Mrs Hemingway

In the dazzling summer of 1926, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley travel from their home in Paris to a villa in the south of France. They swim, play bridge and drink gin. But wherever they go they are accompanied by the glamorous and irrepressible Fife. Fife is Hadley’s best friend. She is also Ernest’s lover.

Hadley is the first Mrs. Hemingway, but neither she nor Fife will be the last. Over the ensuing decades, Ernest’s literary career will blaze a trail, but his marriages will be ignited by passion and deceit. Four extraordinary women will learn what it means to love the most famous writer of his generation, and each will be forced to ask herself how far she will go to remain his wife…

Luminous and intoxicating, Mrs. Hemingway portrays real lives with rare intimacy and plumbs the depths of the human heart.

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Lately I’ve been enjoying this trend for historical fiction which has always existed in the publishing world but now it seems to have taken a different direction in which the author writes about a fictional character at the centre of factual events, or places them amongst factual people but this time Naomi Wood has written a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s tangled love life. Mrs Hemingway, the clue is in the title, is told from Ernest’s wife, Hadley’s point of view.

Narrated by Hadley, the prose is written in a brief, blunt style which mirror’s her thoughts. The chapter headings are also styled after their location and the date. It reads very much like a report or a treatment for a movie or documentary as opposed, to say, a flowing account of Hadley and Ernest’s life together. Hadley is very much an outsider looking in, even though as Ernest’s wife, she is supposed to be at the centre of things. This style has allowed Wood to radiate Hadley’s paranoia and frustration through the text and the reader feels as stifled and as out of place as she does. I felt as though I was keeping one eye on Hadley….the narrator….and one eye on Ernest and Fife, dreading what was going to happen next.

This will appeal to fans of Z: A Novel which really started this mainstream trend for historical fiction. Many books have followed such as The May Bride and The Winter Garden, incidentally they are new releases. Look out for my review of The May Bride in this week’s issue of The Lady. Mrs. Hemingway does not feel as fluid as Z: A Novel, but it’s a great read nonetheless.

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Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon and the Dress of Emotion: Guest blog by Tessa Arlen

Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon and the Dress of Emotion

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Tessa Arlen

 

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Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon is infamously known for the scandal surrounding her escape from the Titanic in an almost empty lifeboat with her husband Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon and her secretary. The three of them were among twelve people in a lifeboat that could have packed in at least forty. Criticism after the disaster suggested that Sir Cosmo boarded the emergency boat ignoring the chivalrous ‘women and children first’ code. Worse still the Duff-Gordon’s life boat failed to return, after the Titanic sank, to rescue those still struggling in the water. But what made matters more complicated was that Sir Cosmo had generously offered the crew in his life boat compensation, a gift of five pounds apiece, to replace the kit they had lost when the boat sank. After a protracted court-room session the British Board of Trade’s inquiry into the disaster accepted Sir Cosmo’s denial that he had offered a bribe, as there was no evidence to the contrary, but Duff-Gordon never quite recovered from the scandal.

Lady Duff-Gordon, however, was made of far sterner stuff. Unlike her husband she did not retire crushed by public opinion from society. She displayed the same strength of purpose and entrepreneurial focus that had made her the most successful English dress designer of the early 1900s and the owner of Maison Lucile, an internationally famous brand of its day in London, Paris and New York.

Left a near-penniless single mother and divorcée by the collapse of her first marriage, Lucile Wallace began her fashion career cutting out dresses on the floor of her dining room. Using her few connections in society she began to build a list of clientele that represented the rich and titled wives of the aristocracy. The super-rich wives of the arriviste flocked to her not only for her dresses but her instruction on how to walk, dress, act and speak as if they had been born to the privileged life their husbands’ had acquired.  She dressed society’s matrons, their daughters and their husband’s courtesans. Her versatility was boundless: she designed seductive tea-gowns, dainty little dresses for debutantes and sophisticated models that looked like the last word in wickedness. In later life she said she believed her success was due to her instinctive ability to design a gown to suit the personality of its wearer.

These were the days of the great courtesans for whom men ruined themselves, the days when a man would order a thousand guinea sable coat as a peace offering to his mistress after a slight quarrel. Married women discretely entertained their lovers during the fashionable hours of cinq a sept, dressed in Lucile’s soft filmy, flowing tea gowns, with no corsetry to impede the business of undressing. Neither was the heavy, cumbersome underclothing of the Victorian era suitable under the softer lines of the new century.  Lady Duff-Gordon’s line of lingère even though hardly skimpy by today’s standards was lighter, and delicately made of sheer silk and lace. Not all husbands were enthralled by the prospects of their wives in such minimal undergarments; the stuffier ones were appalled. Some even insisted their wives return such immoral undergarments to Maison Lucile; horrified that their wives might do more than just catch cold without the protection of layers of heavy cotton.

