence?’

‘He protests nothing,’ Alec said. ‘He hasn’t spoken for fifteen years. He’s got the worst case of shell shock I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. He’s been mute since before the Armistice, living in a mad house out on the Lanark Moor, that goes by the jaw-dropping title of Hopekist Head. Hardly! Anyway, he lives there, carving wood and digging flowerbeds – rotting in other words. And then suddenly this Christmas he’s supposed to have broken out, set fire to a chapel and killed a nun! What is it, Dandy? You’ve gone paler than Hugh.’

Honnish Historical Reads

27213208

Like everyone else I read The Miniaturist, a clever piece of historical fiction, but I have to admit that its plot and setting were lost on me. I much prefer the interwar and mid-century era, and so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Jessie Burton’s latest novel, The Muse.  Set in the mid-1960s, Odelle Bastien, an inspiring writer, has left her Caribbean home to settle in London but it is not the postcard life she had dreamt of. By chance, she leaves her job at Dolcis (British shoe retailer) and begins a post at an art gallery, where she is mentored by the mysterious Marjorie Quick. Woven into Burton’s prose are flashbacks to Fascist Spain on the eve of WW2, where Olive Schloss a talented artist works on her masterpiece and falls in love with Isaac Robles, an impoverished painter who helps Olive to conceal her talents – an act which will have severe consequences in years to come. Through mistaken identities, past secrets and a burning ambition to be something quite different from what society says we ought to be, Burton has created something wonderful. A beguiling piece of historical fiction.

 

29468629

Infamy is merely an accident of fate . . . [but] infamy is no accident. It is a poison in our blood. It is the price of being a Borgia.

The Borgias are one of history’s most notorious families and today the name Lucrezia Borgia conjures up imagery of a wicked, blood-thirsty seductress. Presented as historical fiction, though based on fact, C.W. Gortner’s portrayal of the pope’s beautiful daughter is a sympathetic character study. From her upbringing at the Vatican, to her adulthood marred by accusations of incest and luring men to their doom with her arsenal of poison, has she been worthy of the reputation bestowed upon her or was she a pawn in her family’s game? Told from Lucrezia’s perspective and through his cast of characters, set to the backdrop of the Italian Renaissance, Gortner shies away from the well-worn clichés of Lucrezia Borgia’s legacy to rewrite her history.

 

28592674

What a treat it was to receive this book! 2016 marks Margaret Lockwood’s centenary and my biography, Queen of the Silver Screen, will be published in July ahead of the big event. So, it’s great to see this gem from 1944 re-issued with the lady herself on the cover. For those of you who might not know, Magdalen King-Hall’s novel was adapted for the screen by Gainsborough and released in 1945, as The Wicked Lady, to a new post-war audience. Gripped by rationing and the horrors of conflict, this historical drama – or bodice rippers, as they were known – divided the opinion of both the audience and its critics. Queen Mary, however, was a big fan! Based on the real life aristocrat and highway robber, Lady Katherine Ferrars, King-Hall’s protagonist, Lady Barbara Skelton, steals her cousin’s fiancé, marries him, but grows bored of country life in a draughty mansion with her endless days spent entertaining her spinster aunts. With the news of the notorious Captain Jerry Jackson sweeping through the land, she disguises herself as a male highway robber and sets off to get her thrills elsewhere. Having fallen in love with Jackson, Barbara and he become a crime duo, a partnership which will have dire consequences. A product of its day, The Life and Death of Wicked Lady Skelton has stood the test of time and I hope more fans of historical fiction can discover its charms.

 

30629323

Inspired by true events, this is the story of Lucia Joyce, the spirited daughter of the Irish novelist James Joyce, who was placed in an asylum by her father. Before her fate can be decided, she makes several attempts to escape the family home – she is the product of a mother who does not love her, and a father who, perhaps, loves her too much – but each effort is thwarted. When Samuel Beckett comes to work for Joyce, Lucia wonders if he might provide the escape she longs for. But there are family secrets, and letting Lucia out into the world threatens to expose them. Through her various sessions with Carl Jung, aspects of family life are explored, but it is not until the novel’s end, that the biggest secret of all is told. A study of a troubled young woman growing up in her father’s shadow in the Paris of the 1920s, Annabel Abbs brings Lucia Joyce to life. It is a haunting piece of historical fiction.

