Guest post: Esmond Romilly by Meredith Whitford



Meredith Whitford BA, MCA

Esmond Romilly commented wryly in his first book that if he lived to be sixty, in headlines he’d still be ‘fifteen-year-old nephew of Mr Churchill’. He didn’t live to be sixty; he was only twenty-three when he died on active service with Bomber Command. Even posthumously, though, ‘Nephew of Winston Churchill’ stuck – as did various slurs. The New York Times’ obituary of his sister-in-law Diana, Lady Mosley, referred to Esmond as “a wastrel nephew of Churchill”. Esmond’s daughter lives in New York, so the NYT soon had to add:

Correction: September 9, 2003, Tuesday An obituary on Aug. 14 about Diana Mosley, the British aristocrat who was a staunch supporter of Hitler and fascism, referred incompletely to Esmond Romilly, who had married one of her sisters, Jessica Mitford. Although Mr. Romilly was a rebellious young man of privilege, he also became a published writer and an ardent anti-fascist who fought against Franco in Spain and, while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, died in 1941, at 23, in a bombing raid against Nazi Germany.

That Esmond was a “wastrel”, or some similar term, is a view often put forward in the various books about the Mitford family. Although he never joined the Communist Party, he spent a lot of energy, as a teenager, on calling himself a Communist, and he fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and in 1930s terms he was certainly a rebel – but “wastrel”? Unfortunately, two books by people who adored him do rather contribute to this view. In Philip Toynbee’s Friends Apart, and Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels Esmond seems an opinionated, unscrupulous chancer, wild, perennially broke because of his gambling, an iconoclast, and a damn nuisance. However, the two books he wrote (Out of Bounds: The Education of Giles Romilly and Esmond Romilly* – co-written with his brother — and Boadilla, about the men he fought with in Spain) and his letters, reveal a much more interesting figure. These sources show an intelligent, funny, tough, sometimes naïve boy (and it must always be remembered how very young he was: fifteen when he became famous for running away from school, eighteen when he married, twenty-three when he died), a fine writer, a loyal friend, loving father, faithful husband. Engagingly, he was under no illusions about himself, and had a nice line in sending himself up.

Books date, opinions and attitudes change, and what was screamingly funny or clever in a past era now seems bewildering or very unfunny indeed. But it is my opinion (and of course no more than that) that in writing Hons and Rebels some twenty years after her time with Esmond, Jessica was keen to present a picture of them as “two against the world”, two aristocratic rebels who fell in love, opposed their families’ politics, lived rather riotously, and were cast out as a result. There is truth to this view, but, again, letters and other personal papers show things a little differently – plenty of friends, concerned families, enough money, steady jobs. Toynbee seems to have fallen completely (certainly not in any sexual way) for the rebel boy who’d escaped his public school, loudly espoused Left-wing politics, and helped publish the subversive journal, “Out of Bounds”. Leaving his own school to join this delightfully rebellious hero in London, Toynbee quickly found himself out of his depth when faced with Esmond’s reality; also, it has to be said, Toynbee was a sucker for Esmond’s tall stories and Esmond enjoyed leading him on. They were friends for a while, then lost touch, and (again, as letters show) Peter Nevile and then the American writer Selman Rodman, not Toynbee, were Esmond’s closest adult friends. Researching for my book about Jessica and Esmond, I was able to explode one of Toynbee’s stories that made its way into other books and helped to damage the Romillys’ reputation. In brief, Toynbee describes a visit he, Jessica and Esmond paid to Lord Faringdon of Buscot Park in November 1937. Toynbee says the Romillys forced their host to let them stay the night, then proceeded to steal, tease the servants, and make thorough and obnoxious pests of themselves. Apart from the fact that Lord Faringdon was of a left-wing persuasion, supported the Republican cause in Spain and gave a home to refugees from the war, and so would not be someone Esmond would want to offend – well, the present Lord Faringdon emailed me a scan of the Buscot Park visitors book for the night in question. Yes, Jessica (8 months pregnant) stayed the night, but Esmond didn’t. He may not even have dined there. It was all a story he made up to see if Toynbee would swallow it. No wonder that years later Jessica had only the vaguest idea of the past excitements Toynbee rattled off.


