Festive Reads: Honnish Holidays

33848298These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

Set to the backdrop of a Parisian summer, this contemporary novel tells the story of the tenants of an apartment block. The fast-paced narrative, intertwined with the characters’ personal histories, their failed lives, love affairs, and secrets hold the readers attention. A landlady searches for her lost youth; another lives in her childhood apartment, remembering her privileged past; a young mother is frustrated with her life and is losing her mind; a young man wrestles with his faith; and another campaigns against a Muslim couple moving in. Meanwhile the divided politics and anti-Islamic threats rage through the city, risking livelihoods and lives. A timely issue, the book does not shirk from examining the varying ideologies at play. This is best displayed when a mild-mannered tenant deceives his wife and negotiates his place within the Far Right, a step that goes too far. A realistic character study of many humans existing together with their private lives worlds apart, Fran Cooper has written a Ship of Fools for the modern reader. Sharp and engaging, she brings forth the poetry and pathos of everyday lives and scenarios. A strong debut that is certain to appeal to, and strike a chord within, all readers.


The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

In this sparkling prequel to Practical Magic Alice Hoffman brings the Owens family back to life, this time focusing on the upbringing of three siblings, Franny, Bridget ‘Jet’ and Vincent. The setting is New York City in the 1960s, and the children are raised in a conventional household by a child psychologist father and a mother whose background is quite mysterious. Through their mother they are blood witches and related to Maria Owens, a scarlet woman whose heartbreak turned into a curse, so whomever they fall in love with is destined to die. However when they spend the summer in Massachusetts with an aunt, they soon learn the rules of magic. Its charming imagery of eccentric aunts, black cats and spell books are balanced with the social issues such as the Vietnam war, Civil Rights, and the rise of hippy culture. And the narrative incorporates the subject of seventeenth-century witchcraft with discreet nods to authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. The combination of magic and the universal themes of love – romantic love and sibling love – allows the reader to have one foot in a magical world and another in real life. Much like the bewitching heroines of this book.


A Letter From Italy by Pamela Hart

It is 1917 and Rebecca Quinn, an Australian journalist, has come to Italy with her husband to report on the Italian war campaign. Given her profession and determination to make her own way in the world, she is an anomaly amongst her gender and colleagues. She is also confused by the language barrier, and the welcomed advances from an American-born Italian photographer, Alessandro. Recalling a time in both Italian and Australian history, Hart conveys the inner conflict of not only her protagonist, but of women from that era and the challenges they faced both politically and morally. Based on the real life war correspondent, Louise Mack, it brings to life WWI and journalism from a woman’s point of view. An inspiring read.


The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

An evocative and atmospheric novel set in the 2000s, even though it feels like a 1950s mystery: with the dramatic backdrop of the barren landscape of Kansas, much of the action occurs in a mansion whose walls contain too many secrets. Lane, a girl from New York, harbours a romantic vision of her family’s estate, Roanoke – despite her unstable mother’s warnings that it was hell. After her mother’s suicide, 15-year-old Lane goes to live there with her maternal grandparents, whom she does not know. At first, she senses a strange atmosphere, which she blames on her aloof grandmother and rebellious cousin Allegra. Both girls have come to Roanoke to be raised by their ageing grandparents, and they are bonded by decades of secrets trickling down the generations. From the opening page until the last sentence, the plot is packed with suspense and danger, and an unsettling feeling radiates off the characters. With its vivid visual imagery, this is a book that stays with you.


Histories by Sam Guglani

In this striking collection of short stories Sam Guglani reveals the inner-workings of a hospital along with the private observations of those who work in it. From a consultant, a junior doctor, a porter and a domestic, each individual seems to exist only in a medical environment and the stretch of corridors, wards, medical apparatus and patients make up the fabric of their lives in that moment. A doctor is struck by the beauty of a woman, even though her body is dying; a janitor fades into the background; a domestic is harassed by youths; a chaplain comforts the dying; an oncologist sees what the body hides. Throughout the interconnected stories morals are questioned, common sense is often overruled by literature, the hierarchy of roles within the hospital are taken for granted, and a patient fights for their life. With his vivid prose Giglani examines the fine line of mortality, and the role that each human plays throughout the discourse of the narrative. His background as a doctor at an NHS hospital and talent as a writer merges the two worlds to offer a unique look at a system under stress but one where humanity prevails. For fans of Lucia Berlin.


Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay

Although there has been various books published about Daphne du Maurier this is the first biography to be written as fiction. Originally translated from French and written in the present tense, the author’s handling of her protagonist is aloof; she relays facts without adding context, and the setting jumps around. It feels cinematic, as it slowly offers snippets of information to relay the fundamental qualities of what made Daphne tick. In that sense the biography is a clever one, and entirely original. Rosnay also draws on Daphne’s French heritage, and explores how this shaped her as a writer. The author manages to capture the balance between a courageous young woman, in both her private and public life, and the barrier she put up when around others who were not part of her world. An insightful and endearing book, it’s a must read for admirers of Daphne and her work.


Ava: A Life in Movies by Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski

In this illustrated book on Ava Gardner, film historians and authors, Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski reveal the layers of Gardner’s life, amidst her Hollywood fame and tumultuous romances. From her impoverished upbringing, to the highs and lows of a career spanning several decades, to her fabled marriage to Frank Sinatra, the authors, although respectful to Gardner herself, leave no stone unturned. Through their meticulous research and rare photographs we meet the woman behind the smokescreen, whose talent has become overshadowed by scandal and second-hand tales. What the reader will come away with, is a sympathetic portrait of a woman who was, perhaps, too human for Hollywood. A biography Gardner herself would be proud of.


Ghosts of Christmas Past edited by Tim Martin

Ideal for those (such as myself) who dislike the hype surrounding Christmas but still enjoy a little festive cheer. A collection of brilliant short stories written by past and contemporary authors. Drawing on big houses, mystery and scandal it is the ideal stocking-filler for those who the macabre. The perfect companion for the dark winter nights.


Festive Reads: Fiction

Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones

51HlIU41pWLBeginning in the early 2000s and working backwards to 1950, this is a story of a marriage told in reverse. Milly and Jack meet in San Francisco at the age of 21; he is a war hero, and she a secretary. When she marries and has children, Milly begins to feel as though her identity has been stolen. Jack is working in a job he hates and is frustrated at how his life is panning out. And so the conflict begins, and escalates as the years go on. As they examine their lives, they realise they have simply settled for less – she fights her inner thoughts about her children and how they do not fulfil her, and he feels short- changed by the American Dream. But the experiences they have shared over 60 years ultimately bind them together. Told from both of their perspectives, with a dash of black humour, it is an insightful book that reveals home truths about love. A compulsive read.

Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato 51KoJDpxHCL

Marina Fiorato is an expert at creating stories out of fascinating women’s lives, either factual people or fictional characters, and her books transport the reader on a journey to faraway places, and Italy is a recurring theme. Her latest offering does not disappoint. Here, she tells the story of a pregnant, suicidal prostitute, Annie Stride, who is saved from jumping to her death by Francis Maybrick Gill, a promising painter. From their chance meeting on Waterloo Bridge, her life changes forever and Francis transforms Annie from a fallen women to an artist’s muse, and she becomes the darling of the art scene. Capturing 1850s London in her prose, the dark underworld of the city is brought to life, as is the beauty of Florence and Venice set to the backdrop of the desperate situation Annie has found herself in and the secret she uncovers. Far from a saviour who has put her on a pedestal, Francis’s sadistic tastes spell danger, and Annie cannot escape her past, especially when Francis’s dark deeds are exposed. A dark and brooding tale of survival, Fiorato expertly handles the complexities of the plot, the locations, and her characters to deliver a thrilling tale of love, lust, and revenge.

51WpV1adJELThe House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy

Using dual narratives and time-frames this book follows the ordinary lives of Oliver and Kate, whose lives are forever changed when she inherits an old family estate, and he quits his job to prepare the house for sale. It is then, through Oliver’s discovery of an old diary, that Sophia is brought to life and the story shifts to the 1920s. Written in an engaging way, McCarthy effortlessly brings her characters together to explore the complexities of their relationships, and how the past haunts both themselves and their families. A slow burn with an unexpected end, it is a captivating read.


A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

This novel, set in 1939 on-board an oceanliner headed for Australia, is reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes. With an insight into life on the ship, we see everything from Lillian’s point-of-view. Bright, beautiful and brave, she is both heroine and suspected murderess. Her new friends, passengers from both tourist and first class, are a mixture of rich Americans, oddball siblings, and Jews fleeing the rise of Hitler. They each have a story to tell and a secret to keep. With nods to Agatha Christie, the complexities of the characters, combined with a suspenseful plot, make this a perfect mystery novel.


The Daughter of Lady Macbeth by Ajay Close

Freya is a modern woman, advancing in her forties, and happily married. She has everything she wants except her mother’s love, and a baby. Lillas, a former actress, makes no secret that she didn’t want Freya, and loathes anything to do with domesticity. But Freya embarks on a course of IVF and, falling pregnant with another man’s child, her life becomes a tangled web of lies. Through Ajay Close’s engaging writing, she manages to get under the skin of her characters and the reader becomes caught up in their story. Her portrayal of Lillas: brittle, glamorous, and desperate to stay relevant reads like a factual portrait of any given star. Behind the artifice of Lillas’s stories of ‘Redgrave, Olivier, Gieguld’ et al, we realise her life is an empty place, and yet she is her own worst enemy. Freya, as independent as she is, clings onto the hope that her mother will fix everything about the past, and each time she is disappointed. Their pain springs off the page, as they each confront the demons from their youth. Close has written a gripping read about redemption, love, and self-discovery.


Yuki Means Happiness by Alison Jean Lester

Diana, a young nurse from Boston, answers an advertisement to work for a Japanese couple, Naoki and Emi, who have travelled to America to await the birth of their first child, Yuki. However, under the close scrutiny of Naoki (often from afar), Diana senses something is not right, but she ignores her instincts and assumes her uneasy feelings are the result of a learning curve. Then, a few years later, she is offered the job of nanny to Yuki, who is now three, and she moves to Tokyo. The household is, again, controlled by Naoki and Emi is gone, her disappearance is not explained, and the silence surrounding her abandoning Yuki evokes Diana’s old feelings. She finds herself trapped in a world that is filled with secrets, and discovers the truth about why Emi left. With Alison Jean Lester’s beautiful prose, the simplicity of the narrative, and the uneasy complexities of her characters bubbling to the surface, the plot is much more than what the nanny saw. It is a character study of a young woman adapting to a new life and culture while trying to come to terms with her own past and struggling to step into a future that has not been tainted by familial issues, unresolved feelings about love, and it is those factors which drive her instinct to protect Yuki. In that sense the character study of Diana did remind me of Lillian, as the narrative, written in Diana’s voice, draws the reader into her experiences of Japan (the author lived in Japan), and her descriptions of its pop culture, the underground, the food, and daily rituals offered a glimpse of a young woman’s life, albeit fictional. Like Lillian, she exposes the intricate detail of a woman’s life and, as before, she has the Midas touch.





Festive Reads: Non-Fiction


Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Using biographical information, press snippets, and relying on his own imagination to invent scenarios which may or may not have (90% of the time) did not happen. From anecdotes about her upbringing in the shadow of Lilibet, to her rebellious teen years, her love of showbiz, and failed affairs and marriage, Craig Brown puts a new slant on the queen’s glamorous sister. Divided into 99 short chapters, it is an ideal book for dipping in and out of. Put this title on top of your Christmas list!



The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice by Judith Mackrell

This group biography focuses on a trio of women who once owned and inhabited the Palazzo Venier. Luisa Cassati, a mad aristocrat with dyed orange hair and live snake jewellery, turned the palazzo into a piece of living art. Doris Castlerosse, known in other echelons as Doris Delevingne, acquired the palazzo after her divorce from Viscount Castlerosse and subsequent lesbian fling with a rich American. She hosted lavish parties on the eve of WWII and fled when war became more than a whisper. Peggy Guggenheim, its last owner, filled the palazzo with fascinating people, works of art, and today it is home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Of course the book is more than a potted history of the three women; it focuses on their backstories, their triumphs and failures, and the hold which Venice had over them. A dazzling read.

How They Decorated: Inspiration from Great Women of the Twentieth Century by P. Gaye Tapp

Focusing on sixteen iconic women this stylish book looks at how these rich and affluent individuals decorated their homes. From Irish designer Sybil Connolly to Anglophile Fleur Cowles, to Truman Capote’s ‘swans ‘Babe Paley and Bunny Melon, to European aristocracy, the aesthetic tastes are examined to offer a glimpse of their personalities and the techniques they used. The influential touch of famous interior decorators is also apparent, most notably Syrie Maugham’s trend for white rooms, and their keen eye for upholstery, art and antiques. Gloria Vanderbilt said: ‘Decorating is autobiography’ and Tapp, who has effortlessly cultivated a historical guide as well as a visual treat, proves this to be true. A delightful piece of arm-chair travel.

35166885Too Marvellous for Words by Julie Welch

This memoir is filled with hilarious anecdotes of student life in a bygone world 1960s boarding school. While England was springing to life with rock & roll the girls’ were kept in line by strict disciplinarians – the science teacher was prone to throwing objects at them, another girl was punished for wearing an Alice band. Although it focuses on Welch’s time at school, it’s very much a social history and a collective biography of her schoolmates and the teachers, too. She recalls the inedible food, the horsehair beds, the dorm ghost, midnight feasts, writing to boys (one girl subscribed to a boys’ magazine and masqueraded as ‘Charles’ in order to receive a letter from the opposite sex), and the fast girls who were expelled. Written as though she were telling an old friend of her experiences, she maintains a sense of adventure as she recounts those days, and an air of pity for those narrow-minded teachers who were stuck at the school. An insightful look at tradition and eccentricity, the like of which we’ll never see again. Perfect for those who loved Ysenda Maxtone-Graham’s Terms and Conditions.

diana petreThe Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley (Slightly Foxed reprint edition) by Diana Petre

Diana Petre was a natural writer and confidante to many, and several times she killed a book on purpose. Born in 1912 to a bewitching woman named Muriel, she knew nothing of her mother’s life except that she drank at night-time and that she was a nurse during the two World Wars, for which she was given an OBE. When Diana was eighteen, Muriel told her that ‘Uncle’ was her father. Uncle was Roger Ackerley, a banana merchant known as ‘the banana king’. Before she had learned the truth she always felt ashamed, and wondered if Muriel was a divorcee – her only explanation for this secrecy. But then Muriel vanished one day, and the children were left with an elderly housekeeper, to re-appear, years later, when Diana was ten. Written without an ounce of self pity and in a witty and engaging way, Diana attempts to piece together her mother’s mysterious past, while confronting her own demons. What we are presented with is a portrait of Muriel, a woman who suffered greatly for falling in love with the wrong man, but who had the conviction to live as she pleased. An inspiring read which gives life to an unlikely heroine.

