Kick Kennedy – Part One

It is unusual for two biographies on the same subject to be released within a month of each other, but then again Kick Kennedy is an unusual subject. The second-born daughter of Irish-American parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy, she is forever associated with her political family, most especially the American president John F. Kennedy. All of the Kennedy children had star quality, Lady Redesdale (Muv) had once remarked that JFK would one day become president of the United States. And so their charisma hypnotised London high society in the late 1930s, when Joseph Kennedy was posted there as the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The older girls were presented at Court, and Kick began to move in the exclusive circles of the aristocracy. She was an anomaly for her time: outspoken, forward-thinking, and silly. She could laugh at herself and openly joke with the gentry at a time when English girls, who adhered to formality, could not. Surprisingly, this won her a great deal of admiration and her greatest friends became Sarah Norton (daughter of the beautiful Jean Norton, Lord Beaverbrook’s mistress), Billy and Andrew Cavendish (sons of the Duke of Devonshire), and, of course, Debo Mitford.

519wNfBISIL

Barbara Leaming’s book, Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter, explores the connection Kick shared with Andrew and Debo in great detail. The beginning of her book was a lovely surprise, with the elderly Andrew confiding his remembrances of Kick. And so her story begins and maintains its momentum as a portrait of a girl who moved at the centre of the British aristocracy. Through her research of Kick, she bypasses the Kennedy lore (only sprinkling Kennedyisms where necessary) to focus on the themes which shaped Kick’s life and her destiny.

The complex love story between Kick and Billy Cavendish dominates the plot, but the subplot of Andrew and Debo gives this story an interesting parallel. Here was a woman who had the world at her feet until WW2 destroyed her future and her happiness, as it did for so many families. With their long, drawn-out courtship happening on both sides of the Atlantic – often one-sided, and their battle to marry, it is bittersweet that they were destined only to be husband and wife for a short period. Billy, as the eldest son, was expected to inherit the Dukedom of Devonshire, and Kick was to be his Duchess (there are some interesting points on Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire), but after his death she was deposed by Debo.

Although both women were best friends, it was interesting to read about the hidden feelings Kick had about the new path her life had taken, and the (for lack of a better word) guilt Debo harboured for unintentionally usurping Kick.

Kick was killed in a plane crash at the age of twenty-eight, and although she had been widowed from Billy and had fallen in love with another man, the Devonshires continued to hold her close their hearts. Not only is this a story of an extraordinary young woman who took life by the scruff of the neck, it is an example of fate and how Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire. Perhaps it was Kick who paved the way and set the example of mixing informality with the pomp and grandeur of that lifestyle, which Andrew and Debo were renowned for.

Thank you to Barbara Leaming for sending me a signed copy of her book. Her narrative is informal and yet it draws one in, as though they, too, were sitting next to Andrew as he remembered his late sister-in-law. The beginning and ending were entirely original, given the acres of print written about Chatsworth and the Devonshires.

Part Two of my Kick Kennedy post will look at Paula Byrne’s biography, Kick: The True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK’s Forgotten Sister and Heir to Chatsworth (released 19 May 2016). Both biographies are completely different and are extremely good. So please buy and read both of them!

51nnMxLVJcL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_

 

The Mitford Society Loves

As the spring months advance I like to veer away from heavy tomes and keep my reading light. That is to say, none of the novels I have mentioned below are frivolous nor do they lack depth. They are historical fiction and ‘faction’ (fact written as fiction) with engaging prose and fascinating characters. Here are some of my favourites…

91a2zpcOczL

Faith and Beauty by Jane Thynne

The fourth instalment of the Clara Vine series. Our heroine, Clara, an actress by trade/a spy by choice, is once again moving at the heart of the Nazi Party. In the previous novels, much of the action takes place on the streets of Berlin on the eve of WW2, and at the Nazi-founded bridal schools. So Jane mixes historical events with a fictional character who also happens to mingle with real-life figures – Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, a young JFK, Marlene Dietrich etc (in The Winter Garden, she featured Unity and Diana Mitford). Now it is the summer of 1939 and Clara’s sleuthing takes her to the Faith and Beauty bridal school, where a girl has been murdered. And, on the political front, she must investigate whether or not Germany is planning an alliance with Russia. Not only are Jane Thynne’s novels appealing to those who love the mystery/detective genre but they’re a treat for historians who are fascinated by the pre-WW2 era and the rise of Hitler.

26196254

A Man of Genius by Janet Todd

This novel has inspired me to think of the noun trouvaille, which means something lucky found by chance. It found me by way of a mutual friend of Janet Todd’s, and I am so glad it did. Set in Regency London and Venice, Ann Radcliffe is a woman of independent means: a writer of cheap Gothic fiction, portraying women as victims of narcissistic villains. Soon life begins to imitate art, and she falls under the spell of the poet, Robert James – a madman and self-confessed genius. A psychological portrait of a destructive relationship, set to the backdrop of Venice and the literary world, A Man of Genius is a dazzling novel of the historical fiction genre.

27261708

The Shadow Hour by Kate Riordan

Following her successful novel The Girl In The Photograph, Riordan has returned with an equally suspenseful story charting the lives of two women in different eras. In 1878 Harriet Jenner takes a job as a governess at Fenix House but, recovering from a family tragedy, she cannot imagine the hold that the house and the Pembridge family will have over her. Fifty years later, Harriet’s granddaughter Grace finds work at Fenix House and, following in her grandmother’s footsteps, she discovers the secrets and lies buried within the grand house. The Shadow Hour is wonderfully written with a ghostly undertone; Riordan has once again produced a haunting tale.

P.S. You should check out Kate Riordan’s short story The Red Letter, based on characters from The Girl in the Photograph. I hope she develops it into a spin-off story.

24723249

All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani

Aside from my love of the aristocracy during the interwar era I am also mad about classic film stars. This was a little different from what I normally read, by way of historical fiction, but it was a nice distraction over the festive season. It details the affair between Loretta Young and Clark Gable, which happened during the filming of Call of the Wild. Based on a true story and an even stranger cover-up during the golden age of Hollywood: Young goes on to have Gable’s child but what unfolds is a plot that would be called far fetched, even onscreen! She goes into hiding and has the baby, a girl, and Gable knows but takes no part in her upbringing. Young herself claims she has adopted the child and she sticks to this story for decades, the truth only revealing itself when her daughter is grown up, and Gable is dead. It was quite camp in places and perhaps veered towards fan fiction, but it was a lot of fun to read and it gives me hope that I can develop a story I have in mind about a real life Hollywood couple. More books like this, please!

27213958

The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman

Telling the story of Jean Batten, known as ‘the Garbo of the skies’, Kidman presents her biographical study as historical fiction. From her childhood as a clever girl from a broken home, through her ambition to challenge the male attitudes of the day, Batten rises to become an aviatrix star. Courted by royalty and Hollywood actors, she receives honours and breaks aviation records before falling out of the public gaze. After a series of setbacks, she becomes a recluse and dies in penury in Majorca, where she is buried in a pauper’s grave. A thrilling tale of adventure and heartbreak – Kidman has triumphantly brought this inspirational heroine to life.

In the summer, when I finish my project, I hope to read more American literature. I loved The Boston Girl, and it has inspired me add The Swans of Fifth Avenue and Tiny Little Thing to my TBR wish list. Let me know what you are reading or what you plan to read by tweeting @mitfordsociety.

Society Star: The Life and Times of Lady Massereene

12523105_10153868188988910_5707213828930083876_n

Easter Monday marks the 102nd anniversary of Edward Carson’s visit to Antrim Castle – a minor but significant event which changed Irish politics forever. Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. III, this post looks at the life and times of the Scots-born and Irish peeress, Lady Massereene.

Before she became chatelaine of Antrim Castle at the age of 21, having married the 12th Viscount Massereene, Jean Barbara Ainsworth was a society star. Standing six-feet-tall with black hair and dark eyes, her exotic looks attracted attention from both sexes. Women admired her avant garde fashion sense – she was always something of a style icon – and her penchant for flamboyant clothes, during the Edwardian era, was displayed through backless dresses, bejewelled head-wear and a long string of pearls tied in a knot. Her clothing was daring, as was her behaviour, and men admired her willingness to speak her mind. After a summer of parties in the salons of Mayfair and hunt balls in stately homes, she met her future husband, Algernon William John Clotworthy Skeffington. They married in February 1905, and three months later Algernon succeeded his father as the 12th Viscount Massereene and 5th Viscount Ferrard.

It was a glamourous marriage, reported in the stylish magazines of the day, The Tatler, The Bystander and The Sketch. With her new husband, twelve years her senior and a war hero (Lord Massereene served with the 17th Lancers in the Boer War and was mentioned in Dispatches twice), Lady Massereene had become a celebrity. It was an age when the merits of stardom were weighed against one’s background and breeding, and regardless of her title, she was prime candidate during this new wave of modern media, much like today. She was born in Scotland in 1884, the eldest daughter of Sir John Stirling Ainsworth (he was given a peerage in 1917), a wealthy industrialist, banker, and Liberal politician. She had grown up accustomed to large houses with staff, fascinating house-guests from the political and industrial worlds, and the privileges her father’s money could afford her.

The political element would conjure up discord between father and daughter, for in 1910, Lord and Lady Massereene allayed themselves with Edward Carson to resist Home Rule. John Ainsworth was a Home Ruler, and he accused Lord Massereene of influencing his daughter. But nobody could tell her what to do, and she threw herself into the Unionist cause. The Massereene seat, Antrim Castle, a 17th century dwelling overlooking the parish of Antrim, became a refuge for Carson and his Antrim branch of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Massereenes land became a parade ground for the UVF, where, after militant marches and various displays of pageantry, Lady Massereene inspected the men. Afterwards she passed out cigarettes, known as ‘smokes’, and gave rousing speeches to the local supporters. The UVF was breaking the law by holding armed events, and Lady Massereene, a participant in their illegal activity, would soon suffer the consequences. A rumour spread through Antrim that Lord Massereene had been arrested and that Carson was at the castle. In a letter to her friend Edith, Lady Londonderry, she described how the rumour had provoked an ‘angry’ and ‘over-zealous’ crowd to follow the housekeeper who was manhandled in an attempt to retrieve information.

Far from defeated by the heightened tensions in the town, Lady Massereene 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 if they went into battle. A dressing station was established in Randalstown, while Antrim Castle and the O’Neill seat, Shane’s Castle, were on standby to be transformed into clearing hospitals.

On Easter Monday of 1914, Carson returned to Antrim Castle during his task to review 2,800 volunteers from the three south Antrim battalions. A luncheon was given in his honour, and amongst the UVF hierarchy were a countess, a marquis, a duchess and various lords and ladies. A photograph exists of Lord and Lady Massereene standing on the steps of Antrim Castle with Carson and his cronies. Afterwards, Carson inspected the nursing corps, led by Lady Massereene on a swarm facing the castle and comprised of 80 members from Antrim, Randalstown, Lisburn, Glenavy and Crumlin. Prayers were followed by the formal dedication of the UVF’s colours, made by the Lord Bishop. Lady Massereene presented Carson with the King’s colour and the regimental colour of the battalion, a personal gift from her.