So who exactly was Esmond Romilly? Actually, he was the nephew of Churchill’s wife, Clementine (pronounced Clementeen), whose younger sister Nellie was his mother. His father was Lieutenant-Colonel Bertram Romilly, a several times decorated officer of the Scots Guards. (The vague rumour that Esmond was actually fathered by Winston Churchill can be utterly discounted.)The Romillys were an old Huguenot family who fled to England to escape religious persecution in France. Perhaps the most famous of Esmond’s Romilly ancestors was Sir Samuel Romilly, the lawyer and MP who helped abolish slavery. A hefty inheritance, and marriages to daughters of earls and dukes, made the family rich; their estate was Huntington Park, over on the Welsh border. (Sir Samuel’s sister Catherine married the Roget of Roget’s Thesaurus, and in my fairly ancient paperback copy the editor is Samuel Romilly Roget.)

Esmond’s mother was (Margaret) Nellie, née Hozier, third daughter of Sir Henry Hozier and his wife Lady Blanche Ogilvy, whose father was the Scottish Earl of Airlie. Marital fidelity was not a feature of Hozier married life, and most sources agree that Nellie’s father was Algernon Bertram (“Bertie”) Freeman-Mitford, Jessica’s paternal grandfather. Thus, Esmond and Jessica were second cousins because their grandmothers were sisters (Lady Clementine Ogilvy married Bertie Freeman-Mitford, later Lord Redesdale), and quite possibly also first cousins because her father and his mother were half-siblings. This may be yet another reason for the family panic when Esmond and Jessica wanted to marry.

Bertram Romilly (who already was, or became, a close friend of Winston Churchill) married Nellie Hozier in December 1915. Their first son, Giles, was born in September 1916, Esmond on 10 July 1918. In a letter to her mother-in-law, Lady Randolph Churchill, Clementine Churchill wrote that Esmond arrived prematurely:


Nellie had a beautiful son this morning. But something went wrong with the chloroform apparatus & it was born absolutely without it…[The baby] came a fortnight too soon so nothing was ready, layette cradle and all were at Lullenden [their country home], I brought everything up this morning and found the poor midget ‘wrapped in swaddling clothes’.


Esmond’s birth certificate shows that Nellie registered his name as Esmond Samuel David. “Samuel” was a Romilly name used in every generation; it was his father’s and Giles’s second name. Mysteriously, it vanished from his name; in every other document he is Esmond Marcus/Mark David Romilly. (“David” perhaps after Nellie’s cousin/?half-brother, Jessica’s father.)
Much is made in various books about Esmond’s difficult relationship with his mother, so we could argue that this was because his birth was painful or difficult. I don’t think it’s as easy as that. Nellie was something of a drama queen who tended to “smother” her sons, and she and Esmond (himself no stranger to a spot of drama) swung between mutual devotion, impatience and stormy disagreements. In the diary that covers Christmas at Chartwell in 1931 Esmond records how his mother managed to irritate both him and Giles, and how much he missed her when she left. “I love her very much,” he wrote. He was also very fond of, and respected, his father, but it seems that Colonel Romilly was often away, or played a small role in his sons’ upbringing. He had been badly wounded in the war, he disliked noise, and was perhaps easily upset by family strife; he preferred the peace and quiet of Huntingdon Park, which bored his sons rigid.

Both Giles and Esmond went to Wellington, which offered reduced fees for officers’ sons. As his diary shows, Esmond wanted to leave from the moment he arrived. Both he and Giles disapproved of the ethos of Wellington and public schools in general, and had a wonderful time ripping into it in Out of Bounds. Reading between the lines of Esmond’s diary and various books on the subject, it is possible to infer that Esmond, who always strenuously resisted any homosexual approaches, was troubled by that aspect of school life. In February 1934 they agreed they’d both run away.

Giles didn’t but Esmond did. The newspapers went mad, because of the Churchill connection and because by now both Romilly boys were calling themselves Communists. This was real shock-horror stuff in the 1930s, when “Bolsheviks” (all too often the word was linked with “Jews”) was shorthand for the bogeyman threatening British society. After all, the Communists had killed the Russian royal family, and might come after “ours”; every industrial strike or piece of political activism might be the beginning of the end. And here were two upper-class, privileged boys calling themselves Communists! The kindest interpretation was that they’d been brainwashed. Many people thought they just needed a good thrashing. In fact Esmond had privately decided that Communism was rather “rot” and wrote of himself and his proselytising that


…over-enthusiasm without age or experience is most irritating to those possessed of both the later qualifications. I, myself, am always prepared to argue for the sake of argument, and there must have been something ludicrous in the spectacle of a boy of fifteen laying down the law…


Unwilling or forbidden to go home, Esmond settled in at the Parton Street bookshop in Bloomsbury run by David Archer. It was fashionably left-wing, and from there he (and Giles, still at school) began their “subversive” journal “Out of Bounds” – subversive both politically and because it touched on sexual issues. Giles’s article “Morning Glory” could hardly have been more explicit for its era (hint: it wasn’t about the pretty blue plant) and another article told readers that masturbation was quite normal and didn’t send you blind.