28965132In The Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary

This is the first biography written about Margaret Wise Brown, whose children’s book Goodnight Moon has captivated readers for years. Amy Gary is a Brown enthusiast and had access to her unpublished manuscripts, personal letters, and diaries. Born in 1910, in New York, Brown had a difficult childhood: a depressive mother who was fascinated with spiritualism, and a father whose expectations she could not match. After school and doing odd jobs, she found herself moving at the centre of a publishing revolution within the children’s genre – this gives the biography a lot of scope when exploring the writing scene of 1940s New York. Not only did Brown write unique books, she lived the life of a nonconformist and had affairs with both men and women, including the ex-wife of John Barrymore. Within the text one can sense the exploratory process Gary has undertaken, in not only the prose but in her subject too, and, as she had been in life, there is a distance between Brown and the reader. What is certain, is that Brown was a forceful character who knew her own mind and she reaped the rewards in the end, albeit too briefly. A revealing portrait of a mysterious woman.

35667650Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick

This is the first biography of Joan Leigh Fermor written by Simon Fenwick, archivist to the Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor papers. He retraces her rambling life across the British Isles, the Continent, Russia and America, delving into her guises of debutante, muse, photographer, and lover of Paddy. Famous names of the twentieth century make an appearance: Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, and one of her first paramours, Alan Pryce-Jones. With access to Joan’s archive and having conducted interviews with her loved ones, Fenwick leaves no stone unturned. The text is bulked out with information about her family, and the various places she called home: a country manor, a Parisian finishing school, and Crete. Bringing a forgotten individual to life is always tricky, but Fenwick has succeeded in his challenge. A riveting biography.

34100964The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler

‘Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you’re dead,’ is the opening line of Christopher Fowler’s new book, a collection ninety-nine great authors who have fallen into obscurity. Amongst his potted histories are Lesley Blanch, whose posthumous memoir/essays were published to acclaim last year; Georgette Heyer, still the unrivalled queen of Regency bodice rippers; and Barbara Pym, whose reissued fiction has attracted a new generation of readers. Aside from those names, recognisable to bookworms and history aficionados, the tome is packed with forgotten names, whose work can be instantly recalled even if the authors are not i.e. Bambi, The Rainbow Children, Ruthless Rhymes, and Bridge Over the River Kwai. Apart from its biographical merits it’s packed with anecdotes offering literary trivia, as well as evoking pure nostalgia for childhood reads, as well as old classics. Not only that, it explores literary criticism and the stylistics of what is deemed a popular novel, and how history will remember it. More than a book of essays, it reminds the reader of the importance of words, and the stylistic approach to literature, and how something can or cannot stand the test of time. A book to jog the memory, or an excuse to revisit an old favourite. It is, as Nancy Mitford would have said, a bibliophile’s dream.


The Stucco Venus: The Life and Times of Enid, Countess of Kenmare

A glamorous shot of Enid, late 1920s

Originally published in Social and Personal magazine

Despite accusations of gold digging, drug taking and murder, Enid Lindeman was certain of one thing: she was never going to be a wallflower. Born into the Lindeman wine family, in Australia in 1892, she had an upbringing befitting a young lady but she longed to escape colonial life. At the age of twenty-one, she married Roderick Cameron, a forty-five-year-old shipping magnate from New York. The marriage lasted a year, before Cameron’s death from cancer, leaving her with a baby son and a million-dollar fortune. She then began an affair with Bernard Baruch, an American financier and presidential adviser, but marriage was out of the question, for Enid thought ‘he was not much good in bed and he was very mean’.

The First World War gave Enid the excitement she craved and she moved to Paris to drive an ambulance for the war effort. Standing almost six-feet-tall with red hair and emerald green eyes, she caused havoc amongst the officers and one threatened to commit suicide. This was not a new occurrence for Enid, and during her many affairs five of her lovers killed themselves – one jumped into shark infested waters, another blew himself up. In 1917 she married Frederick ‘Caviar’ Cavendish, her reason for marriage was simple: she needed someone to manage her money. She followed Caviar to Cairo, where he was given command of the 9th Lancers, and as a dare she slept with his entire regiment. By day she schooled Caviar’s polo ponies, and by night she dressed as a man and played the piano or her Swanee whistle in the band of the officers’ mess. She also met and began an affair with Lord Carnarvon, custodian of Highclere Castle and dedicated Egyptologist, and she was among the first to be shown Tutankhamun’s tomb after its discovery in 1922. But she soon found herself in the familiar state of widowhood, after Caviar’s death from a cerebral haemorrhage.

Enid’s next marriage in 1933 was a bold move, even by her standards. Her new husband was Viscount Furness, the sixth richest man in the world. His first wife, Daisy, had died aboard their yacht during a cruise and he buried her at sea. Some say he murdered her, and others believed he would hang if the evidence was ever revealed. His second wife, Thelma Morgan Converse, from whom he was divorced, had been the mistress of the Prince of Wales and was the best friend of Wallis Simpson. He first saw Enid at a casino in Le Touquet, and after their first meeting he pursued her relentlessly: flowers and jewellery would arrive daily, and planes, yachts and Rolls-Royce cars were put at her disposal. Enid herself claimed she received the aforementioned without making any effort whatsoever. But her lifestyle came at a cost and Furness, a jealous man prone to uncontrollable rages, directed his anger towards Enid and her three children. This, she thought was a sign of his love for her. ‘There was nothing in the world he was not prepared to give me. Of all the men that loved me, he was the one who was prepared to lay the world at my feet.’ As the ‘thirties drew to a close the rows between Enid and Furness escalated. No longer did she discreetly see other men and outsmart the detectives he set upon her, she flaunted her affairs openly. One paramour, the Duke of Westminster, known as Bendor, was a threat to Furness as he was only man who rivalled his wealth. Furness departed overseas, a rare move for he rarely left Enid’s side, afraid that if he did she would cast her eyes elsewhere. What would follow would be something of a charade: she sent Furness a letter, claiming she was going to commit suicide by shooting herself. In great distress, he returned home and sent a search party to find her. She was discovered at the London Clinic with a wound on her head, but it was from a face-lifting operation.

In the early days of the Second World War Enid and Furness were staying at La Fiorentina, his villa in Cap Ferrat. He was bed-bounded with cirrhosis of the liver and surrounded by medical staff who cared for him until his death. Trapped in the south of France and short of money, Enid pawned her jewellery and bought a few goats so she could turn their milk into butter and cheese. There was a detention camp close to the villa, and she would often see the prisoners. It was not long before she began to help them escape, dressed in the gardener’s clothes or any civilian attire she could find. The police soon grew suspicious of her activities, and Enid began to plot how she and her daughter could leave France. Owing to her connections within the British government, she secured passage on an airship departing from Lisbon.

At the height of the Blitz, Enid moved into Claridge’s while she awaited her inheritance from Furness to be settled. As fate would have it, Enid discovered an old boyfriend, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat, Valentine Browne, once the most famous gossip columnist in London, had taken a suite at the hotel. He had been married to Doris Delevingne, a notorious courtesan, which ended in divorce. Over the years he and Enid had contemplated marriage to one another, but as Enid put it: ‘My husband or his wife got in the way.’ Despite his fame and Earldom of Kenmare, he was always short of money. Enid, however, must have suspected his title came with a fortune, and Valentine himself assumed she was a millionairess. Their love of money and false impression of one another inflamed their love affair, and they were married in January 1941. Now the Countess of Kenmare, she followed her husband to Ireland, where she established herself at his family seat, Killarney, in Co. Kerry. Eight months later, she was, once again, a widow after Valentine suffered a fatal heart attack. As he died without an heir, Enid, who was fifty-one at the time, fabricated a story that she was pregnant. Remaining at Killarney she kept up the ruse for a year, during which time a baby failed to materialise.

Having been gossiped about and associated with the rumour that she had killed four husbands, Enid would become embroiled in a real scandal. In 1954 she and Donald Bloomingdale, of the department store family, crossed paths at the Sherry-Netherland hotel. Over the course of her stay, Bloomingdale asked for heroin and she gave it to him. It was said that the heroin was delivered in a lace handkerchief embroidered with a coronet and her initials. Another claimed it had been smuggled in a silver frame behind a photograph of Enid. Either way, the dose proved fatal and Enid fled New York. ‘You know how the American police are,’ she said at the time. In light of the Bloomingdale scandal, Enid’s own drug-taking past was scrutinised. She was said to be a former heroin addict herself, and was on the drug register. This was partly true: in the 1930s she had fallen from her horse and was prescribed morphine to ease a back injury. Having become addicted, she entered a clinic to cure herself. If she was absent from a party or late to arrive, Daisy Fellowes, with whom Enid shared a difficult relationship, would say: ‘Probably busy with her needle.’

After the incident, she never discussed Bloomingdale and for a long time she stayed away from New York. Her society friends had their theories, but they never asked her about it. Daisy Fellowes was far more blatant: she was going to host a dinner party and invite twelve people. ‘All murderers, very convenient,’ she said. ‘There are six men and six women. And Enid will have the place of honour, because she killed the most people of anyone coming.’ She was never kind to Enid, describing her as ‘an Australian with a vague pedigree’. Once, when they were conversing, Enid began with, ‘People of our class . . . ‘ Daisy raised her hand and stopped her, ‘Just a moment, Enid, your class or mine?’ And at a dinner party on Long Island her host asked why she was known as ‘Lady Killmore’ – a nickname given to her by Somerset Maugham. Enid rose from the table and said she had endured enough, she was leaving. Predicting her reaction, earlier in the evening the host had sent her car back to Manhattan, but Enid walked to the highway and hitch-hiked home.

In her old age Enid lived at Broadlands, a farm in South Africa, from where she bred race horses. Her old friend, Beryl Markham, trained them but their partnership was tested by various factors, notably Enid’s refusal to give her control of the stables. This frustrated Beryl, and she said: ‘Enid was getting very old and difficult. She couldn’t understand what I needed, and so I left.’ She felt the loss of Beryl greatly, and the running of the farm became increasingly difficult. For the remaining years of her life, until her death at eighty-one, she was in great pain but refused to take medication, fearing her old morphine addiction would return. She was determined to overcome weakness, but strong enough to recognise it. Her motto for life springs to mind: ‘Never be ill, never be afraid, and never be jealous’.

The above is an edited extract from These Great Ladies: Peeresses and Pariahs by Lyndsy Spence

The Film Star’s Husband who Went to Antrim and Became a War Hero

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Margaret Lockwood and her daughter Margaret Julia Leon aka ‘Toots’. Scanned from My Life and Films and published in Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen. Image courtesy of Julia Lockwood-Clark 

Originally published in the Antrim Guardian 

In today’s society of instant celebrities, one might be forgiven for drawing a blank at the name Margaret Lockwood, but mention a handful of her iconic films and the wheels begin to turn. A Hitchcock heroine, she starred in The Lady Vanishes, the film which launched director Alfred Hitchcock’s career in Hollywood, and she led the cast of The Wicked Lady, the first British film to gross £1-million at the box office. While Hollywood had a stable of A-list actresses, the British film studios banked on only one name to keep the industry afloat during the war years, and that was Margaret Lockwood. What is more extraordinary to me, as Margaret’s biographer, was the discovery that her husband was stationed in Antrim for a year during the Second World War, and this played a pivotal part in the couple’s marriage at the height of her fame. And, perhaps unlike his fellow comrades, the events which took him to Antrim were unique.

Rupert Leon was a Londoner who came from a wealthy family; his father headed British Steel, and so when it came to marrying Margaret, a starlet on the rise, he was not content to play second fiddle to his wife, in both her earning capacity and her career. It is interesting to note that no photographs exist in the public domain of Rupert from that time, except one shot in which his back is turned, rather tellingly, to the camera. The couple met in their teens and secretly married when Margaret was twenty-one, two years later she was sent to Hollywood under contract to Twentieth Century Fox to star opposite Shirley Temple. But it proved a miserable experience: she was homesick, the war was imminent, and on impulse Rupert resigned from his job at British Steel and caught the next boat to America to join her.

After several months in America, the London they returned to was unrecognisable and Britons were preparing for a war that was yet to be declared. Life for Margaret went on as before and her time was consumed by the studio. But for Rupert, who was unemployed and facing an uncertain future, he signed up to the Territorial Army. He had some army experience behind him, having gone to Germany in 1932 where he experienced Nazism first-hand, and seeing Adolf Hitler deliver a speech had left a lasting impression on the young man – ‘I would as soon slept with a cobra as trust Adolf Hitler’ – and he joined the London Rifle Brigade upon his return. All his life he would despise the politicians who had appeased Hitler in those early days – ‘Guilty men,’ as he called them. But at twenty-five his age went against him, and to his fury he was sent to a training camp in North Wales where he served as a Royal Artillery officer due for commission. However, a visit from his famous wife lost him that commission when he shirked his responsibilities to spend his days with her before she returned to London to film the wartime thriller Night Train to Munich with Rex Harrison and Paul Henreid. He then received word that he was to be posted to the 145th Field Regiment RA serving as a gunner with the 61st Division in Northern Ireland.

Not every young soldier could have said that Hollywood played a part in their war record, but like many men who went overseas, Rupert had to leave his wife, who was expecting their first child. The prospect of becoming a father put his own mortality into perspective, and his main objective was to not only stay alive but to ‘get the hell out of Northern Ireland’. His regiment was posted as a deterrent for Hitler, who could have conquered Ireland with his parachute army, but, to quote Rupert: ‘We up north in Ulster would have proven a tougher nut to crack.’

