The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

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Of all the Mitford eccentricities, it is Unity’s obsession with Adolf Hitler that lingers longest in the national consciousness. Even now, the story of the young British aristocrat who followed Hitler to Germany and eventually attempted death rather than leave him, is the most memorable of all the sisters’ stories. So it’s interesting to note that Unity caused just as much amazement among the men in Hitler’s circle as she did among any of her compatriots.

The arrival of Unity, and later Diana, in Nazi Germany provoked deep suspicion among the men at the top of Hitler’s hierarchy. Himmler, Goebbels and Goering all failed to understand why the Führer was so taken with these two upper-class English girls, and they suspected that their Führer’s judgment was fatally swayed by them.

When I was writing The Winter Garden, the second of my novels featuring Clara Vine, an Anglo-German actress in pre-war Berlin, I was keen to explore the way in which the Mitfords managed to discomfort those at the very top of the regime. The novel is set in 1937, a time when Hitler still held out the possibility that some Grand Alliance between Great Britain and Germany could be formed that would allow him to proceed with extending the German Lebensrum eastwards. In the Autumn of that year the recently abdicated Duke of Windsor and his new wife Wallis Simpson chose Nazi Germany, of all places, for their honeymoon – a choice which left the British government fit to be tied. British Embassy officials in Berlin were instructed that they were not to offer the ex-King anything at all “not even a cocktail sausage”, but the Nazis stepped in to fill the gap, rolling out the red carpet at Friedrichstrasse station and providing the Duke with a packed schedule of opera evenings, factory visits and other PR opportunities for the Third Reich. The fact that Unity and Diana should be in Germany around the same time as the royal couple made it the perfect backdrop for the novel’s spy mission and murder.

Of all the Nazi ministers, it was Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, who was closest to Diana and Unity, largely through the friendship between his wife Magda and Diana. The Goebbels had even lent Diana Mitford and Sir Oswald Mosley the use of their Berlin home for their wedding in 1936, with the reception held at the family’s country villa in Schwanenwerder, a short drive away through the Grunewald, where the newly-weds were presented with the complete works of Goethe, and the Goebbels children attended carrying posies of flowers. The following year, in 1937, Diana made another visit to Germany, soliciting funds for a Fascist radio station to be set up in Heligoland, and in between watching Mickey Mouse with the Führer at the Reich Chancellery, she again met up with the Goebbels.

In the end, Joseph Goebbels decided that the Mosleys were a busted flush, and should receive no more Third Reich funding. Yet for the Nazis, Diana and Unity remained an enigma. Were the British ruling-classes really like that, or were the Mitfords eccentric one-offs? Although Magda Goebbels, Joseph’s unhappy wife, was friendly with Diana, Goebbels himself was far less seduced. In his diaries of the time he questions whether the Mitfords truly “spring from the soul of the British people”. It mattered, because if the sisters could be considered true representatives of the English ruling-class, then it meant that Hitler’s dreams of an alliance with Great Britain might be fulfilled. In The Winter Garden there is a scene in which Clara Vine, who as well as an actress is a British agent, is quizzed by Goebbels about the precise nature of the Mitfords. Clara fills him in on some of Unity’s eccentricities, including the fact that she was given to greeting English shopkeepers with the Nazi salute, that she had brought her pet snake to Germany with her, and that a live rat sometimes travelled in her handbag. The bourgeois Goebbels was, in fiction as well as in reality, predictably appalled.

Himmler, the pathological head of the Gestapo, did not concern himself so much with social nuances. As far as he was concerned a woman like Unity was a security risk, and he had her tailed by an SS agent who would follow her round, disguised as a photographer. Even when Unity wrote a piece for a National Socialist newspaper about why she was learning to shoot so that she could kill Jews, Himmler still had his suspicions. Unity’s home-made storm-trooper outfit also failed to sway him.

The feelings of the other Nazi power couple, the Goerings, were equally cool. Unity had eyes only for Hitler so Hermann Goering took little interest. Emmy Goering, a former actress, would refer to Unity as “Mitfahrt” meaning the travelling companion, and made cruel jokes about her ankles.