Philip Toynbee left Rugby to join Esmond in London just in time for Mosley’s infamous Olympia Rally of 1934. Both boys wrote it up, but the violence of the rally, and his father’s tracking him down, sent Toynbee briskly back to school. Surprisingly, Esmond too returned to school, but to Bedales, not Wellington, and only for about a month. After that he was on his own again, or occasionally at home, while Giles spent the summer in Germany before going up to Oxford. At about this time Giles wrote to a very revealing letter to his mother:


I am sorry you had such a bad time with Esmond, but was afraid it would be so. He seems to have been as much upset as you were and thinks, as I do too, that no ‘compromise’ of any kind is possible, anything that involves bargaining. You are quite right that it is the parental relationship which mucks up every-thing [sic]. Esmond is quite adult, and does not need it, and resents it. I think it is unfair to hold it over him, especially as without it there could always be considerable love between you. I mean, why insist on your rights, even if you think it to be for his good, when by doing so you wreck your personal relationship. If you remember, the promises about Communism and Out of Bounds were extorted from Esmond when he was thoroughly overwrought, as every other promise has been in the past. The appeal of ‘grey hairs in sorrow to the grave’ etcetera he has never been able to resist. You and Daddy have played on that appeal unmercifully, though you have almost destroyed its effectiveness with lamentation about money, heavy Bedales fees etcetera. If Esmond had the offer to live alone without interference or help, he would not refuse. And your money has not been wasted, for of course he has got far more out of his education at sixteen than the majority of people at twenty-one. And you admit that his character has improved. (That I see myself from his letters.)… Remember too the number of times you have been ‘converted’ to Socialism yourself. Remember the letter you wrote to the Daily Worker. If that had been allowed to appear – it was Esmond who stopped it – how could you address him as you do now without appearing a complete hypocrite?

Actually I know of course that it is for Daddy that you are so unhappy… he tends to emphasise his own feelings, and you have always rather indulged him in that, so much so that he is now completely dependent on you. It might be better if you tried to persuade him that he is not so unhappy as he thinks, instead of augmenting it by encouragement, and making yourself unhappy at the same time by having scenes with Esmond. Is it necessary to call Esmond a murderer, for instance? … And does the blame rest entirely with Esmond anyway?

I’m sure the situation is not worth all the tragic drama with which you and Esmond and Daddy invest it. It is a hackneyed situation, and should not be allowed to make life difficult for anyone. This modern generation, the tragic father, the rebellious son – it is all so commonplace. Why not get rid of it by writing a book, or something? You would probably have a great success…


I wonder whether these last couple of lines were a bit of a dig at Nellie, who’d written a novel, Misdeal, and published it under the name of Anna Gerstein in 1932.

Toynbee reappeared on the scene. He says that he and Esmond got drunk and made some disturbance at the Romillys’ house in Pimlico. Exactly what happened isn’t clear in any source, but it seems that Nellie called the police, and both boys were arrested. Despite the judge’s criticism of parents who left a sixteen-year-old boy to his own devices, Esmond ended up in a Remand Home for nearly three weeks. His description of this dumping-ground for anything from criminals to homeless boys to mentally handicapped ones makes grim reading, although he made as light of it as possible, reserving his sympathy for the other inmates.
On his release he went to stay with a distant cousin, Mrs Dorothy Allhusen, where he met and became friends with Peter Nevile. By now Esmond and Giles had started writing Out of Bounds, which was published in 1935. Living on a small allowance from his father and without much to do, Esmond took a job as a silk-stocking salesman, on commission. Later, when he fell back on the same job in America, Jessica noted that he was “disturbingly successful” at it. In Out of Bounds Esmond wrote that


I have always found selling fairly easy, as I am naturally inclined towards exaggeration and have often been criticized for an over-willingness to talk, and to go on talking… having no specialized knowledge of any kind, and not being troubled with an over-quantity of honesty or scrupulousness, it was, I suppose, inevitable that I should soon be selling somebody something.


A faint echo of this, perhaps, in some of Jessica’s remarks about the salesmen of the funeral industry in The American Way of Death.