 

Everyone Brave is Forgiven

29485431

We live you see, and even a mule like me must learn. I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season. – Mary North

Many of my book reviews end up in The Lady (click here if you care to know what I’ve been reading) but some also appear on The Mitford Society. I try to keep the genres relevant to what we Mitties might enjoy, and so I decided to share Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave with you.

Based on a true story, Chris Cleave’s plot was inspired by his grandparents love affair during the Blitz. Mary North, a reluctant debutante who dreams of becoming a spy, resolves to stay in London and teach at an inner-city school. Although many of the children have been evacuated, some have been returned because the countryside ‘doesn’t want them’, or because they are not white and, or, British. What good is it to teach a child to count, Mary wonders, ‘if you do not show him that he counts for something?’

Meanwhile, Tom Shaw decides to give the war a miss, until his flatmate Alistair enlists, and the conflict can no longer be avoided. In love with Mary, Tom finds that he would do anything for her, but when she meets Alistair it is love at first sight.

Set to the backdrop of war torn London and the Siege of Malta, the lives of Mary, Tom and Alistair – entangled in lies, violence, passion and friendship – will never be the same again.

A lot of reviews have compared Everyone Brave is Forgiven with Atonement (the best bits, they said) and I can see the strong parallels between Mary and Celia, and how their characters evolve. Like Atonement, it is character driven and a slow read, especially in the beginning as the story and its protagonists negotiate their way in a dangerous, new world, and lose their innocence in the interim. Aside from the racial views of the day – the alienation, the ignorance – Mary must also learn to adapt to the class divide as she ventures from the comfort zone of her upbringing. So, there are a lot of elements at play, both at the centre of the plot and as subplots, weaving several golden threads through the story.

It is evident that the story is a personal one for Chris Cleave, and I think that is apparent within the text – he has crafted strong and sympathetic characters, beautiful prose, and an engaging plot.

 

 

Why Does the Britain of the Early 1900s Intrigue and Delight So Many of Us? By Tessa Arlen

Following the publication of her second novel, Death Sits Down to Dinner, Tessa Arlen gives The Mitford Society a lesson in Edwardian etiquette.

91L8SjQdG1L.jpg

Today the great houses of Britain’s landed aristocracy with their vast, exquisite and often drafty interiors and views of sweeping parkland attest to the power of rank and wealth of a bygone age. They also provide a stunning backdrop for elegantly clothed men and women with gracious manners who star in numerous costume dramas. We are presently enraptured by the first two decades of the 1900s.

Let us ignore for the moment those gracious country houses that have survived to continue to provide their families with shelter, by providing the public with a place to picnic, or watch a steam engine rally, or drive through a safari park. It is a spectacularly golden July day and you have been invited for a Saturday-to-Monday, as the Edwardians called a weekend, to one of their glorious country houses. Here is a little advice to bear in mind for your short stay, after all you might want to be invited back!

Whatever you do don’t alienate the servants. It is important not to underestimate how the Edwardians related to those who ensured their comfort and provided them with flawless and devoted service. Servants employed in the great houses were part of the family, but not of it; a sizable distinction because it relies on generations of subtle understanding of the polite, but offhand tact, used by the uppers when they addressed the lower orders. Butlers, footmen and personal maids will be extraordinarily unforgiving if you wear incorrect attire for the country, and cruelly punishing if you are either patronizingly familiar or arrogantly dismissive. So beware! The butler and the housekeeper will be far more intimidating than the charmingly eccentric dowager duchess or that affable old colonel you will be seated next to when you arrive in time for tea.

