“The Gloomy Shade of Death”

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There are many cliches about death, though one cannot deny that the British upper-class were quite matter-of-fact about their own immortality. In her essay on U and Non-U English, Nancy Mitford teases that, when referring to death, the Non-U lot were prone to using floral euphemisms: passed on, passed away, taken and gone-too-soon; to name a few. However, as she warned, the upper-class were blunt about the entire thing. Died, was their chosen expression when speaking of the death act. Yes, this lot with their hunting, shooting and fishing were well equipped for bloodshed and the sight of a corpse. Though, as silly as Nancy could be, there was no humour to be found when a dark shadow of death fell upon London society in 1930. Perhaps the cliche is true: that death, when it visits, it arrives in threes.

 

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The Hon. Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington, born in 1911, was the eldest child and only daughter of Viscount Massereene & Ferrard and his wife, the paranormal expert, Jean Barbara nee Ainsworth. Growing up at the family seat, Antrim Castle, in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, Diana was often included in her parents trips abroad and she was acquainted with their contemporaries, and was said to have caught the eye of Edward, the Prince of Wales. Though, as romantic as the story seems, there is no proof of their phantom courtship. As a little girl, Diana was a member of the Antrim branch of the Girl Guides – later becoming the leader of the Primrose Patrol – and many of her childhood companions were the children of local merchants. It was quite unheard of for a girl from her background to mix so freely with non-aristocrats, and one such friend, Sadie, was a fellow Girl Guide and the daughter of Viscount Massereene’s gardener. Escorted by her governess, Miss Molloy, Diana visited Sadie at her home on Castle Street, causing her mother great embarrassment each time their aristocratic caller entered through the backdoor and passed through the scullery.

 

As much as Lady Massereene (Diana was extremely close to her mother) thought it charming that her daughter had an eclectic mix of friends, for she, too, was a firm favourite amongst the locals, it was time for Diana to grow up and enter the life of a debutante. A dazzling star on the Mayfair scene and equally as popular in hunting circles in Scotland, Diana’s dark looks attracted many admirers and, perhaps, she would have made a splendid society marriage. This seemed to be in the future, when at the age of 20, she became Godmother to the future Earl of Scone. On the 15th  October 1930, Diana served as a bridesmaid at the society wedding of her friend Miss Susan Roberts to the Hon. Somerset Maxwell Farnham. On this day, she asked for a glass of water – a seemingly harmless gesture, but the water was contaminated and a week later, Diana collapsed at her mother’s family home, Ardanaiseig House, in Argyll. The diagnosis was typhoid fever and a doctor in Harley Street had been alerted of her condition and the necessary arrangements were made for her to travel south for treatment. Hopes were raised when Diana claimed to feel better, and on Trafalgar Day, she took to the streets of London to sell flags in aid of servicemen. It was a cold day and her friends were concerned about her fragile appearance and urged her to the family home at Rutland Gate. ‘If I go to bed now, it will be weeks before I shall be up again,’ she joked. Suddenly all expectations of a complete recovery were dashed when Diana – still battling typhoid – developed pneumonia and her condition took a turn for the worse. The raging fever consumed her and, on the 6th November 1930, she died aged 21.

 

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Although not the daughter of a Peer, Evelyn Colyer gained recognition through her own merits on the tennis court. Alongside Joan Austin, she played doubles in the 1923 Wimbledon final against Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills. With her modern looks and model appearance in her tennis-whites, the press nicknamed Evelyn as one of ‘The Babes’. In 1924, she paired with Dorothy Shepherd-Barron to win a bronze medal in the women’s doubles at the Paris Olympics. For nine years Evelyn competed in the Wimbledon Championships, and her final match was in 1929, after which she retired from tennis to marry Hamish Munro, a tea-planter from Assam, British India. Returning to her husband’s homeland, Evelyn died from complications in childbirth on the 6th November 1930, aged twenty-eight.

 

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The Hon. Meriel Catherine Lyttelton was the eldest daughter of John Cavendish Lyttelton, 9th Viscount Cobham and Violet Yolande Leonard. With her brown hair, glassy blue eyes and pale skin, she radiated an ethereal beauty. Although she was a popular debutante and a leading figure of London society, Meriel preferred her life in Gloucestershire where she immersed herself in country life, paying close attention to the social activities in the village and participating in blood sports. When her father, the Viscount, fell ill, she took over his role of Master of the Albright Woodland Hunt, a position she held for two years until his recovery.

 

In 1930, Meriel had been weakened from two bouts of serious illness before she was stricken by tubercular meningitis, for which she received a blood transfusion. Despite it providing some temporary relief, and offering false hope to her parents, this illness proved fatal and Meriel died aged 19 on the 11th November 1930. Her younger sister, Viola, went on to marry Robert Grosvenor, the 5th Duke of Westminster. Although Viola, too, met a tragic end when she died in a car accident in 1987 in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland, this was perhaps the fulfilling life Meriel might have lived had she not died young.