Esmond took a couple of other jobs before, in October 1936, he went to Spain to fight on the Republican side. Boadilla describes his experiences very thoroughly, with humour and without pomposity or self-aggrandizement. Most of his friends died at Boadilla del Monte. Alive, but very ill with dysentery, Esmond was invalided home. He visited the families of all his dead comrades, then in February 1937 went to stay again with Mrs Allhusen. In the small house-party was the cousin he’d never actually met: Jessica Mitford.


The story of their falling in love and running away together, intending to get back to Spain, is probably very well known to everyone reading this. It’s a long and involved story, with Jessica’s family dragging Scotland Yard and the government into it, an attempt to lure Jessica onto a British ship and bring her home forcibly, her parents making her a Ward of Court and so on and so forth. They were prevented from returning to Spain, and the more she and Esmond tried to get married quickly, the harder her family made it. In the end, because Jessica was pregnant, they were allowed to marry.

They took rooms in their friend Roger Roughton’s house in Rotherhithe; not quite the slum this is often made out to be, at the time this was rather an arty, Bohemian little enclave. Esmond got a job as a copywriter with an advertising agency at a decent wage, Jessica did part-time work as a market researcher. They had a lot of friends and a lot of parties, saw a lot of Giles and even of some of Jessica’s family, and in December 1937 to their great joy their daughter Julia Decca was born.

At about the time of Julia’s birth Jessica wrote to her younger sister Deborah, who had measles. It was possibly at the same time that their mother too had measles. Wherever she caught it, in May Jessica too had the disease very badly. The local health clinic people assumed she would have had it already, so that breast-fed Julia would be immune. Sadly, they were all wrong. At the end of May the baby died, aged five months. Her death certificate, lodged by Esmond, chillingly records that he was “present at the death”. He was still not quite twenty.

Heartbroken, the Romillys left everything behind and went to Corsica to recover. Later they found a flat near Marble Arch, took up their jobs again, and watched their country’s reaction to the Munich Agreement and Kristallnacht. Certain that time was running out before Britain would be at war with Germany, and still mourning their baby, they decided to go to the United States.
They loved egalitarian, friendly America, so unlike uptight, hide-bound England. The made friends, were asked everywhere; when Kay Graham invited them to stay with her parents, Eugene and Agnes Meyer, Jessica thought of her parents’ reaction if she’d invited two strangers home. They were genuinely popular with most of the people they met, but of course they were also a delicious curiosity with their aristocratic connections and background. Networking like mad, making friends everywhere, unsure of the future but treating the present as a working-holiday, they both got jobs, Esmond as a copywriter at the dizzying wage of $125.00 p.w. and later, again, as a silk-stocking salesman. When they’d saved enough they set out on what was meant to be a long tour of the USA. Thanks to Jessica’s bad map-reading they ended up in Miami. Claiming experience he didn’t have, Esmond got a job as a waiter at a small Italian restaurant. The fiasco is one of the funniest passages in Hons and Rebels and in the articles they wrote for their friend Eugene Meyer’s Washington Post. Ignominiously sacked, Esmond asked if he could take over the running of the restaurant’s bar – at least he had genuine bar-tending training. But the licence cost $1000, which neither the Romillys nor the restaurateur could afford. Bright idea: Esmond would borrow the money from Eugene Meyer. Eagerly outlining his arrangements to repay such a loan, Esmond didn’t even notice that Mr Meyer had said “Yes” at once. To the amusement of Meyer’s daughter, Esmond was so taken aback that all he could say was, “Oh! Well, I hope it won’t leave you short.” Mr Meyer, a multimillionaire, thought it wouldn’t. The loan was carefully repaid.

Meanwhile, Russia and Germany had signed the mutual non-aggression pact, which left Communists looking silly. Soon, war was declared between Britain and Germany. Jessica’s beloved sister Unity, Hitler’s great friend, shot herself. Mad with worry about her, without hard news for months, unable to express herself to Esmond, who had no time for the Nazi members of her family, Jessica was besieged with requests for interviews and information. At last she heard that Unity had been brought home, brain-damaged and her life effectively over.

During the “Phoney War”, September 1939 to April 1940, Esmond evidently had no faith in the Chamberlain government’s will to stand up to Hitler. He wrote an article, presciently titled “Britain’s Next Prime Minister” about Churchill, and no doubt wondered what to do. A lot of his American friends were Isolationist, and all he could do was tell them not to under-rate Britain.