There were no women in local government and Lady Massereene was a rare female voice in public life. Her views on women’s role in society were made clear when, opening a Bazaar in 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 presented they should not begin ‘operations by destroying the new schools’, before adding: ‘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.’ The speech was an example of her chameleon-like tendencies to appeal to whichever crowd she was addressing.

The arrival of WWI in 1914 saw Lady Massereene move out of her husband’s shadow and into a role that was entirely her own. Lord Massereene went to the front with the North Irish Horse, and there had been scenes of enthusiasm from the locals as he went to Antrim railway station on the 8 August for France. Accompanied by Lady Massereene and their daughter, Diana, born in 1909, the Massereene Brass and Reed Band played a number of patriotic tunes on the platform as the train departed.

This was the era in which Lady Massereene’s charity work came to the forefront, and divided locals seemed to forget about her allegiance with Carson. At home, she joined a distress committee aimed at helping dependants of soldiers and sailors who had gone to war. In October 1914, Lady Massereene’s second child, a son and heir was born while Lord Massereene was in France. A month after the birth of her son, Lady Massereene hosted a successful fancy dress ball at the Protestant Hall. The fundraiser was for an ambulance, which she planned to send out to the front. Her war work continued in London, where she had been made Commandant of Women’s League’s Canteens, and dressed in her usual flamboyant style, a group of soldiers mistook her for a streetwalker and asked if she had had much luck at Piccadilly the night before. With her usual good humour, she laughed it off and relayed the anecdote for years to come. She trained as a nurse and volunteered at London hospitals, tending to the wounded. By chance, Lady Massereene along with other aristocratic nurses appeared as themselves, albeit in uniform, in the 1918 Hollywood silent film, The Great Love, starring Lilian Gish.

Lady Massereene’s postwar life saw her re-emerge on the social scene, and Sir John Lavery painted her portrait, a macabre study in black that, in hindsight, foretold the tragedies that were to come. On 28 October 1922, Antrim castle held a grand ball, after which a fire broke out. Guests tried to extinguish the fire, to no avail, and locals rallied to the castle, concentrating their efforts on rescuing the servants whose quarters were fifty-feet above the ground. Lady Massereene fled to the nursery to rescue her children, and trapped on a stairwell engulfed by smoke, she warned them they might not live. They watched as their cat caught on fire and perished before their eyes. Eventually, Lt Col Stewart Richardson, a war veteran who was staying at the castle, saved the lives of Lady Massereene and her children by tying sheets together and lowering them down from the roof of the chapel.

In 1923, a claim was made, and eventually rejected, for £90,000 for malicious damage. Damning evidence was presented before the court in Belfast, including a paraffin barrel that was full before the fire and now found to be empty. The windows of the basement were also discovered to be forced open, thus allowing the flames to spread more quickly. Anonymous letters, too, were touched upon (she showed her husband but not the police) in which Lady Massereene was warned she would soon ‘meet her maker’. Such letters were sent in retaliation to Lady Massereene’s pro-Unionist speeches 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.’ The Massereenes believed the fire was started intentionally as the castle did not burn down as a result of a single fire. The water supply in the cisterns had been tampered with and several items that had been saved from the fire were found to be covered in mineral oil. During the investigation, Lady Massereene 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 boudoir, she made a conscious effort to have the grate in her bedroom replaced.

This was not the first time Lady Massereene relied on or spoke openly about her dreams. A decade before, her tiara was stolen from the castle and she ordered the police to comb the banks of the Six Mile river, having dreamt it was discarded there. She was, in fact, the victim of a network of jewel thieves who were eventually caught in London and arrested. She harboured a deep interest in the paranormal and was renowned in London as a ghost expert. A good friend of the society spiritualist Violet Tweedale, Lady Massereene related her paranormal experiences in Tweedale’s book, Ghosts I Have Seen. She also spoke openly to various London newspapers about her psychic abilities and affiliation with the spirit world.

In 1930, Lady Massereene suffered a bitter blow when her eldest child and only daughter, Diana Skeffington died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, after contracting typhoid at a wedding in Scotland. Lord and Lady Massereene never recovered from their daughter’s death, and having once spoke enthusiastically about rebuilding a country house on the site of the castle, Lord Massereene lost interest. They went their separate ways though never divorced, with Lord Massereene residing in apartments at Clotworthy House and Lady Massereene living in London, where in place of her once grand house parties she hosted seances. Many believed her obsession with the supernatural was a source of comfort to her after Diana’s death.

Lady Massereene’s final years were plagued by illness, although she never believed she was seriously ill. After collapsing in Hyde Park, she went up to Knock House, her Scottish residence in Mull, where her condition deteriorated. Five week later, in the winter of 1937, she died at the age of 54. Having championed the existence of ghosts, many of whom she called friends, one assumes, and hopes, Lady Massereene languishes in that spiritual realm.

51Be3wrADwL

 

Guest Post: Janet Todd on historical Italy and A Man of Genius

Annabelle looked at the corpse. Hands and head separate. Blood had leaked from wrists and neck. Fluid covered part of the distorted features. The open eyes were stained so that they glared through their own darkness. A smell of rotting meat.

By itself the face was unrecognisable, yet she knew it was her father’s. What was a father? A man begot a body but not a mind. She prodded the head with her foot. The blood must have congealed for her boot remained clean.

Had she killed him? It wasn’t clear. She rather thought she had. She was sure she’d not cut him up. She hadn’t the strength. She would order the bits thrown in the Arno to mix with filth from the city. She turned away.

How many people do you have to murder before it becomes habitual? Before you cannot remember which corpse is which and who is its dispatcher?

She wiped old blood off her hands with her handkerchief. Her maid would wash it clean.

He’d come silently into the room and read from behind her. He smiled.

Ann felt the smile. ‘I will cross out the fluid and rotting meat,’ she said without looking up.

I began my novel with this invented passage because I wanted to introduce my main character, Ann, through what was in her head: the kind of work she wrote and read. She’d been writing Gothic novels for many years and her own and other people’s plots had filled her imagination from childhood to the present day (the early 1820s). Yet, when faced with a Gothic world of torment and pursuit she was as bewildered as anyone else would have been—and as any of the heroines of the novels she read and invented.

After this preface I opened the novel proper by going back to Ann a few years earlier:

She met Robert James in St Paul’s Churchyard. The bookseller
J. F. Hughes held a dinner once a week for his distinguished
writers and a few hacks. She was invited to leaven the party with what
a prized pornographer called ‘femality’. Mary Davies, who wrote
children’s primers for numbers and letters, was absent. Hers was a
more respectable trade than Ann’s gothic horrors but Mr Hughes
judged Ann less prissily genteel in men’s company.

An Italian was there. He said little except when talk veered towards argument. Then he remarked there was a sundial near Venice that claimed to count serene hours alone. How good, he added, to take notice of time only as it gives pleasure.
‘That sundial had not the English art of self-tormenting,’ said
Richard Perry, an intense, gentle man introduced by Mr Hughes as a
reviewer and former bookseller.
‘It’s surely not so easy to efface cares by refusing to name them,’
said Ann.
Nobody pursued the point. Signor Luigi Orlando felt no need to
facilitate further.

Later, much later, she wondered why Robert James had been
invited. He’d published nothing of consequence beyond that amazing
fragment of Attila. Did Mr Hughes believe in his promise as fervently
as his friends did? As he did?

At first he’d been silent and she hadn’t much remarked him.
During the introduction she’d failed to note his name, being too
engrossed in her own. Then, as afternoon turned to evening, and
wine and conversation flowed, he’d started to dominate the talk, to
catch and keep attention. He spoke animatedly.

She knew who he was then.

My purpose in A Man of Genius is to bring together a woman writer who sees herself as a jobbing novelist and a male poet who’s regarded by many as a ‘genius’. The exhilaration and pain of their relationship come from a combination of fascination and repulsion on both sides. She may suffer more severely but the relationship is, at base, one of mutual torment. However the work is a psychological and historical mystery and nothing is ever quite what it seems at first….

For my work as a critic and biographer of women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I read a lot of Gothic novels. I relished the gory woodcuts that often accompanied their title pages. Wonderfully crude and energetic.

1

I was especially interested in the women who wrote them. The authors weren’t all women but a substantial number clearly was. On the whole their lives are obscure but, when we can hear them at all, they make no claims for their hack work and are eager to state they are not encroaching on the male territory of Literature. Often they claim they write only for money and because they have to: they are spinsters with ailing fathers or they are widows or abandoned wives.

2

While the mass market was growing for cheap novels and sensational tales, fed by scribbling writers, a contrasting cult of the ‘genius’ grew up. He—and it was usually a ‘he’—was understood to be a distinctive and specially endowed human being. Consequently he was not constrained by the same morality and rules as other mortals. To sustain his role he needed immense self-confidence as well as the belief, even adulation, of others.

My biography, Death and the Maidens, described the effect of a real and haunted ‘genius’–the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley–on Fanny, the eldest daughter of the great feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as on her half sister Mary Shelley, whom he later married, and on his first wife Harriet. In A Man of Genius, an entirely fictional work, I imagine what occurs when the assumed genius begins to doubt his superior powers and when his lover fears her idol might have no substance.

The setting for much of A Man of Genius is Venice. I describe the city at a special moment in its history. For centuries Venice had grow rich and powerful as the dominant maritime and commercial state along the Adriatic. It boasted a thousand-year-old past as an independent republic. It had been home to the greatest sculptors and architects, as well as to the most celebrated Renaissance painters, Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian. Its richness in money and art was legendary.

But, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had suffered a long decline and the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte found little opposition in 1797 when he decided to conquer it and subsume it into his Italian empire.

3

After this shaming defeat, Venice was shunted back and forwards between France and Austria until after the battle of Waterloo and the final defeat of Napoleon it fell finally into Austrian hands and was made part of the kingdom of Lombardy and Venetia. A few Venetians collaborated with the Austrian masters, appreciating some aspects of the order they brought to the city, others preferred the French as being closer to them in temperament, though more plundering of Venetian treasures. Others hugely resented what had happened to Venice and plotted for independence –an independence that would never return.

In 1866 Venice was subsumed into the new kingdom of Italy.

The run down and conquered city of 1819-20 is the backdrop of my story. Venice was still at that time part of the grand tour for gentlemen from Britain for it retained much of its amazing art and architecture. At the same time it was beginning to attract more modest middle class tourists. These were armed with an increasing array of guidebooks.

The era of mass tourism was, however, still in the future. It awaited the coming of the railway.