Stationed in the unforgiving landscape of the glens, and in the winter of 1940, the conditions as well as the physical training were tough. ‘They asked the impossible from us, and we gave it to them,’ he said. Trucks became bogged down by rain, sleet and snow on the hills, and they were ordered to haul the guns by foot. Sleep became a luxury and during every brief halt in their marching, the men were known to nod off. When he was not on guard duty, Rupert was given the task of cleaning latrines and peeling potatoes. In spite of the distractions, morale was low and officers were pulling strings and leaving Northern Ireland in their droves. Sensing he would be killed when the Germans attacked (which they did in April and May 1941), Rupert harboured an ambition to leave too.

In the summer of 1941, he was granted compassionate leave to travel home to England for the birth of his child, a daughter named Margaret Julia Leon, best known to future audiences as the actress Julia Lockwood. He spent those few days with Margaret at a nursing home in Hampshire, but tensions on the home front ran high due to his disapproving mother-in-law usurping him from their happy home life. Forbidden to spend his leave at the family’s cottage, purchased by Margaret before the war and inhabited by her formidable mother, Rupert returned to Northern Ireland, frustrated by the semi-estrangement from his wife (they divorced after the war) and his absence in his daughter’s life.

On a rare day off, Rupert travelled into Portrush and visited the Giant’s Causeway. Having walked the mile long route of hexagon rocks, he discovered a wishing well. ‘These wells are the homes of Irish fairies which are said to have special powers,’ he remembered. ‘If they like the wisher, they will grant that the wish come true, that is if you believe in fairies, as I do!’ He threw a penny into the well and wished to leave Northern Ireland. ‘The good fairy did not take offence,’ he said, ‘for she must have realised that I meant nothing personal against her well or her country.’ A week or two later, the wish was granted. Rupert spied a notice requesting volunteers for special duties, one of which was the ability to speak German fluently. The next day he caught a train to Larne and boarded a ferry to Stranraer, from where he then journeyed to London for his interview. Remembering this turn of good fortune, he said: ‘I guess the good fairy had done her part and now it was up to me.’

In 1944, after intense training in York and having served in Africa, Rupert was posted to Germany with the Intelligent Corps. He was the first man on the side of the Allies to learn of Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun and of their joint suicide. He interrogated senior Nazis and, after the war ended, he exposed one of the top leaders of the Wehrwolf organisation. The physical effort of his future war work, he said, ‘was puny compared to the training I [received] in Northern Ireland’.

Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen (Fantom Films, 2016) was written and released to coincide with Lockwood’s centenary. As Britain’s number one box-office star during the war years, her iconic films gained her legions of fans and she won the Daily Mail Film Award three times. With a career spanning fifty years, she reinvented herself from a film star, to an Agatha Christie heroine on the West End, to a television icon in the 1970s series, Justice. This biography details the life of an independent woman who was intensely private away from the spotlight and whose life was unlike anything that was reported in the press.


A.B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan As a Modern State : Letters Home


Much has been written about the Mitfords girls’grandparents, with anecdotes peppering the many biographies and volumes of letters published on the family. Both of their grandfathers were eccentric men who sired children with their mistresses, and they each led adventurous lives – Tap Bowles on his yacht, sailing the Orient with his mistress, Snell; and Bertie Mitford travelling to Japan in the mid-1800s, at a time of political uncertainty and dodging an assassination attempt. They each dabbled in politics, and worked in some capacity in the publishing industry – Tap in his founding of The Lady magazine, and Bertie with his travel writing and introducing Japanese literature to Britain. He wrote introductions for H.S. Chamberlain’s books on philosophy, the most prominent being Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which was said to have influenced Hitler’s ambition for an Aryan race. Bertie’s friendships would mirror the choices his granddaughters Diana and Unity would make decades later, whether or not that was intentional remains to be seen. And, like his granddaughter Diana, his mother was a bolter who left her husband and comfortable marriage to set up home with a Mr Molyneux. It seemed the girls inherited many aspects of their characters from their grandfathers, for a traditional life befell their parents, David and Sydney Redesdale.

A fascinating individual such as Bertie Mitford, First Baron Redesdale, deserves a biography or at least an extensive study of his life. Robert Morton’s clever book brings to life all elements of his personality; his upbringing, his marriage, his place in society, and his thirst for adventure. He was prone to brilliance but he was also selfish and foolish; he built Batsford Park and its Japanese gardens, and squandered his inheritance. Morton brings forth the facts to present a complex man who, in his own way, played a part in nineteenth century history. I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to know more about the Mitford girls’ forebears, outside of ‘Muv’ and ‘Farve’.

You can read more about Bertie Mitford here.


The Disappearing Act of Miss Muriel Perry

Photograph of Muriel - Original - Secret Orchard

Image of Muriel Perry, courtesy of the J.R.Ackerley Estate

Seldom do we encounter a living person who appears to have dropped from nowhere. Granted this introduction was partly by accident, and part of a literary study, but the circumstances of which are entirely exceptional. Diana Petre’s compelling memoir, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley tells the story of her unusual childhood, and explores the enigma that was her mother, Muriel Perry. Diana was the illegitimate daughter of Roger Ackerley, a director of the fruit-importing company, Elders & Fyffes and was known as ‘the banana king’; he was called Uncle Bodger by his children (twin daughters Sally and Helen, born in 1909, as well as Diana, born in 1912), and during his lifetime they did not know the truth of their paternity. Muriel informed the children shortly after his death in 1929 – Diana, told after the twins, was delivered the news in a luxurious hotel room in Vienna, the tickets having been purchased before his demise and Diana accompanied her mother in Ackerley’s place. ‘Are you pleased?’ Muriel simply asked her, after delivering the news. Yes, she replied. Finally, the fragments of her life appeared to be slotting into place.

From an outsider’s perspective Muriel was a beautiful, glamorous woman, with almost black hair, dark expressive eyes, alabaster skin, and an enviable wardrobe. ‘Anyone could tell she was full of secrets. You only had to look at her to feel the mysteriousness of her. She was a fascinator: one of those creatures who seem to come from nowhere and to be going nowhere, but who permeate the mind as a serum gets into the bloodstream,’ Diana wrote in her memoir. Those who knew of Muriel’s predicament, and there were not many at the time, would have agreed she was a woman who had accepted her lot in life. Always the mistress, never the wife. But life is not as simple as that, and although little is known of Muriel’s background, her situation with Ackerley was a complex one.

From the beginning, having met him when she was barely out of her teens, Muriel believed there was a Mrs Ackerley, who was the mother of his three children: two boys and a girl, a generation above his children with Muriel. Still, despite there being a so-called wife, Muriel began to refer to herself as ‘Mrs Perry’ and on her children’s birth certificate a Mr George Perry was listed as the father. Incidentally, when Sally married Gerald Grosvenor, who became the fourth Duke of Westminster, her biography in Debrett’s repeated much of the aforementioned. In those days illegitimacy was a social taboo and, although it was rife in high society, Muriel felt ashamed. Aged twenty and pregnant, Ackerley had placed her in a small flat with a nurse to care for the twins (a stillborn son had been born the year before). She took her exercise after dark, and never became friendly with her neighbours. Perhaps they thought her aloof – she looked the part – and she hoped they would mistake her for a widow or a divorcee. She was soon pregnant again, this time with Diana, and now the father of six children with two separate families (his secret orchards), Ackerley had had enough. His mistress, although still young and beautiful, was not as attractive when up to her elbows in baby paraphernalia. A friend, who was living a similar lifestyle, advised her to forget the children and to devote herself to Ackerley; she wouldn’t want to lose him, would she? And so, despite loving her infant children (she was fond of newborn things), she left. It was a means of survival, rather than neglect. But the children did not view it that way.

When questioned about her background Muriel would dissolve into tears, and protest that Diana was wicked to pry. She was born Muriel Haidée Perry, around 5 March 1899, or so she told Diana, but there was no such record of her birth at Somerset House. She abandoned her middle name when she was old enough to make up her own mind. It was believed, by Diana, that she had dropped the Haidée for fear of mispronouncing it. Adding to this fictional childhood, Muriel said she spent her youth in Clifton and was raised by her step-brother, an artist named Henry John Foster, who had known many famous painters. Diana dismissed Muriel’s statement, claiming she showed no appreciation for art, and there were no traces of a well-known artist by that name. When her research rendered fruitless, she concluded Muriel had grown up in an orphanage. However, Muriel had offered Diana a snippet of information: she had come to London in her teens and, according to Muriel herself, found work in an office. Another story presented itself, when Muriel let slip she had no choice but to move to London, after she and Ackerley were spotted in a box at a theatre in Bristol. Later, when she was old and infirm, she spoke of a pub within a hotel, The Tavistock, at Covent Garden, and claimed to have been its bookkeeper. Diana pointed out that Muriel could barely do sums, so this seemed to be another one of her fantasies, or embellishments. Her job was to stand at the desk and tick off the patrons who came in late, and to ensure the scuttles in the bedrooms were stocked with coal. On one occasion a gentleman checked in and teased her relentlessly. It was Roger Ackerley, and she did not take kindly to his teasing. She went to his room to check the scuttle, and found him in bed. As she stood in the doorway, he said: ‘Why don’t you come in and get warm?’ And she did.

For the greater part of Diana’s childhood she did not know her mother, nor could she recall any memory of her. Muriel left for ten years, four of which were spent helping with the war effort. The children were placed in the care of an elderly Scottish governess, known as Auntie Coutts, who hoarded the money Muriel sent via Ackerley to care for the children. Thus, Diana and her sisters were undernourished, poorly clothed, and somewhat feral. Their mother, however, was having the time of her life; she claimed to love the war, to have thrived when under pressure, and somewhere along the time-frame of 1914-18 she founded the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Free Buffet at Victoria Station, in which servicemen were fed at the cost of one penny. While operating the buffet, she had also fallen in love: the man in question was Pat de Bathe, a war hero, husband and father. Despite being married, he proposed and she accepted. Muriel failed to mention her connection to Ackerley, and her children, but de Bathe was a jealous man prone to obsessions and he discovered her secret family and their whereabouts. A scene on the platform of Victoria Station ensued, and he seized her hand to remove the engagement ring and broke her finger in the process. Then, in disgrace, Muriel drove a motor-kitchen to the Front, in aid of the Italian Red Cross. In Italy she fell for Emanuele Filiberto, the Duke of Aosta and a scion of the House of Savoy, whom she met after being one of two women presented to him. A short while later she wrote him a letter, and uncertain of how to address royalty, she wrote ‘Dear Man’ and this charmed him. Although he was old enough to be her father, and married, their romance appeared harmless and he placed Muriel in a convent in Trieste after she developed dysentery. Several weeks later, she returned to London but not to her old life. It was 1919, and the war was over, but Muriel’s career was not, and she went to Belgium to organise a rehabilitation centre for wounded soldiers. The relationship with the duke faltered, but her reputation did not and she was decorated seven times for her war work, which included an OBE.

After the war Muriel returned to London but not to her children. She shared a flat with Doris Delevingne, then a wily courtesan determined to scale the social ladder one bed at a time. It was unclear how they had met, and perhaps their paths had crossed when Doris, then an ambitious eighteen-year-old, was working as a scullery maid on behalf of the war effort at a London hospital. The wandering came to a halt around 1922, the year Doris moved in with Laddie Sanford, an American millionaire, and that must have been Muriel’s cue to leave. Knocking on the door of her children’s home she was greeted by her identical twin daughters, standing six-feet-tall and looking bedraggled. Diana, small and fair, had no memory of her mother. Each of her three girls treated her with disdain, although it was Diana who was the more inquisitive of the trio. It was a feeling that was short-lived, for she was sent to a series of schools, none of which Muriel ever entered, and she was seldom allowed to bring a friend home. Although she had never been warned to keep secrets, she instinctively knew her mother and their lifestyle were not the same as others. There was no mention of a father, but they had a house and an income, and so her worldlier schoolmates assumed Muriel was a divorcee. Diana asked her mother, and was greeted with: ‘Why can’t other people mind their own business?’ The family moved again, this time to a home in south London, bought by Ackerley in Muriel’s name. He had also taken a substantial sum from her bank account to pay for his eldest daughter’s wedding, and had promised to replace the money but he never did. Muriel sensed the money pit was running out, but she continued to receive payment, which she spent on the children but in general was a bad manager. She had also begun to drink heavily; always at night, always when the children were sleeping. Stalking the landing after the midnight hour, she resembled a sort of Lady Macbeth, with her make-up dissolved by tears and streaked down her face, tripping over her feet. The children raided Muriel’s wardrobe and behind the expensive gowns they discovered bottles of booze. She went to a clinic and dried out, but Muriel could never exorcise her demons.

It was after the move that Ackerley had fallen ill with cancer of the tongue. The twins had run away, and when Muriel appealed for the authorities to return them she was told that illegitimate children came of age at eighteen, not twenty-one. Again, Diana remained oblivious to this clue of their parentage, and was dismissed by Muriel with a flimsy statement that some children had different circumstances. This left Diana and Muriel alone in the house, and it was a dynamic that appeared to work. Caught up in nursing Ackerley, she seldom had time for her daughter, and the three went to seaside hotels for Ackerley to take the cure. During this stint of hotel living his grown-up children visited their father, and Diana was introduced to her half sister and brother (another brother had been killed in the war) for the first time, but not as their sibling, although, owing to a family resemblance, they solved the clue. Nancy was a divorcee with a young son; Joe was a writer and editor, and openly homosexual with a boyfriend who often accompanied him to visit his father at the hotel. They had little time for Muriel, who would make herself scarce when they arrived. Joe, the friendlier of the two, took Diana to a pub and asked her an array of questions, but she was too struck by Joe’s joie de vivre to engage in conversation. Despite these fleeting visits, it was Muriel who was by Ackerley’s side when he took his last breath.