Maison Lucile’s fitting rooms in Hanover Square were part of a luxurious private house furnished in classic style where Lucile’s clients could relax in elegant rooms carefully strewn with lovely accessories to complement the clothes she had made for them. The lingère boudoir had an ornate gilt bed, once owned by Marie Antoinette, to give the right atmosphere for choosing pretty underclothes and diaphanous sleepwear.

And it was from these pleasant afternoons among her friends trying on her delicious creations that the idea for the fashion show was born. For Lucile’s was the first house in London or Europe to use a live mannequin in a fashion parade; Lady Duff-Gordon invented the catwalk. Most of her mannequins were young respectable working girls, each picked for her startling good looks. Lucile taught her girls to walk with unhurried grace and languid poise; she rehearsed them until they were perfect. Then she designed gowns for them, gowns that complemented their individual physical characteristics as well as their personalities.

Once she had created her season’s collection, she went about setting the right scene for her fashion parade. The lighting was romantic, but clear enough to be able to see the clothing her girls modelled; each one the epitome of voluptuous glamor, demure grace, or languid beauty, as they posed on a miniature stage with misty olive chiffon curtains. She created what she called ‘gowns of emotion’ and gave each a luscious and evocative name: “When Passion’s Thrall is Over,” “Red Mouth of a Venomous Flower,” “The Sighing Sound of Lips Unsatisfied.” Women’s haute couture had never been so seductive.

And when all was ready, Lady Duff-Gordon sent out pretty invitation cards, keeping the illusion that she was inviting friends to a party at Hanover Square house. Within six months of starting her fashion parades she doubled her clientele, and nearly trebled her revenue.

This remarkably temperamental and dynamic woman thrived at a time when it was unacceptable for the upper classes to earn an income from trade, unthinkable for a lady to make her own living. In 1900 she married Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, baronet, landowner and sportsman. Whether it mattered to the new Lady Duff-Gordon or not, it was out of the question that she be presented at court, because despite her marriage, she was a working woman.  But a very successful one: she opened salons in New York and Paris; took business away from the top fashion houses in Paris; designed theatrical costumes for the stars of the day; wrote a fashion column, and became confidante to society’s elite on both sides of the Atlantic.

She was on her way to her salon in New York when the Titanic collided with an iceberg sending over 1,500 souls to the bottom of the sea. But she survived and continued to create exquisite clothing, her salons flourished and her business grew.  The beginning of the Great War in 1914 put a temporary halt to the extravagance of haute couture and when the war ended the new fashions were a far cry from Lucile’s wafty, delicate dresses and her popularity as a designer diminished.

 

Tessa Arlen is the author of DEATH OF A DISHONORABLE GENTLEMAN A story of revenge, blackmail and betrayal to be released in January 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.Click here to visit Tessa’s blog Redoubtable Edwardians and here to visit her official facebook page.

A New York Winter’s Tale

One night in New York, a city under siege by snow, Peter Lake attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it is empty, the daughter of the house is home . . .

Thus begins the affair between this Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead; A New York Winter’s Tale is the story of that extraordinary journey.

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Keeping within the theme of the last post which harkened back to Downton Abbey I thought I’d post about A New York Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. Now, you might be asking what has this got to do with Downton? Well not much, except we Downton fiends are well aware that Jessica Brown Findlay aka Lady Sybil Crawley portrayed Helprin’s heroine Beverly Penn in the screen adaptation. JBF also appears on the re-issued paperback version of the book. I have not seen the screen version but I have read the book and it’s a masterpiece from start to (almost) finish…keep reading!

Helprin’s novel is considered a classic: a New York Times bestseller it certainly has a legion of fans and may be considered a cult classic. I admit I had not heard of it until the hype about the film’s release caught my attention. Some say the film was an ill-fitting tribute to the book, I can see why it has its critiques simply because at 768 pages it must have been impossible to incorporate every element of Helprin’s imagery and blatant use of magic into the script.

It is a love story which survives time, death and the channels of lightness and darkness. It is rare for an adult’s book to rely on the stuff of fairy tales but this is what Helprin unabashedly does, this is pretty clear when we’re immediately introduced to Peter Lake’s flying white steed.  The synopsis is pretty straight forward and condensed, but it does not indicate the magical journey which the reader will be taken on. Perhaps the flying steed is a hint for what to expect…

I have not read the entire book yet (I rarely review halfway through), but I greedily snatch any bits of spare time which I may have throughout the day to revisit Helprin’s gorgeous prose. But I’ve read enough to know it’s going to be a brilliant, unforgettable read!