4

One of the more bizarre events happening at the time my characters travelled to Venice was the scandal of the British royal family. As so often in history, the royals provided much entertainment for the public at home and abroad. To secure the succession the dissolute Prince Regent had been urged into an alliance with a German princess Caroline of Brunswick. He took an instant dislike to her and desperately sought a way out of the hated marriage. Over the next years, as she travelled with a rather louche entourage around Europe, he worked to establish enough evidence to bring about a divorce. She was especially linked in scandal with an obscure Italian called Bartolomeo Pergami, much decorated with the honours she bestowed on him: the pair provided great amusement through the newspapers and cartoons. My characters in Venice couldn’t avoid hearing of what was entertaining all of Europe.

5

So — my novel is set in specific history but is not about history. It occurs in a particular place that is both real and imaginary. But, then, there is always something ‘imaginary’ about Venice.

6.jpg

Janet Todd has just retired from being an academic mainly in the US and the UK. Her last positions were as Professor of English in the University of Aberdeen and President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Her most recent works have been introductions to the novels of Jane Austen and biographies of women writers from Aphra Behn to Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn. A Man of Genius is her first original novel.

Guest Post: Love and Ginger Biscuits by Jolien Janzing

41y2dYPfC8L

 

21 April marks the 200th birthday of Charlotte Brontë. The author of – to name one – Jane Eyre will be celebrated in Brussels, the city where she studied and fell in love. Belgian author Jolien Janzing traveled from Belgium to Yorkshire in search of the true identity of one of England’s most beloved writers.

The sea, the sea. It is the title of one of my favourite novels, by Iris Murdoch. A wonderful title that evokes the endlessness of the sea; the rolling of the waves is captured in the repetition. It is morning, and I am eating buttered toast and scrambled eggs on board of a ferry about to enter the port of Hull. Last night, as the ferry left Zeebrugge harbour, I was rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of the sea. This morning is shrouded in a thick fog, and the vague contours of containers and stacks of bricks are all I can discern of the shore. The idea of traveling to Hull by ferry, like Charlotte Brontë made the trip from London to Ostend by steamer, seemed inspiring to me. She from England to Belgium, I from Belgium to England. Somewhere along the way, the two ships could have crossed in the night, if it weren’t for the fact that Charlotte’s steamer made the journey in 1842.

This is the third time I am on my way to visit the scene of Charlotte’s childhood: Haworth with its steep high street, high up in the barren hills of West Yorkshire. Once upon a time, Haworth was a small industrial town with a population of domestic weavers and families of which almost all members above the age of six worked in the textile factories down by the river. The textile factories are abandoned nowadays, but the town has been preserved beautifully as a pilgrimage for Brontë fans.

After a three-day stay in Haworth I will travel on to Shipley, where I am to be received by the Brontë Society. The literary society is hosting its annual lunch – this year’s edition marks the start of a series of festivities to celebrate Charlotte’s 200th birthday. I have been invited as a guest speaker, but I am not particularly nervous. It is as if, after having submerged myself in Charlotte Brontë’s life for five years, she has become a sister to me. As if she is sitting across from me, sipping tea. Her world has become familiar. The figure sitting across from me is, of course, only my Charlotte, my interpretation of everything that is known about her.

The life of Charlotte Brontë reads like a novel. Born in the village of Thornton, Charlotte was the third child of Anglican minister Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria. Three more children followed: Branwell, Emily and Anne. When Charlotte was three-years-old, the minister was appointed the town of Haworth as his parish. The family moved into the rectory, a spacious manor overlooking the treeless hills and the cemetery. Maria would die of cancer not long after the relocation, leaving Patrick with six children. He sent the four eldest girls, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily, off to a boarding school for daughters of impoverished clergymen. This soon proved a fatal mistake, as the school was poorly run and the children suffered from cold and hunger. Maria and Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis and were taken home, where they would pass away. Later in life, Charlotte would write about this horrendous school in a way that anyone who has read Jane Eyre will not lightly forget.

Less commonly known is that Charlotte and Emily came to Brussels in their early twenties to perfect their command of the French language. Charlotte had taken up the idea to found a school in Yorkshire with her younger sisters, and such an undertaking would require a considerable level of French proficiency on the part of the Brontë girls. Brussels was an obvious choice, both because life in the Belgian capital was significantly cheaper compared to Paris, and because the city had become familiar terrain for the English following the battle of Waterloo.

I spend my first night in Haworth at Ponden Hall, a large 17th century farmhouse in a valley near Haworth. I read by the fireplace and later crawl into the bedstead that closes by means of two small doors. On the side of the outer wall is a cutout in the wood panel with a small, old window, fogged by the damp mist that covers the fields outside. A number of books are stacked on the stone windowsill, warped by the mildew. This is the window tapped by the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Back in the Brontë sisters’ days, the house belonged to Robert Heaton, a well-off captain of industry. Ponden Hall contained the most extensive library in the area, frequented by the young Charlotte and Emily. As women were not allowed to borrow books from the village library, the sisters happily seized the opportunity to read books in the deep window recesses of Ponden Hall. Robert Heaton was in love with Emily, but when he declared her his love in the kitchen one afternoon, young Emily slid off her chair to play with a couple of puppies under the table – she never was particularly interested in men.

Although Emily possessed a remarkable, lively imagination, she founded her stories on her surroundings the same way Charlotte did. Indeed, the description of the room with the bedstead and the small window in Wuthering Heights is so reminiscent of my bedroom here at Ponden Hall that I simply know this must be the place where Emily’s heroine came knocking. Cathy, with the wild hair and fluttering nightdress, her face pale and contorted with grief, in search of her beloved Heathcliff.

The annual lunch of the literary society takes place at Hollins Hall, a decent hotel in Shipley. The place is atmospheric: a rippling Schubert in the background, the smell of earl grey, ginger nuts and the sloping landscape outside.

I read from Charlotte Brontë’s secret love, the English translation of my novel De meester. On a warm summer day, a lonesome and sad Charlotte walked the streets of Brussels. Eventually, she entered Sint-Michiel’s cathedral and went to confession with a young priest. For the daughter of an Anglican minister, it was unthinkable to enter a catholic church, leave alone go to confession, but Charlotte had fallen in love with a married man and felt the need to talk about her predicament: an anonymous confession provided the solution.

We have a lunch of roast, Yorkshire pudding and peas. The last strawberries of the season with cream for dessert. I talk about the morals and customs in the city of Brussels in the mid-19th century. About how adulterous behaviour on the part of married gentlemen was often tolerated by their wives. The possibilities were many, as long as one did not discuss them openly and went to confession every week. ‘Is it possible that monsieur Heger awakened our Charlotte sexually?’ asks a lady who had traveled all the way from London to attend the literary lunch.

After Charlotte’s death, many of her fans visited Constantin Heger in Brussels. Heger, on these occasions, never failed to profess how the famous novelist had been in love with him and proudly showed the letters she wrote to him. At the same time, he presented himself as a devoted husband and father who would not have considered turning a young woman’s head. Although Charlotte’s biographers have taken his version of the story for the truth, it is my belief that there are plenty of reasons to believe Heger was an incorrigible flirt. For instance, there is the sensual letter he wrote to another one of his female pupils, in which he tells her how he conjures her image as he sits in his study at night, enjoying a cigar. If a male teacher were to write a similar letter in this day and age, there would be no end to the trouble he would be getting himself into. Furthermore, he received a number of love letters from Charlotte after her return to England. The letter written in the fall of 1845 – no less than one year and ten months after their goodbye – is especially passionate and desperate. I find it impossible to imagine that the intelligent Charlotte, no matter how sensitive and weakened by her heartbreak, would write such a letter to a man who supposedly never actively ignited the passion inside of her.

From Yorkshire I travel to London, where I meet Jenni Murray for an interview in Woman’s Hour at the studios of BBC Radio 4. The other guest on the show is the writer of Charlotte Brontë’s new biography. Jenni asks me why I chose to let Emily befriend Louise de Bassompierre, another student at the Pensionnat Heger, in my novel. She obviously finds this peculiar, as it is known of Emily that she liked to keep to herself. I replied that the friendship existed in reality. Upon their goodbye, Emily gave Louise a sketch of a pine tree struck by lightning. Their friendship was special, precisely because it was very rare for Emily to form an attachment to someone. Given her misanthropy, her fondness of her home with its daily routines, and her love for animals, I am inclined to think she may have been slightly autistic.

The interview is short, but we have a little time to chat afterwards. About Charlotte, of course. As is often the case, opinions are divided. In the new biography, Charlotte is portrayed as a disappointed, even somewhat bitter woman, and no longer as a feminist. I do not recognize my Charlotte in this defeated character. My Charlotte got back up to fight whenever she was kicked to the ground. She lost her older sisters and her mother as a young child, but she scribbled wonderful stories in tiny booklets; she experienced heartache at the hands of Constantin Heger, but wrote Jane Eyre; she lost her sister Emily, her brother Branwell and her sister Anne, but she straightened her back and wrote Shirley. In the lobby of my hotel, I read from my novel to a group of Brontë fans. The train, the train. How Madame Heger traveled to Ostend with Charlotte to ensure her pupil took the packet boat to England. Indeed, she could no longer tolerate that English young lady jeopardizing her marriage.

That night I, too, take the boat. I am on the deck and I am saying goodbye. The moment that every writer longs for, but fears at the same time, has arrived. Goodbye to the years that I have dedicated to this story: to Emily’s piano playing, to Charlotte’s letters, to the girls’ voices in the corridors of the Pensionnat Heger, and to the old Brussels. A world that was mine for such a long time, now swallowed by the waves.

Guest Post: The Maverick Mountaineer by Robert Wainwright

81nGCD8WDlL

When a 13-year-old boy chased a mob of wallaby up Mt Canobolas on the outskirts of the inland New South Wales town of Orange one spring morning in 1901 he could not have imagined that his climb would be the precursor to one of the great pioneering adventures of modern times – and lead him to the roof of the world.

That day, George Finch, a rangy and steely-eyed Australian youth, stood in wonderment at the land stretched before him and decided then and there that he wanted to see the world from atop its highest vantage point. Along the way he would challenge the hostile demands of the British establishment which would not take kindly to a vocal and maverick colonial youth who wore his hair long, spoke German and climbed alpine peaks with modern equipment and without the traditional professional guides.

But this intriguing polymath and anti-hero was inspired by more than just the physical world. Intrigued by the wooden eighteenth century instrument designed to demonstrate Newton’s law of motion in his father’s library, George would also become a scientist of pioneering the use of bottled oxygen at altitude, and designing a jacket made of balloon fabric and eiderdown stuffing that would be the forerunner of today’s ubiquitous puffer jacket.

He would twice be decorated a war hero, once as a soldier in the Great War and then as a civilian helping London resist the Blitz of 1941, he helped unravel the mysteries of metals that would improve the efficacy of the combustion engine, build a camera to inspect microscopic electrons and be involved in the synthesis of ammonia from air that would allow manufacture of fertilizer in commercial quantities.

So who was this man, and why has his extraordinary life gone largely unrecognised?