After the death of Ackerley in 1929, Muriel discovered two significant things: the money he had put aside for her had dwindled away and there was no Mrs Ackerley, as he had led her to believe. Although she had loved him, despite her view that all men were wretched, she must have felt a sense of freedom in the wake of his demise. The children now knew the truth, the twins were long gone, and Diana’s curiosity had been piqued. It also began a period of ill-health for Diana: she was prone to vomiting, fainting, and fatigue – this, years later, she self-diagnosed as a result of her deep unhappiness – and she, too, copied the twins and ran away. Muriel, now alone, met and married Lt.-Colonel Alfred Scott-Hewitt, a rather dull gentleman whose focus centred around the home. But adventure was on the horizon, and the Second World War gave her the opportunity to escape England, her husband, and the troubles surrounding her grown-up children. Being abroad suited Muriel, and she thrived on nursing the wounded and dying. Hotels replaced a permanent residence, and she draped her pretty clothes around the furniture to give a sense of homeliness. The chambermaids became her confidantes, and she liked to drink brandy with her friends – she never overcame her alcoholism. After the war, she was, at least in the traditional sense, widowed once more and the death of her husband had little effect on her. ‘Never let a man know you care,’ she often told her daughters. However, she had given up on men.

In her later years Muriel lived with a female companion, who doubled as a nursemaid and, from Diana’s point-of-view, a jailer. It was a strange dynamic, but it filled a void during the periods in which she was estranged from her children. When she was dying, Sally took charge and Diana helped as best she could, though she harboured resentment for Muriel, and failed to make a dent in her familial research. ‘Why did you hate me?’ she asked Diana, shortly before she died. The question took Diana by surprise, but she was grateful for her mother’s honesty. There was no direct answer; the past was too complicated to dissect during the limited time between spells of lucidity and the finality of death. Discreet until the end, Muriel offered only one nugget, perhaps a hint of her origins: ‘I think I should be a . . . prostitute. Of course I’d be very choosy; I wouldn’t take anyone.’ She died on 5 May 1960.

The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley (ISBN: 978-1-906562-85-4, RRP £17.50) by Diana Petre is published by Slightly Foxed 

This feature was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol V

Death in the Stars: A Book Review


I am fairly new to Frances Brody’s mystery novels, having only read the previous one Death at the Seaside, so I have a lot of catching up to do! In the past I have ran extracts of Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver mysteries. Needless to say, if you enjoy those stories then you’ll love Brody’s work. The covers are always a treat, very Mitfordeseque, and the content inside does not disappoint. This latest instalment, Death in the Stars, draws on the eclipse of 1927, an unsettling and exciting period when people thought the world was going to end (nothing new there!) or that some form of witchcraft was at work. The perfect setting for things to go wrong! Super sleuth Kate Shackleton is invited to accompany Selina Fellini, a theatrical actress, to a viewing party at Giggleswick School Chapel. As you can tell, the names are often what the Mitfords would call a tease; a real homage to 1920s and 30s detective novels, whilst still retaining the integrity of the story. Of course it is during this natural phenomena that a death occurs – Billy Moffatt, Ms Fellini’s co-star vanishes and is later found dead, and soon two other members of the theatrical troupe die under mysterious circumstances. Is there a murderer in the company? It seems likely. But when Ms Fellini’s husband, a war hero prone to mood swings and violent behaviour, emerges on the scene everything changes. Who will be next? With nods to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ethel Lina White, this neat murder mystery has all the touches of a gripping thriller along with a lighthearted narrative to hold the reader’s attention. Although such contemporary books can often be dismissed as quirky tributes to the aforementioned crime authors, it is wrong to assume they are frivolous stories. Frances Brody’s background is in television writing, and this is apparent in her effortless touch when forming the plot. It is a witty, suspenseful novel, and a perfect companion for those who love a bit of glam with an atmospheric touch.

Society Star: Jean Viscountess Massereene

image (11)

This pen portrait has been extracted from These Great Ladies: Peeresses and Pariahs. Please excuse any formatting errors, as it was copy and pasted from a  template.

Jean Massereene was never going to play by the rules, despite her high birth and place, as a woman, in society. ‘The worst of being a woman is the pre-conceived idea of her that is held by the average man,’ she would say. ‘He has formed a mould into which he would fit all womankind. If she does not take kindly to this mould he tries to force her into it.’¹

She was born Jean Barbara Ainsworth on 3 December 1883 in Kensington,² London, to the Australian-born³ Margaret Catherine (née) Macredie, and Sir John Stirling Ainsworth. Her father was a wealthy industrialist, banker, and Liberal MP, who on his mother’s side (the daughter of a clergyman and industrialist) was Scottish but his paternal roots were firmly established in Cumberland. Likewise, Margaret, although born in Melbourne, was of Scots parentage. Margaret had given birth to a daughter, Janet Mary, in 1880 but the child died shortly after. Jean would be their next child, followed by two brothers, Thomas and John Stirling, and a sister, Margaret Louise. Her childhood was spent at the family’s nineteenth-century manor house, Ardanaiseig House, in Argyll on the edge of Loch Awe, and at Cleator, a country house in Cumberland. When in London she lived at her father’s home at 28 Queen’s Gate, and then at 55 Eaton Place.

The family fortune came from Sir John’s ore iron mines, and the flax mills which his mother’s family, the Stirlings, had founded during the Industrial Revolution. Thus, with no shortage of money and nine servants, including a governess, a nurse, and a French lady’s maid, Jean’s upbringing was that of privilege. As with many upper-class girls, she and her younger sister, to whom she was particularly close, were taught by a governess at home while her two brothers attended Eton. And, owing to her father’s mind for business and his political career (he was an MP for Cumberland and Argyll), which was not without controversy, she had a sharp intellect but university was out of the question. Although largely self-educated – she was well-read and followed the latest literary stars – she ‘realised more and more what a blessing it was to have a good education when one was young’. She said there was ‘nothing that so fitted men and women to take part in the battle of life as a really sound education in childhood’. As clever and single-minded as she was, Jean did what was expected of her: she was presented at Court at the age of eighteen, and at twenty-one she was engaged to be married. The man in question was Algernon William John Clotworthy Whyte-Melville Skeffington, the second son of the 11th Viscount Massereene and Ferrard.

The marriage to Algernon, or ‘Algie’ as Jean called him, was not an ambitious one on her behalf. His family had held onto their title as it was demoted from earl to its original status of viscount, owing to the latter title being passed through the female line (hence the earldom was lost) for a generation before returning to a male heir, the 10th viscount. As with the unconventional passing of the title, the family’s money had changed many hands and was long spent. It was largely squandered by the eccentric John Clotworthy, the 1st Viscount, who had been imprisoned in Paris for embezzlement, and who died without a male issue and bequeathed his estate to a London prostitute. John Clotworthy’s brothers challenged the woman and were able to retrieve the money and properties which had been left to her, but had to pay her off with a hefty sum and an annual allowance thereafter. But it is unfair to pin the blame entirely on John, for the family’s wealth was as such, his spendthrift ways merely dented the Massereene money and his debts had been paid off by his mother’s own fortune. However, through the years and as land and tax laws changed, the family’s money dwindled.

As such, Algie was not expected to inherit his father’s title, estate, or money, and would therefore have to find a career. This he did, and upon leaving Sandhurst he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the 17th Lancers, and he moved up the rank to 1st lieutenant and then to Captain. Between 1900-02 he served as adjutant to his regiment in the Boer War, and he was wounded in the shoulder by a shell splinter. He was twice mentioned in despatches and was awarded a Distinguished Service Order and the rank of brevet-major. He was also ten years Jean’s senior. She came to the marriage with her own fortune: an allowance paid from the Stirling and Ainsworth trust funds. And although her father, a baronet, was a master of the Industrial Revolution, his title was fairly new. Thus, Algie brought a certain pedigree and Jean supplied the money.

They were married on 16 February 1905 at St Margaret’s church, Westminster. The bride wore a gown of white chiffon velours, trimmed with Limerick lace, and an uncommon wreathon her head made of silver wheat-ears mixed with orange blossoms and shamrock. The eight bridesmaids were dressed in Elizabethan style costumes of white satin with the upper part of the bodice and sleeves a lattice work of satin and pearls, with coils of blue velvet from which fell a tulle veil. They were given sapphire shamrock brooches, a gift from Algie. It can be assumed that her father gave her the use of 55 Eaton Place as a wedding present, for the address is listed in various diaries from the period, all crediting Jean with throwing parties at the residence. The newlyweds honeymooned at Algie’s parents’ Irish home, Oriel Temple, in Co. Louth, and in the years before tensions surrounding Home Rule were to flare up, Jean and Algie were very much a part of Dublin society.

In May 1905, three months after the wedding, Algie’s eldest brother and his father’s heir, Oriel, died unexpectedly at a health resort in Scotland. Aged thirty-three, Oriel was not married and had no heir, and so the titles from the Irish Peerage were to pass on to Algie upon his father’s death. This was to happen sooner than either Jean or Algie expected. On 26 June, he succeeded his father, who had died after a short illness (brought on by his alcoholism), to become the 12th Viscount Massereene and the 5h Viscount Ferrard. Using his title from the British Peerage, he sat in the House of Lords as Baron Oriel. At the age of twenty-one, Jean became the chatelaine of the family’s Irish seat, Antrim Castle, a seventeenth-century castle in the province of Ulster, rebuilt in 1813 as a Georgian-Gothic mansion, as well as the nearby Skeffington Lodge, a hunting residence overlooking Lough Neagh. There was also Oriel Temple, and a London townhouse at 108 Lancaster Gate.

Photographs taken of Jean from this period portray an exotic creature; black hair, dark eyes, and pale skin, she stood apart from the typical English roses who were lamented for their fair beauty. And she did not adhere to the fashions of the day, preferring to shun the exaggerated form of the early Edwardian era to wear a straight silhouette, not popular until a decade later. Said to be conspicuous of her tall, slight figure, she was credited with starting the trend for wearing ropes of pearls down to her waist, elaborate headbands, and long, shapeless dresses.

It had also become clear to not only Algie, but to her contemporaries, that she was an eccentric young woman who was far from conventional. Her husband found this charming, but as the years passed her peers dismissed her as being a peculiar individual, and that was not always a welcomed trait within her circle. In the meantime, she courted celebrity as a fashion icon, and was said to be ‘socially ambitious’, which coming from her fellow peeresses was viewed as a put-down. This insult could have been inspired by Jean’s informality and, regardless of her upbringing, she was personable with friends and strangers alike.

In 1909 the Bassano Studio in London produced a book entitled England’s Beautiful Ladies, with an introduction written by Queen Alexandra. Jean featured, photographed wearing a viscountess’s coronet and evening dress over which she draped a net shawl, the caption beneath the image read that she was ‘an ardent follower of hounds’. Her face was devoid of makeup in the shot, but in several photographs taken during WWI and thereafter she began to emphasise her dark looks with cosmetics, and she painted a mole, or beauty spot, on her cheekbone. Often, her style of dressing was deemed ‘inappropriate’, but she ignored her critics and continued to favour strapless and backless dresses, long opera coats and furs, and chandelier earrings dangling to her shoulders. Far more scandalous to the sartorial set was the certainty that she was not wearing a corset underneath her flimsy clothes. And, in a more contrasting choice, she opted to wear men’s tailoring – loose fitting trousers, a wax jacket, and brogues – as her country attire, almost two decades before trousers had become acceptable for women working the land. ‘Lady Massereene [looks] very actressy, but certainly pretty . . .’¹ observed a contemporary. But Jean dismissed those who thought her vain, and she said:

What we need is to think less about appearances and more about doing things. It is better to win races surely, and pit our muscles and brains against our fellows in friendly rivalry than to emulate the peacock. The peacock is a brainless bird, and despised by the sparrow, and those who think only of clothes resembles him.¹¹

With Algie’s military career consuming his attention, Jean was left to her own devices, socially speaking. As a viscountess she did what was expected of her and spoke at charity events, attended the local schools’ prize giving ceremonies, and hosted bazaars on the grounds of Antrim Castle. A significant cause was the Women’s National Health Association (WNHA), founded in 1907 by Lady Aberdeen, dedicated to eliminating white scourge¹² (tuberculosis) and reducing high rates of infant mortality in Ireland, with the Antrim branch being led by Jean. Matters relating to health and social conditions would remain a prominent interest, and among the WNHA’s greatest achievements was providing children with free dental and health checks. She also organised the ‘Tooth and Nail’¹³ drive, which encouraged children to care for their teeth and hands, for she believed in educating children in matters relating to their own health. Each year she hosted a party for five-hundred children on the grounds of Antrim Castle and prizes were given to those who demonstrated the best care. She also served as patroness to the Antrim Philharmonic Society, and to the local infant schools.

In London she attended parties and her life carried on much as before. ‘If modern debutantes want to spend hectic days and nights the only sensible plan is to let them do it,’¹ she would say, years later. It was only when Algie retired from active military service in 1907 and accepted the appointment of a major in the North of Ireland Imperial Yemonary that Jean saw herself spending more time at Antrim Castle. However she went to Dublin, which had a social scene as lively as London, whenever possible. And, when in Ireland, she preferred to reside at Oriel Temple in Co. Louth.

The following year, in 1908, Algie transferred to the newly created North Irish Horse and commanded A Squadron (Belfast) from 1907-1914. The military way of life, from the fringes at least, suited Jean and she took an interest in political and world affairs. Algie was content with his wife dabbling in ‘men’s business’, and her quick mind and easy intimacies with strangers and acquaintances worked in his favour.

Despite Jean’s approach to individuals and boundless energy, her general health was always perilous. She was prone to symptoms that would today fall into the mental health category, or at least would be openly spoken about and accepted as mental fatigue. In those days, however, she was merely described as ‘highly strung’ or ‘eccentric’.

In 1909 Jean gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington. Judging from newspaper notices and letters written during the period it is clear that she was a modern mother, especially by aristocratic terms. Diana was her mother’s constant companion, and from a young age she accompanied Jean to social functions. She would also call Jean by her first name, which was not coldness on Jean’s behalf, but a demonstration of how close they were. A press photograph of the two exists with the child, aged five, sitting on Jean’s lap while she chatted to Lord Londonderry.

