The Mitford Society’s Annual

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Things have been very Mitford orientated this week; The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life will be available in America from tomorrow onwards (1 November). It seems odd to think that it has been almost a year since Mark at The History Press commissioned my book, how time flies! I am always happiest when prowling through archived articles, old photos and listening to other people’s stories so I came up with an idea to edit an annual for The Mitford Society. I’ve given this project the code name ‘Posh Beano.’

Why an annual? The internet is a marvel and I’m so happy with how The Mitford Society has grown over the past few years. I’m also grateful for everyone’s support and, of course, to the people who allow me to interview them for this companion blog. I’m slowly establishing myself as a go-to person for info on aristocrats from that era and this has given me the idea to expand The Mitford Society. The internet does not have the same appeal as flicking through a nice book and being able to look through past posts etc at one’s own leisure. It will also give friends of The Mitford Society a chance to share their own Mitford knowledge in a unique way.

Thankfully a lot of people share my view and in the past few days I have managed to compile an amazing list of contributors. I have designed the book cover (see photo) and have been busy editing some pieces which people have already sent in. I want the annual to be available for Christmas and have set a tight deadline of Nov 30. It will be available in print and electronic form and will retail for the price of a fashion magazine. The money will then be generated into an official website for The Mitford Society which will allow me to share the many archived things which cannot be posted on Facebook or on here. It will also give the information a neat and permanent element which will be readily available.

If you would like to contribute to the annual please get in touch at mitfordsociety@gmail.com or contact me on the facebook page.

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An interview with Judith Kinghorn

ImageWhen I asked Judith Kinghorn if I could conduct an interview with her I had no idea that I’d just let myself in for a very tall order. First of all she has already provided an extensive question and answer section on her website which covered the most basic questions to the most complex. I had to put on my thinking cap and dream up some questions which would make her want to co-operate, she is, after all, a bestselling author and a busy one at that! Thankfully I managed to ask her Mitford related questions and she provided very detailed answers. Click here to visit Judith’s personal website.

How long have you been an admirer of the Mitford girls and how did this happen?
I read ‘The Pursuit of Love’ by Nancy Mitford when I was seventeen and away at boarding school. It was a novel doing the rounds at that time, and despite having been published for almost four decades everyone raved about it. Needless to say I loved it; loved the characters, the wit, and the dazzlingly sharp observations. After that, I read ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ and ‘Wigs on the Green’ and, a few years later, Mary S Lovell’s wonderful book, ‘The Mitford Girls’. Since then, I’ve read many books – either about them or by them, including Anne de Courcy’s biography of Diana Mosley, ‘Hons and Rebels’ by Jessica Mitford, and ‘Debs at War’ also by Anne de Courcy. Last year I read ‘Wait for Me’ by Deborah Devonshire and ‘In Tearing Haste’ (the letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh-Fermor); and I’m always dipping into my Penguin copy of ‘The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh’, which is brilliantly witty and bitchy and funny.

Do the Mitfords inspire the plots and characters of your novels?
I‘ve not been conscious of it, but I’m sure that they’re there – somewhere! Whenever I’m researching, I read biographies, letters, memoirs and novels from that particular time, not only for details and historic context, but in order to try and capture the voice(s) and language. There’s no doubt that my reading – including some of the books I’ve just mentioned – helps me do that.

Have you ever based a (future) character on a specific Mitford girl? And if so, which one was it?
I haven’t based any character on a Mitford girl and I don’t think I would ever attempt to. My characters are all fictitious. There are influences there, of course, from reading about various people’s lives, but they tend to be an amalgamation of influences and impressions, and are always filtered through my imagination.

Dead or alive, which member of the Mitford family would you invite to a dinner party?
Either Nancy or Deborah. I’d love to have both! In fact, I’d love to have them all, so that I could sit back and watch the dynamics and interplay between them all. And of course, I’d have my notebook and pen there!

Who is your favourite Mitford girl and why?
I’m not sure. I think they are/were all fascinating in different ways… But perhaps Nancy: because she was the novelist and because she was so clever and funny.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication?
My début, The Last Summer, was borne from a desire to write a first person narrative, one set around the time of the First World War and told from a female perspective. I’d already done a huge amount of research for another novel I’d been working on, but I had this itch to write something more romantic and intimate. At first, the idea was simply to write something for myself. I didn’t think of it as The Novel, the one that would get me a book deal. I didn’t think about publication at all. But after six months of writing – and loving it – I had a first draft, and decided I had nothing to lose by emailing the first chapters to a few agents. One came back to me very quickly – within a couple of hours – requesting the full manuscript and an ‘exclusive’ (which meant I couldn’t show the work to anyone else). I agreed. At that time the novel wasn’t quite finished, but a couple of months later, once I’d finished writing and editing, it was auctioned and I had a book deal.

