Why Does the Britain of the Early 1900s Intrigue and Delight So Many of Us? By Tessa Arlen

Following the publication of her second novel, Death Sits Down to Dinner, Tessa Arlen gives The Mitford Society a lesson in Edwardian etiquette.


Today the great houses of Britain’s landed aristocracy with their vast, exquisite and often drafty interiors and views of sweeping parkland attest to the power of rank and wealth of a bygone age. They also provide a stunning backdrop for elegantly clothed men and women with gracious manners who star in numerous costume dramas. We are presently enraptured by the first two decades of the 1900s.

Let us ignore for the moment those gracious country houses that have survived to continue to provide their families with shelter, by providing the public with a place to picnic, or watch a steam engine rally, or drive through a safari park. It is a spectacularly golden July day and you have been invited for a Saturday-to-Monday, as the Edwardians called a weekend, to one of their glorious country houses. Here is a little advice to bear in mind for your short stay, after all you might want to be invited back!

Whatever you do don’t alienate the servants. It is important not to underestimate how the Edwardians related to those who ensured their comfort and provided them with flawless and devoted service. Servants employed in the great houses were part of the family, but not of it; a sizable distinction because it relies on generations of subtle understanding of the polite, but offhand tact, used by the uppers when they addressed the lower orders. Butlers, footmen and personal maids will be extraordinarily unforgiving if you wear incorrect attire for the country, and cruelly punishing if you are either patronizingly familiar or arrogantly dismissive. So beware! The butler and the housekeeper will be far more intimidating than the charmingly eccentric dowager duchess or that affable old colonel you will be seated next to when you arrive in time for tea.

Your Edwardian great-grandmother would have been able to give you some good advice. Huge pointers for your comportment this weekend would be restraint, restraint, and more restraint in a way we can’t begin to imagine today. Your great-grandmother would be the first to remind you to lower your voice to a well-modulated murmur, that it is rude to interrupt, or even be too enthusiastic. Do not comment on your surroundings, the magnificence of the house, or marvel at the deliciousness of your dinner. You are not on a ‘girls’ night out’, no matter how confiding and wickedly risqué your new Edwardian girlfriends appear to be, or how many glasses of wine the footman pours for you at dinner. So sorry I meant to say self-restraint – just place your hand palm down over your wine glass to indicate no thank you, when you feel a delighted shriek start to emerge.

This was a time when women were treated like goddesses . . . then they married and were kept at home to incubate an heir and a spare. While the men at your country house weekend might enjoy shooting and fishing, you are encouraged to watch and applaud, but not join to in. By all means pick up that croquet mallet if that is your sort of thing, and certainly a game of lawn tennis is permitted, if you can actually move in your pretty afternoon dress and that killing corset. When the gentlemen sit back to their port and a cigar after dinner your hostess will beckon you away with the other women – important that you go with them. Despite the luxurious existence of the early 1900s, most women today would find it impossible to live the hidebound, restricted life of early 20th century women. So after you have lugged in the groceries after a hard day at the office, made dinner and then helped the kids with their homework before putting them to bed, just in time to collapse on the sofa to catch an episode of Downton, try not to sigh too deeply when Mathew Crawley goes down on one knee in the swirling snow to propose to Lady Mary. Most of us would have been Ivy slogging away in the scullery and not Lady Grantham reading a novel in the drawing room.

Did the Edwardian Shangri-La portrayed in Downton Abbey ever really exist even for the upper classes? The short answer is ‘Yes’ if you were Lord Grantham and not his servant, his wife or any of his daughters. If you have a problem not seeking to right the inequities of life, then don’t get on that train at London’s Marylebone station for the country. Certainly there were drunken, abusive husbands, negligent and thoughtless parents, spendthrifts and philanderers in the Edwardian age . . . and wronged wives looked the other way. The trick to coping with the darker side of human nature, if you were of society, was that it must never be referred to, never confided and most definitely never publicly acknowledged. However if you are an egalitarian at heart and social ostracism doesn’t bother you too much, you might join Mrs. Pankhurst’s suffragettes and loudly proclaim your opinions. I have heard that Holloway Prison was equipped with a special wing for militant members of the WSPU.