In years to come, Jean granted Diana a certain amount of freedom that was unheard of for its day: she was a member of the local branch of the Girl Guides in the town of Antrim, and she befriended the gardener’s daughter. This is another example of Jean’s informality, which others found unnerving, including that of the gardener’s wife, for when Diana visited their home she entered through the back door. Given her high birth, the gardener’s wife protested at her using the back door, for it meant Diana had to pass through the scullery. But the idiosyncrasies of her aristocratic upbringing were apparent, and when Diana wanted to return to the castle she merely stood up, a signal for her nanny to put her coat on. This was not done out of haughtiness, she had simply known no different. It appeared Diana retained her common touch as she grew older, and in her teens she became a member of Antrim Hockey Club, and was instrumental in aiding local charities and visiting the poor and infirmed.¹ On one occasion, in the 1920s, she accompanied Jean to a fete at Mount Stewart, the Ulster seat of the Marquess of Londonderry, and a guest remarked to Lady Londonderry that a certain ‘tall, good looking girl’ in the refreshments marquee was ‘working harder than any waitress’.

Fourteen months after Diana was born, Jean gave birth to a son, on 24 April 1910, who lived for a day. She had been manning a stall at an exhibition of Irish goods in Dublin the previous month, and a few days before the birth she attended a party at Dublin Castle. It is unclear if the baby, referred to as the Hon. N. Skeffington, was premature or ill, and his death was mentioned in the Court Circular. She convalesced for a month at Oriel Temple, and then spent a week at her father’s house in London.

Returning to Antrim Castle in August, Jean opened a bazaar in aid of a Masonic lodge in Randalstown. She appeared in good humour, and in her speech joked about the secret society and its rituals. In November, she offered the use of the Oak Room to hold a meeting for those in favour of forming an Antirm committee for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Addressing the large numbers who answered Jean’s call, Algie spoke of his personal views on the charity and how he hoped no child would suffer needlessly. It was agreed by the charity’s representative for Ireland that a branch of the NSPCC would be founded for Antrim, and that a ladies committee would also be formed. Jean was appointed secretary of the new committee, and she said it was ‘a sincere pleasure to her to help forward the work of the society in any way’.¹

1912 marked an adventurous year for Jean and Algie, and they went on a three-month ‘pleasure tour’ of Australia, where they received the hospitality of distinguished individuals. In Canberra they stayed at Government House with the Governor-General and Lady Denman, whom Lady Massereene accompanied to a ball hosted by the Young Women’s Christian Association, given in her honour. They ventured to the Tablelands in Queensland, where they were the guests of Mr and Mrs W.F. Ogilvie. Before leaving the region they stayed with Mrs W. Collins at Beaudesert. They also spent a weekend with the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba at Coombe Cottage, Coldstream. There were polo matches, horse racing, and garden parties. At a race meeting, Jean surprised onlookers when she debuted her newest style of dressing – a long skirt, which she left unbuttoned twelve inches above the hem to purposely display her petticoat. ‘At first glance it looks rather odd, not pretty or graceful by any means,’¹ reported a fashion critic.

Three months later, Jean and Algie left Australia for New Zealand, where they stayed for a few weeks, before sailing home. However, with the topic of Jean’s fashion dominating the society columns, before departing for Australia she had attended a ball given at Taplow Court, the home of Lord and Lady Desborough, in which she wore an Assyrian dress. She was photographed striking a pose before an imposing fireplace, her head covered with a veil, her eyes lined with dark pencil, and the midriff and skirt of her dress was sheer with her modesty protected by carefully placed panels and a shawl tied around her hips. It was a daring choice, and newspapers as far away as America printed the photograph.

Before the Australian trip, Jean had taken an interest in the uprising of Irish Nationalists who sought Home Rule for Ireland. She allied herself with the Ulster Unionists and believed Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom and under British rule. With a large protestant stronghold in Antrim, she appealed to those locals who were patriotic, and she spoke at the Protestant Hall about remaining loyal to the king. She said: ‘The people of Antrim had always been noted for their loyalty to their King and Empire.’¹ On one occasion she gave a rousing speech on the 1689 Siege of Londonderry, and afterwards she unveiled a banner which displayed a painting of Algie in his North Irish Horse uniform. She also wrote an article lamenting the fiscal reasons for remaining under British rule:

Assuming, for example, that an Irish Parliament were to impose a duty on foreign corn for the purpose of benefiting the Irish farmer, what effect would this measure have on the artisans and mill hands in Belfast? Are the workers in the shipbuilding yards of Belfast and in the linen mills in the North of Ireland to pay more for their daily bread in order that the farmer in the South of Ireland may obtain a higher price for his corn? . . . Great Britain is the best market for Irish produce in the world, and might conceivably, though improbably enter upon a policy of retaliation.¹

Having returned from their tour, she and Algie threw themselves into Sir Edward Carson’s cause. Her father, a Home Ruler, thought Jean’s decision an ill-judged one and he accused Algie of influencing her. Further wounding Sir John Ainsworth was his daughter’s involvement with Carson and his militant organisation, founded earlier in the year, which he named the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Algie was appointed Officer in Command over the 3rd South Antrim Battalion. This marked the beginning of Jean’s affection for Carson, and he was often received at Antrim Castle.

As well as entertaining Carson, Jean and Algie discussed the militant plans and the parts they would play. It was largely a secretive operation, with the Massereenes, the Londonderrys, and Lord O’Neill, of the neighbouring Shane’s Castle, opening their homes and grounds as a meeting point for local men to sign up to the UVF, and to hold fundraisers. The Massereenes land became a parade ground for the UVF, where, after militant marches and various displays of pageantry, Jean inspected the men. Afterwards she passed out cigarettes, known as ‘smokes’,² and gave rousing speeches to the local supporters.

The UVF was breaking the law by holding armed events, and Jean, a participant in their illegal activity, would soon suffer the consequences. A rumour spread through Antrim that Algie had been arrested and that Carson was hiding at the castle. In a letter to her friend Theresa, Lady Londonderry, Jean described how the rumour had provoked an ‘angry’ and ‘over-zealous’ crowd to follow their housekeeper, who was manhandled in an attempt to retrieve information. Owing to the discord, she missed the London season and opted to remain at Antrim Castle with her husband. She wrote:

I’m afraid I will not be in town this season, unless I come with Algie when the [Home Rule] Bill comes up in the Lords as I don’t like leaving him here as they [Irish Nationalists] have threatened to shoot him when they get the chance. Of course I would probably feel anxious all the time if I was living without him.²¹

Indeed, Algie was privy to secret information regarding the UVF, and on an April morning in 1914, he watched from a safe distance in his chauffeur-driven car as guns were smuggled into Larne Harbour. The operation became known as the Larne Gun Run. Its organiser, Captain Wilfrid, and his wife Lilian Spender, held a dim view of Jean, whom they thought of as vain and self-serving. The ill-feeling had been caused when Jean appointed herself in charge of various fundraisers which were to be presided over by Lilian, and she wrote to Wilfrid that her nemesis was ‘looking quite impossible as she always does’.²²

But Algie’s actions were not confined to upsetting the Antrim townsfolk, and he conspired to offend Irish Nationalists in Southern Ireland when he removed his great-great-grandfather John Foster’s (Lord Oriel) chair and mace from the National Museum of Ireland. Foster had been the last Speaker in the Irish House of Commons, and Algie had gifted the items five years prior to removing them to Antrim Castle. He feared Nationalists would claim the items for themselves, and his actions caused outrage, with the Dublin Telegraph accusing him of ‘raping’ the museum of its rightful heritage.

Far from defeated by the heightened tensions in the town, Jean founded a corps of nurses, named the Volunteer Aid Attachment Corps. The training consisted of five weeks with the Red Cross or St John Ambulance to ensure the women were equipped to care for volunteers of the UVF if they went into battle with the Nationalists. ‘“We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do!” sums up the feeling in the North of Ireland today pretty accurately, and should furnish an answer to the question whether Ulster will fight if the Government succeed in passing a Home Rule bill,’ ²³ she said. A dressing station was established in Randalstown, five miles from the Massereene seat, while Antrim Castle and Shane’s Castle were on standby to be transformed into clearing hospitals.²

On Easter Monday of 1914, Carson returned to Antrim Castle to review almost three-thousand volunteers from the three south Antrim battalions. A luncheon was given at the castle in his honour, and among the UVF hierarchy were the Marquess of Londonderry, the Duchess of Abercorn, and various lords and ladies from the Peerage of Ireland. Afterwards, Carson inspected the nursing corps, led by Jean, on a swarm facing the castle and comprised of eighty members from Antrim and its surrounding towns of Randalstown, Lisburn, Glenavy and Crumlin. Prayers were followed by the formal dedication of the UVF’s colours, made by the Lord Bishop. After which, Jean presented Carson with the King’s colour and the regimental colour of the battalion, a personal gift from her.

As there were no women in local government, Jean was a rare female voice in public life. Her views on women’s roles in society were made clear when, opening a bazaar in the village of Dunadry in aid of Muckamore New Schools, she referred to the topical Suffragette movement. The school’s colours of green, blue and orange were Suffragette colours, and she joked that if any such ladies were present they should not begin ‘operations by destroying the New Schools’. She added: ‘I believe in the higher education of women – the reason was that education makes them much better wives and mothers. The future of the empire depended to a very large extent, if not altogether, upon the mental training of mothers, and the way in which they brought up their children.’² The speech was an example of her chameleon-like tendencies to appeal to whichever crowd she was addressing.

However, ten years later in 1925, in a column for the Daily Express, Jean championed a woman’s right to work for a living: ‘A right to work should be the privilege of every woman, whether she marries or not, even if she is a rich man’s daughter.’² And, on the topic of her involvement in politics, and what was believed to be ‘men’s business’, she said: ‘Men would give [women] a higher place if she demanded it, and it would be well for her if she did.’²

The arrival of the First World War saw Jean move out of her husband’s shadow and into a role that was entirely her own. On 8 August 1914, Algie went to the Front with the North Irish Horse, and on his departure there had been scenes of gratitude as he travelled to the railway station, a short distance from Antrim Castle. Accompanied by Jean and their five-year-old daughter, Diana, the Massereene Brass and Reed Band, founded by his father, played a number of patriotic tunes on the platform as the train departed.

This was the era in which Jean’s charity work came to the forefront, and divided locals seemed to forget about, or at least forgive, her alliance with Sir Edward Carson. In Algie’s absence, Jean joined a distress committee aimed at helping dependents of soldiers and sailors who had gone to war. She also stepped into the role of welcoming visiting royal representatives and servicemen who came to Antrim, either to speak on behalf of the Empire or to convalesce at Shane’s Castle. Along with members of the local branch of the Red Cross she collected money for wounded soldiers, thousands of which were being cared for in the town. And she performed with her ‘bird like voice’ at a Protestant Hall concert to raise funds for St John Ambulance Society and the Dental Clinic for local schools. The National Institutes of Health presented Jean with a silver salver in 1916, in appreciation for her fund raising work.

On 22 October 1914, Jean gave birth to a son, born at her father’s home at Eaton Place, while Algie was in France with the North Irish Horse. As his birth coincided with the death of her youngest brother, John, who was the first of his regiment to be killed in action while serving in Belgium with the 11th Hussars, Jean named the child after him. He was christened John Clotworthy Talbot Foster Whyte-Melville Skeffington, and was known by his nickname ‘Jock’. His godparents were the Marchioness of Londonderry, his grandmother Florence the Dowager Viscountess Massereene and Ferrard, Mr George Spencer-Churchill and Sir Edward Carson.² It should be noted that, due to a clause Sir John Clotworthy had negotiated when he was given the Viscountcy of Massereene by King Charles II, the title could pass through a female line. Had Jean and Algie not had a son, Diana would have therefore inherited her father’s viscountcy in her own right.

In her typical way Jean shunned tradition not only by refusing to adhere to a decent mourning period, in society at least, following the death of her brother in October and her sister’s husband a month later, but by ignoring the confinement after Jock’s birth. Her baby was only a month old when she began collecting money for a motor ambulance service, which she planned to send out to France.² From her father’s home she arranged for a fancy dress party to be held in Antrim, with the money going to the North Irish Horse Ambulance Fund. Although she could not be there in person, as her son’s christening was taking place in London the day after, she donated plants for the occasion.

Her war work continued in London, where she had been made Commandant of Women’s Legion Canteens. Dressed in her usual flamboyant style, a group of soldiers mistook Jean for a prostitute and asked if she had had much luck at Piccadilly the night before.³ With her usual good humour, she laughed it off and told the anecdote for years to come. She trained as a nurse and volunteered at London hospitals, tending to the wounded. In 1918, Jean, along with other aristocratic nurses appeared as themselves, albeit in uniform, in the Hollywood silent film The Great Love, starring Lilian Gish.

The postwar years saw Jean resume her hedonistic social life. With spiritualism on the rise, and with the fashionable set adopting the movement, she began to speak openly about her psychic experiences. She befriended the society spiritualist Violet Tweedale and contributed to her book Ghosts I have Seen. And she became renowned for her parties at Lancaster Gate, in which her friends partook in seances. The fascination with spiritualism was always there, for at a garden party in 1918, which she hosted in aid of the Women’s National Health Association, Jean hired a palm reader³¹ to tell fortunes. 1918 was also the year that her mother died, and so this might have explained her taking a more serious interest than before.

In the mid-1920s Jean began to write a column, ‘in a most interesting and forceful style’,³² for the Daily Express. Her articles ran the gamut of how to entertain a large number of guests to her personal ghost sightings. The candour in which she wrote was reminiscent of her personality, and although after the war the occult had become a fashionable topic, she still ran the risk of appearing foolish. Perhaps she did not care. Of her ghostly encounters, she wrote:

If you say nowadays you have seen a ghost you are no longer greeted with superior derisive smiles. Scientific research has established beyond a doubt that certain phenomena exist, which, commonly called ghosts, are held by many to be the souls of the departed, and which come back for some reason or other to the earth they once inhabited in human form . . . I was driving back after a long day with the hounds, with two friends, Lady J, with whom I was staying, and a Mr X, who had an estate a few miles away. We were going along a narrow road when I saw just in front of us a man in a pink coat riding on a grey horse. I turned to Mr X and asked if he knew the man in front, as I had not noticed him during the day . . . ‘There is no man there,’ said Mr X. I appealed to Lady J, but she could see nothing. Finally, however, they both became convinced that I saw something . . . Two days later Lady J and I received an invitation to lunch at Mr X’s place. When we arrived, Mr X took us straight to the dining-room and pointed to an oil painting over the fireplace. I gasped. It was a picture of the man I had seen riding on the grey horse before.³³

Before the 1920s, Jean had not only spoken about her psychic experiences, but of her abilities too. This added to the general belief that she was eccentric and somewhat unstable, but this did not deter her. The first of her many confessions was in 1912, and it was prompted by her tiara going missing. She believed it had been stolen by a ‘respectable, although rather seedy looking man’,³ whom she had seen on the grounds of the estate. The tiara itself had been brought from the strong-room at Antrim castle, with the purpose of showing it to a relative. Afterwards, she placed it in its tin box and left it in her bedroom, without returning it to the strong-room. It was only when she sent for the tiara, and a servant brought the empty box, that she realised it had been stolen.

