It is easy to feel intimidated by a heavy book such as Those Wild Wyndhams: Three Sisters At The Heart of Power, as first impressions go it is a beautiful book, a work of art, in fact. At 512 pages it is not a light read, but I can tell you once you open the first few pages and are introduced to this gilded life at the heart of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, you will be hooked. It is simply impossible to put down.
The Mitford Society adores Joan Wyndham and if you are familiar with her childhood memoir Dawn Chorus then you will be aware of the family’s sprawling mansion, Clouds, and of her great aunts’ Mary, Madeleine and Pamela — the subject of Those Wild Wyndhams. Some of the more superficial attributes (because we adore a certain lightness of touch here at TMS) is that they moved at the centre of The Souls – an intellectual group who were the predecessors of the Bright Young Things. Incidentally, Pamela Wyndham’s son was Stephen Tennant, and many of Cecil Beaton’s iconic photographs of the BYT’s were taken in Pamela’s drawing room. Their beauty was feted by artists, and their intellectual capacity and modern thinking could rival any man. Familiar relics of Mitfordiana appear here and there — George Curzon has more of a fleeting mention, and Marie Stopes, a controversial character in her own right, appears in the latter sections of the book.
As was expected of them, the girls bowed to tradition and married well, though as Renton relates, only one marriage was happy. Extramarital affairs and illegitimacy crept through family life, though without a whiff of public scandal. As the curtain falls on the Victoria’s reign, we are ushered into the Edwardian era and the tragedy of WW1. Each sister, now advancing past middle age, was not exempt from heartbreak: two of Mary’s sons, and one of Pamela’s, were killed. As the 1920s progressed, and their own children grew up, Mary, Madeleine and Pamela took a step back, though not fading entirely, to observe the ridiculousness of the Bright Young Things. Although filled with beauty and glamour of the inter-war youth, it never quite reached the pinnacle of intellect which was at the heart of The Souls.
It might be easy to misjudge this vast biography as a woman’s story. Indeed the exquisite cover of the three girls, painted by John Sargent in 1899, dubbed ‘The Three Graces’ by the Prince of Wales, is very feminine. However, the author Claudia Renton, who took a First at Oxford, interweaves her protagonists stories to parallel with the modern politics and social movements of the day. As the subtitle tells us, they really were Three Sisters At The Heart of Power.
Mary Wyndham (1862-1937) married Hugo Charteris, 11th Earl of Wemyss
Madeleine Wyndham (1869-1941) married Charles Adeane