The third housemaid will unpack your trunk for you – five changes of clothes a day for three days need an awful lot of tissue paper. Here’s a titillating scrap of fresh society gossip to share with the company – gossip was the spice of Edwardian life –a substitute for reality TV. Gladys, the Marchioness of Ripon, an ultra-sophisticate with a ‘past’ was a wonderful example of the Edwardian double-standard and loved to gossip with her close coterie of friends. Alone in her lover’s house one day she discovered a pile of rivetingly indiscreet love letters written to him by one of her social adversaries, Lady Londonderry. Gladys swiped the lot and generously shared the juicy bits – read aloud after dinner – to her closest friends. After the fun was over she honorably returned the letters to their author at Londonderry House –when she knew husband and wife were dining alone. The butler approached his lordship and handed over the ribbon-bound bundle. After studying the contents, in silence, Lord Londonderry directed his butler to carry the letters to the other end of the dining table. Silence still reigned as Lady Londonderry came to terms with her awful predicament, a silence that was never broken between the two of them again. Far worse than having an affair, Lady Londonderry had ‘let down the side’. Adultery was a fact of life, indiscretion unforgivable; to be the subject of common gossip shameful and the scandal of divorce out of the question. Lord Londonderry never spoke to his wife in private again, and maintained a distant, cold courtesy to her in public for the rest of their long marriage.

So much more entertaining than a splashy tabloid divorce, don’t you think?

Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Cairo, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She went to the U.S. in 1980 and worked as an H.R. recruiter for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. She is the author of the Lady Montfort mystery series. And lives on an island in the Puget Sound, Washington.

The Misadventures of Enid Lindeman


Originally published in The Mitford Society; Vol. III

Standing at six-feet tall with handsome features and platinum hair, Enid Lindeman was never going to be a wallflower. As she gallivanted through life she accumulated four husbands, numerous lovers, and during the inter-war years her high-jinx dominated the gossip columns. Evelyn Waugh satirized her set in Vile Bodies, but the workings of his menacing imagination paled in comparison to the real thing.

Born in Australia in 1892, she was the great granddaughter of Henry Lindeman, who founded Lindeman Wines in Hunter Valley, New South Wales. A privileged, if nondescript, childhood inspired Enid to look for a life of glamour and excitement. She achieved this at the age of twenty-one when she married Roderick Cameron, an American shipping magnate twenty-four years her senior. Establishing herself as a New York socialite, Enid would stop traffic (‘the better to view this vision of perfection’) when she emerged from the Cameron building in Manhattan. But the celebrated marriage was short-lived when, a year later, Cameron died from cancer, leaving his young wife a fortune of several million dollars.

The year was 1914 and the newly widowed Enid left New York with her nine-month-old son to move to Paris to drive an ambulance for the war effort. With her beauty, charm and charisma, she became popular with officers, and it was reported that five men, having found her so irresistible, committed suicide. (One blew himself up; another threw himself under Le Train Bleu; another jumped overboard in shark infested waters). Or, as Enid put it, ‘They were not able to take the strain.’ An old boyfriend, Lord Derby, Britain’s Minister for War, was concerned about the havoc she was causing amongst the officers and, hoping to tame her, he suggested she remarry. Although a millionairess in her own right, Enid was incapable of handling her finances and, to ease this fiscal responsibility, she agreed. Derby produced her next husband, Brigadier General Frederick Cavendish, known as ‘Caviar’.

After the war, Caviar was given command of the 9th Lancers in Egypt. As she had done in Paris, Enid caused a sensation amongst her husband’s comrades in Cairo and, as a dare, she reportedly slept with his entire regiment. By day she schooled her husband’s polo ponies and by night she dressed as a man to play with the band in the officers’ mess hall. Cairo suited Enid’s flamboyant tastes: there were picnics by the Nile, parties in sandstone mansions, and rides by moonlight in the Sahara. She met Lord Carnarvon (another of her lovers) on his famous dig of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and was one of the first to be taken down to the discovery.

In an attempt to distance Enid from hedonistic influences, Caviar took his wife, stepson, and their two children to London, where the family moved into a townhouse in Mayfair. Domesticity never appealed to Enid, and she continued her pleasure-seeking ways in London’s nightclubs. However, in 1931, she was once again a widow when Caviar died from a cerebral hemorrhage at their apartment in Paris.