Perhaps one reason we are so interested in the story of the pro-Hitler Mitfords is because they are rare English examples of a phenomenon that was all too well-known in Germany – the fascination with the Führer. It was a fascination that afflicted women in particular. Each year Hitler received many thousands of fan letters and daily offers from women to bear his children. Every birthday and Christmas an avalanche of cakes as well as embroidered cushions, gloves, and other clothes were sent in. In more eye-catching evidence of devotion, there were incidences when women waiting for Hitler’s car to approach would tear open their blouses to bear their breasts as he passed. Others threw themselves at his car, attempting to do themselves some injury in the hope that the Führer himself would emerge to comfort them.

Hitler, in turn, did not underestimate the importance of women to maintaining the Nazi state. He said: “In my Germany, the mother is the most important citizen.” And he recognized that it was women, not men, who were central in passing on the ideology of the Third Reich to their children. Thus, women attending the National Socialist Bride Schools, which feature in The Winter Garden, were taught a special prayer to say to their future children, in which the words “Our Führer” replaced “Our Father”. They were also instructed to tell fairy stories with the correct, Nazi ideology, which was all about racial consciousness. In the National Socialist Cinderella, for example, the Prince rejects the Ugly Sisters not on aesthetic grounds, but because they are Slavs.

Ultimately, Goebbels’ question about the Mitford sisters – do they spring from the soul of the British people? – was an acute one. Not because they typified the views of the ruling class, but because despite their political differences Unity, Diana, and the others did embody a profoundly British quality. The ability to hold polarized beliefs, while retaining an underlying affection for each other. To thumb their noses at convention. To see each other’s point of view, even while despising it. In their eccentricity, imagination, humour and originality they epitomized Englishness. Goebbels should have paid more attention.

The Winter Garden is published by Simon & Schuster.

Jane Thynne was born in Venezuela in 1961 and grew up with her parents and two brothers in London. After school in Hampton, she spent a year working at the Old Vic Theatre before reading English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She joined the BBC as a production trainee, but after a few years succumbed to a hankering for Fleet Street and moved to The Sunday Times. Jane spent many cheerful years at The Daily Telegraph as media correspondent, but her single most exciting moment in that time was getting a publishing contract for her first novel. Her novels have been translated into French, German and Italian. Black Roses will be published in France by J.C Lattes in 2014 and the second in the Clara Vine series, The Winter Garden, in 2015. The third in the Clara Vine series, A War Of Flowers, was published in the UK by Simon & Schuster in November 2014. It will be published in the US and Canada by Random House in 2015.

As well as writing books, Jane is a freelance journalist, writing regularly for numerous British magazines and newspapers, and also appears as a broadcaster on Radio 4.

She is married to the writer Philip Kerr and they live with their three children in London.

Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. II

Pamela’s Irish Castle by Stephen Kennedy

m1mThere is something terribly romantic about Tullamaine Castle in Fethard, Co. Tipperary, as it lies in the sleepy ‘Gallant Tipps’ country. Autumn is the most special time of year when the hunt gets into full swing for another season and when Tullamaine plays host to an opening meet, the castle seems to emerge from the trees as each leaf falls onto the majestic manicured avenue. One can imagine that this is what attracted Pam and Derek Jackson to Tullamaine, with the large estate to indulge Derek’s passion for hunting and Pamela’s love for all things rural. Another fact which might have swayed their decision to relocate was that Ireland didn’t have the post-war tax issues that Britain imposed on the landed gentry to pay for WWII.

Initially, Pam and Derek loved their time at Tullamaine, with Pam’s sister Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire, chatelaine of Lismore Castle in Co. Waterford, taking residence every April for the fishing on the Blackwater River. Alongside Debo, their guests ranged from Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Leigh Fermor and ‘Uncle’ Harold Macmillan. Around the same time, Pam’s other sister Diana, the infamous Lady Mosley, came to Ireland having bought Clonfert Palace in Galway. After Clonfert burnt down, Diana and her husband, Sir Oswald Mosley, bought a beautiful Georgian property, Ilecash House in Fermoy, which is only a short drive to Lismore.