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Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Read! And read widely. Read the classics, read as much as you can by truly great authors and those respected and successful in their genre. Study the craft of writing through them. Then, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite; hone and polish your work until it shines.

What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m currently working on my third novel, which is set between the late 1920s and the Second World War. Similar to ‘The Last Summer’, it’s the story of a large dysfunctional family – and this time, one with four daughters! It’s about the rise and fall in their fortunes, their loves and losses. I’m really enjoying writing it, so I very much hope that readers will enjoy it, too!

A Honnish Reunion

The following is an extract from The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life and is subject to copyright and should not be reproduced elsewhere.

Jessica’s American Life

“We lead an extremely un-Duchessy life here.”-Jessica to Deborah, 1951.

In October 1951, Deborah planned her stateside visit to Jessica. Before the impending visit, Jessica wrote to Deborah, to forewarn her of a few domestic things, mainly highlighting the smallness of their suburban home in contrast to the grandeur of Chatsworth. Deborah, now a duchess, would have to (from a lofty point of view) slum it in America. Jessica specifically alerted Deborah’s attention to:

-The sleeping arrangements: Deborah would have to sleep on a sofa in the dining room because there was no spare room. Deborah could stay in a hotel, but there were some factors standing in her way, mainly the rule that a visitor could not bring more than $25.00 into America. “So you will be at our mercy once here,” Jessica warned her. -Daily life was very uncertain for Jessica. Many of her friends were being arrested and she wasn’t sure if she would be next. “Not that we expect to be, but I’m just warning you,” Jessica confided.

-Jessica worked day and night for civil rights organizations, but naturally she would take one or two weeks off work to entertain Deborah. However, should an emergency arise, she would have to “scram” back to work.

-Deborah must avoid making a serious error like Muv, who before her visit had cabled Jessica: “Am considering smuggling some things into US to sell, please suggest best things to bring.” Jessica was convinced the FBI would send customs to raid her house.

Deborah’s First Impressions

After receiving Jessica’s cautionary tale, Deborah braced herself for the worst, and upon her arrival, immediately penned her feelings to Diana, confiding that the entire first impression had caused her “such a turn.” As soon as she regained her composure, Deborah gathered her thoughts:

-Jessica appeared as a stranger to her, she had “lost all colour, even her eyes look different.” Nonetheless, Deborah quickly concluded that people often physically changed between the ages of twenty and thirty-five.

-The hot Californian climate was “dreadful” and “airless” and “must be bad for people.” It certainly wasn’t Blighty.

-Jessica’s American accent startled her the most. Not only had she adopted an American accent, but she also said “completely American sentences.” When Deborah asked her how old Bob was, she answered, “Pushing forty.”

-Again, Deborah in a state of trauma, added, “It’s the voice I can’t get over.”

-Needless to say, Deborah checked into a hotel.

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In Feburary 1952, Debo finally travelled to America by airplane and the stops from London to San Francisco for refueling seemed endless. When Debo landed she felt weary and bemused at the sight of Decca, Bob and their three children; Dinky, Nicholas and Benjamin, waiting for her at the airport.

    ‘And there was Decca. A new person, trousered, American in appearance and accent – someone I did not recognize. It was the oddest sensation and filled me with a feeling of intense loneliness. What was I doing, thousands of miles from home, meeting a stranger who had once meant more to me than anyone in the world?’
Wait for Me, p. 164

Debo’s engagement book for her week in California read: Tuesday 12th February: dinner with more Communists. It is interesting to note, as Debo wrote in Wait for Me, that King George VI had died a week earlier and the left-wing extremists of California did not miss an opportunity to challenge Debo on her royalist views. Debo was thrown into the deep end, and although she had survived the sparring matches between Nancy and Farve at their dining table, these dinner guests had an intentional sting in their tails. None of the guests, Debo rightly opined, had ever been to England yet they launched into a ‘bitter criticism’ of everything she knew. Whenever Debo attempted to defend herself against their tirades, they laughed in her face and greeted her with, ‘You would say that, wouldn’t you.’ One evening Debo was a spectator in their argument on how to do away with the royal family. ‘Manners were not they priority,’ she said.

Despite the hostility from Decca’s Communist friends, Debo praised her sister and Bob for being generous guests. They treated Debo to a delightful stay in Carmel where she experienced ‘brunch’ for the first time and thought it ‘perfect’ – all of her favourite foods laid out in one meal. As they were leaving Debo was puzzled as to why Decca had packed the hotel towels, she questioned her action and was met with: ‘They are lovely and white and ours are horribly grey.’ When Debo said, ‘Hen, that’s stealing.’ Decca replied, ‘Oh, it’s all right, hotels are insured for that sort of thing.’ Debo, by her own admittance, had turned into the ‘old Conservative policeman’.