 

Porchey Carnarvon’s Two Duped Wives: An Interview

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The Earl of Grantham’s stately pile Downton Abbey is as famous as any of the characters of the hit TV series but fans of the show might be interested to learn of Highclere Castle’s (the real Downton) other storyline which rivals any of the plots Julian Fellowes dreams up! I was intrigued by the story which first appeared in the Sunday Express so I decided to contact William Cross, the author of Porchey Carnarvon’s Two Duped Wives to inquire further about this fascinating, and relatively unknown, back story.

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First of all William can you explain to The Mitford Society how you became interested in the lives of Tillie and Catherine?

My interest in aristocratic women of the past spans several projects. Tilly Losch and Catherine Wendell have been hovering around my study walls over the several years I‘ve spent researching and writing about the occupants of Highclere Castle.

These two women are first mentioned in “The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon”, my full length biography from 2011 of Almina Wombwell, the  indefatigable Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, of Old King Tut fame. Afterall, they were married to Almina’s only son, Henry ( better known as Porchey Carnarvon, who was the Sixth Earl of Carnarvon) : making Almina their mother-in-law.

My informants who offered up stories about Almina also  swept in tales about  her son’s two wives. Having slavishly written up Almina,  and  revealed her untold story to the world, Tilly and Catherine were relegated somewhat to bit players. Since I was left with many facts, anecdotes and testimonies about these two remarkable ( albeit very different) women it was inevitable,  When I decided to continue the Carnarvon-Highclere  story with a follow up title to “Secrets”, that I would hone in on  them again as the two Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon, and finally give them headline billing.

What research did you undertake in writing your book, and how long did the creative process take?

Research is a long drawn out ritual, it’s an art. It’s the part of the whole process whose  sum total makes a book credible or not. For the book on Tilly and Catherine it was a mix of culling from hundreds of printed sources in books, especially diaries and memoirs from the timelines of these woman,  delving into newspapers, journals  and  plundering archives in Britain and America. The British Library and National Archives  provided a good deal of the material.  In America the librarians and archivists holding Tilly’s papers at Binghamton University, New York State and Catherine’s family records at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in New Hampshire  were  helpful  and supportive. In the USA I was blessed in having help from another writer  named Joyce Sachs ( the wife of a relative of Tilly )  who is also currently working on highlighting Tilly’s legacy ( for a play ) and  who is  hugely  knowledgeable about the content of Tilly’s letters and diaries ( including those at Binghamton University written in German-  Tilly’s mother tongue).

I had the assistance of Diana Fitzpatrick,  a friend in America who acted as proxy researcher at Portsmouth and went through dozen of boxes of Wendell papers on my behalf. I was also helped by George Jackson a distinguished journalist and  ballet critic in the USA ( who knew Tilly and her dance history )  and Charles  W Wendell  a member of the Catherine’s wider family  carried out some recognisance work for me on the ground at places in New York associated with Catherine’s parents and other relatives.   It helped that Charles was a notable figure in the Holland Society of New York : the Wendells are, of course,  of Dutch origin!

The people  I’d previously interviewed for my biography of Almina were seen again including her godson, who lived under Almina’s roof for 30 years and knew Catherine and Porchey interactions extremely well. I also interviewed  several  new people including a well informed octogenarian who spent his entire life at close quarters to Highclere and knew the family over several generations.  Some equally aged  members of the British peerage replied to enquiries providing additional details  from their own memories of knowing both women and the notorious Porchey. I also carried out site visits to places associated with Catherine’s childhood years in Hertfordshire.  I even made a pilgrimage to Catherine’s grave.

After sketching an outline I tend to draft chapters as I research. As this book had a good head start it was completed in about a year, including the final stages of  shaping and editing and tracking down images.  My book on Almina took three years to reach  the same stage.  The End Notes in the book set out every detail of the research sources used.

Why did you write a combined biography on the two women as opposed to a single biography of Tillie?

The book is sub- titled “ The Two Duped Wives of Porchey Carnarvon”. The focus of much of the book is  on their relationship/ marriage to  The Sixth Earl and what these women had to endure as Porchey’s  Countesses.  At the outset they were both in the same boat of having to find a husband who was better of than they were but the individual stories of the two women  ( including I hope their indomitable spirit)   is adequately covered in the book and their lives before and after  their  time  at Highclere.  These women were  great survivors and they successfully turned their lives around without Porchey.

There is room for a full length biography of Tilly Losch: she was a very accomplished  star of stage and film  in her time. Rumours circulate in USA. I am told that the references in the late Ann Marie Koller’s long dormant biography of Tilly are being updated by her daughter for publication before the year is up.