The early years at Tullamaine were a wonderful time for Pamela. Here she could be completely at home in her surroundings with her beloved dogs, horses and vegetable garden. It was in this renowned garden that Goldie Newport recalled in The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life to seeing for the first time ‘purple sprouting broccoli’. Amongst the hunting fraternity, Pam and Derek’s friends would include: Sivver Masters MFH (Debo remembered her great dinner stories at Tullamaine over two or three large brandies), the Earl and Countess Donoughmore, Bourkes and Ponsonbys, as well as the local community of Fethard.

Derek Jackson, an amateur jockey, loved all things equine but it was his passion for science and the lure of the lab at Oxford which drew him further and further from Tullamaine Castle, Pam, and, eventually, Ireland.

In 1950, Pam and Derek decided to separate and sell the castle. As a testament to her love for Tullamaine, Pam was persuaded to stay on as a tenant for another eight years but not before having the new landlord install electric lighting. An example of her shrewd and somewhat loveable, but naughty, behaviour – typical of a Mitford girl – Pam told her new landlord she ‘had no milk for the workmen’s tea’, and as they had re-wired the house, she must ‘have a cow for them’. The landlord duly obliged and sent ‘a marvellous four gal. cow in a lorry from cork (70 miles). Of course, the men only used a pint a day’, so Pam bought four piglets which she ‘brought up on the milk’ and the rest she sent to the creamery and received a cheque for £10.

Miss Giuditta Tommasi was a frequent visitor to Tullamaine during Derek’s time there and after he departed. As an ardent equine lover she, too, rode out with the Tipps’ and is fondly remembered for bursting into Newport’s shop looking for a pig’s face. In her broken English she had meant to ask for a pig’s head.

I, having met Pam as a young boy, now regret that she did not decide to live her life in Ireland but instead moved to Switzerland and eventually to Gloucestershire, the country of her early childhood. But the memories of this twinkling old lady with sky blue eyes and snow white hair will forever live with me. I also remember she had a voice so soft that it would melt a glacier and she had aroma of fresh air with a hint of lavender. I can only assume this loveliness was a combination of the fresh outdoors which she enjoyed, her kindness toward animals, and her love for the countryside.

A Man Called Ove

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Ove is almost certainly the grumpiest man you will ever meet. He thinks himself surrounded by idiots – joggers, neighbours who can’t reverse a trailer properly and shop assistants who talk in code. But isn’t it rare, these days, to find such old-fashioned clarity of belief and deed? Such unswerving conviction about what the world should be, and a lifelong dedication to making it just so? In the end, you will see, there is something about Ove that is quite irresistible…

Ove is a 59-year-old Swede with traditional values. He says very little, he thinks a lot and he is the odd neighbour in a gentrified street. Simple pleasures appeal to Ove: the reliability of his Saab motorcar, the hard graft of his job on the railways and the spartan state of his house – until it burns down. Life has not been kind to Ove, but he refuses to become a victim. An orphan by the age of 16, a widower, and stitched up for theft, he storms through life with his integrity intact. When a young family move in next door, ‘foreigners‘ to be exact, Ove is suspicious. He takes a dim view on almost everyone, including a stray cat who appeals to his good nature. When an attempt to kill himself turns into a comedy of errors, Ove realises he must press on with life, only if he can live it his way. Shades of Farve appeared in Ove, and I rather warmed to this curmudgeons gent who hates the world and offends just about everyone. He’s spiky and lovable, and in the space of three weeks – the amount of time we spend with Ove – he affirms himself as the hero of the piece. Written in a no-nonsense style and peppered with black humour, Fredrik Backman’s portrayal of Ove reminds us that a little compassion can go a long way.

Fredrick Backman is a well-known blogger and columnist in Sweden. His debut novel’s protagonist was born on his blog, where over 1000 readers voted for Backman to write a novel about Ove. In 2011 he became an overnight success when one of his blog entries, “Personal message to stressed blond woman in Wolkswagen”, about reckless driving and parental love, became the most linked entry on Facebook ever, with 600,000 shares.

