Nancy in Eire

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‘Ireland has changed its name to Eire and its charming people, whose qualities of heart and mind were so cruelly misused for so many centuries, are busily making a nation, but it is still the Emerald Isle of nineteenth-century literature, exaggeratedly itself,’ Nancy wrote of Ireland in The Water Beetle, a small book described as a ‘salad of well seasoned essays’. After the austerity of war-time Britain, Ireland was a demi-paradise for Nancy and her sisters; there was no rationing, and the rich – such as Pam and Derek Jackson – could set up residency to avoid the super taxation of Attlee’s Labour Government.

Every spring, Nancy boarded the Aer Lingus Friend Ship plane at Le Bourget destined for Ireland. She praised its customer service in an age when travelling by aeroplane was becoming commercial and the rule of the day was ‘don’t spoil the passengers’. However, the Friend Ship, to Nancy’s delight, aimed to please. There was a delicious luncheon of hot soup, fresh salmon and hot coffee, after which the passengers settled down to enjoy the headlines of The Irish Times and The Cork Examiner: ‘Dublin Nun Found Dead in Drain’, ‘Priest Hurt in Collison with Cart’.

Before setting off to visit her various friends and family, Nancy would spend an hour or two in Dublin before catching a train. She thought the city a ‘prim little eighteenth-century town, sometimes compared to Bath, though this is doing it too much honour; and unspoilt’. The stopover offered enough time for Nancy to write her name in tin for a penny and weigh herself for another. The May wind, breezing across the Irish Sea, was bitter, but Nancy, always appropriately dressed for the occasion, smugly observed the American tourists shivering in their plastic cloaks. The train itself was an omnibus, with the passengers made up of nuns and farmers, who talk like an Abbey Theatre play. ‘I’ve had another anonymous letter from Dooley O’Sullivan.’

It amused Nancy that every village and small town seemed to have a luggage shop, for she wrote: ‘People leave Eire as they have always left Ireland, at an enormous rate.’ The country roads were empty, although the occasional Rolls Royce with American tourists buried in white satin luggage came lumbering down the road, and the cottage dogs, so unused to motor traffic, dived at passing cars. The shops in rural villages were a dream for Nancy, who relished the fact they had no modern boutiques, and she bought a year’s worth of cotton dresses and nylons. Medical Hall sold French cosmetics and scent, so naturally that was heaven on earth for her. She noticed an exciting new sign advertising ‘Modern Hairstyling’, and learned of two young ladies, trained in New York, who washed hair backwards. The young ladies, however, seemed to have lost their transatlantic hustle, and although it was half past eleven when Nancy rang the doorbell for an appointment, the receptionist was still in her dressing gown.

In spite of the stirrings of progression, Nancy could not ignore the old fashioned quality of Eire. ‘There is not much fraternization with Protestants,’ she wrote. When she asked her hostess what would happen if a priest was invited to dinner, she was informed he would have to move to another parish. A Pagan element, too, intrigued her, and she wondered if the rags on trees were being tied to commemorate the saints or the Little People. She inquired about the leprechauns, but nobody seemed to want to talk about them, except for an inn-keeper, who confided to her, ‘I saw a sow where never a sow there was.’

‘Eire does not live with the times,’ she concluded. And, by her own reasoning, she realised English historians had no notion of the country, and could only represent a strange flock of people living on a fairy-like island. ‘This is not good enough,’ she warned, and she hoped a young genius would begin a great History of Ireland.

 


The above was detailed in Nancy’s essay ‘The Other Island’, published in The Water Beetle.

The Girl Who Became Muv

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Born in 1880, Sydney’s childhood was, as her daughters were apt to say, pathos personified. Her mother, Jessica, died after an ill-advised medical abortion, and at the age of eight, Sydney was left in the care of her eccentric father, Thomas Gibson Bowles, known as Tap. A keen sailor, Tap kept his two daughters with him whilst his two sons attended school. There was an eight-month voyage to the Middle East on his 150-ton sailing schooner Nereid, where the motherless children weathered terrifying storms and were left to their own devices after their governess, Rita Shell, known as Tello, became incapacitated with seasickness. On their homeward journey, the schooner was almost wrecked in a hurricane off the coast of Syria when, against the advice of the port authorities in Alexandria, Tap set sail after he learned Tello was having an affair with a young naval officer. Returning to England in time for the election campaigns, Tap, a Conservative back-bench MP, bought a second yacht, the Hoyden, and made it his temporary home and campaign headquarters. During the parliamentary recess, the children joined their father for a sailing holiday to France. Aside from their sailing trips, Tap took his children on holidays to a rented house on Deeside, where he set up a Turkish bath in an empty dog kennel.