The visit, for Debo, had been tense but during the trip glimmers of the old Decca shone through. Decca’s new life, the foreign customs of America, and the unchivalrous behaviour of the dinner guests contributed to a feeling of bewilderment. The ‘bright spot’ was Dinky, who at the age of nine astonished Debo with her practicality, and the trip served to create a lifelong bond between the two.
ImageWhen Debo returned to England she received a letter from Decca confiding that her friends were delighted in meeting a real life Duchess. Debo, in return, sent Decca a charming photograph of herself and Andrew wearing their ceremonial robes. ‘Being active’ she scribbled underneath.

Muv’s American Adventure

Muv had grown up travelling around the Orient and the south of France, and she was not unaccustomed to long journeys, always by sea, on her father’s yachts. Such a seasoned traveller, she wore a sailor suit until she was 18. Though, after she was married, Muv’s travels seemed limited to Europe; trips to Dieppe to visit Aunt Natch, ice-skating holidays in Switzerland, reunions with Unity in Munich via Switzerland and ‘cultural cruises’ around the Med with the three youngest girls: Unity, Decca and Debo. And she often persevered with long voyages to Canada with Farve to his fruitless gold mine. Wartime restrictions and Unity’s delicate health (post suicide attempt) limited Muv’s travels somewhat, but in 1948, she surprised everyone when she booked an impromptu plane ticket to California.

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Muv’s American adventure was a surprise visit which both moved and unnerved Decca; the invitation was prompted by Dinky, then 7 years old, when she wrote: ‘I wish you would come see us in Oakland one day.’ Muv jumped at the chance to visit her granddaughter and readily cabled Decca with the necessary travel arrangements. It had been almost a decade since Muv and Decca had met, although they often wrote to one another, and Decca admitted to being in ‘a state of terror’ at their reunion.

Darling Muv,

We are terrifically excited about your visit here. When I got your telegram it was all mixed up, so I got the impression you were planning to smuggle some English goods into the country in order to get dollars. This probably wouldn’t work and anyhow shouldn’t be mentioned in a telegram as telegrams are checked by the authorities. I had no idea one could telephone England but the call went through in no time…Actually, if you can go by plane direct to San Francisco, there won’t be any problem about money, as we would meet you there and take you straight to our house…
    There is only one thing that concerns me, and that’s the possibility of newspaper publicity over your visit. As you know I live in terror of reporters and this is just the kind of thing they might pick up. Most newspapers get a list of incoming plane passengers. Could you look into the possibility of traveling under another name?…(Be sure to let us know what it is!) Above all, don’t talk to any reporters. Simply ignore them, it’s the only way…[D]o bring the Daily Express Song Book, as we have a piano, also family pictures to show Bob & Dink.
    We are really awfully excited that you’re coming & I hope the trip won’t be too awful. Personally I hate flying, it gives me such a frightful headache. But I’ve only done it with Dink when I’ve had the problem of convincing the airport people that she is under 2 so we wouldn’t have to pay her fare. Last time we did this she was 5, we had to wrap her in a blanket with just her head showing & give her a bottle. She was hopeless & kept asking technical questions about the plane’s engine etc.
    I can’t wait for you to see the children…
    Love & longin to see you, Decca.

(Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford by Peter Y. Sussman, p. 130)

Once again, Dinky, broke the initial awkwardness when she brightly asked, ‘Granny Muv, when are you going to scold Decca for running away?’ They appropriately responded with shrieks of laughter, and from then on Muv threw herself into Decca’s American life, she even made potato salad for Decca’s Communist Party comrades. Muv thought Decca’s house ‘wonderful and very pretty’ in comparison to the ‘awfully hideous’ English houses with sham Gothic design and stained glass windows. Following her conclusion of American architecture, Muv thought Oakland was like a ‘musical comedy stage set’.  She was impressed by everything Decca seemed to do: ‘Clever Little D., to make such a lovely meatloaf!’ And Muv, always so suspicious of food, seemed to enjoy American cuisine, joyfully consuming hamburgers and waffles prepared by Bob. Though, some Americanisms managed to get lost in translation. In the supermarket, Dinky began to yell in her California accent, ‘Penny! I want a penny!’
    ‘Oh…panier,‘ Muv said, pointing at the shopping carts. ‘She wants one of those little baskets.’

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Bob had appointed himself tour leader and asked Muv what she wanted to see most. Her list was modest and she replied:

  • A supermarket
  • A women’s club
  • Funeral parlour

The women’s club was out of reach but Muv was able to explore the other two curiosities on her list. The supermarket and funeral parlour were beyond her wildest imagination and she sat down to write to the The Times extolling the supermarket system of self-service: ‘So sensible and practical, I thought.’