In April the Germans over-ran Norway and Giles Romilly, a civilian war correspondent for the Daily Express, was taken prisoner. He remained a prisoner for the rest of the war, most of it in Colditz. There was nothing Esmond could do but hope and try to get food parcels to his brother. Then his grandfather died, aged 90, and a week later his father died of cancer. Perhaps he thought of going home. Then, and it must have seemed all at once, Hitler cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war, and Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain. Esmond immediately enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Leaving Jessica with their friend Mrs Virginia Durr in Washington, he at once went north to begin his training.

His and Jessica’s letters to each other reveal their misery at being apart for the first time in three years, and their determination not to burden each other with their loneliness. Humour and courage mattered most; everything else was understood. Jessica had conceived another baby, born February 1941 and named Ann Constancia, always nicknamed Dinky, or Dinky-Donk, or The Donk. (After the Democratic Donkey, because she’d kicked so hard in utero while Jessica was at the Democratic Convention.) Esmond wasn’t keen on the name Constancia; “it is right out”, he wrote to Jessica, but he’d taken so long to make up his mind about the baby’s name (he wanted “Carol”) that she’d gone ahead and registered the name anyway.

Esmond did well in his air force training, although after several months, and passing several exams, he was told than a childhood operation for mastoid made him unfit for aircrew. Faced with being kicked out so suddenly and so late, he for once pulled strings, but instead of approaching his uncle the PM, or pointing out that an ancestor had been Governor-General of Canada, he asked a local MP for help. The matter was resolved somehow (if it hadn’t been, he said, he would have returned to England to enlist in the RAF, which would have sent him to Canada for training), he went on with his training, passed, was posted as an observer (navigator) and was finally commissioned (against his will, but it was too much trouble to refuse.) In June 1941 Pilot Officer Romilly was posted to England, to Bomber Command.

For a long time he and Jessica couldn’t decide whether she and the baby should stay in America or join him in England. The death of RCAF comrades made him for once put off the defence of humour and admit how desperately he wanted her with him.
At the very end of November she sent him an exultant telegram telling him she’d got passage on a plane and would be with him very soon.

As if in reply, she got a telegram telling her that Esmond’s plane had failed to return from a bombing raid. There was no hope that he had survived.

He had died on Churchill’s birthday, 30 November.


Clearly, Esmond was someone people either loved or loathed; no middle ground, and nor would he have sought it. Most people who came to know him well liked him. By the time he died the noisy teenager had become a happily married man, a father, a dedicated officer in the armed forces and fiercely anti-fascist. The many, many letters Jessica and his mother received when he died all speak of people’s liking and admiration for him, and a sense of great potential lost.

Churchill was both irritated and amused by his politics, but no letters between them seem to have survived. Had Esmond lived, he would almost certainly have gone into politics. If he had stayed in England after the war, he and Churchill might have ended up facing each other across the floor of the Commons.

But Esmond died young, and Jessica was a widow at twenty-four. Too proud to go home or accept help, she struggled to raise Dinky on what she could earn, saving her air force pension for Dinky’s education. In 1943 she found another soulmate in Bob Treuhaft, and with him forged a career as a political activist and writer.

But without Esmond – what would have become of her?


Letters referred to in this article are mostly in the Jessica Mitford Archive in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room of Ohio State University.
Giles Romilly’s letter, quoted here, is in the GSB Romilly Archive in Hereford, and is used by kind permission of Edmund Romilly.
Mrs Churchill’s letter about Esmond’s birth is in the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge.
The quotation from Out of Bounds is used by kind permission of Edmund Romilly.
Copies of the four issues of “Out of Bounds” are in my possession.
Other sources for this article are listed in my book Churchill’s Rebels: Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly. E-book Endeavour Press UK, 2013; paperback Umbria Press UK, 2014.


Meredith Whitford is also the author of the award-winning Treason and Shakespeare’s Will (e-published as Love’s Will by Endeavour Press (UK). Both are available in e-book and paperback.

© Meredith Whitford November 2014

Click here to purchase Churchill’s Rebels


The Red Flowers: Sermons From The Front To The Children At Home

I have owned this book since I was ten years old. My parents found it at a market stall, and knowing what a WW1 enthusiast I was, they bought it for me. From what I can gather it was privately printed. If anyone has any information on this little book I’d love for you to get in touch.


The Red Flowers

Sermons From The Front To The Children At Home


Rev. Stuart Robertson M.A.

Two Extracts

Before The Battle

‘Looking unto Jesus.’ – Heb. xii. 2.
‘Like Him.’ – 1 St. John iii. 2.