George Ingle Finch was born in 1888, in a stone homestead on the sheep and cattle station established by his grandfather 170 miles inland from Sydney. A self-made man from an English village near Cambridge, Charles Wray, George sailed to the colonies as a soldier but quickly worked hard to become a prominent landowner, farmer and politician. However it was George’s father Charles Edward, who deeply inspired his young son, encouraging early independence and freedom to explore the untamed wilds of his inland home while stirring the young man’s interest in the mysteries of science.

The combination was irresistible when the family sailed to Europe in 1902 for what was supposed to be a yearlong tour but instead became their new home, led by George’s bohemian mother Laura. As much as Charles Finch was a straight-laced man of 60, his much younger wife longed to shed the boredom of an Australian bush life and insisted on settling in Paris. Even when Charles returned home to New South Wales, Laura stayed with her three children – George the eldest, brother Max, and sister Dorothy. The boys would never see their father again.

From their first climbing adventure – scaling Notre Dame Cathedral by moonlight – George and Max would challenge authority and convention, their enthusiasm for alpine peaks slowed only by their mother who insisted on height limits and teachers who instilled the need for honing skills with icepick and rope, patience and careful planning on the pair. It suited George’s logical brain and would be one of the few times in his life that he accepted the advice of others over his own intuition.

Having struggled through his early school years and rejected medical studies at the Sorbonne, he found an academic home at the Zurich Institute of Technology where, after managing to become fluent in Swiss-German within six months, he studied physical sciences, not only passing but winning the university’s gold medal. Albert Einstein was among his tutors.

Weekends and summer holidays were largely spent with younger brother, Max exploring the Alps, travelling by train to villages in Switzerland, Italy and France and then hiking to ramshackle mountain huts from where they would launch audacious assaults on peaks such as the Eiger, Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and dozens of others, often leaving in the early hours of the morning to avoid the inevitable avalanches cause by the morning sun. Their great joy was sitting atop a peak, boiling a brew of tea by melting snow on a small stove and sharing tins of peaches drenched in condensed milk.

The Finch boys however were different as climbers, passionate and at home with nature and uninterested in the established practice of paying local guides to lead them up the mountain’s easiest lines of ascent. Instead, they chose the tougher routes, challenging themselves often on the steeper north faces of the giants that had rarely – or in some cases – never been conquered.

Their exuberant exploits brought them head to head with the tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking gentlemen of London’s stitched up Alpine Club of Savile Rowe. These aging, often arrogant men were founding members of the ‘golden age’ of mountaineering when Europe’s Alpine peaks were climbed one after another, usually led by paid local guides.

George Finch’s audacious climbs, leading strong if inexperienced climbers up dangerous ascents using new technology including silk ropes, pitons and better designed ice axes, incurred the wrath of the Alpine Club, often in print back in London. George, already recognised as the leading climber of his generation, would fire back with gusto, equally publicly. In one particularly barbed salvo published in 1913 in the English sports magazine, The Field, George didn’t hold back:

A man who climbs consistently with guides may be a great mountaineer but he need be nothing more than a good walker to ‘climb’ any peak in the Alps. The man who has to depend on his own skill, strength and nerve must have the craft at his finger-ends. The guided mountaineer need only follow patiently in the footsteps of a guide. He may and often does climb for years without the power to lead up easy rocks, to cut steps in ice, or find a route up an easy snow route. In the early days mountaineering, because of its expense, was almost exclusively the luxury of men who had made a position in life. It was controlled by men to whom years had brought prudence, men who looked with suspicion on enterprise beyond traditional limits.

It is no longer the monopoly of rich Englishmen. The younger men are taking up the sport and gradually coming to the front. The development of guideless climbing has brought the Alps within reach of young men with limited means. For good or evil, guideless parties composed of young Englishmen are becoming more and more common. The attitude of the older climbers is changing. The spirit that saw the Alps a preserve for moneyed and middle-aged Englishmen is dead.

That article would come to define a large part of his life battling both mountains and men.

London certainly beckoned in 1913, not least because George could sense that war with Germany was now not just a possibility but a likelihood. He had witnessed the growing instability inside the country where he had been working as a research assistant and then factory foreman, helping to turn the theory of producing ammonia from oxygen into the reality of the commercial production of fertilizer. The project he worked on would earn two men, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, Nobel Prizes, and come to be regarded as one of the most important industrial breakthroughs of the twentieth century.

George was nearing his 25th birthday when he arrived in the British capital, a young man already known for his mountaineering exploits but perfectly happy to enter the anonymous world of teaching at London’s Imperial College. His fears came to fruition a year later when the Great War erupted. George volunteered soon after but he would not see action until 1916 when he was sent not to France, as expected, but the Balkans front at Salonika.

Here, amid the heat and disease of the eastern stalemate, he would make a name for himself, firstly for coordinating the repair of thousands of missiles that had been made useless by the heat melting the seals. George and a small team were forced to take apart and then reseal the arsenal, piece-by-piece, using a temporary wax seal devised by a young Australian scientist.

But it was an ingenious device to thwart an ace German pilot that brought George fame. In September 1917, 21-year-old Rudolf Von Eschwegge, the Red Baron of the Balkans, as he was known, was creating havoc on the frontline. He was more skillful and better equipped than the British pilots he faced, and even shot down observation balloons. George rigged the basket of one balloon with 500lb of booby-trapped explosives, triggering it from the ground with a hand held detonator as ‘The Eagle’ attacked the balloon. George was awarded a military MBE, presented by King George V, after the war had ended.

But as he reveled in the limelight, George Finch’s personal life was unraveling. A few months after signing up he had met and swiftly married Betty Fisher, an attractive, vampish young woman from London. But within weeks of leaving for the front, Betty embarked on an adulterous affair with a Poona Horse officer named Wentworth ‘Jock’ Campbell.

When George was called back to London in early 1917 he found Betty nursing a baby boy. Peter Finch would grow up to be a famous Hollywood actor but died in 1977 still unsure of which man was his father, a frustration echoed in final role as Howard Beal in the movie Network, in which he played the angry newsroom executive who was ‘as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’. The performance would earn him the first posthumous Academy Award for best actor.

In his fury at his wife’s infidelity, George found and thrashed Campbell, and made Betty promise to cease the affair. She agreed but then renewed the relationship. In the resulting divorce, George took Peter, then 2-years-old, and sent him to his own mother, Laura, to be raised. Betty, pregnant again, would marry Jock although it was not to last. She would deliver another son, named Michael, who would spend his life also wondering about his father.

In the meantime George had met and fallen in love with a nurse who had helped him back to health from a bout of wartime malaria. But the infatuation with Gladys May would fade after the war ended and mountaineering resumed. He returned from a climbing trip in 1919 to end the relationship only to find that Gladys was pregnant. In a naive effort to save her from the shame of a child out of wedlock, he went ahead with the marriage, only to leave her a few weeks later. This time he would not take the baby – another son named Bryan – but promised financial support.

Perhaps it was the war that shook his usual emotional sure-footedness but George then reached the darkest time of his life. Two failed marriages and two sons – he was unlikely to have even known about Michael – were taking their toll on his spirit until he met a vivacious and intelligent young Scots woman Agnes Johnston. George would fall in love with the woman he called Bubbles and this time the marriage would last, eventually producing three daughters, two of whom are still alive.

There would be another huge event that would change his life: the chance to climb Mount Everest. In 1919, the Tibetan Government decided to lift the longtime ban on foreigners entering the only known route to the highest point on earth, Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the World.

No European had been within 100 kilometres of the mountain, let alone attempted to climb it. Conquering Everest wasn’t just about adventurous spirit of man but saving the face of the British Empire which had been beaten to both poles: to the south by Norwegian Roald Amunsden and the north by America Robert Edwin Peary. The Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society joined forces to create the Everest Committee and jointly chose a team, first to make a reconnaissance expedition in 1921 and the following year to attempt an ascent.

The two most obvious candidates as lead climbers were George Mallory and George Finch, two very different men in thought and behavior but the perfect foil for one another – one a rock climber of balletic poise and the other a methodical man of ice and snow who scaled the Alps like a spider. But while Mallory was a Cambridge man and a darling of the British establishment, George Finch was the opposite; an antipodean upstart, educated on the Continent and who loved nothing more than challenging convention.

The man who most hated George was a Cambridge mathematician named Arthur Hinks, a brilliant but bitter man who served as secretary to the RGS and the Everest Committee. Hinks hated anything modern including the telephone, and George, to him, embodied modernity.

It was only because of the support of Percy Farrar, the charismatic president of the Alpine Club, that George was ultimately chosen to go on the reconnaissance mission. His selection would not last long however: he ‘failed’ a cursory medical examination despite contrary evidence from tests at Oxford University that he was actually the fittest man on the expedition. While a 13-man team of climbers and scientists and soldiers left on the 4-month journey, George stayed in London, choosing to set aside his disappointment and concentrate on exploring the concept of using oxygen at altitude to counter the thin air at the top of Everest.

The reconnaissance mission would be a partial success. The mountain was reached and climbed to a point from where a camp could be established to launch an ascent allowing the area to be mapped for the first time. The team also returned with tales of a barren land, a behemoth of granite swept by blizzards and a collection of plant specimens. Mallory told a crowd of thousands who packed out a London theatre that he was prepared to try but had doubts that Everest could be climbed.

George would ultimately be included in the expedition in 1922, seconded not as the brilliant climber he was but as the man in charge of the oxygen apparatus he had not only designed himself but had built from experiments conducted in a steel tank at Oxford.

The new equipment, however, sparked a bitter debate over the use of oxygen in the climb and whether it would constitute an artificial boost and thereby be seen as a kind of ‘cheating’. George argued that it was akin to improvements in boots, clothes, hats, tents, tools and nutrition, but the purists of the Alpine Club described it as a heresy and only grudgingly approved its inclusion.

By the time the team had arrived at the foot of Everest in May, the team leaders had decided against the use of oxygen – and George. Charles Bruce was the portly, ageing expedition leader and Colonel Edward Strutt its snobbish second in command. Strutt despised George, even condemning him for wearing his specially-made green jacket of balloon fabric stuffed with eiderdown – warmer than anything known at the time – while the others struggled in Norfolk tweed suits and layers of cotton, wool and silk.

As the approaching monsoon threatened to shut down the expedition, Strutt decided to make an attempt with four climbers but not allowing them oxygen. Mallory would lead with Howard Somervell, Edward Norton and Henry Morshead, leaving the only other recognised climber – George Finch – at base camp.

George had been laid low with dysentery but had expected 2-man teams and was set to climb with Somervell who was one of the few who supported the use of oxygen. When George realized what had happened he chose two soldiers – a British officer named Geoffrey Bruce and a Gurkha named Tejbir to climb with him, despite the fact that neither had climbed a mountain before.