We’re aware of the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, and the more recent book on Catherine written by the Countess of Carnarvon, how did that impact your project? Has it been a blessing or a curse?

Downton Abbey has shone a light on many forgotten stories from the past. But Downton is still essentially fiction.  It is an enjoyable romp.  The trouble with the tales outlined  in “ Real Downton Abbey” books  is that these are often just not a  full reflection on how it all was, that’s worse than fiction since the parts left out  are among the most  intriguing, albeit controversial and the family would rather these secrets weren’t disclosed . Those behind the  titles do NOT  offer the complete picture of  life stories of the Fifth and Sixth Earls and Countesses of Carnarvon.  My researches  on Almina and Catherine and Tilly ( and on the two Fourth Countesses  Lady Evelyn Stanhope and Elsie Howard ) and their husbands and families all predate Downton  and I have undoubtedly sold copies of my books on the back of Downton’s publicity machine and its great popularity.  My  take on the Carnarvons is  offered to readers in good faith, warts and all and not to cash in on a TV series.  I hope the legal deposit copies of my books ( and my working papers)  will  stand as a credible history of these people concerned long, long after Downton has ended its run.

Tillie’s name is always appearing in the endless volumes of Mitfordiana but if it weren’t for Downton do you feel the stories of these women would have otherwise been forgotten?

Tilly Losch  is enjoying a renaissance at present, not only because of Downton  The coverage given by Binghamton University in their Newsletter last summer and on their website  is certainly a Downton Abbey spin off.  But she is in the limelight again in her very own right. You can’t keep a girl like Tilly down.  Her famous Tanz der Hande ( Dance of the Hands , and can be see on You Tube )   together with many stunning  photographs of her early days dancing for the Max Reinhardt Company in her native Austria  is the subject of an exhibition currently running in Vienna  ( until 13 March, 2014  at the Bonartes Gallery ).  This  celebrates a notable period of pioneering dance history. The show has an enchanting catalogue of images of  this most stunning creature and her fellow dancer  Hedy Pfundmayr.  I’d love to see  the exhibition  staged  in London and in the USA.  Perhaps the Tate Gallery  or Barnes Museum in  Philadelphia ( or even Binghamton University ) who all  have examples of Tilly’s paintings ( Binghamton have many)   could think about its public appeal. Perhaps Highclere coffers could offer sponsorship for staging a celebration of Tilly,  the amazing dancing Countess of Carnarvon.

It is no surprise that Tilly ( a blinding star  on the London and New York stage and with several films in Hollywood )  was seen by  the great Society photographer Cecil Beaton ( and others)  as one of the most beautiful women of her time.  As to Tilly’s links with the Mitfords, especially her fling with Tom Mitford, close friendship with Nancy and her falling out with Diana ( over Tilly’s treatment of her first husband, the poet  Edward James, to whom Diana was devoted), my book reflects on all on these overlaps and much more.  I have also recently completed a short tribute entitled “ Tilly Losch ‘ Schlagobers’ Sweet Fragments From Her Life.”  I will add more in years to come.  I doubt I will ever get closure with Tilly.

I for one will carry on writing about such extraordinary woman ( and some men ) whose stories are  less well known, hence my work on the Morgan dynasty of Tredegar House, South Wales which not got an iota to do with Downton Abbey.

Are you currently working on a project? What can we expect in the future?

Yes, several new books in progress for 2014, including  a final look at the Evan, Viscount Tredegar and before that a book on a  gay witch hunt in Abergavenny, South Wales, in 1942.   I am also working on “Rosemary and Alastair: ‘Everything is More Beautiful Because We’re Doomed’ ” ,  the tragic story of the daughter and son of the great Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland.

William Cross is offering readers the chance to purchase his book for £10 (price includes p&p). This offer will end on 15th April. Click here for details. 

 

An interview with Helen Peppe, author of ‘Pigs Can’t Swim’

The Mitford Society had the pleasure of reviewing Helen Peppe’s memoir Pigs Can’t Swim. (Click here to read the review) Even though she’s very busy promoting her book, I managed to catch up with Helen for a chat about Pigs Can’t Swim and even more surprisingly, given her hectic schedule, she replied with very detailed answers. Coming from a large family I’m sure Helen could see why we Mitty fans were keen to get her perspective on Life’s Great Unfairness…

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For those who are yet to read Pigs Can’t Swim can you tell us what inspired you to write this memoir?