BOYS and girls, you read in the papers of great battles and their results. I wonder if you ever think of the preparation that goes before a battle. Roads have to be made, railways built, water-pipes laid for miles, and huge stores gathered together in special places.

But there are two things I want to tell you about. One is Compass-Bearing.

Every officer must have a compass, and every sergeant that can get one, will have one too. The attack often begins in the dark, and the soldiers have to go into an unknown country. They have studied it from maps and photographs, and seen it from a distance, but still they have never been there, and so to be sure of keeping the right direction, each body of men must steer by compass, and they must know their direction by compass.

Then although it is dark and no stars are to be seen and the country is strange, the compass is set, and one look at the luminous needle tells them which way to go.

So before the battle officers are comparing their compasses, taking them to headquarters to be tested, and talking about their compass-bearing.

Their colonel will ask them questions to see if the know what they have to do, and he is sure to ask, ‘Have you a compass?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Has it been tested?’
‘What is your compass-bearing?’
’27 East,’ or whatever it may be.

The next thing is ‘Final Objective’. That means how far you are to go and where you are to stop. On the map there will be lines drawn, Blue, Green, Black. One regiment is to take the Blue Line and stop there. Another is to go to the Green Line and stop there. A third is to go to the Black Line. So the colonel will ask the men: ‘What is your Final Objective?’ and they will answer, ‘Such and such a point on the Blue, Green or the Black Line.’

Well, boys and girls, you too are preparing for a great battle; it is the Battle of Life, and these two questions are important for you too. You all have a compass; it is your conscience, that strange voice within us that points us to the right and tells us when we are wrong.

What is your compass-bearing? it is this: ‘looking unto Jesus’. That is our true North, to which our conscience-compass points.

But compasses may go wrong and so may consciences. In pirate stories we often used to read how some traitor on the ship put a piece of iron in the compass so that it pointed wrong, and the ship steering by it got off its course and away from its convoy in the dark, and at the pirates’ mercy.

Without treachery compasses go wrong and need to be adjusted: and often you will see ships lying apparently idle in some quiet land-locked haven, where no winds blow. They are being swung to adjust their compasses, and they need a quite place for that.

Consciences, too, may be betrayed; and consciences, too, may cease to point true to Christ, so we need to go into the quiet places of worship, like the ships into harbour, and in church and at the Lord’s Table get our consciences set true again. We need to go to headquarters like the officers, and have our consciences tested.

Then, if they are true, we need not fear to stray in the dark, or to be lost in the unknown country or tomorrow which lies beyond the lines of today. We have our compass-bearing, ‘looking unto Jesus’, and we cannot go wrong unknowing.

And our ‘Final Objective’ ?
There is a line of the Map of Life which God has drawn and we are not to rest short of that. But we often try ‘to draw the line’ somewhere short of it, and only win little successes instead of a great victory.

An old man was once talking to a young one. The young one said, ‘I am going into business with So-and-so.’
‘Yes, and then?’
‘Then when I have mastered the business, I shall push out for myself in such-and-such a town, when I see a good opening.’
‘Yes, and then?’
‘Then when I have got on well, I shall settle down and get married.’
‘Yes, and then?’
‘Well, after a time I shall retire and live comfortably at my ease.’
‘Yes, and then?’
‘Oh! Well, I suppose some day I shall die.’
‘Yes, and then?’
But this time there was no answer. He had no Final Objective.

What is God’s line? It is this: We are not to rest ‘until we come to the measure of the stature of the perfect man, Christ Jesus’.

We are not to be satisfied till we ‘wake with His likeness.’ We are to be ‘perfect as He is perfect,’ and we are not to stop anywhere short of that.

That is our Final Objective.


A Covert From The Tempest

‘A man shall be … a covert from the tempest.’
Isa. xxxii. 2.

GIRLS and boys, I wish to tell you of a thing I saw in a village in France. It was a place called Aubigny: a dull and unlovely place, just a huddle of untidy and uninteresting houses and muddy streets, full of French folk weary of the war and British soldiers plastered with mud, and also very tired with war and work.

I have lived there a good while and had come to think that no beautiful thing could ever come out of Aubigny.

People once said the same about Nazareth. but they were wrong, for Jesus came out of Nazareth; and I was wrong about Aubigny.

It was a day in March. The winter was slowly and unwillingly giving place to spring, and the weather was uncertain. This day was windy and cloud-swept, with bursts of sunshine and bursts of rain.