By the time the Mallory and the others returned, frostbitten and dazed after two days on the mountain and being forced back at just under 27,000 feet, George and his novice team-mates had prepared and tested the oxygen equipment, substituting faulty breathing tubes with a makeshift mouthpiece made from toy football bladders he had bought from a market in India.

The three men set off in good spirits, the oxygen clearly making a physical and mental difference. All seemed possible as they moved steadily upwards, but within hours the weather had closed in, forcing them to seek shelter on the north-west ridge. Here, the men would spend almost 48-hours huddled in a tiny tent, anchored precariously to the side of the mountain as the winds threatened to lift their shelter and cast them into oblivion. On the second morning they emerged, determined to push for the top.

Tejbir lasted only a few-hundred-metres before collapsing, exhausted. He returned to the tent while George and Bruce continued upward, past the mark of Mallory and the others before altering their line and climbing across the face to shield themselves from the fierce winds. Once beneath the summit, George began climbing upwards once more until he heard a shout. Bruce had broken a glass valve, could get no air and was about to faint and fall to his death. George reached down and grabbed his companion by the shoulder hauling him back to safety on a tiny ledge. They were at 27,300 feet and could see the cairn of small rocks that crown the summit.

George shared his oxygen with Bruce while using a toolkit and spare parts to fit a replacement valve. The oxygen system was working again but Bruce could go no further. George thought momentarily about going on alone but quickly abandoned the attempt. Bruce would die without him. ‘Turn back,’ he called above the rising wind. Tears filled Bruce’s eyes in response.

Although some would call it a heroic failure, the public responded to George Finch and George Mallory as returning heroes, filling town halls across Britain for months as they recounted their adventure. George Finch in particular held the halls spellbound as he used glass lantern slides taken from his photographs to illustrate the alien landscape and exotic cultures of a land beyond their imagination.

Although his success filled the coffers of the Everest Committee, Arthur Hinks could only seethe at the admiration of George, using his association with The Times newspaper to continue belittling his achievements. Against the advice of promoters, Hinks banned George from spruiking his achievements and refused to allow lectures in Europe, insisting wrongly it would impact negatively on the marketing of the expedition movie made by John Noel.

The row reached its peak in the summer of 1923 as the committee finalised the expedition members for the next assault on Everest. George challenged the right of Hinks to prevent him lecturing before attempting to find a compromise but Hinks would not relent and threatened his expulsion from the 1924 expedition. In his frustration, George accepted his fate calmly: ‘I understand indirectly that for reasons doubtless sufficient to the committee I am not to be asked to join the next expedition, notwithstanding the relative success gained by my own party and my subsequent very willing services in connection with the improvements in the new oxygen apparatus.’

Instead of using his scientific genius to build a better oxygen system and manage it on the mountain, the committee chose a 21-year-old, third year chemistry student, named Sandy Irvine who would not only oversee the oxygen but partner Mallory when they made their attempt on June 8 1924 from which they would not return.

We will never really know but there are many historians and writers – including the novelist Jeffrey Archer whose 2009 novel Paths of Glory was based on the life of Mallory – who believe mountaineering history might have been very different if it had been the two Georges – Mallory and Finch – on Everest that day.

Did the belligerent interference of an arrogant administrator with no climbing experience cost the lives of two men and the chance of conquering the world’s highest peak almost three decades before Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay would do so?

Hillary was quick to credit George Finch when he triumphed on May 29 1953 using a revamped version of George’s oxygen equipment. Now aged 70 and living in India where India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had personally chosen him to manage the country’s first scientific research facility, George and his third wife Agnes Johnston had reared three daughters in the years since his Everest disappointment.

He had made his last ascent in 1933 after a climbing holiday turned to tragedy, watching three friends ignore his advice and try to traverse a dangerous section of a mountainside before falling to their deaths. Although he was clearly blameless, the experience convinced him, at the age of just 51, to retreat to his other passion – science and teaching.

By then he had also established himself as one of Britain’s most senior scientists, a professor at London’s Imperial College, member of the Royal Society and the recipient of its highest honour, the Hughes Medal, which he was awarded at the height of World War II. George’s work had helped in the scientific understanding of the behavior of fire and incendiary bombs and helped London’s defence strategies during the blitz by improving fire fighting techniques. He was also instrumental in the design of a range of bombs, including the famous J-Bomb, that created havoc across German cities during the retaliations of 1944 and 1945.

There would be some reckoning in his later years when, in 1959, he was elected president of the Alpine Club. But even with this official vindication, it is difficult not to wonder what might have been, had George Finch and George Mallory climbed together in 1924.

The Maverick Mountaineer was published by Allen & Unwin. Click here for more details.

Robert Wainwright is a London-based freelance journalist and author with more than 30 years experience in national daily newspapers. He has won a number of journalism awards over the years, the most notable being as a three-time finalist with Australia’s most prestigious journalism prize, the Walkley Awards, in 2004, 2009 and 2010. His career as an author grew from his journalism and he has written and had published nine non-fiction titles, ranging from crime and mystery to biographies and social history. Two of the books have been finalists in prominent Australian literary awards. One has been turned into a television movie, another was the basis for a musical and two others are currently under production as feature films.

This piece was originally published in The Mitford Society Vol.III

The Mitford Society’s Festive Reads, Part Two

The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan

91xcckdORkL

Reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Kate Riordan’s novel jumps between 1933 and 1898, as she tells the tale of two women connected by fate. Alice, an unwed mother, arrives at Fiercombe Manor under false pretences to wait out the birth of her baby. The house has an air of mystery, and during her respite she discovers the tragic circumstances of its former inhabitant, Lady Stanton. Unlocking the secrets of the past, Alice realises their lives have become intertwined. An atmospheric read from start to finish.

 

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

24614876

Set in New York in 1895, this is a depiction of the city from an outsider’s perspective. Sylvan Threadgill finds a newborn baby while cleaning out the tenement privies. Odile and Belle Church were part of a sideshow act in a circus. Alphie wakes up in an asylum; the last thing she remembers is blood on the floor and her mother-in-law screaming. Belle was committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors, Alphie knows this young woman harbours a dark secret. These complex characters strive for acceptance in the city’s underworld. Expertly written, this jarring depiction of the misfit’s plight will stay with you long after the show is over.

 

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

51rHFUdejaL

Anita Diamant’s characters are presented with such depth and realism that it’s hard to think of them as fictional. Written as a faux memoir, her latest offering tells the story of Addie Baum, a young Jewish girl born at the turn of the 20th century in Boston in the US, to immigrant parents who have escaped poverty and violence in Russia. Coming of age during the First World War and Prohibition, Addie adapts to fit in with the changing world. Following the pattern of the American dream, she works her way up from typist to successful columnist – in spite of adversity and the menfolk who try to drag her down. One for fans of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Diamant’s narrative is as confident as its plucky heroine.

 

The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements

24485876

Being a massive fan of Margaret Lockwood and her iconic film, The Wicked Lady (1945), this book was a treat to read. It is based on the real life heiress, Lady Katherine Ferrars, whose privileged world is crumbling under Cromwell’s army. Married off for the sake of money and breeding, she discovers an exciting life with the roguish Ralph Chaplin, and the pair become highway robbers in a bid to find excitement and escape poverty. She knows if she is caught there is only one way it can end: death. But that excites her all the more. The Silvered Heart is Katherine Clements’s second novel – her debut, The Crimson Ribbon, was published to much acclaim. A wizard of a storyteller and master of the genre, Clement’s follow-up novel does not disappoint. In fact, I loved it!

 

Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

Single Carefree Mellow tpbk.indd

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

 

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester

91vshHg0d3L

Frankie George, a tomboy upstart, is working as a trainee journalist in a world dominated by men. However, where there is trouble, Ebony is never far away. But now she’s the one in trouble and Frankie has landed a gem of a story when Ebony disappears in the middle of a performance. Pulled into a world of tricks, society columnists, corset enthusiasts, suffragettes and circus freaks, Frankie follows the trail of a murderous villain from Fleet Street to the headquarters of the suffragettes. How did Ebony vanish, who was she afraid of, and what goes on behind the doors of the mysterious Hourglass Factory? Lucy Ribchester’s debut novel The Hourglass Factory is a glorious tale encapsulating the London of 1912 set amidst suffragettes and circuses.

 

The Widow’s Confession by Sophia Tobin

23505806

Edmund Steele has fled a failed love affair and arrives at the Parsonage to stay with Theo Hallam. Delphine Beck and her cousin, Julia, have left their London home to save money. The two ladies come originally from New York and Delphine has been exiled by her wealthy family, following a scandal. Miss Warings is an older lady, visiting with her niece, the beautiful Alba. Mr Ralph Benedict is an artist, who has housed his family in a nearby town so he has freedom to work. Mrs Quillian is Theo’s aunt; who establishes herself at the Albion Hotel and then attempts to make the various visitors into a little group, with whom she can arrange pleasant trips. What could possibly go wrong? A girls body is found on the beach with a mysterious message etched in the sand beneath her, and, although it seems suspicious, the local doctor is quick to dismiss her death as an accident. But more bodies are found – young girls seem to wander into the sea. Spooked by this strange incident, the locals turn against the visitors, whom they accuse of bringing with them bad luck. Can this group of outsiders unite to help solve the murders? The atmospheric blend of a seaside resort out of season and the suspicion of murder lingering over the community conspires to give even the most skeptical of readers a chill down their spine.

The Mitford Society’s Festive Reads, Part One

A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

22929586

Lucia Berlin’s posthumous collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson with a foreword by Lydia Davis, compromises over forty of her best stories. Berlin’s writing was autobiographical, ranging from a childhood in Alaska and El Paso, Texas, to her teenage years in Chile, and her adult life in Mexico, New Mexico, New York City, California and Colorado. Her writing is set in those sprawling landscapes: darkened alleyways strewn with drunks and druggies; a debutante amongst the communists in Chile; backstreet clinics; downtrodden apartments; the drudgery of commuting to work and the weekly visits to mundane laundromats. She writes about her abusive childhood at the hands of her alcoholic mother and grandfather, addiction, relationships, poverty, unemployment, cultural and class differences – Berlin herself could walk through those walls, like a phantom in a way, and the tapestry of her own life was made up of many backgrounds, many subplots. Her work is not a misery memoir, but an insight into human nature.

 

First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill by Sonia Purnell

25536928

Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill brings to life the complex women whose identity has been overshadowed by her husband, Winston Churchill. Commenting that she would have pursued a career in politics had she been ‘born with trousers and not a petticoat’, it was her calming influence, ability to read people and determination that influenced Winston and encouraged him during the murkier times of his political career. Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill is a complex character study about a fascinating woman as equally interesting as her famous husband. Through her meticulous research and sympathetic prose, she brings the allusive woman to life as a dynamic figure at the forefront of twentieth-century politics.

 

On The Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life edited by Georgia de Chamberet

23620455

Lesley Blanch died aged 103 having gone from being a household name to a mysterious and neglected living legend. She was writing her memoirs before her death, beginning with her unconventional Edwardian childhood. Her goddaughter, Georgia de Chamberet, has now compiled that piece and many others – including pieces that were never published, some published only in French, various letters and Vogue articles to create On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life which captures the essence of a rich and rewarding life which spanned the 20th century.