Your Edwardian great-grandmother would have been able to give you some good advice. Huge pointers for your comportment this weekend would be restraint, restraint, and more restraint in a way we can’t begin to imagine today. Your great-grandmother would be the first to remind you to lower your voice to a well-modulated murmur, that it is rude to interrupt, or even be too enthusiastic. Do not comment on your surroundings, the magnificence of the house, or marvel at the deliciousness of your dinner. You are not on a ‘girls’ night out’, no matter how confiding and wickedly risqué your new Edwardian girlfriends appear to be, or how many glasses of wine the footman pours for you at dinner. So sorry I meant to say self-restraint – just place your hand palm down over your wine glass to indicate no thank you, when you feel a delighted shriek start to emerge.

This was a time when women were treated like goddesses . . . then they married and were kept at home to incubate an heir and a spare. While the men at your country house weekend might enjoy shooting and fishing, you are encouraged to watch and applaud, but not join to in. By all means pick up that croquet mallet if that is your sort of thing, and certainly a game of lawn tennis is permitted, if you can actually move in your pretty afternoon dress and that killing corset. When the gentlemen sit back to their port and a cigar after dinner your hostess will beckon you away with the other women – important that you go with them. Despite the luxurious existence of the early 1900s, most women today would find it impossible to live the hidebound, restricted life of early 20th century women. So after you have lugged in the groceries after a hard day at the office, made dinner and then helped the kids with their homework before putting them to bed, just in time to collapse on the sofa to catch an episode of Downton, try not to sigh too deeply when Mathew Crawley goes down on one knee in the swirling snow to propose to Lady Mary. Most of us would have been Ivy slogging away in the scullery and not Lady Grantham reading a novel in the drawing room.

Did the Edwardian Shangri-La portrayed in Downton Abbey ever really exist even for the upper classes? The short answer is ‘Yes’ if you were Lord Grantham and not his servant, his wife or any of his daughters. If you have a problem not seeking to right the inequities of life, then don’t get on that train at London’s Marylebone station for the country. Certainly there were drunken, abusive husbands, negligent and thoughtless parents, spendthrifts and philanderers in the Edwardian age . . . and wronged wives looked the other way. The trick to coping with the darker side of human nature, if you were of society, was that it must never be referred to, never confided and most definitely never publicly acknowledged. However if you are an egalitarian at heart and social ostracism doesn’t bother you too much, you might join Mrs. Pankhurst’s suffragettes and loudly proclaim your opinions. I have heard that Holloway Prison was equipped with a special wing for militant members of the WSPU.

The third housemaid will unpack your trunk for you – five changes of clothes a day for three days need an awful lot of tissue paper. Here’s a titillating scrap of fresh society gossip to share with the company – gossip was the spice of Edwardian life –a substitute for reality TV. Gladys, the Marchioness of Ripon, an ultra-sophisticate with a ‘past’ was a wonderful example of the Edwardian double-standard and loved to gossip with her close coterie of friends. Alone in her lover’s house one day she discovered a pile of rivetingly indiscreet love letters written to him by one of her social adversaries, Lady Londonderry. Gladys swiped the lot and generously shared the juicy bits – read aloud after dinner – to her closest friends. After the fun was over she honorably returned the letters to their author at Londonderry House –when she knew husband and wife were dining alone. The butler approached his lordship and handed over the ribbon-bound bundle. After studying the contents, in silence, Lord Londonderry directed his butler to carry the letters to the other end of the dining table. Silence still reigned as Lady Londonderry came to terms with her awful predicament, a silence that was never broken between the two of them again. Far worse than having an affair, Lady Londonderry had ‘let down the side’. Adultery was a fact of life, indiscretion unforgivable; to be the subject of common gossip shameful and the scandal of divorce out of the question. Lord Londonderry never spoke to his wife in private again, and maintained a distant, cold courtesy to her in public for the rest of their long marriage.

So much more entertaining than a splashy tabloid divorce, don’t you think?

Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Cairo, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She went to the U.S. in 1980 and worked as an H.R. recruiter for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. She is the author of the Lady Montfort mystery series. And lives on an island in the Puget Sound, Washington.