One of these sudden deluges had come down and everybody was making for shelter. Among them was a group of five little children.

Do you know where they sought and found shelter?

Under the rain-cape of a British soldier. He had one of those big, wide, sleeveless waterproof cloaks, and the children ran to him and crept in beneath. The rain splashed on his steel helmet and dripped from it on to his cloak, running down in streams, but they were sheltered and dry and happy. ‘A man was a covert from the tempest.’

And as I watched this beautiful thing, set like a jewel, the more beautiful for its unlovely surroundings, three thoughts came into my mind.

The first was this. When the War is over and the Army comes back, it will be very glad to ‘get out’ of France and the French will be very glad to see it go. For it must be a great burden to them to have a strange people, as we are to them, living in their houses, and planted in their possessions. We and they are good friends, and they know why we are there, but it is only natural that they will be glad when we go away and things are their own once more.

But the French children will be sorry: for they have found the British soldier always kind and friendly to little folk.

I know a little French boy who ran away from home to live with the British soldiers. I asked him if he had any parents. ‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Well, are you going back to them?’
‘Why not?’
‘Oh! Too much kick.’
‘Who kicks you?’
‘My mother.’
‘But are you not afraid the British soldiers might kick you?” I asked.
‘No,’ he said, in a voice that was full of trust, and a little angry that anybody should think such a thing of his soldier friends.

Our soldiers are brave and cheerful, and many fine things can be said about them, but I think the finest thing of all is to say, and it is true, the children of France love them.

The second thing was that the soldier sheltering the children from the tempest was a beautiful parable of true of the war.

We are fighting against a power that wars not only on the strong but on the weak. It sends warships to fight and sink defenceless merchant ships. It sends airships to drop bombs on harmless folk. Its armies have slain women and children: their path has been marked by broken hearts and little graves; and children lie dead in Belgium and France, in England, and in the deep salt sea because the cruel hand of Germany struck them dead.

We are fighting against that, for the weak against the strong. The flag of our navy and our army is a shelter against this terrible tempest; and the soldier sheltering the children under his rain cloak in this big truth told in a little parable.

And the last is a thing we all need to know.

There are other tempests more terrible than rain, or even German cruelty, tempests of temptation and trial, tempests of sorrow with a bitter rain of tears. No one will escape them for they sweep across the way of every life.

Yet there is one shelter. It is a Man, and His name is Jesus. No tempest can overcome those whose defenceless head is sheltered by the covert of His wings.

When I saw the children sheltered under the wide wings of the cloak of the British soldier, it was to me a parable of that Man who, the prophet said, would be ‘a covert from the tempest’ ; and I want it to be so to you as well, that in the storms of life you may turn to Him with as sure a trust and find as sure a shelter, as the children did in the storm of Aubigny.

Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses. An interview with Helen Rappaport

I originally reviewed Four Sisters for The Lady:

Much has been written about the Romanovs – fact, fiction and everything in between. The four Grand Duchesses – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia – have often featured behind the scenes in biographies of their parents, Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra.

Although this is familiar terrain in terms of historical biographies, the author achieves a rare feat in depicting the Grand Duchesses as complex and fascinating individuals in their own right. Meticulously researched and filled with new information, this book presents the untold and gripping stories of their lives for the first time in print.


How long have you been writing for? And can you tell The Mitford Society a bit about your journey to becoming published?

I’ve been writing history since the early 1990s. It began when I was at university – I enjoyed writing history essays as part of my Russian Special Studies course. Later, working as a freelance editor and researcher for various publishers including OUP and Blackwell, I was asked to contribute various short entry items to history books and encyclopaedias and from there, as my editing work morphed into a full time job as an outhouse desk editor for Blackwell, I began thinking more and more about moving into writing history full time. I had spent a lot of time editing – and effectively fact checking and even re-writing – a lot of academic history books and decided to take the plunge and write my own . But it was a huge gamble. I was offered the chance to write three US reference books for the university/college market on Stalin, Queen Victoria and women social reformers – and although the money was poor it served as a wonderful grounding and a springboard into my first trade title in 2006. I count myself incredibly fortunate that since 1999 I have published 11 books, with a 12th underway, at a time when the trade has been shrinking alarmingly and when history and biography in particular have been squeezed very hard. But it has been very hard work – an effective treadmill – not by choice but because my advances were not large enough to allow me the luxury of several years to write a book.

What inspired you to become a historical biographer and what draws you to your area of expertise?