 

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester

25806102

Alison Jean Lester has created a character who is not only sure of herself; she is sophisticated, clever, and has no qualms about her position in life. Lillian is a mistress. What I loved about this book is that Lillian never plays the victim or bemoans her fate – unlike so many books where the aging mistress is on the brink of suicide and is filled with regret that she has been passed over for the wife. The narrative tells us everything we need to know about Lillian’s view of life, and, working backwards, we are informed of how she deals with the subject in question. This is a lovely tome to dip in and out of, and you don’t have to retrace your steps even if you finish mid-chapter. Imagine!

 

Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modelling Years by Astrid Franse and Michelle Morgan

51kyH7Mx6bL

This beautiful coffee table book tells the story of Marilyn Monroe’s modelling career at Hollywood’s famous Blue Book agency. Featuring unpublished photographs and drawing on newly discovered letters and documents it explores the rise of an ambitious young woman under the guidance of Emmeline Snively, head of the agency, who kept a record of her client during their professional relationship and beyond. This archive was purchased by Astrid Franse and along with Michelle Morgan’s narrative they have produced a unique book that is a tribute not only to Monroe, but to Miss Snively too. Lovingly executed with stunning photographs it is a must-have for fans!

 

Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street by Anne de Courcy

22911001

Anne de Courcy’s latest study is a shrewd biography about Margot Asquith, the wife of Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith. A member of the dazzling Tennant family, Margot was a society star who had the world at her feet. With her dark looks and acid tongue, she might have been the predecessor to Nancy Mitford – she famously told Jean Harlow, the scatterbrain movie star, that the ‘t’ in Margot was silent, as was the ‘t’ in Harlow. Clementine Churchill, as a young woman, was often on the receiving end of Margot’s insults, and she once (in)famously referred to Clemmie as ‘having the soul of a servant’. Filled with famous characters and witty prose, this biography moves at a cracking pace.

 

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

24325319

The unlikely friendship between Edith Olivier and Rex Whistler is the subject of Anna Thomasson’s hefty but engaging biography. Alone for the first time at the age of 51, Edith, a spinster whose life was dominated by her late clergyman father, seemed to have come to a dead-end. However, for Rex, then a 19-year-old art student, his life was just beginning. In the early 1920s they embarked on an alliance that would transform their lives. Edith was a bluestocking, revered for her intellect long before it was en vogue for women to be celebrated for their brains. Surrounded by clever people all her life, she discovered a new lease of life with Whistler, and her world opened up. She became a writer, and her home, Daye House, was a creative hub for the Bright Young Things. She counted Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman, Siegfried Sassoon and the Sitwells among her admirers. Thoroughly researched, with elegant prose and a glittering cast of characters, Thomasson’s account merges Edith Olivier’s Victorian sensibilities with the raucous Jazz Age, giving the reader the best of both worlds.

 

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

18759942

From the author of the bestselling The Paris Wife, Paul McLain’s latest novel is written as historical fiction and set in colonial Kenya. Circling the Sun is a thrilling account of the life of the British-born aviator Beryl Markham, who was abandoned by her mother and raised by her father on a farm. An unconventional woman, she lived by her own rules and mingled with the Happy Valley set. With the notorious Idina Sackville making a cameo appearance – in a marble bathtub, no less – this will appeal to admirers of naughty aristos.

 

The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

25706787

Written to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, this book, told as historical fiction, chronicles the girlhood of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the much-loved children’s classic. It centres around the family’s governess, Mary Prickett, who dislikes her charges, especially the precocious Alice. Mary’s world is turned upside down when she meets mathematician Charles Dodgson, and although she falls in love with him, his interest lies in the three Liddell girls. Obsessed with his ‘child friends’, and with Alice in particular, Dodgson’s favourite hobby is to photograph the children, often against the wishes of their mother. A rivalry develops between Alice and Mary for his affection. On an outing, he tells the children a tale, which Alice asks him to write down. The rest, as they say, is (literary) history. But the friendship ends abruptly when Dodgson’s letters to Alice are discovered, exposing his romantic love for the child, whom he hopes to marry one day. As Alice Liddell’s great-granddaughter, Vanessa Tait’s insider information and access to letters and diaries give the familiar back-story a new slant. Her captivating book conjures up the topsy-turvy world of Alice – the factual and the fictional girl. It is a story that is both enchanting and disturbing.

 

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

81zQSo9cZ8L

Set in 1950s England, a chance meeting between Penelope and Charlotte, two rock ’n’ roll-loving teenagers, rakes up the past and brings the present-day struggles of the grown-ups into focus. Penelope and her widowed mother, Talitha, live at Milton Magna, a crumbling mansion, which they neither like nor can afford. And Charlotte’s aunt, Clare, is writing her memoirs and reveals a secret link to Penelope’s family and the influence she had on Talitha. With a foreword by comedienne Miranda Hart, this 10th anniversary edition of Rice’s modern classic is a treat for fans of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Jane Howard. Stylishly written with a touch of whimsical charm.

 

The Mitford Society: Vol. III

51Be3wrADwL

The Mitford Society is pleased to present its third annual with contributions from Meems Ellenberg; Lyndsy Spence; Kathy Hillwig; Jeffrey Manley; Tessa Arlen; Kerin Freeman; Louisa Treger; Kim Place-Gateau; Virginie Pronovost; Leia Clancy; Robert Wainwright; Terence Towles Canote; Anna Thomasson; Sonia Purnell; Barbara Leaming. A must-have for any Mitford fan!

The Grit in the Pearl

220px-margaret_duchess_of_argyll_crop

She was always a headstrong woman, always used to getting her own way. This character trait, or flaw (depending if one were a friend or a foe), was apparent in girlhood. Born Ethel Margaret Whigman in 1912 in Newton Mearns near Glasgow, she dropped her parents’ choice of Ethel and insisted on being known as Margaret. Margaret was the only child of Helen and George Whigham. Her father, a shrewd businessman from Prestwick was a self-made millionaire and chairman of the Celanese Corporation; and her mother – perhaps knowing where to hit Margaret where it would hurt – threatened her with a sibling if she misbehaved. A beautiful child with a nervous stutter, she was petted and spoiled and protected, but it was a misplaced love, and early on the die was cast.

Perhaps the earliest and most vivid example of Margaret’s character lies in an anecdote from her adolescence. She had been a pupil at a progressive Hewitt school in New York City (where she lived until the age of 14) run by an Englishwoman, and although she realised that she needed little formal education, after all daddy’s millions would cushion the pinpricks of every day life, she took an interest in history. Obediently completing her homework – a history project on the Medieval period – she cut illustrations from an old and valuable library book and pasted them into her jotter. The project was submitted and hell broke loose. But Margaret did not understand what the fuss was about: she had simple done what was asked of her. This blind spot remained with her, always.

When Margaret was brought to England the storm clouds were already forming. In 1928, at the age of 15, she was seduced by the future actor David Niven during a holiday in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. To the fury of her father and the shame of her mother, Margaret became pregnant and was whisked off to a London clinic for a secret termination. She continued to adore David Niven until the day he died and was among the VIP guests at his memorial service in London.

Not a hint of scandal broke, and Margaret was sent to finishing school in Paris. In many ways, she was already finished, and she returned to London to a frivolous existence of parties and balls. In 1930 she was presented at Court and was named Debutante of the Year. Her striking face was photographed for society magazines and she peered out of Tatler, The Lady and The Sketch, lantern-jawed, her grey-blue eyes fixed in a cold stare, and her dark brown hair neatly waved around her face. She looked back with affection on those years, calling them ‘heaven’ with ‘three parties every night and not a care in the world’. As the economic depression of the early 1930s unravelled around her, Margaret developed something of a social conscience. The Daily Express reported:

As an example to the girlhood of Britain, the lovely Margaret Whigham has decided, in the interests of economy, to have her hair re-set only once a fortnight in future, and to stop wearing stockings in the evening. On the other hand, to stimulate trade, she has just bought four new evening dresses.

The socialist publication, the Daily Worker, viewed it as far from charitable and they wrote: ‘This should be a lesson to the wives of the unemployed, whose extravagant habits include setting their hair in curl-papers every day and buying no dresses at all.’

Margaret meant well, but her sentiments were poorly executed. This is best displayed in her memoirs, when she recalled the war-time necessity of the evacuation of her children to Lord and Lady Aberconway in North Wales. She divulged that ‘Christabel Aberconway had decided to take the children of her friends as paying guests at 10 pounds a head in preference to having the Liverpool evacuees forced upon her’.

However, before the war came and spoiled Margaret’s fun (or did it?) she was a celebrated girl about town. She was briefly engaged to Lord Beaverbrook’s son, Max Aitken, and then to Charles Guy Fulke Greville, the 7thEarl of Warwick. Feeling that she was not sufficiently in love, she ditched her suitors in favour of Charles Sweeney. In February 1933, after converting to the Roman Catholic faith, she married Sweeney, a dashing American golfer and businessman. It was heralded as the society wedding of the year, with the press and public surrounding Brompton Oratory for a glance of the much-publicised Norman Hartnell wedding dress with its 28-by-9-feet train, causing the traffic in Kensington to come to a standstill. It was said by Margaret that Princess Elizabeth copied the design for her wedding to Prince Philip in November 1947.

Margaret had three children with Sweeney: a daughter, who was stillborn at 8-months in 1933; another daughter Frances born in 1937 (she later married Charles Manners, 10thDuke of Rutland); and a son, Brian, born in 1940. Margaret also had 8 miscarriages during the course of their marriage. While she recuperated, Sweeney would visit her after work before dressing and going out for the evening, leaving her at home feeling miserable and increasingly insecure. Although distressed by her husband’s infidelities, something he did not hide from her, she adored him and they would remain friends long after their divorce.

In 1934, it seemed Margaret had the world at her feet. P.G. Wodehouse referenced her in his Anglicised version of Cole Porter’s song ‘You’re the Top’ from the musical Anything Goes. He replaced Porter’s original lyric ‘You’re an O’Neill drama, You’re Whistler’s mama’ with ‘You’re Mussolini, You’re Mrs Sweeney’. She continued to live a gilded life until, in 1943, she suffered a near fatal fall down a lift shaft while visiting her chiropodist on Bond Street. She later recalled:

I fell 40-feet to the bottom of the lift shaft. The only thing that saved me was the lift cable, which broke my fall. I must have clutched at it, for it was later found that all my finger nails were torn off. I apparently fell on to my knees and cracked the back of my head against the wall.

After her recovery, Margaret’s friends noted that not only had she lost all sense of taste and smell due to nerve damage, she also had become sexually voracious. ‘Go to bed early and often,’ she was apt to say.