I was writing a different memoir (Naked, Finding My Feet), one about losing weight and food issues, when Debra Marquart, author of Growing Up in a Horizontal World, suggested I write a few personal essays to explore the source of my food issues: childhood. I wrote what is now “The Killing House” chapter, and then I remembered about Waterboro and wrote the “Pigs Can’t Swim” chapter. I sent the personal essays to Debra, we discussed them, and then I couldn’t force my mind back to my original memoir. I kept writing one chapter after another until I had 300 pages. I wrote them all in six months. Once I got the memories on paper, I then went back and shaped everything and removed details and stories about some of siblings and mother that would have hurt them and/or their children to know. For these ethical reasons, I whittled the book down to about 200 pages. When Da Capo bought PIGS, they wanted more of my younger years included, so I added several chapters: the exploding pressure cooker and the puppy who bit me. What’s interesting about PIGS is that my father claims he can remember nothing, including the puppy biting me. I have a deep scar on my eye and nose, and he was embarrassed when I showed him the scar. One of my mentors commented,  “Seems like a parent should remember his daughter getting hurt so that she needed stitches and none were given.” He claims not to remember the molestation either. Forgetfulness is a common coping tool.

I never intended to publish PIGS. It was more prewriting for my weight loss memoir, but the book became my MFA thesis, and then my husband (yup, the same Eric) and my sister who-holds-grudges-longer-than-God encouraged me to get an agent. So, I did, but before anything became public, I took out even more scenes that might hurt my parents or my siblings, and I changed identifying characteristics. I hope PIGS helps people to see the chaos of their own childhoods with less judgement and more humor. Very few people have delightful beginnings. Growing up is HARD.

If anyone reads PIGS and is disturbed by the animal slaughter and abuse, then maybe they will consider not eating so many of them. That will be a positive outcome for animals everywhere.

What creative process did you undertake i.e. how easily could you draw on your childhood memories and how long did it take you to compile the story?

Because I have many life-long issues due to my childhood, especially food and sex, many of those memories are always right there in my brain armed to defeat my resolve to banish them. Our brains like to hold on to traumatic events and flash vivid images into our minds’ eyes when triggered by touch and smell etc. To assist these, I found old pictures, I went back to where I grew up (ugh), and I talked to my sister who-holds-grudges-longer- than-God. Her grudge holding power means she is also a holder of an amazing amount of detail. And the book took about 6 months to write the first draft.

In the style of Nancy Mitford’s postwar novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, did you ever consider writing Pigs Can’t Swim as a fictional book loosely inspired by your real life?

I did consider fiction. Just as Alexandra Fuller and Sue Williams Silverman considered it. However, fiction didn’t work for any of us. The stories lost power because they gained psychologic distance. At the end, before it was published, I asked Eric, my publisher and others if now that I’d written this as truthfully as I could, could we market it as fiction, and they all agreed it wouldn’t sell as well. I also considered a nom de plume, but was shot down.

Did you originally intend to conceal the identities of your many siblings? And on that note what has their reaction been like?

Yes, always. I wanted to conceal the identity of everyone. I even tried to conceal the location, and I purposely left off the last names of the dead people in the cemetery.

I used the descriptive names based on how my parents sometimes referred to the kids. My hope was that everyone might have a sister of poor choices etc and then the siblings could become anyone’s siblings, sort of like an everyman story.

Jessica Mitford remarked that growing up in a large family makes one accustomed to Life’s Great Unfairness. Would you be inclined agree? And what did it teach you?

YES! Everything ALWAYS was unfair. And the unfairness bit at me all the time so that I constantly thought things like, “When I get out of here I am not going to have a husband because I don’t want anyone ever telling me what to do again!” Or, “When I have money, I am going to eat all the chocolate I want.” As you know I failed on the first resolve, but the second one is a success.

For the aspiring writers in The Mitford Society can you describe your publishing journey? Was it easy getting an agent and at any point did you feel like giving up?

Actually, getting the agent wasn’t difficult. I got lucky. My MFA program has agents come in and speak during the last residency, and the agent who spoke at mine loved one of the chapters I’d given her. It was “Bus Number Two.” The part after that took a year, however, because Hurricane Sandy arrived in New York and slowed publishing houses down. Each house took a long time to read. But I never felt like giving up. I am not a giving up type of person, which is why I annoyed my family so much. Just as I tried to convey in PIGS,  I really can be a pest and a nag.

Will you write a follow up to Pigs Can’t Swim?

Yes, I am working on it now. Originally, I had a different project in mind, but so many people want to know how I got out and how my childhood affected me that I’ve decided to do an honest-to-goodness sequel.

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Helen Peppe

Helen Peppe is a professional writer and photographer (primarily equine). The former editor of Eastern Equerry and Wordplay Magazine, her short stories, articles, and photographs have appeared in a myriad of anthologies, books, and magazines, including Practical Horseman, Equus, American Trakehner, Arabian Horse Times, Dog Fancy, Dog World, Dressage Today, Equine Journal, The Horse, Lynx Eye, Mused Literary Review, Cats Magazine, and The Good Men Project. Several of her short stories and photographs appear in text books and educational media. She is the author of the limited edition Live on Stage: A History of the State Theater and creator of the Maine Stable Guide, published annually 1995-2005.