In 1933, she met and married Marmaduke ‘Duke’ Furness, the 1st Viscount Furness, whose second wife, Thelma, was a lover of the Prince of Wales. (His first wife, Daisy, had died on board his yacht and he buried her at sea). Although immensely rich with a private railroad car, two yachts and an aeroplane, Furness ordered Enid to sign over her personal fortune to him. Furness’s London townhouse, Lees Place, was not large enough ‘to hide’ Enid’s three children from his sight, so she rented a flat on Curzon Street for the children and their staff. Suspicious that Enid was not being faithful, and intolerant to her platonic (a rarity) friendships with men, Furness hired detectives to watch her when he was at home and abroad. In spite of his jealousy, he showered her with expensive gifts and granted her every whim, one being exotic pets which included a tame cheetah, walked everyday by the children and their governess. A sensation wherever she went, it was said that people stood on chairs in the lobby of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo just to catch sight of her as she passed through. Out of all her husbands, Enid claimed to love Furness the most: ‘There was nothing in the world he was not prepared to give me. Of all the men who loved me, and some were as rich as Duke, he was the one who was prepared to lay the world at my feet.’

A terrific gambler, Enid loved the races and casinos, and often carried a bag stuffed with £10 notes. Irresponsible with money, she squandered a fortune, and was as equally flippant with her jewels, keeping her pearls in Kleenex boxes because they were the closest thing to hand. She was also generous with money: if she saw ex-servicemen begging on the street or sitting on the pavement next to their watercolours for sale, she would order her chauffeur to stop the car, whereupon she would get out and offer them a job or find them a home. To the disapproval of Furness, she would take her children on jaunts to the suburbs to visit the ex-servicemen for whom she had found homes.

Furness died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1940. After his death, his former wife, Thelma, contested the will, claiming that their son should inherit his estate. After a long legal battle, Furness’s eldest son (having been reported as missing in action) from his first wife was declared dead and the law sided with Thelma. Enid was not rewarded the money she had surrendered to Furness when they were married, but she was permitted to keep Lees Place in London. With the war raging around them, Enid and her daughter decamped to their villa in the south of France, where they tended to prisoners from the detention camp near Eze. Two years later, they escaped France and travelled to London by way of Portugal, where Enid used her influence to secure them passage on a flying boat.

In London, Enid was dubbed ‘The Penniless Peeress’ by the press. Down on her luck, she met Valentine Browne, the Earl of Kenmare, and famous gossip writer of the Londoner’s Log (then known as Castlerosse because of his former title Viscount Castlerosse). The confidant and travelling companion of the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, Valentine had lived an excessive life of debauchery, and had been a close friend and lover of Enid’s when they both lived in Paris during WWI. Divorced from the scandalous courtesan Doris Delevingne, he was hoping for a more stable wife.

They were married in 1943, and Enid became Lady Kenmare. An enormous gentleman who was reported to have sat on a dog and crushed it to death, Valentine’s doctor warned Enid that he had a weak heart and was to abstain from sex as it would surely kill him. She rejected the doctor’s advice: ‘It was one of the only pleasures left to him in life. How could I ration him?’ He died of a heart attack less than a year after they were married. In her boldest move yet, Enid, at the age of fifty-two, claimed she was pregnant and as such could hold onto the Kenmare estate until the potential heir was born. She kept up the charade for thirteen months until the estate was eventually given to Valentine’s nephew. Having buried four husbands, Somerset Maugham dubbed Enid, ‘Lady Killmore’.

A chameleon to all the men she had fallen in love with, Enid would become their ideal woman and their interests would become hers. As her wealth grew, through inheritance and marriages, her life became a grand production. All purchases centred around the bedchamber: there were silk sheets and embroidered silk and lace pillowslips (changed everyday), and nightgowns and negligees were bought in abundance. The bedroom, her natural habitat, was sprayed with liberal amounts of Patou’s Joy, then costing three times more than any other scent, and a lady’s maid was ordered to spray the nightgowns and negligees, as well as the bedclothes. Leaving the beside lamp on, the maid would then open the door to Enid’s bathroom and fill the bath to a certain level with hot water and scent. Presumably Enid, whenever she returned, would add more hot water to it. However, Enid was never seen in bed with a man, not even her husband, for she considered that ‘vastly improper’.

It was a role she knew well, and with copious amounts of money at her disposal, Enid played the part to perfection. Having outlived her lovers, in her later years she presided over La Fiorentina, her son’s villa in the south of France – a hub for Hollywood royalty. She died in 1973 at the age of eighty-one.

Enid features in my forthcoming book, The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne (The History Press, Nov 2016).

Book News


Hello Mitties!

