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).

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin, 1963. © 2015, Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP (no copyright infringement intended)

Lucia Berlin, 1963. © 2015, Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP (no copyright infringement intended)

Lucia Berlin was a fan of Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford, she made her high school students read An American Way of Death. She named an upper-class Bostonian character ‘Decca’ in her short story The Wives, published in her book, Where I Live Now. I hope that has caught your attention…

During her lifetime Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) collected a modest but dedicated following, predominantly on the west coast of America. Her bibliography includes: A Manual for Cleaning Ladies; Angels Laundromat: Short Stories; Phantom Pain: Sixteen Stories; Safe & Sound; Homesick: New & Selected Stories; So Long: Stories; Where I Live Now: Stories, 1993-1998.

Her 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 – Lucia 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. Sometimes she is the victim without a victim’s mentality. Other times she is the onlooker, helpless and doing her best to help.

Lucia Berin’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. Sometimes I read them in chronicle order, or I revisit my favourites (Stars and Saints, Good and Bad, La Vie en Rose, So Long, A Love Affair, Mama). There is a link between many of the stories and the same character will appear throughout the book which makes the prose, more than ever, appear as an autobiography, or a memoir at the very least. They are a window to her life, and what a fascinating world she lived in.

The stories veer away from what I am used to but there is something about them that is hard to fathom. Lucia kept her finger on the pulse of life, and that is conveyed with startling realism in her prose. It is a pleasing conundrum. To look at, she was a magnificent beauty – a cross between Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor, with a soft, sing-song voice. (Listen to her readings here) And yet, through the written word, she could portray such ugliness. My feelings are exactly that of the captain in Mama: ‘You’re breaking my heart, you dusky beauty!’

This is just the tip of he iceberg for Lucia Berlin. I hope publishers scramble to publish her additional work. I dream of a biography, Mitford-esque letters, a documentary…all good things!

Further reading:

A short biography of Lucia Berlin

Listen to Lucia Berlin’s creative writing workshop

Lucia Berlin on Vimeo

Out of Bounds: The Education of Giles Romilly and Esmond Romilly



Much has been written about Esmond Romilly, husband of Decca Mitford, in books about the Mitford girls. A lot of it is hearsay, or formed from the unfavourable opinions of his sisters-in-law, and disapproving parents-in-law (Farve referred to him as ‘the BOY Romilly’). So, it is a treat that, for the first time in decades since it was released in 1934 and subsequently went out of print, Esmond’s voice can be heard. Co-authored with his older, equally brilliant, brother, Giles Romilly, the book was written following Esmond’s spell in a remand home. Rebellious and opinionated, the left-wing brothers shocked their Tory family (they were nephews-by-marriage of Winston Churchill) with their Communist views. Published when Esmond was sixteen and Giles eighteen, it is a memoir of their education, peppered with anecdotes about their eccentric home-life. Although it is a quick read, it is fascinating insight to young aristocrats who kicked against the establishment. This re-issued version of Out of Bounds by Umbria Press includes an introduction by Giles’s son, Edmund Romilly.

For more information on Esmond Romilly visit Meredith Whitford’s guest blog by clicking here.

Guest Post by Marina Fiorato

Marina Fiorato is the bestselling author of historical fiction. Her charming book, Beatrice and Benedick, about Shakespeare’s fabled lovers, was reviewed on The Mitford Society. She has written a guest-post on gender, a major theme in her forthcoming book, Kit.


Gender and what defines it seems to be more in the news than ever. Across the pond Caitlyn Jenner has hit the headlines, while here in the UK Grayson Perry is becoming almost an establishment figure. Well before transgender surgery was an option, cross-dressing has been a way for men and women to experience the world of the opposite sex.

The Roman Emperor Elegabus had his whole body depilated, French spy Charles D’Eon became the handmaiden of a Russian Empress, and Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated in order to dress as a man for the rest of her life. But my imagination was caught by a woman who entered the ultimate man’s world: the battlefield.

Kit Kavanagh was a redheaded Irish beauty who happily ran an alehouse in Dublin with her husband Richard. In 1702 the regiment came to town; when they left the next morning Kit’s husband had disappeared too. Discovering that Richard had been pressed into service, Kit promptly cut off her hair, dressed in her husband’s clothes and enlisted in the army under the name Christian Walsh. She travelled to Continental Europe in search of her ‘brother’ and fought four campaigns under the Duke of Marlborough’s command, before taking a musket ball to the hip. Subsequent operations in the field hospital gave her away, but not before she had been decorated for her bravery and commended by the Duke himself. She even accepted the paternity of a child in order to conceal her gender.