Bob seemed baffled by Muv’s ‘non-Jewish-motherishness’. ‘Why are you wearing those hideous spectacles, Little D.?’ she asked one day.
    ‘Because I can’t see without them,’ came Decca’s blunt reply.
    ‘Oh, yes; I remember you never could see much as a child,’ Muv vaguely replied.  

ImageIn anticipation of Muv’s homecoming to Inch Kenneth Unity had spent a guinea on some dead roses for her. Muv was exhausted by the long flight (in those days a plane trip from London to California was a 50 hour journey), but she optimistically described her American adventure and spoke glowingly of ‘Mr T’ [Bob Treuhaft] telling Diana he was a good husband and father and ‘not such a rabid red as Deca is!’ Diana acidly confided, to Nancy: ‘Mustn’t he be surprised when he thinks over his fate.’
(The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters, p. 245.)

In true Nancy style, she cheerlessly added…

‘Thank goodness Muv is back- I was so worried by all that sickness as it sounded so like her heart not standing up to the journey. Then of course one knows communists can never pull any strings and whereas any of us would have got her onto the Queen E. [Queen Elizabeth] they clearly never could.’
(The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters, p246).

The American trip was a success and it served to break any conflicted feelings between Decca and Muv, though with the publication of Hons & Rebels in 1960 some old tensions flared up again. In hindsight, Decca confided to Nancy that although she loathed Muv as a child, in her adult years she had come to respect her greatly.

‘A Latter-Day Pepys in Cami Knickers’

Tuesday, 22nd August 1939
Orchard Close, Ramsbury

‘Spending the hols with Granny is really quite an experience. The service was incredible, with everything done for you. I wish I could have seen the head housemaid’s face when she unpacked my case and found a grubby suspender belt and my signed photo of John Gielgud in Hamlet-not to mention a paperback of Casanova’s Amours.‘ -Extracted from Love Lessons.

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Though Joan Wyndham shunned her upper-class upbringing for a life of bohemian influences, her pedigree was staunchly aristocratic. Her mother, Iris, was the illegitimate daughter of Lord French, Viceroy of Ireland, and her grandmother, Wendy Bennett, had an exotic upbringing in Romania whose family used to greet guests with bread, salt and a five gun salute. Joan’s father, Dick Wyndham, also known as ‘Whips Wyndham’ – he had been exposed by Cyril Connolly as ‘one of Europe’s great flagellists’- was a scion of the aristocratic family of Petworth House.

She was born in 1921 at the sprawling family mansion, Clouds, in Wiltshire. It was often the base of the social group known as The Souls–the Victorian predecessors of the Bright Young People. It could have been an idyllic life of luxury had Iris and Dick’s marriage not been a monumental mismatch. They eventually divorced after she discovered him hiding-not in one of the forty bedrooms-but behind the Christmas tree in the arms of his mistress, Irene. At the age of four, Joan moved to the Fulham Road with Iris, sharing a house with her best friend, the lesbian sculptress, Sidonie ‘Sid’ Houselander.

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In pursuit of the ‘pretty smashing’ John Gielgud, Joan aspired to become an actress, which led to a successful audition at RADA. It was the summer of 1939, and had the fate of WW2 not intervened she may have become a stage actress. Instead, her dreams were crushed and she turned to art, enrolling at Chelsea Poly where she was taught sculpture by ‘darling’ Henry Moore. Embracing the life of a shabby art student, Joan leased a studio on the Redcliffe Road, spending her days painting life models and her nights being plied with alcohol at bohemian parties. At such a gathering she met the dashing Rupert, who loathed parties and looked like a ‘handsome seal’. Another suitor who had his lecherous eye on her was the fumbling Leonard who demanded, ‘Joan, please, for Christ’s sake, take this wretched dress off!’ She declined, with a stern warning, ‘Don’t rip it, it’s new!’ Upon his departure, Joan discovered he had pinched all of her cigarettes.

When she became acquainted again with Rupert, he announced, ‘This is Joan…she’s going to be my new girlfriend.’ It was a strange and glamorous world she was living in despite the horror of war, though she felt less like a siren, describing herself as ‘all Kirbies and cardigan and size 7 sandals’. During a near miss with a German bomb, Joan bargained, ‘If I survive this, I should go round to Rupert’s and get myself de-virginized.’ Afterwards, Joan rationalized, ‘Goodness, is that all it is? I’d rather have a jolly good smoke and go to the pictures any day!’