The Mitford Society and Trolling

Dear readers,

It has come to my attention that an audio clip of ‘me’ condoning Hitler and other racist remarks has been posted on a popular blog. I know which blog it is and I have listened to the clip. I would like to emphasise that I am in no way racist, sectarian, antisemitic or anti-anything. I come from a multicultural background and I am part Jewish – this should not even matter but I feel the need to explain myself. An individual who shall remain nameless but is very much known to me has been harassing me online for several years now, beginning with an online correspondence when I was a minor. I won’t bore you with the details except to say their activities have crossed a line and have become illegal. Whether or not the audio contains my real voice is not the issue – the issue is privacy and defamation of character given The Mitford Society has become quite well known publicly. As this is being formally investigated and has become a legal matter, I ask that you do not entertain this person who has many guises and seems to use Tumblr as their platform. I ask that you report this person and/or you inform me if they make an effort to contact you. The individual’s local police department has been notified and they are taking it very seriously as it has compromised my safety and has broken the law.

I respect your online safety and the integrity of this group has, I hope, always remained intact. The Mitford Society is a place to discuss the girls themselves, for good or for bad, and to share information about that era. It has also become a great platform for promoting authors, books and for celebrating our projects. I hope this individual realises the error of their ways and stops with their threatening behaviour. The Mitford Society will not bow down to cyber bullies and I hope it will become a fun place again.

Thank you once again for your generous support. If you have any questions or would like further information please don’t hesitate to contact me: mitfordsociety@gmail.com

Lyndsy

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato

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Hidden in the language of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedy Much Ado About Nothing, are several clues to an intriguing tale. It seems that the witty lovers Beatrice and Benedick had a previous youthful love affair which ended bitterly. But how did they meet, why did they part, and what brought them together again?

Marina Fiorato transports the reader to Messina, Sicily; the year is 1588 and Beatrice of Mantua comes to the court of her uncle Leonato, to be companion to his daughter, Hero. That fateful summer, Spanish lordling Don Pedro visits for a month-long sojourn on the island with his regiment. In his company is the young soldier Benedick of Padua. Benedick and Beatrice begin to wage their merry war of wit, which masks the reality that they dance a more serious measure, and the two are soon deeply in love. But the pair are cruelly parted by natural disaster and man-made misunderstanding. Oceans apart, divided by war and slander, Beatrice and Benedick begin their ten-year odyssey back to Messina and each other.

Incorporating Shakespearean language with modern day nuances, Fiorato’s novel is an updated version of the classic play. A scenic adventure from sunlit Sicily to the Armada fleet and the Renaissance cities of the north, she offers us a tour of the unspoilt splendour of Italy from the past. Beautifully written with rich descriptions, Beatrice and Benedick’s back stories are deeply complex. The portrayal of lovestruck youth, family prejudices and a way of life steeped in tradition, draws on the timeless elements of Shakespeare, and just why his plays and characters are still relatable centuries later. Thoroughly researched with elegant prose, Marina Fiorato has made historical fiction accessible for fans and non-fans alike.

Lady Ursula d’Abo

Lady Ursula d'Abo photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1939

Lady Ursula d’Abo photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1939

Born into an aristocratic family in 1916, Lady Ursula d’Abo (née Manners) was interrelated with some of the most powerful and interesting figures of the 20th century. She counted the famous beauty and hostess Lady Diana Cooper as her paternal aunt, and among those famous aunts were Laura and Margot Tennant, part of the Victorian intellectual group known as “The Souls”. Indeed, her mother was Kathleen Tennant, descended from the extraordinarily rich Scots family who had made their fortune in bleach, and she counted the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith as an uncle-by-marriage. There were fascinating cousins, too, including childhood summers spent with Anne Charteris, the future wife of Ian Fleming – creator of James Bond. Lady Ursula’s father, the Marquess of Granby, was the second-born son of the 8th Duke of Rutland, who upon the untimely death of his eldest brother at the age of nine (he twisted a gut from turning a somersault), became his father’s heir.