Click here to visit Helen Peppe’s official website

 

Spare Brides *Spoilers*

The Group. Some think the funniness is unintentional and I would love to, since I really loathe Mary Mc & am jealous. But I fear not…It’s full of such gems & a description of the sexual act which makes you gasp for breath with laughing…Oh it’s too lovely. – Nancy Mitford in a letter to Raymond Mortimer, January 1966.

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Spare Brides the latest novel by the Sunday Times bestselling author Adele Parks reminded me of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, a novel which Nancy Mitford loathed to admit she adored. Some reviews on Amazon compare the characters and the plot to a sort of Bright Young Things version of Sex and the City, others were astonished at the author’s use of graphic sex scenes in the latter sections of the book. Some complained they wished it had been more like Jane Austen. I adored it, but then again I do love a bit of camp – and that is not meant as an insult to Adele Parks’ writing.

The story begins in 1920 with four close friends ringing in the new year together. Ava, is part of the new money set who is confident and deemed modern in her views. This is quickly related when Ava sleeps with a married man, who wants to divorce his wife for her, but she simply states: ‘Now, darling, do be quiet. I want to get some sleep.’ Two of the women, Sarah and Bea, are uncomplicated, one has lost her husband in war, and the latter, we are told is ungainly and ‘big boned’ – therefore unattractive and as such is single. Lydia is the wife of an earl who had a desk job during the war, which she believes has cursed them given his lack of sacrifice for his country, and the outcome of this curse is her inability to give him an heir. So far, quite whimsy and verging on chick lit. (Still not complaining!)

Parks fills the earlier section of the book with wonderful descriptions of their palatial houses in the countryside and at Eaton Square and of their beautiful clothes, especially Ava and Lydia’s wardrobes, which are very modern with its satin and lace and Parisian underwear. All part of snaring, and keeping a man, as Ava warns Bea who still wears a corset: ‘For God’s sake, Beatrice, you have to ditch the whalebone corsets. Men won’t dance with you if they can’t feel you. Buy an elastic girdle. How many times do I have to tell you?’ It’s all a distraction from the coarseness of the middle section of the book, which is where Parks exerts her real talent for writing…

Bored and beautiful Lydia embarks on an affair, quite by chance, with a dashing (married but estranged from his wife) sergeant named Edgar. He’s traumatized by war, and uses colourful language, of which Parks incorporates into the prose with the masterful effect of shocking the reader as it contrasts heavily with her genteel images of delicate clothing and stylish salons. F this and F that is dotted throughout the narrative, even delicate Lydia picks up a few four lettered words which she does not hesitate to use in front of her shocked friends. The friends loathe this new sergeant, and poke fun at his shabby dwellings (a boarding house in a bad part of town) and his lack of eloquence. And, as such cautionary tales go, Lydia who was unable to conceive a child with her husband, the earl, becomes pregnant with Edgar’s baby. The drama intensifies!

Her friends are quite shocked. Sarah puts the detectives on Edgar and, as we learn towards the end when he suddenly vanishes, pays him off. But Lydia isn’t one to let a sleeping dog lie; she tracks him down to the docks and meets him for tea. It’s all rather tense, and we think Lydia’s going to let Edgar go (he’s off to Australia) and return home to her stately pile to resume of her life as a countess and let her husband raise the baby as his own, as he gallantly told her, any child born to her whilst she’s married to him would also be his -besides, it might be a girl and as we know, girls are of no real importance. It’s all heading in that direction when, suddenly, her massive coat slips open and Edgar sees that she is pregnant. “‘So the Earl will have his heir,’ Edgar commented. He tried not to let the bitterness shatter his voice. He understood. At last, he understood it all. She was not his. She never had been.”

Just as Edgar is about to board the ship, with thoughts of he beloved Lydia swirling in his mind, she emerges from the crowd. “‘You came back,’ he whispered into her hair.'” Yes, she tells him. He doesn’t board the ship, instead they exchange a few cryptic words: ‘There’s no going back’, ‘I don’t want to go back.’ And, although we’re uncertain of where they’ll go and what she’ll do as a countess, still married to an Earl and pregnant with another (married) man’s child, we’re told with an air of confidence: ‘They held one another tightly. They held their futures.’

I adored this book!