Did she find her husband? Well, that would be telling. But that’s also not really the point. The point is that Kit was an extraordinary woman in so many ways, but what was perhaps most incredible about her was that she was also an extraordinary man. Her male clothes gave her the opportunity to not just imitate ‘male’ skills but to excel at them. By any standards, Kit Kavanagh was one of the most successful soldiers in the British army. On her return to England she was given a pension by Queen Anne, and a special dispensation to return to the army as a sutler. Her wish to continue serving demonstrated one of the problems that has always faced those who choose to cross-dress – that once you’ve experienced the freedom that a change of dress gives, it is hard to go back. What happens if you prefer life through the looking glass? In my novel I explore the two sides of Kit Kavanagh, and how her male dress allowed her to live much more fully than she ever had as a woman.

Summer Reads

Following the advice of a fellow Mitty I bought Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and spent three glorious days reading it. There is something about a fabulous book that leaves one somewhat perplexed when it has finished. Thank goodness I had a few review books to fill the void. The books mentioned below are a step away from what I usually read (family sagas with Mitfordesque characters…) but I’m trying to venture out of my comfort zone…



Adele Parks crossed over to historical fiction last year with the publication of Spare Brides, a tale of upper-class women left on the shelf following the shortage of men who had been killed or injured in WWI. This tome, set again during WWI, centres around Vivian, a bright young debutante who (without revealing any spoilers) behaves very badly with a man who has no intention of marrying her. With her reputation in tatters, she is married off to an older man whom she does not love, and when war begins, he goes off to fight and sends her to the family’s country house in the middle of nowhere. Miserable and lonely with only her baby daughter for company, Vivian befriends a kindly lady whose son, Howard, is a playwright. A conscientious objector, Howard escapes imprisonment by agreeing to work on Vivian’s farm. The two begin an affair, and having fallen in love with Vivian, he realises what is worth fighting for. With her husband off at war, and now Howard abandoning his stance and enlisting, Vivian is left alone wondering which man (if any) will come home to her. Renowned for her chick lit novels and ‘telling it like it is’, Adele Parks’s latest offering is a slow-burning read which, like the war itself, picks up its pace halfway through.


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!


A Year of Marvellous Ways, set in 1947, can be described as a fairytale for adults. Except for the war and Francis Drake’s life in London, nothing about the book seems real or logical. Marvellous Ways, a ninety-year-old woman who lives in a remote creek, rescues Drake when he, quite literally, washes up in the creek. The pair forge an unlikely friendship, the cold and crass Drake, and the whimsical old lady whose mother was a mermaid. I hadn’t read anything by Sarah Winman before so I was unsure what to expect. At first glance, the book seemed bizarre, but as it progressed, I got into the story of Drake and Marvellous. It is written in a unique style, for example there are no speech marks to indicate a character is talking. So that, in a way, threw me. The parts detailing Drake’s life are explicitly written, which was a bit unnerving, but like the character’s demeanour, you become used to it. What struck me was Winman’s gorgeous imagery, beautiful passages and imaginative storytelling. Quirky and slightly harebrained, A Year of Marvellous Ways is an unforgettable book.


A metaphysical thriller beginning in 1984, The Bone Clocks chronicles teenage runaway Holly Sykes who encounters and elderly lady offering a small act of kindness in exchange for asylum. However, decades pass before Holly understands what sort of asylum the woman is seeking. We follow the twists and turns of Holly’s life from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to old age on Ireland’s Atlantic coast as Europe’s oil supply dries up – a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality. For Holly Sykes – daughter, sister, mother, guardian – is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon. The Bone Clocks is a bewitching tale of time-travel, human frailty and flawed characters.

18273521And finally the book that has left me so bedazzled…..I can’t say anything because I’m at risk of revealing spoilers (just as Meems!) so I’ll leave you with the synopsis:

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill


Without Churchill’s inspiring leadership Britain could not have survived its darkest hour and repelled the Nazi menace. Without his wife Clementine, however, he might never have become Prime Minister. By his own admission, the Second World War would have been ‘impossible without her’.