It was a magical childhood, with visits to Belvoir Castle – “my playground and fiefdom” – the Rutland seat, where the vast army of servants extended to liveried footmen and the Pig Man. Although Nanny and the nursery were the centre of Lady Ursula and her siblings lives, she and her younger sister, Lady Isabel, were allowed to ride with the famous Belvoir hunt. The Master of Hounds, terrified that the two children would get squashed in the gates, would hold up the two hundred horses so the girls could pass through first. Occasionally the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, would join the hunt and he and Lady Ursula would gallop the twelve miles from Belvoir Castle to Melton Mowbray. But, following his abdication, Lady Ursula’s father (by then the Duke of Rutland), refused to have him in the house; he was shocked at his betrayal of the country. Furthermore, he and his wife’s loyalties lay with their friends the Duke and Duchess of York, who ascended the throne as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

A clever and sophisticated child, Lady Ursula counted the artist Rex Whistler – “an attractive man with an original sense of humour” – as a pen-pal. Befriending him before his fame, he sent her illustrated letters when she was at school in Italy. She also helped her father, who had inherited the Dukedom in 1925, with the restoration of Haddon Hall, the Derbyshire home of the Rutlands dating from 1066. From her childhood home, The Wood House, north of Rowsley village, Nanny drove the children in a tub cart pulled by a pony for picnics at Haddon whilst it was being restored. As her siblings played, Lady Ursula and her father worked together on the mullion windows in the Long Gallery; the small panes were a diamond pattern of greenish glass which caught the light as they were set askew. And, while restoring the chapel at Haddon, Lady Ursula discovered some medieval frescoes which had been whitewashed over in the Reformation. A remarkable find for anyone, most especially an eight-year-old child. It should also be mentioned that Lady Ursula – in spite of being a girl with three brothers – was her father’s favourite. When she was sick, it was not Nanny who sat by her bedside, but her father who would bring his child a jug of champagne and say: “Cheer up, you will be all right in the morning.”

Away from the countryside there were swimming and dancing lessons in London, and having been inspired by the ballet, Lady Ursula dreamed of becoming a famous ballerina. She took lessons with the great Russian ballerina, Tamara Karasvina, who praised her for having “a great aptitude”. However, Lady Ursula could not pursue her training as her parents did not approve of a stage career.

The path in which Lady Ursula’s life should progress was made clear, when, at the age of seventeen, the Duke and Duchess of Rutland hosted a “coming out” ball with two hundred guests at Belvoir Castle for her and Lady Isabel. Their matching white tulle dresses were from Worth in Paris, though they proved a disappointment with the girls who longed to appear grown up. In spite of the dresses not living up to expectation, Lady Ursula realised that her coming out ball would launch her into a glamorous, grown-up world. “Suddenly…I was expected to be a young lady with great social graces, and dressed immaculately in the most beautiful clothes.” The freedom “felt exhilarating” after being chaperoned for years. However, to Lady Isabel it was not enough and she eloped with Loel Guinness, an heir to the banking branch of the Irish dynasty. Sailing for over four months on Guinness’s yacht to Palm Springs and New York City, the couple’s honeymoon was so long that it wasn’t insured by Lloyd’s. Although dismayed at her sister missing out on the social season, Lady Ursula went along to the parties and “had five years of growing up in the most enjoyable way”.

Change was in the air, and a great event in history was about to draw Lady Ursula to the forefront of British society. The coronation of King George VI, following the abdication of his brother King Edward VII, brought a sense of optimism and pageantry to the people who feared Adolf Hitler and the threat of another world war. As her ancestors had done before her, Lady Ursula and her family took part in the coronation. Her father carried the orb in the procession into Westminster Abbey, her mother was a canopy-bearer to the Queen, and her two younger brothers were Page of Honour to the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Ancaster, the Lord Great Chamberlain. Lady Ursula was one of six maids of honour who carried the Queen’s ermine-trimmed velvet train. Dressed identically, the six girls wore matching tiaras and white satin, puff sleeved Norman Hartnell gowns with a motif of corn embroidered down the front.

Afterwards, Lady Ursula joined the royal party on the balcony of Buckingham Palace where she stood next to the Dowager Queen Mary and behind the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. At the end of “that magical day”, she was sent home from the palace in a taxi, still feeling quite overwhelmed by all that had happened. But it was not the end of the excitement as Lady Ursula was to discover. A certain Mr. Laurence McKinney from Albany, New York wrote a poem to The Knickerbocker Press, imploring: “In many of the pictures of the Coronation there is shown at the back of the royal party a statuesque brunette with a widow’s peak. Who is she?” The attention, she freely admitted, “produced a lot of jealously amongst my peers”.