‘You may look innocent enough but every now and then you talk like an old French whore.’ – Rupert to Joan

A life of debauchery ensued; as a WAAF in the north of England, Joan had an encounter with a Norwegian naval first Lieutenant who carved notches into the bedpost, and from whom she caught fleas. She was seduced by Lucien Freud and fended off boozy kisses in the back of a taxi from Dylan Thomas. Disillusioned, she preferred to spend a quiet night in with a cup of Ovaltine, though with her door bolted shut to ward off highly sexed officers. At the end of the war no one was as alarmed as Joan when she tallied up her wartime liaisons, it amounted to only four. She made up for lost time, beginning an affair with the ‘unbearably attractive’ Lord Lovat. She kissed and told, and in 1986 the fables were published in her second installment of diaries, Love is Blue.

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After the war Joan tampered with domesticity, and she married Maurice Rowdon, the son of a docker who admired his new daughter-in-law turning up to the wedding ‘all dolled up like a tallyman’s ink bottle’. Joan and her baby daughter, Clare, relocated to Baghdad where Rowdon had landed a teaching post. Upon their return to England, the marriage ended and Joan bought a small cottage in Kent with the inheritance from her father, who had been shot dead by a sniper whilst covering the Arab-Israeli war for The Sunday Times. Joan fell in love with her Russian lodger, Shura Shivarg and they had a child, Camilla. He later became her second husband.

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Joan was revered by the youthful set of the Swinging Sixties, and an endless stream of politicians, aristocrats, actors and escorts, including ‘Rabbity teeth’ Christine Keeler, passed through the door of her Georgian townhouse off the King’s Road. Following a stint as a horoscope writer and a publisher’s reader, she found joy and profit in opening one of the first expresso bars in Oxford, running a hippy restaurant on the Portobello Road, cooking for actors at the Royal Court theatre and catering at festivals. And at the age of fifty, Joan experienced her first ecstasy trip. The experiences were recorded in a kaleidoscope of remembrances in Anything Once, the third and final installment of her diaries published in 1992.

In the 1980s Joan moved back to the Fulham Road, and though old age had caught up with her, she continued to live life by her own rules. During a birthday gathering for a grand relative, Joan was asked to step aside for the Queen. ‘Oh fuck off!’ she roared, the response was met by a frosty glare from her Majesty. As the evening of her life drew near, Joan became an avid supporter of Chelsea FC, a faithful viewer of Blind Date and admirer of Diana, the Princess of Wales. Her last literary work, a memoir, Dawn Chorus, was published in 2004. She died in 2007, at the age of eighty five.

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Further reading

Love Lessons

Love is Blue

Anything Once

Dawn Chorus

An interview with Tessa Arlen

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Gladys Marchioness of Ripon

I could not resist asking Tessa Arlen for an interview, partly because I’m always very nosy about what fellow authors are up to, and partly because I always feel inspired after I read their journey to publication. Although Tessa’s own life, as she kindly told it to me, reads like one of Nancy’s postwar novels, I am most intrigued by her debut novel, The Countess and Mrs Jackson, the first in the series which is set for publication in January 2015.

How long have you been writing for and what inspired you to write The Countess and Mrs. Jackson?

I have been writing in some form or another for most of my life: unpublished short stories, lengthy letters to my family when I first moved to America thirty years ago. When our children grew up and went about their own lives, I decided to write a full length novel. I never imagined when I set out to do this that it would be published.

I was inspired to write a historical novel because it was the only subject in school, apart from English Literature that held any genuine interest. I was a terrible student; a real day-dreamer! My parents lived abroad and I was sent home to school in England when I was ten. The contrast between my boarding school at the top of a windy hill in the Chilterns with its drafty dormitories and frightful food was a stark one to my earlier life in the lush, easy-going tropics. I was in such culture shock I just disappeared into my own world. I was rescued from complete academic disaster by my history teacher, Lady Elfreda Neale. She was a strange old lady: tall, rather stooped with straight, iron-gray hair. She spoke in such a low tone we had to lean forward to hear her. But my goodness she made history come alive! She was very fond of telling us that history was simply “very old gossip.” I have been a fascinated amateur historian ever since.

The years before the Great War have always been intriguing, so it was easy to choose this era for my book. It was a colossal time of change politically and socially in Britain. Life for the privileged few was idyllic thanks to their money and the rigidity of the class system.  But a long agricultural depression was beginning to take its toll on the landed gentry, and there was a strong Liberal government hell-bent on much needed social reform and looking to tax the landowners to fund them. An arms race with Germany; strikes, strong trade unions and socialism; the loss of the power of veto in the House of Lords and a women’s movement that had turned decidedly nasty were events that heralded a new century in England. I thought all this wonderful conflict would make a good back drop to my story.