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The Mitfords & The Chocolate Challenge

Thanks to D.E. Ireland for nominating The Mitford Society to participate in the Chocolate Challenge in which we choose three of our favourite books and liken them to dark, milk or white chocolate. D.E .Ireland is a team of award winning authors, Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta. Together they have created a unique series based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Their latest book Wouldn’t it be Deadly will be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur on September 23rd 2014. Since we’re talking about the Mitford Girls, I thought I would bend the rules slightly! Instead of mentioning my personal favourite books I have likened the flavours of chocolate to the girls’ owns books.

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‘Those chocolates were the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, my favourite sort too, logs!’

– Decca to Farve, circa 1932

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THE sophisticated lifestyle calls for dark chocolate, which the newly-wedded Mrs. Bryan Guinness discovered. While honeymooning at the Guinness family apartment on rue de Poitiers, Diana was enchanted to learn that the apartment came with two servants – a butler and a cook – who lived there all year round in spite of the apartment being seldom occupied. The cook’s specialty was a famous French pastry, consisting of meringue dipped in dark chocolate. The original title of the pudding, far from politically correct, shall be referred to as Tete de Chocolat. For the duration of her honeymoon Diana feasted on Tete de Chocolat every day. As such, the book I have chosen to accompany dark chocolate is A Life of Contrasts by Diana Mosley.

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Milk Chocolate is just the type of chocolate that would appeal to children, and to philistines such as Farve, Debo and Pam. I could imagine Muv baking a tray of German Biscuits – pleasing to the eye, but their name….REALLY. Farve might bellow: ‘The only good German is a dead German!’ But upon seeing the delicious chocolate covering, he would snatch one off the tray and go off in search of his Puccini arias. Unity, of course, would be delighted, and as such she would refrain from her usual diet of mashed potatoes in honour of her adopted country. The perfect book to accompany milk chocolate is Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.

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White Chocolate is the perfect edible treat to conjure up images of the debutante season. My reason for selecting Jessica Mitford’s memoirs, Hons & Rebels, is because as a young deb she was full of sound and fury about the upper-classes and their sick-making customs. However, Decca admitted that she rather enjoyed her deb season. And, in spite of her protests and the formalities of being presented at Court, she managed to smuggle chocolates down her knickers, which to her great embarrassment, tumbled out as she was being photographed.

 

For the Chocolate Challenge I nominate Diana Birchall of Light, Bright, and Sparkling and Meems Ellenberg of Meemselle.

The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee

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Although we’re already two months past the centenary of Laurie Lee, this cradle to grave biography will have a long shelf life. I should confess now, that I am not overly familiar with Laurie Lee, but I do recognise a lot of his paramours (I am a big admirer of Elizabeth Joan Howard), which is what attracted me to this biography.
Another reason why I am so interested in Valerie Grove’s biography (it is a revised edition of her classic authorised biography Laurie Lee: The Well-Loved Stranger) is because I am tackling a similar challenge to mark the centenary of the British film star Margaret Lockwood in 2016. As with Lockwood, fans of Lee continue to celebrate his legacy.

There were many themes that drew me to Grove’s biography. I must admit that I was not overly familiar with Lee or his work, aside from begrudgingly reading his books on the school curriculum, something which I find is often wasted on unruly teenagers. But after reading this biography I am interested in reading his repertoire of novels. For those who are unfamiliar with his style of writing, Groves has helpfully added his poems in full. Letters, too, are included – so again, you can see the stylistic approach he used long before he composed his novels. Of course, his most famous novel was, and is, Cider With Rosie – a real life account of his rural boyhood in Gloucestershire.

What also attracted me to The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee was the similarities to the Mitfords. Yes, since this is being reviewed on The Mitford Society I feel I must draw some comparisons. Both Lee and all six of the Mitford girls were countrified children – they grew up in the Shires with the freedom of endless fields, handling animals and although the girls were the offspring of a Lord, they were money poor. And nurturing a vivid imagination, like the Mitfords, Lee was prone to bestowing nicknames on those he loved i.e. his second daughter (Lee also fathered a love child during his stint in Spain in the ’30s) was known as ‘The First Born’. He changed his wife’s name from Kathy to Cathy, of which she said: ‘[It] tells you everything you need to know about our marriage.’ His daughter, too, was given a variety of names differing from the original spelling. Jessy was baptised Jesse – not Jessica – but Laurie decided later that Jessy was nicer, so Jessy she stayed.

As romantic as he was, Lee had courage, and at the age of 19 he left by foot with his violin to busk his way around Spain, a country he would romanticise in his future writings. He later returned to join the International Brigade and became involved in the Spanish Civil War.

This is a balanced portrait of a man who fostered his own legend in Gloucestershire and Chelsea, and though gifted in art, music and literature, he disguised the complexities of his character beneath a cloak of secrecy.