The Misadventures of Enid Lindeman

s-l300

Originally published in The Mitford Society; Vol. III

Standing at six-feet tall with handsome features and platinum hair, Enid Lindeman was never going to be a wallflower. As she gallivanted through life she accumulated four husbands, numerous lovers, and during the inter-war years her high-jinx dominated the gossip columns. Evelyn Waugh satirized her set in Vile Bodies, but the workings of his menacing imagination paled in comparison to the real thing.

Born in Australia in 1892, she was the great granddaughter of Henry Lindeman, who founded Lindeman Wines in Hunter Valley, New South Wales. A privileged, if nondescript, childhood inspired Enid to look for a life of glamour and excitement. She achieved this at the age of twenty-one when she married Roderick Cameron, an American shipping magnate twenty-four years her senior. Establishing herself as a New York socialite, Enid would stop traffic (‘the better to view this vision of perfection’) when she emerged from the Cameron building in Manhattan. But the celebrated marriage was short-lived when, a year later, Cameron died from cancer, leaving his young wife a fortune of several million dollars.

The year was 1914 and the newly widowed Enid left New York with her nine-month-old son to move to Paris to drive an ambulance for the war effort. With her beauty, charm and charisma, she became popular with officers, and it was reported that five men, having found her so irresistible, committed suicide. (One blew himself up; another threw himself under Le Train Bleu; another jumped overboard in shark infested waters). Or, as Enid put it, ‘They were not able to take the strain.’ An old boyfriend, Lord Derby, Britain’s Minister for War, was concerned about the havoc she was causing amongst the officers and, hoping to tame her, he suggested she remarry. Although a millionairess in her own right, Enid was incapable of handling her finances and, to ease this fiscal responsibility, she agreed. Derby produced her next husband, Brigadier General Frederick Cavendish, known as ‘Caviar’.

After the war, Caviar was given command of the 9th Lancers in Egypt. As she had done in Paris, Enid caused a sensation amongst her husband’s comrades in Cairo and, as a dare, she reportedly slept with his entire regiment. By day she schooled her husband’s polo ponies and by night she dressed as a man to play with the band in the officers’ mess hall. Cairo suited Enid’s flamboyant tastes: there were picnics by the Nile, parties in sandstone mansions, and rides by moonlight in the Sahara. She met Lord Carnarvon (another of her lovers) on his famous dig of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and was one of the first to be taken down to the discovery.

In an attempt to distance Enid from hedonistic influences, Caviar took his wife, stepson, and their two children to London, where the family moved into a townhouse in Mayfair. Domesticity never appealed to Enid, and she continued her pleasure-seeking ways in London’s nightclubs. However, in 1931, she was once again a widow when Caviar died from a cerebral hemorrhage at their apartment in Paris.

In 1933, she met and married Marmaduke ‘Duke’ Furness, the 1st Viscount Furness, whose second wife, Thelma, was a lover of the Prince of Wales. (His first wife, Daisy, had died on board his yacht and he buried her at sea). Although immensely rich with a private railroad car, two yachts and an aeroplane, Furness ordered Enid to sign over her personal fortune to him. Furness’s London townhouse, Lees Place, was not large enough ‘to hide’ Enid’s three children from his sight, so she rented a flat on Curzon Street for the children and their staff. Suspicious that Enid was not being faithful, and intolerant to her platonic (a rarity) friendships with men, Furness hired detectives to watch her when he was at home and abroad. In spite of his jealousy, he showered her with expensive gifts and granted her every whim, one being exotic pets which included a tame cheetah, walked everyday by the children and their governess. A sensation wherever she went, it was said that people stood on chairs in the lobby of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo just to catch sight of her as she passed through. Out of all her husbands, Enid claimed to love Furness the most: ‘There was nothing in the world he was not prepared to give me. Of all the men who loved me, and some were as rich as Duke, he was the one who was prepared to lay the world at my feet.’