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. As the biography attests (something that is, perhaps, white-washed in history books), he wasn’t always well liked or respected.

Chronicling Clementines life from her eccentric and often impoverished childhood, born to a feckless father and reckless mother, Purnell brings to life the everyday occurrences of her mother Lady Blanche Hozier, namely her affair with a Dieppe fishmonger and how she, the fishmonger and his wife would argue at the fish-stall, causing a scene on the street. Her mother’s gambling and drinking cast a dark shadow over Clementine’s life, and the death of her beautiful sister, Kitty, the eldest of Blanche’s children, marked her for life. She was obsessed with order, everything had to be just so, and if it wasn’t, she became irritated. This obsession with neatness would mark her all her life. Also touched upon was her inferiority complex, beginning in childhood, and how she would have to teach French and take in sewing for pin money. Her rival, Margot Asquith, said she had ‘the soul of a servant’. Adding to this misery, her paternity was questioned, and she herself was never certain who her father was. The Mitford girls’ grandfather, Bertie Redesdale, was said to have been her real father, and Bay Middleton was also a strong contender. Regardless of the adulterous world of the upper-classes, Clementine was the target of gossip and snobbery, and among her contemporaries she was known as ‘the Hozier’. She never got over the shame she felt as a young girl.

Marriage seemed to give Clementine the stability she craved as a child, and having thwarted at least two engagements, she fell in love with Winston, an insecure young man who shared her complexities. She believed he came first, second and third in her life, and demanding so much of her attention, she was happy to leave her children in the care of staff to bolster his ego. The strained relationships with her children, especially as they aged, are touched upon, and stormy encounters with staff are revealed. Although Clementine was praised as having the ‘common touch’, she demanded complete loyalty (she disliked finding and training new staff) and certain standards were to be maintained.

Exploring Winston’s political career, with Clementine at the helm, we learn of a headstrong woman who pushed her husband to excel. On the arm of Winston, especially during wartime, she was instantly recognisable and famous in own right, but her work for the Home Front and the Red Cross (not to mention numerous charity appeals) gave her a singular purpose away from her husband. Even then, at that time, she was overshadowed by him. This battle of the sexes is apparent throughout the book, with Purnell exploring Clementine’s forward-thinking views and her sympathy for the Suffrage movement, even if Winston did not share her views. She knew she was as intelligent as any man in his Cabinet.

Mary Soames, Clementine’s youngest daughter, wrote candidly of her mother’s battle with depression in an age when little was understood about it. Purnell reveals Clementine’s hysterical outbursts, her emotional instability and, at times, her frequent rages toward Winston and her staff. And her physical health, too, was not strong. This, combined with Winston’s experience with the ‘Black Dog’ (as he called his depression), often makes for volatile passages in the book. As well as her health plaguing her, she constantly worried about money and their future together, and after he died, as a widow. I don’t think Clementine ever experienced the stability of a permanent home or being comfortably well-off. Winston’s love of gambling and extravagance contrasted with her frugality, something she was mocked for. As an old lady, she sold her paintings to fund her living expenses, but was embarrassed when pensioners began to send her tea bags because they thought she was ready for the poor house. I enjoyed the tidbits about this so-called gilded life, born into the aristocracy, and yet they were in dire straits. The concluding pages are quite touching as they detail her life without Winston and how she formed relationships with her children, and experienced the sorrow of outliving three of them – Marigold died in infancy, Diana committed suicide and Randolph died of a heart-attack.

Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill is a complex character study about a fascinating character 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.

Church of Marvels Blog Tour: A Piece by Leslie Parry

Church of Marvels cover

Like many children, I longed for superpowers. I wanted to fly, to conduct electricity, to breathe underwater. But most of all I wanted travel back in time. Conveniently enough, there was a time travel machine in my neighbor’s hedge – a crude, unfinished doorframe – and if I scurried quickly beneath, it could transport me to Travers’ London or Wilder’s Kansas prairie. (It could also revitalize my strength in the event I was hindered in an alien-robot battle.) Then there came a time when I could no longer trot out into the garden and lose myself in reverie. I was a grown-up: working in an office, riding the subway, eating potato chips for dinner while balancing my checkbook. In this new life, writing fiction – something I’d always done in one fashion or another – took on a different role. It became a way of immersing myself, sustaining myself, keeping that merry and curious part of me alive. As an adult, I found it was far too easy to lose that sense of play, to stray from the wild fields of imagination. So the world of Church of Marvels was not so much a deliberate choice on my part – I didn’t set out to research and write a piece of historical fiction – but rather, a natural, outward-growing expression of those necessary returns to daydreams.