Margaret and Sweeney divorced in 1947. She had romances with several men including a brief engagement to a Texan-born banker, Joseph Thomas, of Lehman Brothers, which ended after he fell in love with another woman. There was also Theodore ‘Ted’ Rousseau, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was, she recalled, ‘highly intelligent, witty and self-confident to the point of arrogance’. That relationship ended because Margaret feared Ted was not stepfather material.

In 1950, she met Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, who was married to his second wife Louise, whose nickname was ‘Oui Oui’, but Margaret referred to her as ‘wee-wee’. Margaret and the duke, known as ‘Big Ian’, met on the luxurious Golden Arrow boat-train which operated Channel crossing between London and Paris. As they began to converse, Ian confessed that he had seen Margaret descending the staircase at the Café de Paris and ungallantly turned to his wife and said he had just seen ‘the girl he would marry someday’. They were to meet again, by chance, at Claridges upon which Margaret told Ian she was ‘a man short’ for a luncheon party she was giving the following day. He stepped in to make up the numbers.

The two soon began to confide in one another, and Ian disclosed to Margaret his marital woes, increasing debts and his inability to restore the Argyll family seat, Inveraray Castle. She later wrote:

Ian was obviously lonely, and depressed by the burden of debt and mismanagement that he had inherited from his elderly cousin, the 10th Duke. I was also alone, and felt drawn towards this troubled man who had so much charm. According to my diary, on March 25 1950, we spent the entire day together, having lunch in the country at an old mill house, dining at Maxim’s that evening, and going on afterwards to the Lido.

Ten days later Ian proposed to Margaret on the condition that they would marry when he was free from Louise. She readily accepted and they were married on 23 March 1951. Margaret’s friends and ex-husband warned her against marrying Ian, who had a reputation for being a fortune hunter, a heavy drinker, a gambler, and for beating his former wives. His first wife, Janet Aitken, the daughter of Lord Beaverbrook, was 17 when she married him and during their honeymoon his true character emerged when he shook her violently and told her to ‘stop snivelling’. During their ill-fated honeymoon he also took Janet to a Parisian bordello as she ‘had a lot to learn’. Later, on a cruise to Jamaica, Janet discovered he had stolen her jewels to pay his gambling debts. She realised he had married her for her money.

Margaret’s ex-husband, Charles Sweeney, also attempted to warn her of the folly she was committing, when he wrote:

I’ll never forget you or love anyone else. I know that now and I also know that nothing I can say or do will change your mind. Therefore . . I do wish you luck and I hope you’ll be happy. I only hope you’re not deluding yourself that Campbell is inspired by any great love, because he’s not. He couldn’t be and you’ll be making your crowning mistake if you think anything else. He married his first two wives for money and you’re no exception.

Furthermore, a mutual friend of both Margaret and Ian warned her that Ian had said: ‘Now I’ll get all my bills paid.’ When Margaret later took offence at him for saying that he ‘only married rich women’, it was not because of the content of his statement, but because he had said it in front of the servants.

Knowing that his beloved Margaret desperately wanted to become the Duchess of Argyll, George Whigham insisted that Ian sign a Deed of Gift which listed certain valuable items as security for the money he had laid out. Margaret had asked her father to fund a new roof for Inveraray Castle because Ian threatened to have it removed to avoid paying the rates bill. The document was regarded as superfluous, but Ian signed it anyway. Little did Margaret or her father know that Ian harboured a spiteful surprise which would be exposed when their marriage was dragged through the divorce court a decade later.

Ian himself had not been near the castle in 20 years, and to meet the death duties of the previous duke, the trustees of his estate sold the Island of Tiree. Margaret financed Ian’s latest scheme when he decided to exhume the wreck of the Spanish ship the Duque de Florencia in Tobermory Bay on the Island of Mull, which he claimed would net him £30-million. Margaret not only paid for the investigation of the wreck, but also the bill the Royal Navy sent him for its assistance in the project. Later she would also complain that she had had to pay for Ian’s children’s school fees. Yet, in spite of Margaret and her father’s generosity, Ian demanded she give up her London flat. Already discord had set in.

During their first year of marriage, Margaret sensed the flaws in her husband’s personality. He had attempted to humiliate her at his daughter Lady Jeanne’s coming out ball by dancing with is first wife, Janet, and ignoring Margaret. And, on holiday in Kingston, Jamaica, he had tried to beat her up and she was saved from assault when her friends intervened. He further displayed a sadistic and unpredictable streak when, on their way to a celebratory dinner at the French Embassy on Coronation Day in June 1953, he suddenly jumped out of the car and told her she could go herself. He was enraged when Margaret decided to do just that, and he went off to his London club, White’s.

Assuming her husband was content with an open marriage, Margaret began to invite her male friends to the castle, but one member on the guest list was a step too far for Ian. The guest was the German diplomat Sigismund von Braun, a noted anti-Nazi, and whose brother invented the V-2 rocket. But Ian, a former prisoner of war in a German camp for 5 years, was troubled by the intrusion. Margaret had, in many ways, played into Ian’s hands.

Having been divorced by his first two wives, Ian would be the one to do the divorcing this time. Although they had been living separately for years, Ian was determined to expose Margaret as an adulteress. For his plan to render successful he would need evidence, and a ruthless man in the grand scheme of things, he did not shirk from setting his wife up. He took advantage of Margaret being out of the country and entered her house on Upper Grosvenor Street where he stole diaries, letters and photographs. When he returned to locate a missing diary for 1956-59 he brought him with his daughter, Lady Jeanne. This time Margaret was at home, and as she turned out her bedroom light she saw two figures entering her bedroom. She later recalled:

I immediately began dialing 999, but Ian pinioned my arms to prevent this, while Jeanne snatched up my diary. After this they made a rapid exit. It was a horrible experience, and the next day I suffered from delayed shock.

Margaret sued Lady Jeanne for trespass, which was settled out of court. She would have sued Ian, too, except by law he had a right to enter her home as they were still married. Unhappy with the British legal system, Margaret fought against the stolen items being used in evidence and she took her case to the House of Lords before the issue was referred back to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, where the case was to be heard. In a bid to destroy Margaret, Ian attempted to have her certified insane by arranging for his doctor to draw up the necessary committal papers. However, he had to obtain a second signature and the latter doctor refused and warned Margaret what her husband was plotting.

The hearing for evidence began on 26 February 1963. The judge, Lord Wheatley, was said to have influenced his jury to revolt against Margaret when it came to their verdict. He was a teetotal, Jesuit-educated Catholic, and such was his background, he was shocked by Margaret’s behaviour. He was also a Campbell on his mother’s side.

The first witness admitted to the court was Ian, and the first legal objection arose early when reference was made to one of the diaries he had stolen from Upper Grosvenor Street, but Lord Wheatley permitted the evidence to be used. Ian was also given preferential treatment when, due to an alleged medical difficulty, he remained seated whilst giving evidence, whereas Margaret had to stand for 13 hours. Ian said the marriage had been happy up until 1954, after which date Margaret’s social life posed a threat to their domesticity, and she stayed out as late as 4am. This behaviour, he said, caused arguments between them. Speaking of the night he and his daughter had broken into Margaret’s house and used restraint on her, Ian explained he had noticed the diary under a telephone which Margaret had picked up, and having found it, he and Jeanne departed. The reason Jeanne accompanied him, he said, was to protect him from being accused by Margaret of ‘jumping into bed together’.

Damning evidence was produced, which would ultimately seal Margaret’s fate. Ian produced a collection of Polaroids which came to be known as ‘the headless man’. They showed Margaret, nude save for her signature three-strand pearl necklace, with a gentleman whose back was turned to the camera. She would not disclose who he was (she never did) and a list of over 80 possible names were drawn up. It was believed the man was either Douglas Fairbanks, Jnr. or Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys, Minister of Defence. Indeed, Margaret admitted that ‘the only Polaroid camera in the country at that time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence’. In recent times the headless man was revealed as William H. ‘Bill’ Lyons, then sales director of Pan American World Airways. The judge proclaimed Margaret to be ‘a highly sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual relations’ and had started to indulge in what he could only describe as ‘disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite’.

When the divorce case came to a conclusion in May 1963, Margaret was at the Ritz Hotel in Paris with her married lover. In her 1975 memoir, Forget Not, she wrote:

As soon as I reached my room I put through a call to my solicitor in Edinburgh. ‘It couldn’t be much worse,’ he told me. ‘I’ve never in my life heard such a cruel judgement.’ He went on to repeat some of the things the judge, Lord Wheatley, had said about me. As he spoke, I knew I was listening to my world disintegrate. The words I was hearing constituted nothing less than a savage character assassination. I could scarcely believe that any man – let alone a judge – could be so merciless or capable of inflicting such unnecessary pain on another human being.

Ian was granted his divorce, and Margaret had become a social pariah. The media circus, the speculation over the Polaroids, and the exposure of her behaviour conspired to destroy her reputation. Furthermore, she became estranged from her children who were appalled at their mother. Ian was prepared to cash in on the spectacle, and he sold his story to People. Before the article was published in November 1964, Margaret applied for an injunction to stop the printing of her private letters. Nevertheless, the first installment was published, but her solicitor prevented the publication of any more after it had come to Margaret’s attention that Ian wanted to make public her medical files detailing her physical and psychological health. The judge agreed with Margaret, and this became known as the ‘Argyll law’.

But Margaret was to have the last laugh. After humiliating her in the pages of People, Ian was asked to resign from White’s, his beloved London club, or risk being thrown out. With a heavy heart he chose the former. It was Margaret’s first husband, Charles Sweeney, who had used his influence at the club to have Ian expelled. With a certain amount of glee, she said: ‘Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small.’

Margaret died in 1993 at the age of 80, having spent the evening of her life at St George’s nursing home in Pimlico. In her later years she found herself impoverished after investing in several, ill-advised schemes. She did, however, maintain her standards. When luncheon was served at midday in the nursing home she refused to eat it. Only servants ate their meal at 12, she said, and she defiantly waited until 1 o’clock. Though the food was cold, Margaret could, at least, take satisfaction in knowing she had the last word.

Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. III

Something Higher Than A Friend

Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. III

Diana was 14-years-old when she first met James Lees-Milne, known to his friends as ‘Jim’. He had come down to Asthall Manor, the family home in Oxfordshire that was said to be haunted by a poltergeist, with Tom Mitford in the summer of 1924.

Both Diana and Jim were intrigued by one another, and he was bewitched by her beauty as he silently observed her sitting next to Tom as he played the piano. Diana, too, thought Jim the cleverest person she had met. She was impressed by his loathing of games and his preference for sitting indoors, listening to classical music and conversing about art and literature. Tom appeared to share an easy-going, brotherly type of affection with Jim, but their schoolboy camaraderie concealed a discreet affair that had taken place at Eton. The close bond between Diana and Tom reminded Jim of his loneliness and lack of familial ties – he despised his father, saw little of his mother, and had nothing in common with his siblings. Adding to his misery, all through his childhood and early adolescent years, Jim wished he were a girl. Society’s expectations placed on Jim as a boy, and his countrified father’s disapproval, conspired to make him ‘feel desperately ashamed’ of his wish. Adding to Jim’s feelings of shame was the guilt of his affair with Tom, and he desired to replace him with Diana, a socially acceptable catalyst for romance.