A terrific gambler, Enid loved the races and casinos, and often carried a bag stuffed with £10 notes. Irresponsible with money, she squandered a fortune, and was as equally flippant with her jewels, keeping her pearls in Kleenex boxes because they were the closest thing to hand. She was also generous with money: if she saw ex-servicemen begging on the street or sitting on the pavement next to their watercolours for sale, she would order her chauffeur to stop the car, whereupon she would get out and offer them a job or find them a home. To the disapproval of Furness, she would take her children on jaunts to the suburbs to visit the ex-servicemen for whom she had found homes.

Furness died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1940. After his death, his former wife, Thelma, contested the will, claiming that their son should inherit his estate. After a long legal battle, Furness’s eldest son (having been reported as missing in action) from his first wife was declared dead and the law sided with Thelma. Enid was not rewarded the money she had surrendered to Furness when they were married, but she was permitted to keep Lees Place in London. With the war raging around them, Enid and her daughter decamped to their villa in the south of France, where they tended to prisoners from the detention camp near Eze. Two years later, they escaped France and travelled to London by way of Portugal, where Enid used her influence to secure them passage on a flying boat.

In London, Enid was dubbed ‘The Penniless Peeress’ by the press. Down on her luck, she met Valentine Browne, the Earl of Kenmare, and famous gossip writer of the Londoner’s Log (then known as Castlerosse because of his former title Viscount Castlerosse). The confidant and travelling companion of the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, Valentine had lived an excessive life of debauchery, and had been a close friend and lover of Enid’s when they both lived in Paris during WWI. Divorced from the scandalous courtesan Doris Delevingne, he was hoping for a more stable wife.

They were married in 1943, and Enid became Lady Kenmare. An enormous gentleman who was reported to have sat on a dog and crushed it to death, Valentine’s doctor warned Enid that he had a weak heart and was to abstain from sex as it would surely kill him. She rejected the doctor’s advice: ‘It was one of the only pleasures left to him in life. How could I ration him?’ He died of a heart attack less than a year after they were married. In her boldest move yet, Enid, at the age of fifty-two, claimed she was pregnant and as such could hold onto the Kenmare estate until the potential heir was born. She kept up the charade for thirteen months until the estate was eventually given to Valentine’s nephew. Having buried four husbands, Somerset Maugham dubbed Enid, ‘Lady Killmore’.

A chameleon to all the men she had fallen in love with, Enid would become their ideal woman and their interests would become hers. As her wealth grew, through inheritance and marriages, her life became a grand production. All purchases centred around the bedchamber: there were silk sheets and embroidered silk and lace pillowslips (changed everyday), and nightgowns and negligees were bought in abundance. The bedroom, her natural habitat, was sprayed with liberal amounts of Patou’s Joy, then costing three times more than any other scent, and a lady’s maid was ordered to spray the nightgowns and negligees, as well as the bedclothes. Leaving the beside lamp on, the maid would then open the door to Enid’s bathroom and fill the bath to a certain level with hot water and scent. Presumably Enid, whenever she returned, would add more hot water to it. However, Enid was never seen in bed with a man, not even her husband, for she considered that ‘vastly improper’.

It was a role she knew well, and with copious amounts of money at her disposal, Enid played the part to perfection. Having outlived her lovers, in her later years she presided over La Fiorentina, her son’s villa in the south of France – a hub for Hollywood royalty. She died in 1973 at the age of eighty-one.

Enid features in my forthcoming book, The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne (The History Press, Nov 2016).

Book News

cover_margaretlockwood_temp.jpg

Hello Mitties!

I am excited to share with you the news that my book on Margaret Lockwood, the British film star, will be published by Fantom Films in July. The book has been a labour of love and several years in the making, and it will be released ahead of Margaret’s centenary in September 2016. Although this is a new genre for me, it still fits on the spectrum of British heritage and is very much keeping within the era that I write about. My other forthcoming book, The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne, is still on track for a November release.

Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen is available for pre-order.