Speaking in a personal statement, Jean recalled going to her bedroom that evening, which was above several empty rooms in the castle. She remembered her dog barking – he often barked at the wind and draughty noises throughout the old castle – and she thought nothing of it. Furthermore, she had a dream on three different occasions in which she saw the tiara lying on the bed of the Six Mile Water, on the banks of which the castle had been built. Following her intuition, she told the police of her dream. Under constabulary supervision, Lough Neagh fishermen were ordered to comb the riverbed in the hope they would find the tiara, but they did not.³ The tiara, worth £2000 and set with white diamonds, was believed to have been stolen by a network of jewel thieves, as their loot had been discovered in London and several accomplices were arrested. Jean, however, did not get her tiara back. She, herself, claimed it would have been broken into pieces³ in order for it to have been smuggled so easily from the castle.

During this period and with the supernatural dominating her interests, Jean found a kindred spirit in the Tredegar family, namely Evan Morgan, the son and heir of Courtenay Morgan, 1st Viscount Tredegar. The family seat, Tredegar Park, in Wales, was a hub for unique individuals, with the family’s interest in the occult well documented among their contemporaries. Viscountess Tredegar, formerly Lady Katharine Carnegie, was a great friend of Jean’s. A renowned eccentric, it was rumoured she sat in an enormous bird’s nest and that the family practiced ‘Monarch Mind Control’.

It is easy to gauge Jean’s attraction to the Tredegars. For despite Evan being a dedicated occultist (perhaps Jean regaled him with her ghost stories), the parties thrown at Tredegar Park were unique, unpredictable, and a world away from the formality of the ‘smart set’ in London. A homosexual, Evan, in years to come, took a fancy to Jock, but his infatuation was one-sided, for Jock preferred the opposite sex. An interesting point relating to Jean’s personality and her open-mindedness in an age when homosexuality was illegal, was her close friendships with men of this persuasion. Many were married to women, for the sake of appearances, but were privately conducting their own affairs. Harold Nicolson was one such individual whom Jean revered, as referred to in Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart’s diary. Reading between the lines of his entries it is clear that she had something of an unrequited crush on him. ‘[Pam Chichester] told Max [Lord Beaverbrook] that she could never get on to me for Harold being rung up by Jean Massereene.’³

However, with much of her social life being spent in the company of peculiar men whose taste ventured to the flamboyant, she felt at home at Tredegar Park. The household was run by handsome menservants, and Evan lived there surrounded by Great Danes and a boxing kangaroo, which visitors had to fend off with a stick. It was common for Evan to tell his guests’ fortunes, and an incident recorded in John Bedford’s memoirs recounts a familiar evening, with Evan undertaking this in his bedroom, accompanied by a few guests, with the flames from the fire illuminating the four-poster bed. An owl flew around the room, and Evan wore clothing which had belonged to a witch from the past, and he also held up the skeleton of a witch’s hand. Despite the theatrics, his guests took his ‘terrifying interest in black magic’ seriously, and there were altars throughout the house. He would become a great friend of Aleister Crowley, and perhaps Jean had met the infamous occultist during her many visits to Tredegar Park, but there is no record of this. Recalling a typical house party there, something which Jean would have experienced, John Bedford wrote:

[Evan’s] notions of hospitality were pretty bizarre. One of the evenings we were there he settled in his house-party of twenty or thirty people down to dinner and then went off to some regimental or local do, abandoning his guests to carry on as best they could. He had asked some Welsh singers to entertain us during dinner. They stood outside the dining-room windows, which we had to keep open. In the end freezing to death in the icy draught, we got up and shut them, leaving the Welsh singers barbling on happily outside. Folk-songs are not exactly the ideal accompaniment to a meal. Lady Cunard was the only one of us who was civil enough to go out and thank them. Lord Tredegar then came back from what had obviously been a liquid occasion, and flew into a terrible rage when he discovered we had shut the windows on his favourite choir.³

The Roaring Twenties saw Jean re-emerge on the social scene, both in Ireland and in London. Sir John Lavery R.A. painted her portrait, a macabre study in black that, in hindsight, foretold the tragedies that were to come. And Algie, whose fighting days were behind him, returned home from the war having spent the remaining three years of conflict at a desk job in Egypt. She continued with her public work, and was appointed by Viscountess Fitzsalan to collect contributions from the people of Ulster to buy Princess Mary a wedding gift. ‘I am authorised to state that all money collected in the Northern Parliamentary area will be spent on household linen manufactured in the North.’³

Years had passed since the Massereenes association with Sir Edward Carson, and during the war years at least, Jean had redeemed herself with locals from both protestant and catholic backgrounds. However Nationalists did not forget, and Antrim Castle became the target of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), particularly those who sided with Sinn Féin. These Irish militants torched many stately homes belonging to the gentry, and what they perceived to be a symbol of English rule. In the spring of 1922 Antrim itself had fallen victim to several attacks of arson, with Lord O’Neill’s seat, Shane’s Castle, being set alight by Sinn Féiners from Co. Tyrone. Lord and Lady O’Neill, both elderly, were taken hostage inside their castle while petrol was poured throughout the building. And Galgorm Castle, in the neighbouring town of Ballymena, had suffered a similar fate.

On the 28 October 1922, the Massereenes hosted a party for their six guests and son, who was belatedly celebrating his eighth birthday. Among the guests were Grace d’Arcy, and Mina Conynham’s (chatelaine of Springhill House) American house guest, whom Jean was putting up before her sailing to the United States. This American woman had also stored her valuable furniture at the castle. At midnight they all went up to bed after a lively game of bridge in the library, during which the thirteen-year-old Diana was present (Jean permitted her daughter to attend parties with the grown-ups long before she came out as a debutante). Before retiring, Algie ensured the fire in the library had been extinguished and he checked that all points of entry were locked. He had been vigilant since the police guard had been removed from outside the castle, and he lost his appeal to have an armed presence on the estate.

Around three o’clock in the morning, Algie’s agent, a former war hero, Col. Richardson, was awakened by smoke coming into his bedroom and he immediately raised the alarm. Algie was the next to rise, and he ran down the landing to Jean’s bedroom, engulfed by a black cloud of smoke. As the heat and smoke made it impossible for him to continue, he went to the other side of the castle and discovered another fire close to the billiard room. There were also independent fires in the Oak Room and dining room. He tried to activate the cistern which held almost two-thousand-gallons of water, but he discovered it had been drained as it produced a mere trickle. And the windows in the boot room and larder had also been tampered with.

Jean had not been asleep long when she heard the voice of Col. Richardson yelling, ‘Wake up, Algie, they’re in below.’⁴⁰ She assumed the arsonists were inside the castle and she jumped out of bed, put on her dressing gown, and lifted the revolver which she kept next to her. Like Algie, she had not felt safe since the recent bouts of sectarian attacks. She rushed to Diana’s bedroom and pulled her under the staircase and into the night nursery, whereupon she managed to get Jock’s nurse out. Then, she became trapped on a burning stairwell with her children. ‘You must be very good and do as you are told and you will be all right,’¹ she had told them. Though, she did not know how they could be saved, and they looked on as the nursery cat’s fur caught on fire and the animal perished. The only chance they had was to climb out of the nursery window, which led to the chapel roof. Fearing they had run out of options, she warned her children they might die. Col. Richardson came to the rescue, and he tied sheets together and lowered Jean to the chapel roof, and he sent Diana and Jock, one by one, down to her. They called out, ‘Help! Help!’² and Algie used the gardener’s tall ladders for pruning the trees to fetch Jean and the children, and they were brought safely to the ground. The American guest ran down a staircase, which was ablaze, and suffered serious burns on her feet and legs. Grace d’Arcy, an athletic woman, dropped from an upstairs window onto the lawn. And a larder boy, who was in a deep sleep, was hauled from his room and thrown onto the damp grass, which brought him round, and having suffered a shock he ran off in his nightshirt and was found ten miles away.

Locals rallied to the castle and concentrated their efforts on rescuing the servants, whose quarters were fifty-feet above the ground. Many paintings were lost, and the locals who had entered the castle had thrown the silver and china out of the windows, and had managed to retrieve a billiards table, thinking the latter was of far more significance to the family. The historical papers from Oriel Temple were destroyed as they were at the castle, following the recent sale of the house. Speaker’s Chair, which Algie had ‘stolen’ from the National Museum of Ireland, was another casualty of the fire, but the mace was safe as it was at his mother’s home in England at the time. And although his family, friends and servants were saved, a maid named Ethel Gillingham succumbed to smoke inhalation and later died in hospital. Her ghost, known as the ‘White Lady’, is said to haunt the grounds of Antrim Castle.

The Massereenes took refuge at Skeffington Lodge. A few months later, Algie travelled to the West Indies to recuperate after the trauma of the fire, and Jean went to Paris.³ At the time of the fire, Algie was reported to have looked on, as his ancestral home burned before his eyes, and said: ‘I have lost everything in the world.’⁴⁴

In 1923 a claim was made, and eventually rejected, totalling £90,000 for malicious damage. Damning evidence was presented before the High Court in Belfast, including a paraffin barrel that had been full before the fire and afterwards was found to be empty. The windows of the basement were also discovered to have been forced open, thus allowing the flames to spread more quickly. Anonymous letters, too, were touched upon (Jean showed her husband but not the police) in which Jean was warned she would soon ‘meet her maker’.⁴⁵ Such letters were sent in retaliation to her pro-Unionist speeches, particularly one she had made in 1920 in which she said: ‘Let’s arm ourselves that Ulster will never surrender an inch of her soil or title of right to the insidious bloody foe.’⁴⁶

The Massereenes believed the fire was started intentionally, as the castle did not burn down as a result of a single blaze but from many independent fires throughout the property. Not only had the water supply in the cisterns been tampered with, several items that had been saved from the fire were found to have been covered in mineral oil. During the investigation, Jean was questioned about the repairs that had been carried out on the fireplaces. She replied that, owing to a dream she had had ten years previously that a fire had broken out in her bedroom, she made a conscious effort to have the grate in that room replaced. Her response prompted much laughter from the jury, and had, perhaps, been the deciding factor in the case.

The statement in which Algie had said, ‘I have lost everything in the world,’ was beginning to ring true. Following the end of the war in 1918, the landed gentry were struggling to maintain their stately homes due to a shortage of staff and the government’s new taxation policy for the rich. Before The First World War they paid little tax on their earnings and assets, with the working classes paying a high percentage of tax on their meagre wages. The Massereenes finances had been perilous for years, and Jean’s private income⁴⁷ could no longer sustain the lifestyle they had known before the war. And so, they moved into a suite of rooms at Hall’s Hotel in Antrim town while they waited for Clotworthy House, a large stable block on the grounds of their estate, to be converted into apartments.

This also marked a transitional period for Jean, and always drawn to Scotland, she began to look for a house there. After renting several properties on the Isle of Mull, Algie eventually bought Knock House, the former estate of the Dukes of Argyll, which had a stone lodge situated on its forty-thousand acres. He quickly realised it had been an expensive error and attempted to pass the lease of the lodge on to several of his friends. The Duchess of Leinster⁴⁸ rented it for a summer season, extending her stay until October, but she declined Algie’s offer of taking a longer lease. He was seldom there, as he preferred to remain at Clotworthy House due to his post of H.M. Lieutenant for County Antrim and his serving in the Northern Ireland Senate – Northern Ireland had been created in 1921, formed by the six counties of Ulster and would remain under British rule. In time, Jean became attached to the house and she began to frequent it more often as the years progressed, eventually making it her permanent residence.

The fire had signalled more than an end to their high life, and Jean and Algie had grown somewhat semi-estranged, by distance at least. He permanently set up home at Clotworthy House, and she went to London where she continued to keep up appearances. However their marriage was far from fraught and, following the initial shock of the fire and the aftermath of establishing their respective homes, one for his political life and another for her social pursuits, they remained devoted to one another. When Algie’s political career came to an end in the late 1920s he moved to Knock House, and it became known as their family seat. He continued to make frequent trips to Antrim and held an interest in Northern Irish politics.

In 1922, the year their misfortune began, Jean was named by society photographer E.O. Hoppe as one of the most beautiful women in the world. And she represented Scotland in his comprehensive study of ‘the loveliest living specimens of their sex’.⁴⁹ She continued to attract controversy, whether it was intentional or not. A significant incident occurred in 1924, when she failed to produce her driver’s licence after being stopped by the police in Warwick. She was summoned to Kineton Court and pleaded not guilty, and the case was dismissed with Jean ordered to pay certain costs. It was a petty issue as far as she was concerned, for she was an enthusiastic and competent motorist, and drove herself whenever possible. Two years later, in 1926, she moved at the centre of the General Strike when she drove a lorry transporting vegetables.⁵⁰

In 1926, Jean entered into a partnership with Elspeth Fox-Pitt, a famous costume designer and high society dressmaker. Together they opened a shop in central London. For years she had been designing her own clothes, and the merging of her artistic talent with the skills of Fox-Pitt seemed a natural business venture for her. Their premises attracted attention because, instead of a large showroom, there were a series of small rooms for the individual client. Further cementing the shop’s success was their part in dressing the Duchess of York for her royal tour of Australia in 1927.