Tello did not accompany the children on their latter voyages, and for some years she disappeared from their lives. One day, Sydney spied Tello, accompanied by four young boys, walking down Sloane Street. It occurred to her that the eldest boy was the product of the affair in Alexandria, and she learned the other three were Tap’s children. He had set her up in a house and made her editor of The Lady, the magazine Tap bought after the death of his wife. Sydney wondered why Tap never married Tello, and concluded it must have been because the eldest boy was not his.

Tap’s unique ideas on parenting were the norm for Sydney and her siblings. The nursery rules would influence the way she raised her own seven children; they were to adhere to a strict mosaic diet, they were not to be forced to eat anything they disliked, windows were to be left open six inches all year round, and after their bath they were to be rinsed with clean water. He did not believe in spoiling the children and they were not given Christmas or birthday presents; he reminded them that he ‘housed, fed, watered, clothed and educated them and that was enough’. Unlike men of his generation, he was an attentive father, and when in London, he and Sydney rode everyday in Rotten Row. He sent the girls to skating lessons at the Prince’s Club, the ice-rink at Montpelier Square, where Sydney fell in love with her instructor, Henning Grenander, a Swedish champion figure-skater. ‘I would do almost anything he asked me,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘I would let him call me Sydney, I would even let him kiss me….’

At the age of fourteen, Tap appointed Sydney as housekeeper of his London townhouse at 25 Lowndes Square, whereupon she developed a lifelong mistrust of male servants; she found them drunken and unreliable. The butlers and footmen were amused by this tall, angular young girl dressed in a thick serge sailor suit. The sailor suit was worn everyday, and Tap thought it appropriate for all occasions, until a lady friend suggested he should buy his eighteen-year-old daughter some decent clothes befitting her age and her social standing.

In 1894, still aged fourteen, Sydney accompanied her father to visit his good friend, Lord Redesdale, Algernon Bertram ‘Bertie’ Mitford, at his country house, Batsford. It was at Batsford that she first met Lord Redesdale’s son, David Freeman-Mitford, who, at the age of seventeen, was classically handsome with bright blue eyes, blonde hair and a tanned complexion. Dressed smartly in an old brown velveteen keeper’s jacket, he stood in the vast library with his back to the fire, and one foot casually resting on the fender. At that moment, Sydney wrote in an unpublished memoir, she lost her heart.

The infatuation with David was short-lived, for he went off to Ceylon hoping to earn a fortune as a tea-planter. Sydney herself was busy growing up, and four years later she came out as a debutante. Highly intelligent and possessing domestic capabilities, rare for a woman of her standing, there was talk of sending her to Girton, the women’s college at Cambridge. However, for an unknown reason, the idea was not pursued. There were romantic relationships too, the first ending in tragedy when the young man was killed in the Boer War.

David’s tea-planting adventure was unsuccessful, and having spent less than four years in India, he returned home and enlisted in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers to fight in the Boer War. In 1902, he was badly injured in his chest and lost a lung. Nursed for four days in a field hospital, he dictated a love letter, to be given to Sydney in the event of his death. When it was evident he would live, he was carried back to camp in a bullock cart, his wound swarming with maggots.

Having lost a boyfriend in the war, Sydney was sympathetic to David, whom she had sporadic contact with throughout the years. After he was invalided home, their meetings became more frequent, and David fell in love with her. However, Sydney was involved with another young man, Edward ‘Jimmy’ Meade, whose proposal she almost accepted, but the relationship ended in 1903 when she discovered he was a womaniser.

There were whispers in society that Sydney accepted David’s proposal on the rebound from Jimmy Meade. They were married in 1904, ten years after Sydney first saw him at Batsford. And, as they say, the rest is history…

 

 

 

A Brief Encounter; A Terrible Fate

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There was nothing exceptional about Diana’s encounter with Adolf Hitler when she met him on the 11th March 1935. Summoned by Unity, who succeeded in befriending the Fuhrer and worming her way into his inner-circle, Diana flew to Paris, collected the elegant Voisin Oswald Mosley had bought for her, and motored to Germany. The events, before she encountered the Fuhrer, seemed far more memorable when she became stranded in heavy snow in the Black Forest and a passing peasant and his horses pulled her to safety.