It was important to me to write a story featuring two women, who struggle with issues in context with their time in history. My two protagonists come from opposite ends of the class system and work together to discover the identity of a murderer, each motivated by different reasons, and who build a sort of friendship in the process.

Was your manuscript accepted on the first attempt, and if not, how many times were you rejected before receiving an offer?

Yes, it was! I have a wonderful agent, she submitted to nine publishers and we had two offers within five weeks. Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press bought The Countess and Mrs. Jackson and the next book in the series. But I had my share of rejects; finding an agent took me well over a year. I submitted to a hundred and twenty four agents and tons of rejects later, eight asked for the full manuscript, and two of them offered to represent me. This was a huge turning point, it did so much for my confidence to have someone as professional and well respected in the industry as Kevan actually want to work with me.

What is your writing routine and do you religiously stick to it?

I do have a routine but I don’t force the issue, otherwise I would get neurotic about it.  We live on an island in the Puget Sound and our winter days are short and it rains a lot, so I write full-time pretty intensively from October through to April. I have a large garden and in the summer months I have to split my time between writing and gardening so I spend less time on writing.

How do you overcome writers block?

It helps if I plot out my storyline very thoroughly before hand. Then I write minutely detailed descriptions of my characters so that I am really familiar with them. I do the same thing with the time I’m writing about and the place. When these elements are squared away that’s when I start to write.  As the story unfolds on paper other ideas just sort of crop up as I go along, and the story takes over and almost writes itself. I keep going until I have a first draft. Only then do I start my re-writes and revisions, never during.

Who are your literary heroes?

In my early twenties I read all of P.G. Wodehouse’s books one year and absolutely adored the inimitable Jeeves, with his deferential respect as he wields the upper-hand. I love the way he punishes Bertie when he gets out of line and wears the wrong color socks, or a cummerbund with his white tie and tails! Bertie is a delight, he is such an affable twit, but I absolutely respect and admire Jeeves.

E. F. Benson’s Lucia stories. I know so many Lucias! I love all her pretensions and her wonderful ‘friendship’ with Georgie and how ruthless she is about running Riseholme. I adore her morceau of Beethoven and her conversazione larded with cunning little Italian phrases. There is something so admirable about women who relentlessly go for what they want, and incidentally make so much happen for everyone else.  They aren’t awfully comfy to be with, but they are compelling.

Patrick O’Brien’s Captain Jack Aubrey.  I wish I knew Jack Aubrey. Apart from his tendency to philander and his lengthy periods of time at sea, I would like my daughters to marry someone with his qualities. He genuinely likes women and he has a lovely, self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s compassionate and courageous leader, self-aware and completely without guile; so honestly at ease with himself. Not without his frailties though, his life always falls apart when he is on dry land – so perhaps not son-in-law material!

One of my most favorite characters in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is the Mole. I admire his loyalty, his steadfast kindness and his courage to chuck aside his dull underground life for adventure in a wider world.  He wants to make everything work for all the best reasons, which makes him an exceptional and good friend. He also has great humility and in his humble way he is immensely valiant. I wish there were more Moleys in the world.

What attracted you to the Mitfords?

I fell in love with Nancy right off the bat when I read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate in my twenties. They remain at the top of my re-read list, together with Jane Austen and Watership Down. If I feel low these are the books I reach for. I love Nancy’s deft, wicked wit and appreciate her insightful, unsentimental view of life.

I didn’t know about the other sisters for years. My parents had a house near Bolton Abbey, and it was my mother who filled me in on the Mitford family, as they were a far closer to her generation than mine.  She was very impressed by Debo’s entrepreneurial skills and told me that she had rescued Chatsworth and the Cavendish family from financial ruin with her clever plan to restore Chatsworth to its original glory, so that it could be on the ‘stately home round.’  In a less enthusiastic vein she told me Sir Oswald Mosely was married to Diana. Mosely and Diana, in her opinion, were a real no-no. She was a teenager during the war and her parents were appalled by the Blackshirts!  However, I admire Diana’s loyalty to her husband who sounds quite awful.

So far as Unity is concerned, I read a fascinating book about her by David Pryce-Jones. Part of me was astonished that anyone could be so stupid to be so wrapped up in someone as frightful as Hitler. I delved a bit deeper into the Mitford sisters and their strange rather isolated upbringing and their deeply eccentric parents; today they would be considered neglectful. I realized what a heartbreaking story Unity’s was. I felt she never fit into her family and she was very much at odds with herself. I think the Hitler business was her desperately trying to find herself, and because she was so naïve she didn’t quite see what she had got herself into. I think her’s is such a cautionary tale; we are often capable of such thoughtless actions when we are young and sometimes pay a terrible price.

Who is your favourite Mitford and why?