There were duties beyond the coronation, and along with her mother, aunt Lady Diana Cooper and uncle Duff Cooper, and Winston and Clementine Churchill, Lady Ursula accompanied the new King and Queen on their first official visit to Paris. Being the youngest in the Royal party, Churchill nicknamed her “the cygnet”.

Though as much as Lady Ursula had become a society star, her father reminded her that she should set her sights on a good marriage. She recalled: “I had no money of my own and was brought up to be subservient to the male species.” Although she proved her mettle during WWII when she became a voluntary Red Cross Nurse, and then managing two thousand women in a munitions factory, Lady Ursula did indeed fulfill her father’s wish for her to marry.

In 1943, Lady Ursula married Anthony Marreco, a man she barely knew and who threatened to commit suicide if she refused to do so. The swiftness in which a wedding was organised prompted the minister to place a chair for her to sit on at the altar as he assumed she was pregnant. This, she admitted, had infuriated her. Ill-suited and separated by war, the couple divorced in 1948. She married for a second time to Erland d’Abo with whom she had three children. The marriage lasted until his death.

Lady Ursula has experienced a life of many high and lows set to the backdrop of a gilded age, the like of which we will never see again. All of this has been recorded in her charming memoir, The Girl with the Widow’s Peak.

The Mitford Society Loves….

Here at The Mitford Society we don’t believe in keeping all our eggs in one basket, and that includes books too! So, if you’re hunting for a honnish read over Easter/Passover then look no further.

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For fans of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. Set in the 1950s, in an England still recovering from the Second World War, it is the enchanting story of Penelope Wallace and her eccentric family at the start of the rock’n’roll era.

Penelope longs to be grown-up and to fall in love; but various rather inconvenient things keep getting in her way. Like her mother, a stunning but petulant beauty widowed at a tragically early age, her younger brother Inigo, currently incapable of concentrating on anything that isn’t Elvis Presley, a vast but crumbling ancestral home, a severe shortage of cash, and her best friend Charlotte’s sardonic cousin Harry…

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A novel reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. When Alice Eveleigh arrives at Fiercombe Manor during the long, languid summer of 1933, she finds a house steeped in mystery and brimming with secrets. Sadness permeates its empty rooms and the isolated valley seems crowded with ghosts, none more alluring than Elizabeth Stanton whose only traces remain in a few tantalisingly blurred photographs. Why will no one speak of her? What happened a generation ago to make her vanish?

As the sun beats down relentlessly, Alice becomes ever more determined to unearth the truth about the girl in the photograph – and stop her own life from becoming an eerie echo of Elizabeth’s…

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Lillian, a single, well-travelled woman of a certain age, wakes up next to her married lover and looks back at her life. It’s not at all the life she expected.

Walking the unpaved road between traditional and modern options for women, Lillian has grappled with parental disappointment, society’s expectations and the vagaries of love and sex. As a narrator she’s bold and witty, and her reflections – from ‘On Getting to Sex’ to ‘On the Importance of Big Pockets’ or ‘On Leaving in Order to Stay’ – reverberate originally and unpredictably.

In Lillian on Life, Alison Jean Lester has created a brutally honest portrait of a woman living through the post-war decades of change in Munich, Paris, London and New York. Her story resonates with the glamour and energy of those cities. Charming, sometimes heartbreaking, never a stereotype, Lillian is completely herself; her view of the world is unique. You won’t soon forget her.

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The winter of 1924: Edith Olivier, alone for the first time at the age of fifty-one, thought her life had come to an end. For Rex Whistler, a nineteen-year-old art student, life was just beginning. Together, they embarked on an intimate and unlikely friendship that would transform their lives. Gradually Edith’s world opened up and she became a writer. Her home, the Daye House, in a wooded corner of the Wilton estate, became a sanctuary for Whistler and the other brilliant and beautiful younger men of her circle: among them Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Tennant, William Walton, John Betjeman, the Sitwells and Cecil Beaton – for whom she was ‘all the muses’.

Set against a backdrop of the madcap parties of the 1920s, the sophistication of the 1930s and the drama and austerity of the Second World War and with an extraordinary cast of friends and acquaintances, Anna Thomasson brings to life, for the first time, the fascinating, and curious, friendship of a bluestocking and a bright young thing.