Most of the novel was written in the small back room of my apartment, at a desk with a view of the alleyway. Staring out at that alley, with its trash bins and hopeful bird feeders, its snow drifts in winter and fizzled firecrackers in summer, the landscape began to take on a unique, otherworldly quality – it became the hairpin lanes of the Lower East Side, the corridor of Blackwell’s asylum, a misted stretch of sea. How do you write of a time you haven’t experienced? I’ve often been asked. And how do you know if you’ve done it well? Honestly, it isn’t easy. Historical fiction poses certain challenges of scope and philosophy – I wanted to honor the characters, to faithfully evoke to the world that they lived in; at the same time, I had to accept the fact that research could only take me so far (before it became a distraction, a crutch, an impediment). So I tried to read for pleasure as much as for information. I read about the history of magic lantern shows, bareknuckle boxing, medicine and opiates, hustlers, superstitions, the social and economic aftermath of the American Civil War. I read to understand the circumstances these characters would face, the backdrop and color of their everyday lives – but ultimately I had to create the New York they lived in. (Sometimes I wonder if I’ve lived more deeply in the city of my imagination than the city I’ve known for half my life.) It was a high-wire act, in the best sense. In the end, I relied on the research that was relevant, interesting, and meaningful – then I had to trust the characters to guide me the rest of the way.


Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has received an O. Henry Award, a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2013. Raised in Pasadena, California, she now lives in Chicago.

An Interview with Louisa Treger, Author of The Lodger


Louisa Treger’s stunning debut novel, The Lodger, is an account of Dorothy Richardson and her affair with H.G. Wells. Louisa has very kindly answered some questions for The Mitford Society to mark the UK release of The Lodger. You can visit Louisa’s website here, or ‘like’ her author page on Facebook by clicking here.

How long have you been writing for?

I’ve been writing for most of my life. I was the sort of kid who always kept a diary and scribbled short stories and plays. But it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started writing in a serious, disciplined way.

Clearly Dorothy Richardson and the Bloomsbury set inspire you, but what led you to turn her story into a novel that reads like fiction and not a traditional biography?

I was fascinated by the emotional lives of these characters, and so I wanted to make use of the extra licence fiction affords in order to explore this aspect. What did Dorothy feel like betraying her oldest friend (HG Wells’s wife, Jane) by sleeping with her husband? Or realising she was bisexual at a time when this was absolutely forbidden? Biographical fiction is a genre I am strongly drawn to, because there’s a framework of interesting facts on which to hang the story, yet enough wiggle room to be creative.

Did you research her story as though you were planning a biography, or did you to take liberties with the plot and embellish some things? Is it entirely factual?

My novel is a melding of fact and fiction, broadly following the known biographical outline of Dorothy’s life. I did take some liberties with the facts, and I have talked about this at greater length in the Afterword to the novel. For example, in real life, Dorothy’s friendship with HG Wells developed into a love affair over a ten year period, but I felt that narrative impetus would be lost if I stuck to this time scheme. And so I fast forwarded and had him seduce her during the course of one spring. There are several episodes in Dorothy’s life she was coy, or utterly silent about, as though they were too painful, or shaming, to be voiced. Most striking among these is her mother’s suicide, which she never referred to directly in any surviving writing. Another is the sexual nature of her relationship with Veronica Leslie Jones. Dorothy was never explicit about this; she simply referred to nights spent together. These omissions – or repressions – formed a significant part of my novel. In fact, bringing them to life was one of the most interesting parts of writing about Dorothy’s life.

Biographies written as historical fiction were a huge trend last year. How easy was it for you to get an agent and get published? Can you describe your journey as a writer?

I always wanted to take the traditional path to publication. It was a long journey! Rejection letters from both agents and publishers were part of it. I’m a living example that persistence pays off! Signing up with a good agent was a turning point. His editorial input transformed The Lodger, shaping it into something that publishers were willing to consider. To tell you the truth, I don’t feel that my struggle has ended with publication of The Lodger. I am always striving to be a better writer.