The youth of the 1920s caused concern for Jean. Although she gave Diana permission to attend parties and to live an independent life since coming out as a debutante in 1926, she disapproved of the ‘speed age’ of fast motorcars and aeroplanes, and felt society was moving and changing at a rapid pace. She joined in with the Bright Young Things and their parties, and in gossip columns her name appeared alongside Diana’s. Such was their close relationship that Jean was often mistaken as being her older sister rather than her mother. A year later, in 1927, she played a live game of bridge for a London radio broadcast alongside Algie, the Countess of Ossory, and the famous gossip columnist Viscount Castlerosse. In 1928, while attending a debutante ball in Mayfair, given by Mrs Bower Ismay for Miss Del Ismay, a fire broke out in the large marquee and two-hundred guests scrambled to safety. Jean and Diana were among them, and there was scarcely enough time to grab their wraps and cloaks, before the fire blazed through the marquee, threatening to set the surrounding garages on fire.

Interestingly, given Jean’s stance on this new era of excess, she appeared to revel in Diana’s social life. She attended a tropical themed party in 1929, which could have been Bryan and Diana Guinness’s fabled party aboard the Friendship, a moored riverboat on the Thames. For this, she wore a white dress with a white flower in her hair. Following the trend for themed parties, Jean threw a party for Diana in the garden of her London home, which was lit by Chinese lanterns and she hired a group of Italian singing troubadours¹ to entertain her guests. She was also a reliable confidante to her young friends, namely Daphne Vivian when she called on Jean for an alibi during her romance with Henry Thynne, then Viscount Weymouth and heir to the Marquess of Bath. With both Daphne’s and her future husband’s parents disapproving of the relationship, she confided in Jean, and in turn Jean gave her an alibi so she could spend three secret days with Henry before their marriage. A scandalous thing for a young unmarried woman to do, Daphne had Jean say she was staying with her in London. And Jean, a ‘romantically minded woman who delighted in helping frustrated lovers’,² was happy to do so.

In the spring of 1930, and having come of age, Diana had become something of a rising society star in both London and Scotland. Among her chief interests were horse racing, hunt balls, singing, and performing in plays for charity. She was best friends with Lady Georgiana Curzon, and existed on the fringes of Lois Sturt’s³ circle. A society ‘wild child’ and actress, Lois had a fondness for booze and men, and in 1928 she had married Evan Morgan. Lois’s parents, Humphrey Napier ‘Nap’ Sturt and Lady Feo (née Yorke), were friends of Jean’s, and during the war Jean had acted as one of the sultanas alongside Lady Diana Cooper in Nap’s Persian sketch.⁵⁴ Diana had also been friendly with Gwyneth Morgan, the daughter of Courtenay and Katharine Tredegar, but Gwyneth had become entangled with drug dealers and her body was discovered washed up on a riverbank of the Thames.

There were rumours that Diana had caught the eye of Edward, the Prince of Wales, or at least that was the gossip in Antrim. But Edward preferred the company of older, married women, and it seemed the romance had been nothing but a tall tale. She had been close to relatives of the British royal family, namely her mother’s friends, Princess Maud of Wales, and the Prince and Princess of Conaught, who attended her debutante ball given by Jean at Lancaster Gate in 1926. Her lack of scandal (surprising, given her ‘fast’ company) and gentle disposition made her a catch among upper-class men. But aside from her companion Hubert Duggan, son of Grace the Marchioness of Curzon, there were no serious boyfriends and, like Jean, she had many close male friends who were homosexual. As a testament to her popularity, she was asked by her friend Lady Dorothea Murray to be the godmother of her son, the future Earl of Mansfield. With a bright future on the horizon, nobody predicted the storm clouds which lay ahead for Diana. And, in November 1930, the light of Jean’s life would be extinguished forever.

In October 1930, Diana went to Scotland to stay with Lord and Lady Mansfield at Scone Palace. And, during that same month, she served as a bridesmaid at the wedding of her friend Miss Susan Roberts to the Hon. Somerset Maxwell Farnham. The visits to Scotland, and then London, were conventional and it followed her usual round of countryside pursuits and society balls. However, during the last week of the month, she developed a fever and complained of having a sore throat, which nobody, including Diana herself, felt concerned about. A week later she collapsed at Knock House, and Jean sent for a doctor. Diana was diagnosed with typhoid fever, which was believed to have been brought on by drinking contaminated water at a social event.

Jean and Algie took Diana down to their home at 63 Rutland Gate,⁵⁵ which the family had moved to after selling Lancaster Gate in 1928, and a specialist from Harley Street was summoned. It appeared her health was improving, for on Trafalgar Day – she was a member of the Club of the Veterans’ Association – she went out with a group of friends to sell flags in aid of servicemen. The weather was cold, and friends expressed their concern for Diana’s health, but she joked: ‘If I go to bed now, it will be weeks before I shall be up again.’⁵⁶ She developed pneumonia and her condition was deemed serious enough that newspapers printed daily updates regarding her health. Jean continued to cling on to the hope that the specialist from Harley Street could cure Diana, and her spirits were momentarily lifted when her daughter appeared to be getting stronger.

On the evening of 5 November, Diana’s health took a turn for the worse and she died the following afternoon with her parents by her side. Jean and Algie brought Diana’s body back to Antrim, where her funeral commenced. As a mark of respect, all businesses suspended trading that afternoon and the flags at Antrim Castle flew half-mast. Wreaths from her parents, in the shape of a cross and dedicated ‘to our darling’, decorated the coffin. And Jean, swathed in black, carried a bouquet of white roses which she placed inside the grave. The hearse carrying the coffin broke down⁵⁷ as it reached the barbican gate of Antrim Castle, and led by the town’s troupe of Girl Guides, the final journey was made by foot. Jean asked for Diana’s grave on the grounds of their estate to be re-dug, as she wanted it to face her home in Scotland.

Days before Diana had been diagnosed with typhoid fever, Jean wrote a newspaper article, expressing her thoughts on reincarnation. In it, she said:

Would you live your life again if you had the chance? How many of us would answer “yes”, if we had the opportunity?

Very few I believe.

It would be a weary business going over the same ground, and human-beings are ever on the outlook for something new.

Living again, having to go through the same troubles, the same sufferings, even the same joys, would not be a really entrancing prospect. Childhood, adolescence, maturity; illness, mistakes, failures, good times and bad. What is past is past, for good or ill.

I believe it is only the very young who would be willing to start their present existence again. They have not had enough of the world to realise the futility of reliving their former years. If they were cut off abruptly before their prime, reliving to them would be a new life which next time they might continue to its natural end.

People have been known to remember places and persons that they have certainly never come across before in their lives. If reincarnation were a fact it would be quite understandable.

Now that science is investigating many mysteries perhaps we may one day discover whether reincarnation is a fact or not.

It would certainly add to the attractiveness of existence if it were true.

“What shall I be next time?” would be an interesting speculation.

The death of her eldest child and only daughter proved too much for Jean, and in 1932 she suffered a nervous breakdown.⁵⁹ She had previously written in a newspaper article that ‘troubles crumble if you laugh at them and lose half their sting. The man who looks on the bright side, come what will, is the one who gets the best out of life. As for the rest, it is on the knees of the gods’.⁶⁰ But Jean, despite her strong belief in the spirit world, could not seek comfort from this. After Diana’s death, she did not wish to live, and in many ways it marked the beginning of the end for her. Algie himself, also shattered by grief, was at a loss to comfort her, and they began to drift apart. She was admitted to a nursing home for several months, during which time she missed the London season. On her doctor’s orders she spent the remainder of her convalescence at Knock House, where she was forbidden to do any entertaining. But she was feeling better by September, and planned to greet the Argyll gathering the following month.¹ This marked a period of ongoing ill-health for her, and newspaper reports often wrote about her bouts of sickness, and how she had collapsed in Hyde Park from a ‘mystery illness’.² Such illnesses were said to have taken weeks to recover from.

After Diana’s death, Jean seldom went to Antrim unless it was for an official engagement. And she did not stay for any length of time, perhaps finding the memories of their happy lives together too much to bear. Algie spoke of rebuilding the castle on a smaller scale and he commissioned Belfast architects to draw up the plans but, after all that had happened, he lost heart. Although she was not as politically active in Ulster as she had been years before, she paid short visits to the province to carry out duties, such as giving speeches at charity fundraisers and handing out prizes at schools. She went over to welcome visiting royals, and for the annual garden party at Stormont Estate, the seat of the Northern Ireland parliament. In November 1936 she went to Clotworthy House, the occasion was to acknowledge her son’s coming of age and repay the kindness the locals had shown him upon reaching that milestone. She was warmly received, and spent her brief visit becoming reacquainted with her friends in the town. It would mark her last visit to Northern Ireland.

Politics continued to hold Jean’s fascination, and it was rumoured she had considered a career as a politician. With Nancy, Viscountess Astor taking her seat in the House of Lords in 1919 (the first woman to do so), Jean’s supposed ambition would have been challenging but plausible. In 1935 she was enrolled as Justice of the Peace for Argyll, in the Sheriff Court at Oban. She continued to influence public opinion and in 1936, following the Munich Agreement she, along with various noble ladies, wrote an open letter to the Belfast Newsletter, claiming they were ‘prepared to defend that quarter of the world which we call the British Empire’.

During one of her many speeches, she advised young women at Glasgow University to act as ‘recruiting agents’ among their boyfriends. ‘I believe that no young man in this country should be asked to risk his life for a quarrel which is no concern of his,’ she said. ‘But I do think every young man ought to join the Territorials or the regular Army; and I appeal to you girls to persuade your boyfriends and your brothers to at least join the Territorials.’⁶⁴ She undertook many speaking engagements at women’s meetings, and she asked them to influence their menfolk in the defense against Adolf Hitler. ‘I cannot understand the mentality of any able-bodied young man who does not, at any rate, join the Territorials because it is a monstrous thing that people who have the advantage of being citizens of the greatest country in the world should take all the advantages and then do nothing in return.’⁶⁵ She was determined to spread the message of securing the country at all cost, and before a meeting she boarded a ferryboat and in the process lost her footing and fell to the bottom deck. Hurting both of her legs and suffering cuts and bruises, she bore the pain to fulfill a speaking engagement.

As she had done in the 1920s, she expressed her fears for modern life, especially those who sought adventure with little regard to human safety. An article written in 1933 was relevant to her speeches on securing Britain against attack, and she thought of the fast motorcar as a risk towards those wishing to live in peace. She wrote:

Petrol has changed the face of the world. In less than another half century it will have taken complete possession of the air. Will humanity survive? Probably not, if the accidents increase in ratio to the amount of planes and cars. We had as many casualties on the road last year as would occur in a fair-sized war. On the other hand, it is true that the cautious man rarely rises to great heights. He is apt to be so careful that opportunity passes him by.

There is, however, a very great difference between taking a risk and being foolhardy.

We do not yet seem to have got rid of the war-time idea of the cheapness of human life. Human life is not a commodity to be risked at the throw of a dice. It is always the best lives that are lost thus, those we can ill spare.⁶⁶

Although she bypassed a professional career in politics, another occupation presented itself in modelling. In her early fifties she loaned her celebrity and fabled beauty to advertisements for Pond’s cold cream and setting powder. It was a period when many society beauties were paid to endorse the product, and Jean, photographed in a wistful pose with short, shingled hair whose brunette colour she maintained with dye, praised the cream for preserving her good looks. ‘I practically live out-of-doors. Mine is not a hot-house life at all . . . I’d be as weather-beaten as a gillie, if it weren’t for my skin care.’

Towards the end of 1937, Jean’s health began to decline. In November she had a stroke, and was confined to her bed. Her absence was felt on the social scene, and she was notably missing from the annual meeting⁶⁷ of the League of Mercy, of which she was honorary secretary for the Scotland branch.

Newspapers wrote of a ‘mysterious’ illness, which they explained had plagued her for some time. The truth was, the stroke had caused her considerable brain damage and she had been left with aphasia, hemiplegia, and bulbar paralysis.⁶⁸ For someone as lively and active, both mentally and physically, as Jean, this must have been a cruel blow. Five weeks after her stroke, with her husband, son, and sister by her side, she died on 11 December 1937. She was fifty-four. ⁶⁹

Speaking of her death, the Rev. Collis of All Saints Parish Church in Antrim said: ‘Lady Massereene had friends in all positions in life . . . and I am sure there will be widespread and sincere regret at the unexpected death of one who was so kind-hearted and friendly to all around her and so noticeably charitable in her judgment of others.’⁷⁰ One can only hope that, with her belief in the afterlife, she is languishing on a spiritual plane.