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Most famous for The Wilder Shores of Love, her book about four women travellers, Lesley Blanch was a scholarly romantic and a bold writer. Her lifelong passion was for Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East. At heart a nomad, she spent the greater part of her life travelling the remote areas her books record so vividly.

Born in 1904, she died aged 103, having gone from being a household name to a mysterious and neglected living legend. She was writing about her eccentric Edwardian childhood at her death and that work, never before published, now forms the beginning of this wonderful memoir. Lesley Blanch chose to ‘escape the boredom of convention': having first worked as a theatre designer and illustrator, she became British Vogue’s features editor during World War II and then, in 1946 she sailed from England to travel the world with her diplomat-novelist husband, Romain Gary. By the time they reached Hollywood in the late 1950s they were literary celebrities. When 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, making her mark as an indefatigable and generous travel writer.

Edited by her goddaughter Georgia de Chamberet, who was working with her in her centenary year, this book collects together the story of Blanch’s marriage, previously published only in French; a selection of her journalism which brings to life the artistic melting pot that was London between the wars; and a selection of her most evocative travel pieces, to create the story of a fascinating, bohemian – and, at times outrageous – life that spanned the twentieth century.

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When Addie Baum’s 22-year old granddaughter asks her about her childhood, Addie realises the moment has come to relive the full history that shaped her.

Addie Baum was a Boston Girl, born in 1900 to immigrant Jewish parents who lived a very modest life. But Addie’s intelligence and curiosity propelled her to a more modern path. Addie wanted to finish high school and to go to college. She wanted a career, to find true love. She wanted to escape the confines of her family. And she did.

Told against the backdrop of World War I, and written with the same immense emotional impact that has made Diamant’s previous novels bestsellers, The Boston Girl is a moving portrait of one woman’s complicated life in the early 20th Century, and a window into the lives of all women seeking to understand the world around them.

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And, if you’re partial to a Mitford read, this is my latest offering.

The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Extracted from The Mitford Society Vol. II

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On the 3rd of May 2004, Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, died following a protracted decline leaving his wife Deborah with a new title, the Dowager Duchess, and in need of a new home – but not just at once. Deborah remained at Chatsworth for a year-and-a-half following her husband’s death, but, as she wrote in her 2010 memoir, Wait for Me!: “The passages began to seem long and the stairs steep. It was time to move, to make way for the next generation.”

The Dowager Duchess wouldn’t be moving far to her dower house. Over the hill from Chatsworth about a mile lies Edensor, an idyllic English village. Deborah was no stranger to the village, having lived there from 1946-1959, before moving to Chatsworth. In December 2005 Deborah would take up residence in the Old Vicarage, an attractive fourteen room, eight bedroom stone building with parts dating back to the 18th century. “The house… has no architectural merit,” Deborah admitted, “but its atmosphere makes it a happy place – the influence, I believe of the devout men who occupied it for two hundred years.” It required extensive renovations before Deborah could move in, and on this endeavour she was assisted by her friend, the illustrious interior designer David Mlinaric, whose clients have included Lord Rothschild and Mick Jagger, and such venerable London institutions as the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert museum. He assisted her in seamlessly transforming the vicarage into a home fit for a 21st century duchess, and in placing “electric points, light switches, baths and so on”.

Much of the interior decoration, however, was left up to Deborah herself, who saw in her “mind’s eye” precisely what she wanted and was no stranger to outfitting homes of any size. Many might find it difficult to downsize from Chatsworth, one of the grandest of England’s stately homes, into what one might call a rabbit hutch, but not Deborah. In fact, she would take the design principles she learned there and apply them to the Old Vicarage. “One thing I learned from Chatsworth was what a good finish a fillet gives round the cornice, the doorcases, and skirting,” the Dowager Duchess told The World of Interiors magazine. This was employed in the soft pink drawing room, where Deborah would receive journalists, friends and family. An inviting floral covered sofa faced the fireplace, and before it was an upholstered ottoman, its surface home to books waiting to be dipped into. Flanking either side of the fireplace were baskets overflowing with firewood, a necessity during the bleak Derbyshire winters. Bric-à-brac covered the chimneypiece; everything from urns to framed personal family photos. The Dowager Duchess’s desk was placed in front of the window, affording her views of the garden. The dining room was informal, with a painting of a flower with a vibrant royal blue background, at home with more formal portraits on the adjacent wall. In her bedroom the bed sheets were stained with ink, a side-effect of her penchant for early morning writing in bed. Irreverent as ever, the wall colour of the guest bathroom, a cerulean blue, was inspired by a plastic bracelet she had worn during a recent hospital stay.