Wives and Sweethearts Love Letters Sent During Wartime

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I am fascinated with WW1 and correspondence, so when Simon & Schuster sent me a copy of Wives and Sweethearts Love Letters Sent During Wartime it combined two of my great interests. I am not in the habit of photographing the books I am sent, or the inside contents, but I felt the presentation of this gorgeous tome was essential to its appeal. As you can see it’s a hardback book with an attractive cover but the actual layout of the letters is very unique and quite unlike any book of correspondence I have read before.

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Rather than combining all of the letters together in an endless volume with, perhaps, only notes separating them, Alastair Massie & Frances Parton (In association with the National Army Museum) arranged the letters into chapters. For instance, each chapter is dedicated to a couple where the man (husband, father, son etc) is serving at the front. The authors also make it very clear that this book isn’t overly romantic, despite its title, as some letters are sent to daughters and other female relatives.

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The reader is also informed of the writer and recipients background which immediately makes us involved in their story, and more importantly, whether they survived war or not. Perhaps the most heartbreaking letters to read are the ones sent by husbands to their wives in the eventuality of their death.

What shall I say to you my Beloved wife, for when, and if, you get this letter, I shall no longer be with you.?

You have given me the happiest years of my life, Darling; and if I am not to have the final happiness of being at Home with you, and of seeing the little sons grow up, well, I have had more good fortune than falls to the lot of most men – far more than I deserve – and I thank God for it, and for the little sons and most of all for you, my best beloved.

You have been the sweetest and most loving wife, and may be happy in the thought of all the love and happiness you have brought into my life. I know you will be a wise and loving little mother to our sons; and I pray that they may grow up to be a blessing to you.

I wouldn’t have you grieve for me too much, Darling; and I wouldn’t have you – on my account – not marry again someday. You are young, and you will be lonely when the little sons grow up and go to school. I know they will be your first thought; and that if you do marry again, it will be not only a man you can love and respect, but one who will be a good and loving father to the sons, as I would have tried to be…

…You must talk to little David about his daddy; and tell him how dearly he loved his little sonny boy, and how he wants him to be a good and loving son to his mummy, and to always put the thought of her before everything else. My last thought will be of you, my Darling; and my last prayer will be in the words you wrote in my bible – that God will defend my Beloved and our little sons, keep them in body and soul, and grant that they and I may be bound together by the unseen chain of this love, by the communion of His Spirit, and by the Holy fellowship of His Saints; and that we may finally be together in his heavenly kingdom.

God bless and keep you, my sweet and Beloved wife.

– Arthur Money to his wife, Euphemia. Thankfully, unlike most women, Euphemia never had to receive this letter.

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Aside from the horrors of war, the reader is also informed about the temptations which were readily available to the men in France. These are referred to in letters, which adds a touch of humour, and a collection of glossy propaganda posters are included in the middle of the book (see above). Images of the men who wrote the letters are also printed throughout. Overall, the book has been executed beautifully, and I have taken a photograph of the cover to illustrate my point. It is a quick read, and with the anniversary of WW1 coming up, it is a humbling experience to read the every day thoughts and feelings of these ordinary men during their participation in one of the greatest atrocities of the last century.

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All of the letters and images have come from the National Army Museum. Click here for more information.

The Winter Garden part two

An Interview with Jane Thynne

Why did you choose to portray the Nazi bridal schools as a work of fiction as opposed to writing a biography on the bizarre ritual?

Probably because I love writing fiction! I came across the bride schools when I was researching my first Clara Vine novel, Black Roses, and I was looking closely at the lives of women under the Third Reich. I subsequently visited Schwanenwerder Island, where the Berlin bride school was based, and as soon as I saw it was just a few doors down from the Goebbels villa, an idea was born.

How did you gather your research for The Winter Garden?

Newspapers and women’s magazines of the time are very useful. There’s not much written about the bride schools, but for some reason photographs of young women exercising in gym slips seemed to be immensely popular with newspaper editors. I have also read a library full of non-fiction about Nazi Germany.

What inspired you to include Diana and Unity Mitford in the book?

How could I not! As soon as I began writing about an Anglo-German actress in 1930s Berlin, I knew the Mitfords would come into it. They are a huge interest for me – I’ve read everything all of them have written. The idea of the Germans trying to grapple with these eccentric upper class women and wondering if all English people were the same was just too funny for words. But that conflict also encapsulates something very deep about WWII, which was the Nazi regime’s fatal failure to understand British core values.

As a writer of mainstream novels, do you sense the market is becoming a lot more open to historical fiction which incorporates popular culture and figures from the inter-war era rather than expecting such topics to feature only in biography and academic books? (i.e. Z: A Novel and Mrs. Hemingway).

Definitely. The use of real people is very much in vogue, probably because readers like to feel they have learned something as well as being entertained. For this reason, I think writers bear a heavy responsibility to get the facts right when using historical characters. With the Nazi women, I was lucky because many of them wrote memoirs, letters and diaries. With the Mitfords, of course, it’s all there.