I am excited to share with you the news that my book on Margaret Lockwood, the British film star, will be published by Fantom Films in July. The book has been a labour of love and several years in the making, and it will be released ahead of Margaret’s centenary in September 2016. Although this is a new genre for me, it still fits on the spectrum of British heritage and is very much keeping within the era that I write about. My other forthcoming book, The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne, is still on track for a November release.

Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen is available for pre-order. 


Kick Kennedy-Part Two

[The introduction below is a recap from Kick Kennedy – Part One]

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


The acclaimed author Paula Byrne’s biography of Kick Kennedy first caught my attention before I realised Barbara Leaming also had a biography, written on the same subject, coming out. While both women know their subject extremely well, their respective biographies are entirely different. For instance, Leaming bypasses much of the Kennedy info to focus entirely on Kick and the aristocratic cousinhood, whereas Byrne explores Kick’s Kennedy forebears in remarkable detail. For someone who knows a little about the Kennedys but virtually nothing on their background and upbringing, this was helpful. It’s also a great insight as to how Kick, an American girl, shook up the aristocracy on the eve of WW2.

As with her previous books, Paula Byrne has undertaken a mountain of research to not only present her subject between the pages of this fabulous book, but to offer informative context. I felt as though I’d known Kick’s parents and siblings, and this shaped my understanding of Kick herself and why, even though I know a great deal about this era, she was viewed as a whirlwind by her future in-laws. We all know how the story petered out and how it ended, but what happens before, during and after is as magical as it is poignant.

I don’t like to parallel the two biographies too much in case I risk persuading a reader to opt for one instead of the other (honestly, purchase both), but I feel the need to highlight the difference in how the Kennedy backstory is treated. Here, we have the best of both worlds. Whereas Barbara Leaming has written several books on members of the Kennedy family, Paula Byrne has written about Kick’s English circle, and therefore both authors understand their subject’s backstory, albeit from different points of view – as demonstrated in their works.

Although she died at twenty-eight, this biography is not as pithy as Kick’s lifespan. As an individual, as well as the wife of a future duke, she managed to encapsulate many experiences in her short life. From Kennedy offspring, to debutante, to journalist and Red Cross army nurse, her own achievements were many. But it is, perhaps, the tragic love story between Kick and Billy Cavendish which stands out and the question, which I am sure Debo often felt, was ‘what might have been?’

Paula Byrne’s biography is a sympathetic portrait of a girl living during a complex time, and who might have been the queen of high society, had she been given the chance.


Kick Kennedy – Part One

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



The Mitford Society Loves

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


Faith and Beauty by Jane Thynne

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


A Man of Genius by Janet Todd

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


The Shadow Hour by Kate Riordan

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

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


All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani

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


The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman

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

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

Society Star: The Life and Times of Lady Massereene


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

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

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

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

Far from defeated by the heightened tensions in the town, Lady Massereene founded a corps of nurses, named the Volunteer Aid Attachment Corps. The training consisted of five weeks with the Red Cross or St John Ambulance to ensure the women were equipped to care for volunteers if they went into battle. A dressing station was established in Randalstown, while Antrim Castle and the O’Neill seat, Shane’s Castle, were on standby to be transformed into clearing hospitals.

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

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

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

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

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

In 1923, a claim was made, and eventually rejected, for £90,000 for malicious damage. Damning evidence was presented before the court in Belfast, including a paraffin barrel that was full before the fire and now found to be empty. The windows of the basement were also discovered to be forced open, thus allowing the flames to spread more quickly. Anonymous letters, too, were touched upon (she showed her husband but not the police) in which Lady Massereene was warned she would soon ‘meet her maker’. Such letters were sent in retaliation to Lady Massereene’s pro-Unionist speeches in which she said: ‘Let’s arm ourselves that Ulster will never surrender an inch of her soil or title of right to the insidious bloody foe.’ The Massereenes believed the fire was started intentionally as the castle did not burn down as a result of a single fire. The water supply in the cisterns had been tampered with and several items that had been saved from the fire were found to be covered in mineral oil. During the investigation, Lady Massereene was questioned about the repairs that had been carried out on the fireplaces. She replied that, owing to a dream she had had ten years previously that a fire had broken out in her boudoir, she made a conscious effort to have the grate in her bedroom replaced.

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She knew who he was then.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

Guest Post: Love and Ginger Biscuits by Jolien Janzing



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: The Maverick Mountaineer by Robert Wainwright


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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