Her son and daughter-in-law graciously allowed her to pilfer pieces of furniture and artwork from Chatsworth in order to make her new home feel familiar, including White Tulips, a still life by William Nicholson. But Deborah had a formidable personal collection of her own. A painting of eggs in a basket by Lucien Freud, an old friend, was given pride of place. (Deborah always brought along a basket of eggs when she visited the painter in London.)

The Dowager Duchess’s family and friends quickly felt at home at the Old Vic, as Deborah referred to her new home. “It was always incredibly exciting, going to Chatsworth,” her granddaughter, the famed model Stella Tennant told Vogue in 2010, but added that the vicarage was less intimidating “because there aren’t so many precious things about”. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including Tennant’s brood, were given the run of the place. “[T]he lift is great fun. She also had one of those chairs that tipped you out; it was quite useful because so many old people come to stay, but the children broke it. She’s very tolerant of all of us rampaging about.”

Edensor, the Dowager Duchess wrote, is decidedly not “sleepy” and “is as animated as the cross-section of people who live in it.” Family was at her doorstep: Deborah’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth, was just steps away “at the top of the village”. Edensor, which is pronounced ‘Enza’, is a pastiche of architectural styles. It was rebuilt from 1840-1842 by the 6th Duke of Devonshire and the gardener and architect, Joseph Paxton. (Paxton, who designed the Great Stove at Chatsworth, a marvel of engineering and design, would go on to design the building that was dubbed the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London.) The village was originally situated near the River Derwent immediately below Chatsworth, but was moved out of sight. In the heart of the village is St Peter’s Church. It was enlarged by Sir George Gilbert Scott for the 7th Duke of Devonshire in the 1860s, and contains a memorial to Henry and William Cavendish, the sons of Bess of Hardwick. The churchyard is the final resting place of most of the Dukes of Devonshire, Joseph Paxton, John F. Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen (Deborah’s sister-in-law), and Deborah’s three children who were stillborn or died at birth.

Several years after relocating to Edensor, the Dowager Duchess received unwanted attention from an elderly man whom she had met during a walk in the village in November 2010. She was forced to obtain a restraining order when he continued to make communication, even going so far as to propose marriage.

But with that small exception, the Dowager Duchess’s relations with the public in Edensor were just as harmonious as they were during her forty-six years spent at Chatsworth. Until recently when her health began to fail her, each year on Edensor Day, the village’s annual fete, Deborah would throw open the doors of the Old Vicarage and for £5 would allow the public to come take a peek inside (with monies benefiting the village in some way, such as a new roof for the church). Deborah would act as tour guide and show guests around her home – nothing was off limits – and was tickled by what the public found interesting. “What people love is the shoe cupboards and the lavatories and all that. And sometimes they say, ‘You’re very brave to do this,’ and I say, ‘You’re very brave to come,’ because there’s always a queue. So funny.” But some visitors, expecting the grandeur of Chatsworth, were invariably left disappointed. “I came to see the chandeliers and all I found was Habitat [the UK home furnishings retailer],” one visitor said. “What is wrong with Habitat?” Deborah wondered.

Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire died on September 24th 2014. Luella Bartley, the great fashion designer and magazine editor, once said of Deborah that “when she goes so will a part of England”. In the event, her words proved prophetic, and upon her recent death the media and the Dowager Duchess’s countless admirers mourned not only the loss of a woman who embodied a gilded age, but one who made her life count. It was a life that was undoubtedly enhanced by her final decade spent at the Old Vicarage in the village of Edensor.

Andrew Budgell is a Managing Editor and Community Manager for a Toronto company. He has a passion for theatre, film, writing, music, books, travel and design, and spent much of 2013 living in London, fulfilling a lifelong dream. He received an Honours BA in English Rhetoric and Literature from the University of Waterloo in 2010 and established DameElizabethTaylor.com, a tribute to the legendary actress in 2002.

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…