 Do you find this genre gives you a lot more freedom to manipulate (real life) characters and situations to accommodate your plot?

History is the furniture of my fiction, and I while would never move the furniture, it’s fine to look down the back of the sofa. I never alter historical events, and I feel pretty strongly that you shouldn’t. Even though it goes under the guise of fiction, people are going to take your historical background as fact, so you need to respect that. In the same way, with characters, I’ve always tried to use things they actually said. Goebbels diaries have been immensely helpful in that regard.

 Can you describe your journey to publication with the Clara Vine series?

I was lucky in that Black Roses was picked up very quickly by the wonderful Suzanne Baboneau at Simon & Schuster. When I told her I wanted to write a series, she commissioned more. Clara Vine has now sold to America, Canada and France, as well as to TV.

 Will there be a sequel?

A War of Flowers, set around the 1938 Munich crisis, comes out next year.

And last but not least: who is your favourite Mitford girl?

It has to be Nancy. She is both hilarious and subtle with a keen sense of the ridiculous that has been the hallmark of English novelists from Jane Austen and Dickens to P.G Wodehouse.

 

The Winter Garden ~ part one

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Berlin, 1937. The city radiates glamour and ambition. But danger lurks in every shadow… Anna Hansen, a bride-to-be, is a pupil at one of Hitler’s notorious Nazi Bride Schools, where young women are schooled on the art of being an SS officer’s wife. Then, one night, she is brutally murdered and left in the gardens of the school. Her death will be hushed up and her life forgotten. Clara Vine is an actress at Berlin’s famous Ufa studios by day and an undercover British Intelligence agent by night. She knew Anna and is disturbed by news of her death. She cannot understand why someone would want to cover it up, but she soon discovers that Anna’s murder is linked to a far more ominous secret. With the newly abdicated Edward VIII and his wife Wallis set to arrive in Berlin, and the Mitford sisters dazzling on the social scene, Clara must work in the darkness to find the truth and send it back to London. It is a dangerous path she treads, and it will take everything she has to survive…

This is the first spy novel I’ve ever read and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The Winter Garden incorporates a lot of the elements which I adore in a good book – mystery, scandal, sinister characters all held together by a facade of glamour. The biggest thrill for me, and I know this will be true for other Mitford fans, is the appearance of Diana and Unity:

Unity’s awkward woodenness only served to emphasize the beauty of her sister Diana, who was four years older, smaller by a head and exquisitely dressed in cream Dior, with milky blonde hair and eyes of bright, hostile blue. The two had the same broad brow and high cheekbones, but the features which produced Diana’s loveliness were cast more coarsely in Unity. Looking at the two sisters together made one wonder how birth could fashion such different outcomes from identical raw materials.

Diana and Unity feature throughout the story, appearing as two outsiders imposing on the sinister underworld of the Goebbels’ villa at Schwanenwerder. Aside from the Mitfords, the Goebbels and various Nazis appearing throughout, the story is, in fact, fiction. It’s a clever book, the second of the Clara Vine series (the first was Black Roses – another must read), which uses the historical accuracy of 1930s Berlin and the bridal schools (more about that soon) to motivate its fictional character, the actress by day, spy by night, Clara Vine.

The various layers running through The Winter Garden keeps the pace upbeat and it never palls. Clara, our heroine, walks a delicate tightrope, combining the ultimate balancing act of mingling with the Nazi officers wives, reporting their conversations to the British Embassy and passing on gossip to Joseph Goebbels which might be useful to him. Underneath her cool exterior Clara conceals her own dangerous secret: she is part Jewish.

The book begins with the murder of Clara’s friend, Anna Hansen – a journalist and student of the Nazi Bride School, located on Schwanenwerder, where the Goebbels’ have their villa. Until recently the details of Himmler’s notorious bridal schools weren’t common knowledge. Jane Thynne, much in the vein of Clara Vine, has unearthed a dark secret from the past. And using such a vice to open the book adds to the story’s mystique – after all, for the reader this is a new angle to every day life in Nazi Germany. Clara sets out on a quest to discover why Anna Hansen was murdered, and why the cover up of her death has reached the heights of the Nazi Party. But Clara soon realises that her own survival is at risk.

You can read more about the bridal schools by clicking here.

Jane Thynne was born in Venezuela and educated in London. She graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English and joined the BBC as a journalist. She has also worked at the Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent, as well as numerous British magazines. She appears as a broadcaster on Radio 4. She is married to the writer Philip Kerr. They have three children and live in London.

Click here for our interview with Jane Thynne