Upon entering the Osteria Bavaria, Hitler’s favourite restaurant in Munich, Diana discreetly remarked, ‘Look at him [the Fuhrer] in his mackintosh.’ From that low-key impression, she observed he ‘appealed in equal measure to women and to exactly the sort of men he needed’. At the time, Diana could not speak German aside from a phrase or two, and she relied on Unity to translate. Although, on that particular day, there was more silence than conversation, and they stuck to polite small-talk. She claimed that she never heard Hitler rant, or go off on a political tangent.

However, the year before this meeting with Hitler, Diana had indeed witnessed his s showmanship in person when she and Unity visited Munich on a whim because Putzi Hanfstaengl, a friend of her former in-laws, promised to introduce them to the Fuhrer. Having exaggerated his accessibility to Hitler, he produced two tickets to the Parteitag, and later refused them entry to Hitler due to their heavily made-up faces. ‘I can’t do without my lipstick,’ Unity said. A year had passed since this false start, Unity had moved to Germany, and during a visit from Diana they looked up Hanfstaengle ahead of the second Parteitag, but he was less than accommodating and claimed to have no tickets. Having gone to Nuremberg, both women discovered the town was overrun by Nazis and their supporters, and faced with the realisation there were no hotel rooms and no tickets, Unity spied an elderly man wearing a special badge. The badge in question indicated he was one of the Nazi Party’s first members and, schooled on all things to do with Hitler, Unity approached him and confided their misfortune. He duly located a room and found two tickets. They went to the Pateitag, now an elaborate militant display with special effects and blood-and-thunder music. She was lost in translation, but Hitler’s passionate delivery and the crowd’s enthusiasm inspired her to relay his mass appeal to Mosley, whose party was beginning to flounder. In the near future, when she learned German, Diana understood Hitler’s message, it was clear to her, whether she believed it or not, just what he had planned for the Jews when he spoke of his Nuremberg Laws. She overlooked the rampant antisemitism of the speeches to focus on his aspirations for a great and powerful Germany, just like Mosley envisioned for Britain. She was, as her biographer Anne de Courcy wrote, very good at closing her eyes to anything she did not wish to see.

So, from the very first meeting on the 11th March, Diana dissociated Hitler-the-madman from Hitler-the-person, and it was the latter she claimed to have been fond of.

During the visit, Diana observed Hitler had simple tastes, apparent over luncheon at the Osteria Bavaria when he ordered ‘eggs and mayonnaise, and vegetables and pasta, and compote of fruit or a raw grated apple, and Fachingerwasser’. Diana was further impressed by his European manners: he kissed her hand, bowed his head and did not sit down until she was seated. This, she felt necessary to mention in her autobiography, A Life of Contrasts, given the ‘acres of print about Hitler in which his rudeness and bad manners to everyone are emphasised’. Hitler fascinated Diana with his greyish blue eyes, so dark that they often appeared brown and opaque, and like those who possess sinister intentions, he charmed her.

The charm was in abundance; he admired Unity and Diana, the latter in her chic Parisian clothes. And, unlike many in his company, the sisters were not intimidated by him and they conversed freely, often punctuating their sentences with Mitford jokes and witty nuances. To dispel the myth surrounding Unity’s head-over-heels infatuation with Hitler, Diana wrote: ‘Unity was never awed in her entire life. She said what came into her head.’ It was this candour which made the Fuhrer laugh, and in return,‘he inspired affection’.

After the short stay in Munich, Diana and Unity drove to Paris, each taking turns to drive the Voisin. Paris never appealed to Unity the way it did to Diana, and after exhausting the museums and galleries, she left for Germany.

That brief meeting, eighty years ago today, marked a watershed moment in Diana’s life and the decisions that would ultimately seal her fate. Unity, the channel to Hitler, spoke glowingly of Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. When she reported that Hitler showed an interest in meeting Mosley, Diana jumped at the opportunity to form an alliance between the two men.

It does not take a genius or a well-versed Mitfordian to predict what happened next.

Mrs Guinness & Evelyn Waugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Stories by Three American Authors

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

 

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

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

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A Place for Us by Harriet Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life

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

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

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

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

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