What is your next novel about?

My next novel is about a girl who was part of the Kinderstransport – the rescue mission that brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to England from Nazi occupied Europe. They left their families to go to the care of strangers, in a foreign country whose language they only had the barest grasp of. They didn’t know what would happen to them, or if they would see their parents again. The novel describes how the girl and her descendants adjust to English life.

And last but not least, I know you’re a fan of the Mitfords. Who is your favourite? And whose story would you like to adapt into a novel?

My favourite was Jessica. She was funny and irreverent; she was the most rebellious of the sisters and she was also very brave. She embraced communism and rallied against racial discrimination, she eloped with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly, and married him despite her family’s disapproval, she became a crusading journalist in the USA. She was rather inept at domestic tasks, which I find endearing. She hated housework, rarely cooked and raised her children in a spirit of “benign neglect”.

Evelyn Waugh & The Mitfords by Jeffrey Manley

Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. I. Copyright of Jeffrey Manley/The Mitford Society

Evelyn Waugh was a close friend of two of the Mitford sisters (Nancy and Diana), and an acquaintance of a third (Deborah). Waugh met Nancy in the late 1920s in connection with his courtship of, and marriage to, Evelyn Gardner (“She-Evelyn”). Nancy was, at the time, a close friend of She-Evelyn and was present at the 1927 party in She-Evelyn’s flat to which Alec Waugh (by then a successful novelist) brought his younger brother (“He-Evelyn”). It was there that He-Evelyn met his future wife for the first time. Nancy was also She-Evelyn’s companion during the periods in 1929 when He-Evelyn left their marital flat in Islington for extended periods to write Vile Bodies. It was in these absences that She-Evelyn started her affair with John Heygate, which resulted in the dissolution of her marriage. Nancy was said to have been unaware of the affair prior to the break-up. Nancy ended her friendship with She-Evelyn after the separation but remained on friendly terms with Waugh.

It has been suggested that it was Waugh who encouraged Nancy to write, and many of her early novels resemble Waugh’s own early comic works. Some literary scholars have also described two of Nancy’s post-war novels (Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love) as having been inspired to some extent by the success of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It is also widely accepted that Nancy’s husband Peter Rodd, to whom she was unhappily married for over 20 years, contributed heavily to the character of Basil Seal, who appears in several of Waugh’s novels. In addition, Waugh’s 1948 novel The Loved One is dedicated to Nancy and she was godmother to Waugh’s daughter, Harriet. Nancy dedicated her 1951 novel, The Blessing, to Waugh.

Nancy and Waugh engaged in an extended correspondence which began after they had both established themselves as writers. Their regular correspondence dates from the last years of the war and concludes with Waugh’s death in 1966. During this period they commented on each others work, sometimes seeking and offering advice on works-in-progress. Waugh’s friend, novelist Anthony Powell, commented that Waugh “got more from Nancy about upper-class life than he would probably have cared to admit.” (Anthony Powell, Journals: 1900-1992, London, 1997, p. 98) Most of their correspondence has survived and was published in 1996 where it is described by editor Charlotte Mosley in her preface as, “like overhearing a conversation between two quick-witted, provocative, very funny friends, who know the same people, read the same books, laugh at the same jokes and often share the same prejudices.”

Waugh was also, but more briefly, a close friend of Diana Mitford, whom he met in 1929. Waugh knew her first husband Bryan Guinness from Oxford. After the break-up of his marriage, Waugh lived for extended periods during 1929-30 with the Guinnesses. He wrote the last part of his novel Vile Bodies while visiting them, and most of his travel book Labels was written while he stayed by himself in their summer house in Sussex. Both of those books are dedicated to them, and he gave them the original typescript of Vile Bodies when it was published in January 1930. (This typescript was sold by their son, Jonathan, in 1984 for £55,000.)

Waugh also seems to have become infatuated with Diana while visiting with them in their Paris residence during the confinement for her first pregnancy. After the child (Jonathan) was born, she resumed a more active social life, and Waugh felt neglected. He was godfather to Jonathan, but after the baptism they maintained a more distant friendship, meeting infrequently. They each were married a second time, he to Laura Herbert and she to Oswald Mosley.