I think it is the detective in me and my love of genealogy and family history that fuel my love of real lives, real stories. There is nothing I enjoy more than chasing down the facts, the clues, the small details of a human life that might have been overlooked or forgotten. It is such a joy to be able to shed new light on a piece of history or someone’s life from the past. I get so much pleasure from the satisfaction of tracking down new sources about my subjects that I have absolutely no desire to make it up – to turn to fiction or historical fiction. Many people urge me to do so but my feeling is that I would not want to write historical fiction unless I could write it better than I write history – and I would miss the thrill of the chase.

How do you go about planning your research and what is the general time frame before you start writing the manuscript? Can you tell us a bit about that process?

Well research can be a very unpredictable, amorphous thing and I never plan it rigidly timewise, though I do write lots of lists of objectives and have a rough schedule. In principle I keep on searching and researching right up to the moment I send my text off for editing. I usually ike to get a good body of research under my belt before I start writing, but it’s impossible to set a hard and fast rule, as quite often what happens is that the book starts writing itself in my head – at night in particular and I start jotting things down – sentences, paragraphs – quite randomly, that I want to come back to. But in the end I always find I reach a natural point at which I have a real need to start writing, to get something down on paper. In the past I have written the closing paragraph of a book long before starting it! I usually research for about 9 months and write for the same amount of time, but it depends on the schedule. I researched and wrote Beautiful For Ever very fast, in five months, between two bigger books. There’s a lot of cross over in terms of gathering material – I am always picking up new nuggets of information from seemingly unrelated sources. Even though I have now moved on to book no 12 I am still effectively researching the Romanovs, as I want to keep up to speed with any new evidence, material, photographs that come to light and new discussions about them. So in fact I juggle all my past books in my head, as it is important to keep in touch with the material – if anything because I might get asked to do a radio or TV talking head about it! I am constantly switching historical hats and having to refresh my memory of previous books because of this. For me it is really important to stay in touch with one’s subjects. Some writers, I know, get bored and detach and move on to the next subject without a backward glance, but in the case of the Romanov sisters in particular, I know I shall stay very close to them.

How did you become interested in the lives of the Grand Duchesses?

It’s ironic really, as I had long resisted all the schmaltz and romanticism of the Romanov story. Despite being a Russianist and loving Russian history I had deliberately avoided the topic of the last Imperial Family because I felt it was too heavily loaded with hagiography and myth. But once I had decided to write Ekaterinburg which is specifically about the last two weeks of the family’s life before their murder, I fell in love with the girls and developed a sense of mission about telling their story. I felt they had been overlooked for far too long, and too easily lumped together as a bland collective. I wanted to give them back their individual identities.

Why did you write a combined biography on the four girls as opposed to, say, a single biography on Anastasia?

I am absolutely totally and stubbornly resistant to Anastasia as a single subject. She has been much mythologized and too often, even now, when I give talks the first question people ask is did she get away. No. They all died!! I wish people would accept this and think more about the real Romanov sisters . Any book about Anastasia would have to take in the false claimants and I absolutely will not waste precious words writing about people who were frauds, rather than the real Anastasia. So no, no individual biography of any sister is viable really. It would be too difficult in terms of sources. They girls lived very protected lives, they did not pour their hearts and souls out on to the pages of their diaries and letters (those of course, that have survived – they destroyed many of them). What we have is always fairly circumspect. They died too young to make it possible to tell a full and rounded life. There have been one or two slim, Russian-language hagiographies about Olga the eldest but they suffer, as a lot of Russian sources on the girls do, from being over-reverential and uncritical. There is also the added problem that there is no scandal or gossip that one can use to ‘sex up’ the story. They were a devoted and loyal unit and I think it’s best they are remembered and written about very much as that – as Four Sisters.

Is there another set of historical sisters who capture your fascination?

HR: Well of course the Romanov girls’ mother Alexandra was one of four sisters (a fifth died young) and I say a little about that in the opening chapter of my book. So yes, the four Hesse sisters are fascinating and they have been written about, singly and collectively. But for me there is something so special – so touching and unique about the four Romanov sisters.

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

HR: I’m now working on a book for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017. It’s called Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 and it’s going to be an account of the city that year, from a different angle entirely – from the point of view of the British, American, French and other foreign nationals who were in the city and witnessed what happened.

Who is your favourite Mitford girl and why?

HR: well it has to be Nancy. I gobbled up most of her book in my teens and twenties and am now planning a concerted re-read. The Pursuit of Love is top of my bedside pile right now! But I also greatly admire her historical titles.