After Jim departed Asthall, he immediately wrote Diana a letter, asking her: ‘May I treat you as a much cherished sister to whom I can say everything? You don’t realise how essential they are to boys. Why are you so amazingly sympathique as well as charming?’ Diana, who was surrounded by six sisters and an all-female staff, was unsure how to respond to such flattery. She acted with indifference, which could have been mistaken as modesty – an appealing attribute in one so beautiful.

Jim returned to Asthall, and he, Tom and Diana became a peculiar trio. When the other Mitford children were outside riding and hunting, they spent their days indoors, lapping up joyous hours in the library where Jim expressed his devotion by teaching Diana to read the classics. They read poetry and fantasised about going to live in Greece, where they ‘would scorn material things and live on a handful of grapes by the sea’. Around this period, Jim had appointed himself as Diana’s faithful correspondent and the letters exchanged during this precarious time provide an insight into her outlook. As her intellect developed, she felt comfortable to confide her innermost thoughts to Jim. She told him: ‘There will never be another Shelley. I wish I had been alive then to marry him. He was more beautiful physically and mentally than an angel.’ And her philosophy on life was extremely modern for a sheltered teenager in the 1920s: ‘Why on earth should two souls (I wish there was a better word, I think SPIRIT is better). Why on earth should two spirits who are in love a bit have to marry … and renounce all other men and women?’ Monogamy, to Diana, was ‘SUPREMELY foolish’, but she was quick to acknowledge that speaking of ‘free love is almost a sin’. However, to dispel any hint of romance, she quickly informed Jim of his platonic place in her life: ‘I sometimes feel that I love you too much, but you are my spiritual brother.’

In 1926, Diana left for Paris to spend a year studying art at the Cours Fénelon, and during this period her letters to Jim became few and far between. She had fallen in love with the city, and had formed a circle of admirers who were a world away from Jim and his shy advances disguised by the written word. The ageing artist Paul César Helleu feted Diana, and this form of flattery coming from an adult turned her head more than Jim’s romantic prose.

After Diana’s departure for Paris, Jim had become morbidly obsessed with a recent divorcee, Joanie, the daughter of his mother’s cousin. Jim sent her love poetry – the typical gesture he would use time and time again with those he admired – and Joanie responded by driving down to Eton to take him to tea. In the New Year of 1926, they eventually began an affair, resulting in Joanie becoming pregnant. However, there is no certainty that Jim fathered the child, for she had so many casual affairs. The baby was stillborn, and Jim was haunted by guilt, stemming from his view that he had caused a human life, conceived in sin, to perish. Deeply disturbed by the incident, Jim fled England for Grenoble, where he studied a university course in French. His thoughts turned to Diana and the memories he held from their happier days in the library at Asthall Manor. The notion of being in love with an unworldly teenager was less troublesome than his love affair with the older Joanie, whose life came to a tragic end when she drowned herself at Monte Carlo.

Overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia, Jim wrote to Diana, in which he played to her frivolous vanity by addressing her as ‘Mona’ (after the Mona Lisa). Her letter, after a spell of silence, ‘dropped here today like the gentle dew from heaven. I cannot express my delight but imagine it as being intense … How I would adore to have a picture of you by M. Helleu’. He implored Diana to send him a memento; a snapshot of her Parisian self so he could see for himself if she had retained her Raphael face. ‘You can’t imagine what a joy it is to me the thought of having your face with me.’ Diana had become accustomed to receiving compliments on her beauty, rather than her brains, and the tokens dispelled in his letters were not a rarity. Jim confessed: ‘One can never love a friend too much,’ though by now he thought of Diana as something ‘higher than a friend’.

As for Diana, she was secretly pleased with Jim’s infatuation and had begun to recognise her power over the opposite sex, using it to exploit those who cared about her. Her letters adopted a priggish tone, boasting of her liaisons with French boys, after which, she warned Jim: ‘Don’t feel jealous’. It thrilled her to evoke feelings of jealousy, to torment the poor love-sick Jim, and she made it clear that she only confided in him because he was ‘so far from England’s green and pleasant land, where scandal travels fast’.

The hedonistic atmosphere was not to last and Diana suffered a bitter blow when Helleu died, suddenly, of peritonitis. The man she worshipped, and who for 3 months had worshipped her, was dead. She turned to Jim for comfort. ‘I shall never see him again …’ her letter ached with melancholy ‘… never hear his voice saying, “Sweetheart, comme tu es belle.”’ In another letter, she confessed: ‘Nobody will admire me again as he did.’ Jim might have disagreed, but he refrained from telling her otherwise, and wrote only to comfort her.

When Diana returned to England for the Easter holidays she was disheartened by the family’s new home, Swinbrook House – a grey, rectangular building designed by her father and decorated in mock rustic charm. Perhaps longing for a sense of familiarity, she wrote to Jim. ‘I have grown a little older, and more intense in my passions of love, sorrow and worship of beauty. To look at, I am the same. Pray for me, to your gods whatever they are. I am very unhappy.’ But, somewhere beneath her morbid facade, Diana was still a romantic at heart.

Jim’s letters from that time, although an escape from the dullness of everyday life, drew her attention to his love for her. In a sophisticated manner, she declared: ‘Sex is after all so unimportant in life. Beauty and art are what matter. Older people do not see my point of view.’ Diana failed to elaborate on the ‘older people’, surely a jibe at Jim, who was 2 years her senior. She did not, however, discourage the correspondence. In a similar light as Helleu, Jim praised her looks. ‘I have got dark skin and light hair and eyes which is an unattractive paradox,’ she dismissed his compliment. In the same sentence, Diana asked if he had seen the various beauties: Mary Thynne, Lettice Lygon and Georgie Curzon, to name a few. Jim’s passion could not be quelled, and Diana accepted his gifts of books, though she often critiqued his poetry when he sent it.

Finally, Jim was reunited with Diana in person. The sight of her in the flesh stunned him at first. She was no longer the sweet natured 14-year-old girl he had mentored in the library at Asthall. The long hair, which he had admired and likened to Botticelli’s Seaborne Venus, had been cut short. Although not outwardly fashionable, she began to alter her looks to appear more grown-up in her appearance. This adult version of Diana inspired the same feelings of passion he had felt for Joanie, who wore chic clothes and Parisian scent.

Hoping to instigate a romance with Diana, though from afar, Jim impulsively sent her a poem. Diana’s response was not what he had anticipated, and with a critical eye she advised him: ‘Read Alice Meynell’s short essay on false impressionism called The Point of Honour. This is not meant to be rude …’ Adopting an intellectual tone, she confidently told him: ‘Byron was a selfish, beautiful genius and not really more selfish than many men and most artists. As to Augusta, she was of the same temperament as I am, and just about as silly.’

Diana’s letters to Jim fizzled out, and tormented by her lack of communication, he turned his attention to Diana’s cousin and friend, Diana Churchill, whom he had met that summer. The other Diana, ‘like a fairy’ with her puny frame, pale complexion and red hair, was a haphazard substitute for his original love interest. In September, Diana invited him to the Churchill family home, Chartwell, and he readily accepted once he learned that Diana Mitford would also be staying with her brother, Tom. Unlike at Asthall and Swinbrook, where Jim could escape with Diana and Tom, the ‘brats’ (a Churchillian term of endearment) congregated in the drawing room and at the dining table. They listened to Winston Churchill’s monologue on the Battle of Jutland as he shifted decanters and wine glasses, in place of the ships, around the table, furiously puffing on his cigar to represent the gun smoke. With Churchill’s attention fixed on the children, his boisterous son Randolph seized an opportunity to flatter Diana, with whom he was madly in love. ‘Papa,’ he mischievously asked his father, ‘guess who is older, our Diana or Diana M?’
‘Our Diana,’ came the reply from Churchill, spoiling Randolph’s plan.
‘Oh, Papa, nobody else thinks so but you!’
During the stay, Diana was surrounded by her two most ardent admirers and Jim noticed that she outwardly relished being in Randolph’s company, despite her frequent protests about his immature behaviour. Jim could only look on, his hopes and feelings deflated.

In the new year of 1928, Jim returned to Swinbrook to stay for the weekend. Diana hoped to corner him for a congenial chat about literature, but the pleasant visit took a turn for the worse when, over dinner, Nancy praised an anti-German film she had watched at the cinema. Still harbouring a strong dislike for Germans, their father, Lord Redesdale, made his usual offensive remark: ‘The only good German is a dead German.’
Leaping to the defence of the film and of the German people, Jim said: ‘Anyhow, talking of atrocities, the worst in the whole war were committed by the Australians.’
‘Be quiet and don’t talk about what you don’t understand. Young swine!’ Lord Redesdale exploded.
Mortified by her father’s outburst, Diana broke the heavy silence when she haughtily announced: ‘I wish people needn’t be so rude to their guests!’
Flexing his authority as master of the household, Lord Redesdale ordered Jim from Swinbrook. Frogmarched to the front door, he was thrown outside where it was teeming with rain. After several failed attempts to start up his motorcycle, he sneaked back into the house and crept up to bed.
Awaking at 6 o’clock the next morning, Jim bumped into Lord Redesdale, stalking the hallway, as he did every morning, wearing his paisley print robe and drinking tea from a thermos. Anticipating another scene, Jim was pleasantly surprised when Lord Redesdale appeared to have forgotten the offensive exchange and greeted him warmly.

The turbulent visit settled into a bittersweet memory for Jim and, although he did not know it at the time, it would be his last visit with Diana at Swinbrook. He rightly sensed that Diana’s mind was focused on finding a suitable husband to rescue her from the great boredom of family life. With his ‘impecunious and melancholic’ nature, Jim knew he was not an ideal candidate, and long after he had departed from her life, Diana remained ‘the unattainable object of his desire’.

In 1928, Diana met and became engaged to Bryan Guinness. Jim received the news of Diana’s engagement with little enthusiasm. It came like a ‘cruel blow’ which greatly upset him. Diana attempted to console him with a short, but sweet, letter: ‘I know you will like him [Bryan] because he is too angelic and not rough and loathes shooting and loves travelling and all the things I love.’ She was preoccupied with a glamorous, materialistic world, and given Bryan’s wealth, it served to make Jim feel worthless. ‘When we are married and live in London, you must often come and see us,’ she gently coaxed him. He sent Diana a wedding present of books, and apart from her customary thank you note, he did not set eyes on her for the next 25 years.

Quotations from the letters between Diana Mitford and James Lees-Milne were taken from James Lees-Milne: The Life by Michael Bloch (John Murray, 2009) and reprinted with permission in Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford (The History Press, 2015).