Just before Waugh’s death, their correspondence resumed, and they effectively sought each other’s forgiveness for the rupture that had occurred in 1930. In this late correspondence, they also acknowledged indirectly that Diana to some extent contributed to the character of Lucy in Waugh’s novel fragment Work Suspended. Waugh’s last published letter was on this subject. It was sent to Diana on 30 March 1966, and he died a little over a week later.

Waugh met the youngest Mitford sister, Deborah, at a drunken Christmas party in Wiltshire near where her husband, Andrew Devonshire, was stationed during the war. The first impression was not a favorable one, as Waugh’s debauched behaviour rather shocked Deborah, who seems to have shared her negative impression with her sisters. In her memoirs (p. 116), Deborah recalled that at one point Waugh “poured a bottle of Green Chartreuse over his head and, rubbing it into his hair, intoned, ‘My hair is covered in gum, my hair is covered in gum,’ while the sticky mess ran down his neck.” When Waugh learned of her discomposure, he made an effort to repair his reputation by sending her a hat from Paris shortly after the war.

Waugh’s standing was sufficiently restored to merit an invitation several years later to Chatsworth House, but he again put his foot in it by complaining that a chamber pot in his room had remained un-emptied. This was probably intended as a joke but engendered more correspondence among the Mitford sisters in which Deborah expressed her chagrin at his behaviour. On this occasion, Waugh seems to have restored himself by sending Deborah a presentation copy of his biography of the Roman Catholic theologian Ronald Knox. It was accompanied by a letter assuring Deborah that nothing in the book “would offend her Protestant persuasion.” When she later opened the book, she found that the copy she had been sent consisted of blank pages. In this instance, she got the joke.

Jeffrey Manley is a retired lawyer and member of the Evelyn Waugh Society. He lives in Austin, Texas. Visit the Evelyn Waugh Society at

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry


A ravishing first novel set in the vibrant, tumultuous underworld of late-19th-century New York, about four young outsiders whose lives become entwined over the course of one fateful night.

New York City, 1895, the island of Manhattan is a melting pot of culture, much like modern day NYC, without the seedier aspects being swept underground and exploited as ‘niche’ to those who wish to indulge. My great great great grandfather, David Saqui, was in Manhattan around this time, the son (and black sheep) of Italian-Cuban parents, working as a singing waiter. I know he grew up on Chelsea’s ‘golden mile’ in an apartment above his father’s cigar and port wine shop. So, this era of life in New York has always fascinated me. Set during the Gilded Age, this is the city from an outsider’s point of view.

It is on a warm night that Sylvan Threadgill, a young night soiler finds a newborn baby girl whilst cleaning out the privies behind the tenements. An orphan himself, Sylvan takes pity on the baby and is determined to find out where she belongs. Odile Church is part of a sideshow act in a circus that has long lost its magic. She and her twin sister, Belle, were raised on the stage, performing in their mother’s theatre, the Church of Marvels. The theatre burns to the ground, and their mother, Friendship Church, perishes along with it, and Belle escapes to Manhattan. Alphie wakes up in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum, the last thing she remembers is blood on the floor and her Italian mother-in-law screaming. She had once been a prostitute and a penny-Rembrandt, cleaning up drunken revelers, but now she’s the wife of Anthony, an undertaker from a respectable home. Belle was committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors, Alphie knows this young woman harbours a dark secret that will alter the course of both of their lives…

Leslie Parry offers a tight-knit cast of characters, luckless and destitute, and striving for acceptance, whether it is in love, in their profession or in society. She shows us the secret worlds of children living in the gutters and tunnels, underage prostitutes, the filthy tenements on the Lower East Side and the regular haunts of misfits. Her knowledge of the streets, the undergrounds and the shortcuts throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, is impressive. Each twist and turn, the rattling of the carriages, the stench of the river and the hustle and bustle of Coney Island, leaves us breathless. The freaks of the circus, the language of the guttersnipes, the imagined scenarios and flashbacks, are crass and startling. As is the barbaric treatment of the inmates of Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum, and the desperation of unmarried, pregnant women, suffering shame and selling their babies.

Expertly written and jarringly realistic to the plight of the misfit, Church of Marvels will stay with you long after the show is over.