  1. Lancashire Evening Post, 25 May 1931

  2. Jean’s birthplace has often been listed as Scotland. Although of Scottish heritage, she was born in London. Source: 1893 census

  3. Ibid

  4. Ibid

  5. Ballymena Observer, 8 August 1918

  6. The Graphic, 25 February 1905

  7. Truth, Volume 63, 1908 p. 63

  8. Vickers, Hugo, Elizabeth: The Queen Mother (Arrow, London 2006) p. 76

  9. Roberts, Pam, PhotoHistorica, Landmarks in Photography: Rare Images from the Royal Photographic Society (Workman Publishing, London 2000 ) p. 125

  10. Baguley, Margaret, WWI and the Question of Ulster: The Correspondence of Lilian and Wilfrid Spender (Irish Manuscripts Commissions, 2009) p. 250

  11. The Advertiser, 18 July 1925

  12. Larne Times, 28 October 1911

  13. Belfast Newsletter,, 7 August 1913

  14. The Scone Advocate, 4 May 1928

  15. Ballymena Observer, 11 November 1930

  16. Belfast Newsletter, 19 November 1910

  17. Weekly Times, 16 March 1912

  18. Ballymena Observer, 27 January 1911

  19. Ibid

  20. Information given to author by Alvin McCaig

  21. Letter from Viscountess Massereene to Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry. PRONI

  22. Baguley, Margaret, WWI and the Question of Ulster: The Correspondence of Lilian and Wilfrid Spender (Irish Manuscripts Commissions, 2009) p. 220

  23. Information given to author by Alvin McCaig

  24. Ballymena Observer, 27 January 1911

  25. Ballymena Observer, 8 August 1915

  26. Daily Express, 26 March 1925

  27. North West Champion, 11 March 1926

  28. Daily Express, 3 December 1914

  29. The Witness, 6 November 1914.

  30. Vickers, Hugo, Elizabeth: The Queen Mother (Arrow, London 2006) p. 76

  31. Belfast Newsletter, 6 August 1918

  32. Ibid, 31 May 1928

  33. The Advertiser, 19 June 1925

  34. Ballymena Observer, 24 November 1911

  35. Geelong Advertiser, 11 January 1912

  36. Ballymena Observer, 24 November 1911

  37. Young, Kenneth (ed), The Diaries of Sir Bruce Lockhart (Macmillan, London 1973) p. 66

  38. Bedford, John, A Silver Plated Spoon (Cassell, Woodburn Abbey, 1959) pp. 66-7

  39. Belfast Newsletter, 9 January 1922

  40. The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 9 May 1923

  41. Ibid

  42. Ibid

  43. The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Vol, 120, 1922

  44. As reported in several newspapers

  45. Weekly Telegraph, 12 May 1923

  46. New York Herald, 9 February 1920

  47. At the time of her death she had £1143 in savings. Source: The Scotsman, 5 August 1938

  48. Extracts of the Duchess of Leinster’s memoirs, So Brief a Dream, were provided by William Cross

  49. Sacramento Union, 5 November 1922

  50. Courtney, Nicholas, In Society: The Brideshead Years (Pavilion, London 1986) p. 135

  51. The Sun, 25 August 1929

  52. Fielding, Daphne, Mercury Presides (Eyre & Spottiswoode, London 1954) p. 119

  53. Told to author by William Cross, Lois Sturt’s biographer

  54. Ibid

  55. The Massereenes also rented Harrington House at Kensington Palace Gardens, 1929

  56. The Argus, 20 December 1930

  57. Told to me by Lord and Lady Massereene’s chauffeur’s son

  58. Lincolnshire Echo, 25 October 1930

  59. Belfast Newsletter, 6 February 1932

  60. Lincolnshire Echo, 25 October 1930

  61. Dundee Courier, 24 October 1932

  62. Western Daily Press, 9 May 1931

  63. Northern Whig, 17 October 1935

  64. The Scotsman, 13 December 1937

  65. Ballymena Observer, 22 October 1937

  66. Northern Whig, 15 April 1933

  67. The Scotsman, 26 November 1937

  68. Death certificate, with thanks to William Cross for providing this for me

  69. Jean’s Death certificate erroneously listed her age as 52

  70. Belfast Newsletter, 13 December 1937

Pamela Mitford: The Country Girl


Pam and Debo, Lismore 1979. Source: Nick Harvill Libraries 

Unlike her sisters who, with the exception of Debo, left the English countryside and their ancestral home nestled among the sprawling green fields of the Cotswolds, Pamela Mitford never craved the bright lights of London, or any city for that matter. Nancy, a self-confessed, Francophile, ached for Paris and in her forties left the grey landscape of war-torn London and a failed marriage for the City of Light. Diana, too, fled Swinbrook at the age of nineteen, never to return (how could she after she disgraced her family and broke her father’s heart by shacking up with Sir Oswald Mosley?), and eventually settled in Paris and then Orsay. For Unity, the baroque grandeur of Munich caught her fancy and she only returned after a botched suicide attempt left her unable to care for herself. Decca, perhaps the most urban of them all, settled for the suburbs of Oakland, California. But Pam, she never really left the countryside.

From the practicality of her country clothes – quilted jackets, oil skins, Aran knit cardigans, tweed skirts, and woolly tights – to her knowledge of the landscape to the care of livestock, Pam was a country girl to her core. She was hardy and oblivious to the elements, preferring to add another layer rather than turn on the central heating. Diana recalled a visit with Pamela at Riverview Cottage, Swinbrook, and how she was forbidden to turn on the electric blanket while Pam was there. This idiosyncrasy for preserving energy and resources remained all her life, and she could not abide the daily worker squandering water, instead she made her use a bucket to catch the cold water as it heated up. ‘ . . . Then you can take the buckets of tepid water downstairs and out into the vegetable garden, where it is always welcome.’ She did not like throwing furniture away, and if she could not use something (a rare occurrence) she practically talked others into taking it off her hands. ‘It would be quite impossible to get such wonderful armchairs,’ Pamela told Diana, by way of forcing her into re-homing a set of tweed armchairs, which, she boasted: ‘And they’ve got flat arms to put a drink on.’ Perhaps owing to the fact she was not frivolous with her money, she expected others to appreciate the presents she bought for them, especially children: ‘I sent presents [. . .] in time for Christmas Eve, and here it is the third of January and none of those children has written.’

As with her custom of giving away what she no longer needed, Pamela liked to pass on her knowledge to those willing to learn. Of course, being practical and self-sufficient in a family filled with servants, her skills were often exploited, most especially by Nancy. When they were children, Nancy shirked her chores and gave them to Pamela, whom she promised to pay, if she rose early and opened the bedroom curtains. In true Nancy fashion it had been a tease and the payment never materialised, however their mother intervened and forced Nancy to part with her pocket money in exchange for Pamela’s services. Then, a few years later, the children had pet mice and Pamela asked the carpenter to make her a wooden palace for her mouse. Nancy was envious and asked if her mouse could move in, and Pamela suggested she share the feeding and cleaning of the mice, to which Nancy agreed. The mice went hungry and Pamela’s mouse had eaten Nancy’s. Then, as adults, Nancy found herself short of clean clothes and with no means to have them laundered (they were at Inch Kenneth, their mother’s remote Scottish island). She asked Pamela to teach her how to wash them: ‘She did the washing while I stood and looked. Now I’m going to get her to teach me to iron them,’ Nancy wrote to Decca.

Unlike her sisters she did not ride or hunt, owing to a lame leg which had been the result of childhood polio, but she stood behind the guns and prepared the game. Decca wrote in her memoirs, Hons and Rebels, that as a child Pamela had wanted to be a horse and spent hours galloping across the lawn, and when she grew up ‘she married a jockey’. This was typical Decca, for Pamela’s husband, Derek Jackson, was an amateur steeple-chaser and excellent horseman, but his main profession was that of a physicist. The solitude of a country house, its stone walls and unspoiled views, suited her character. Although good fun, a witty raconteur (not as quick as Nancy, but still funny in a gentle way), she was essentially a loner. She did not look for attention, although it often found her, and she took male admiration in her stride, never really aware of how pretty she was (golden hair, clear complexion, no need for make-up), and always downplaying her housekeeping skills. Having learned the art of running a big house from Muv, and despite being, what we would diagnose today as, dyslexic, she had a head for household accounts and was a natural cook, using her instincts and common sense when preparing and measuring ingredients. Debo gave her full credit for inspiring the kitchen garden at Chatsworth House. She could, to quote her nephew Jonathan Guinness, ‘make soup out of her head’, that is, she had a photographic memory serving as a cookbook, and she understood the compatibility of herbs and spices. Indeed, she often spoke of writing a cookbook but to our everlasting disappointment the idea was rejected by ‘Jamie’ Hamilton, the publisher Hamish Hamilton, who gave Nancy her platform. I speak for a large majority when I say Pam’s would-be cookbook is a real loss to the literary canon.

Like those who have spent their lives amongst the ebb and flow of the landscape and its seasons, Pamela understood the cycle of animals and the unsentimental purposes they served. As a young woman she managed her brother-in-law Bryan Guinness’s farm at Biddesden, and she learned about agriculture and husbandry. It was not a seamless transition from debutante to farmer, and during those novice years she accidentally won an expensive cow at auction, only to discover ‘the brute was bagless’ and therefore useless for milking. Later, during her marriage to Derek Jackson, she bred Aberdeen Angus but was forced to give them up during WWII when land was needed to grow potatoes; she especially missed her bull, a Black Hussar, who had ‘been sent to the butcher’. She could be tough, too, and was forced to make difficult decisions during the war – when Diana was imprisoned at Holloway a beloved mare was living at Pamela’s farm and was slaughtered, and she also had Diana’s dog euthanised. Although, at the time and facing an uncertain future in prison, Diana failed to understand Pamela’s decision.

When she lived in Ireland, towards the end of her marriage to Derek, Pamela was responsible for the clearing out and selling of their marital home, Tullmaine Castle, in County Tipperary. There was an estate sale of its contents, supervised by Pamela, and eggs preserved in brine exploded, prompting her to say: ‘Nothing is to leave this house until it is paid for.’ Despite the eggs exploding, Pamela was cheered when glasses from Woolworth fetched four times the amount she paid for them and were still obtainable from the shop. She remained in the house, after its sale, as a tenant and when the workmen came to rewire the house she asked the new landlord for a dairy cow, as the workmen had no milk for their tea. They used a pint a day, and so Pamela bought four piglets which she reared on the extra milk, and sold the rest to a creamery. A typical Pamela thing to do: she was frugal all her life, and not only did her pets bring her great joy, she also kept animals for commercial purposes.

An animal lover who had many dogs and ponies throughout her life, Pamela could easily abandon a trip to Paris when her pet dachshund looked at her sadly, as dachshunds are apt to do. During her middle-age she spent several years in the 1960s living in Switzerland with her companion (Decca referred to her as Pamela’s ‘German wife’), Swiss-Italian horsewoman Giuditta Tomassi. The reason for her settling in Switzerland, as she told German Elle, was because her dogs (after the article’s publication they became known as the Elles) were very old and she thought they would prefer to spend their last days on the Continent. Thoughtful to her four-legged friends and treating them with the utmost care (often she panicked when they were carsick, thinking it was rabies), she did indeed stay until her dogs died. A poultry expert (self-taught, of course), she used her time in Switzerland learning about Swiss chickens and hens, and she is credited with introducing the Appenzeller Spitzhauben breed of chicken to Britain, having smuggled its eggs through British customs inside a chocolate box. Who would dare to question a well-bred Englishwoman carrying a box of Swiss chocolates through an airport? When she returned to England during the Christmas holidays she used her car to transport cheap Swiss household goods, and begged of her sisters not to buy her a present, as she was far more preoccupied with dishwasher salt, bought in bulk, and other cleaning paraphernalia. When the inevitable happened and her dogs died, Pamela left Switzerland where, according to Diana, ‘She was Queen there for ages.’ Debo agreed: ‘In Zurich she is Empress. All her friends are multis and wherever one goes one hears the cry “Pamela! How wonderful to see you!”’

There was a practicality to Pamela, that was otherwise lacking in her sisters. Rarely was her head turned by a celebrity and she refrained from obsessive romantic crushes the other girls developed. Seated next to Lord Mountbatten at a smart function, she was far from dazzled when he referred to her nickname ‘Woman’, and said: ‘I know you are Woman.’ Yes, she responded, and demanded to know who he was. When she had a private audience with Hitler, along with her mother, she exchanged recipes for wholemeal bread with him and complimented the new potatoes served at luncheon. Food occupied much of her thoughts, and she could recall an event merely by its menu – ‘in our brief twenty-five minutes she managed to tell us every menu between Zurich and here’. During a dinner party she sat next to a Frenchman and shared with him a long menu for cooking pork, related in French (she was fluent in both French and German), and said: ‘Il faut le couper LÀ‘ and pointed to the place on her leg to demonstrate where the meat should be cut. On another occasion and in a similar setting, she told two guests to ‘smash the potatoes in the best olive oil’. Such stories were referred to by the family as ‘Woman’s Sagas’. New friendships were formed over her food, and she was renowned during her time in Tipperary for her hunting teas. There was also a period when she had blue Aga, its hue chosen to match her eyes.

Although all her life Pamela had been the victim of her sisters’ teasing, and, as Diana said, ‘Pam was often right but seldom listened to’, she was the sister they relied on most. When Diana was imprisoned, two of her four children went to live with Pamela at Rignell House, her farm in Berkshire, but Pamela did not care much for babies and although the children were well looked after, she didn’t have the maternal instinct Diana had. She boasted of making Alexander, then twenty-months, walk through a field of bristles, and she spoke of a close encounter with a fighter plane on a walk with the children. The letters sent to Diana in prison were far from comforting and she worried about Alexander’s ‘poor little legs’. Described by Decca as ‘half mad, half vague’, she wondered why Pamela never had children of her own as ‘she’d have made a super mum’ – it seemed Decca, who lacked her sister’s domesticity, thought Pamela’s chief talents of housekeeping, cooking, and driving were the makings of a good parent. She was also the sister Nancy looked to most, when she was dying of cancer, which remained undiagnosed and largely untreated. ‘The only real answer is Woman,’ Diana said. She stayed at Nancy’s Versailles house, a place she disliked as she found it claustrophobic, and gave up much of her motoring around the Continent and time with Giuditta, to be at Nancy’s disposal. A stream of sisters and relatives came to visit, and Decca flew in from California and asked what she could do to help. ‘Well, I always make my own bed on the day Mme. Guinon (Nancy’s daily help) doesn’t come,’ Pamela said. She did her duty of tending to Nancy, comforting her during painful attacks, weathering her insults, helping around the house, and weeding the garden. When it was over, and Nancy died, Pamela said to Diana: ‘Let’s face it, she’s ruined four years of our lives.’

After years of living in Switzerland with Giuditta and her dogs, Pamela returned to the English countryside. Years before, she had bought Woodfield House, in Gloucestershire, with money from Tullamaine’s estate sale. She spent a contented old age, with her black Labrador for company, and continued to breed poultry – such an expert, in 1984 she had been invited on a television show to discuss chickens (‘Woman ought to have her own chicken chat show,’ Debo said). And, until her leg afflicted by childhood polio grew weaker, she spent winters with Diana in South Africa. Largely referred to as the ‘quiet Mitford’ and the ‘forgotten sister’, Pamela’s star turn came in 1980 when she appeared on-screen in Nancy Mitford: A Portrait By Her Sisters. Filmed in her natural habitat; she sat on a tree stump on the banks of the River Windrush, let her pony off for a run, and stoked her Aga stove. Before her death in 1994, Pamela had been staying with an old friend in London, when she fell down steep stairs and broke two bones in her weak leg. She was operated on, but did not recover, and died in hospital. In true Pamela fashion, her last (known) words were, ‘What won the Grand National?’

Quotes taken from The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters and Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford

Published in The Mitford Society: Vol V