Well it has to be Nancy because she makes me laugh so much. I have just finished re-reading The Blessing and it is as fresh and funny as it was when I first read it.  I love Don’t Tell Alfred, because it rather reminds me of my own childhood and how difficult it was for my parents when my sister and I joined them abroad for school vacations at whatever Embassy or High Commission they were with at the time. They were such fuddy duddies and we were such products of our generation; looking back I feel quite sorry for them.

Who is your least favourite Mitford and why?

I have never felt especially drawn to Decca.  Not because of her politics, but in my view there is something rather cold and sarcastic about her. She lost so much in her life: her young husband Esmond, their baby and her son with Treuhaft and maybe this is the way she dealt with grief.

And last but not least: if you could swap lives with anyone in history (it can include a fictional character) who would it be?

Well I would say Clementine Napier, Countess of Montfort because she conforms to my ideal: a woman of her time unhampered by our contemporary sensibilities, but hugely aware, vigorous and imaginative! But that would be a cheat

I am attracted to lots of historical figures, and then shy away from swapping because some of them were either desperately unhappy or died rather horribly or too young!  So given this considerable reservation, I’m going to plump for Constance Gladys Robinson, Marchioness of Ripon, a British patron of the arts who was at the height of her fame and power at the time of my book The Countess and Mrs. Jackson.

Lady Ripon was a close friend of Oscar Wilde, who dedicated his play A Woman of No Importance to her, which just goes to show what bright spark she was in the first place. Other celebrated friends included the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, whose success in London was largely due to Lady Ripon’s support.

Lady Ripon was six feet tall and considered to be a stunner; she was so beautiful that according to the writer E.F. Benson even the most glamorous in her company looked like ‘they needed a touch of the sponge and the duster.’

Her first marriage had been rather horrid; her husband the Earl of Lonsdale had died of a heart attack while busily engaged in enjoying his own private brothel (point proved about never swapping lives with someone else!) She next married the exceedingly rich Marquess of Ripon and was lucky enough to live in the incomparable Studley Royal, a perfect Palladian jewel of a house surrounded by beautiful gardens and with the exquisite ruins of Fountains Abbey in its grounds. But Lady Ripon was a sophisticated individual and preferred not to isolate herself in North Yorkshire, and set up house at Coombe Court in Kingston so she could be on hand for her pet project the Royal Opera House.

It was Lady Ripon who was entirely responsible for making a night at the opera a desirable occasion at this time. She rescued the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden from financial ruin and was undoubtedly responsible for Nellie Melba’s success as its star performer. But it was the Ballet Russe, invited by Lady Ripon to London in the summer of 1911 to perform in front of the new king and queen on the evening before George V’s coronation, which swept society off its feet. Lady Ripon organized a truly gala event. None of the illustrious company gathered together at the Royal Opera House that evening were quite prepared for the spectacle that was the Russian Ballet and Vaslav Nijinsky. Thousands of roses decorated the tiers of the boxes in which they sat dazzled by the sets and costumes, and then Nijinsky leapt onto the stage, wearing only a tight, skin-colored silk tricot onto which were sewn hundreds of pink and red silk petals for his performance of Spectre de la Rose.  But it was the dancing that enthralled. The following day it was reported in the Times: ‘Nijinsky seems to be positively lighter than air, for his leaps have no sense of effort and you are inclined to doubt if he really touches the stage between them.’ To attain this astonishing leap, Nijinsky told Lady Ripon, he made the air his medium ‘It is very simple, I just jump and stop in the air for a moment.’

Her introduction of the Ballet Russe started a new fashion of Bakst inspired vibrant colors, and it became awfully chic to lounge around in scarlet and pink chiffon Turkish trousers in a boudoir made over to look like an Ottoman seraglio. The ballet was a triumph and returned to London for years.

I chose Gladys Marchioness of Ripon because she was clever, witty, resourceful and beautiful with a flair for organizing spectacular events, as well as an exceptionally astute business woman. She was also tall, which is something I have yearned for all my life.

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Interview with Deanna Raybourn

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I’ve been anticipating this interview with Deanna Raybourn; friend of The Mitford Society, massive Mitty enthusiast and most importantly, a New York Times bestselling author! I’ve been racking my brain, wondering what I could ask her (that she hasn’t been asked already) and I came up with a list of questions that would require detailed answers. Some Mitford related, some about writing fiction etc. Surprisingly, given her busy schedule, she replied promptly- within 24 hrs-which puts most to shame! Read on for her informative advice on getting published, her favourite subjects and which Mitford girl she loves most of all…

What authors influence your work and what made you decide to write historical fiction? Can you name your earliest influences (i.e. books/authors/films)?

I honestly don’t remember a time I wasn’t making up stories. I know in childhood I was absolutely enthralled with Marie Antoinette, Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel—and as a teenager I loved Anya Seton and Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and Agatha Christie. When it was time for college I majored in English and history because I was planning to write. I just love the sense of escape to another time and place that comes with historical fiction; I love delving into memoirs and letters to find out what people were thinking and doing. Most of all, I love finding the connections between “us” and “them”, the things that are universal to everyone, no matter when and where you live.



What is your favourite era and what draws you to this?

I have several pet time periods, but right now I’m immersed in the 1920s. The series I’m currently working on is set immediately after WWI, and I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the era—I’m a sucker for a little cultural revolution, and the 1920s saw an astonishing amount of change. Tracking the evolution of fashion, of language, of map boundaries, it’s all exhilarating. I’m always intrigued by periods that marked a shift in women’s roles in particular, and the 1920s were one of the most significant in that respect. The Great War really closed the book on the Victorian ideal of the hearth angel and opened up an entirely new world for women as voters, as workers, as people in their own right instead of decorative appendages.

Can you describe your journey in getting published, how many rejections did you receive before a publisher said yes?

I wrote my first novel at twenty-three, then spent fourteen years getting rejection letters before I sold my first novel—I never stopped to count how many. I wrote six or seven books in that time, several of which made the rounds of publishers, none of which sold. I finally took some excellent advice from my agent and stopped writing for a year. I just read. By the end of that time, I looked at the stack of books I’d read, and I realized they all had common threads running through them. They were historical with elements of mystery and romance, they had delightful little surprises, and they were British. That was a blueprint for the book I needed to write, so I started putting together things I loved—Victorian London, aristocrats, Gypsies, poisons, ravens—and at the end of it, I had SILENT IN THE GRAVE. It took us two years to find a publisher, but when we did, we sold three books at one time. I haven’t looked back since!



What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Write the book you want to read. The books you read for pleasure are the books that inform your taste and shape your perspective. Those are the books that tell you who you are as a writer. The worse piece of advice is “write what you know”. I think it limits fledgling writers who take it far too literally. We are creatures of imagination. It’s alright to go and find things out or to conjure them out of thin air if you want to write about them. You don’t have to write only the things you’ve experienced personally.

Are you a full time writer? And how long did it take before you could achieve this?

I am a full-time writer, but I’m also part of a two-income household. I quit teaching in order to have a baby and write full-time, and it took eleven years for me to get published—fourteen years after I wrote my first novel!

When did you become interested in the Mitford girls and what started this interest?

I honestly can’t remember when I first heard of them, but I know the love was really kindled when I saw the 2001 PBS miniseries adaptation of LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE and THE PURSUIT OF LOVE. That was when I started digging further into their lives and realized that, as interesting as Nancy Mitford’s writing might be, the real Mitford stories were even more enthralling. That’s when I started reading letters, collected biographies, anything that would tell me more.

Who is your favourite Mitford girl?

I have a very soft spot for Debo. There are interesting parallels to the Queen Mother’s life—lively girl marries a second son expecting a pleasant life and through tragedy gets thrust into a much more demanding role. They both rose admirably to the occasion, I think. I am a fan of Nancy’s also, although I think she must have been far too sophisticated and sharp to be really friendly with. And I think Pamela is the most delightfully mysterious. I like her quiet devotion to the things that interested her even if they might seem small in comparison to her sisters’ lives.

Who is your least favourite Mitford girl?

A tie between Jessica and Diana, although I think Decca was a gifted, unflinching writer. They had the courage of their convictions, but there was a fair bit of collateral damage that came along with that. I find Unity deeply interesting and tragic. Having said that, I still think these three are far more intriguing than most people.

And last but not least, if you could swap lives with any of the Mitfords who would it be?

Debo! The reclamation of Chatsworth was an unspeakable amount of work, but it must have been great fun as well. When you read her essays on the subject and look at how far the estate has come, it’s incredibly apparent how much effort and how many wonderful ideas when into it. Plus, all those forgotten treasures they unearthed! There’s a shivery sort of delight that comes from thinking about forcing open an elderly cupboard to find a bit of fabulous porcelain or a tiara no one remembered. Recovering those objects must have been tremendously exciting—rather like having a lost museum to bring back to order. I’m also tremendously interested in the business aspects of running a stately home, even a ruin. I’ve visited Bolton Abbey, where I had one of the best meals I ate in that corner of England, incidentally. I was struck by how thoughtfully everything had been arranged. It seemed as if the family, the managers, the designers, everyone had done what they could to preserve the magnificent ruins of the Abbey but also to make it as pleasurable as possible for the visiting public. It must be a thankless task to balance all the competing interests of environment, public, posterity, bureaucracy, but what an interesting one!

Additional reading:

Deanna’s official website

Deanna’s book list