The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With The Unseen

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Happy Halloween from The Mitford Society…

An Extract from The Mitford Society Vol. II

The supernatural was a fashionable topic of conversation in postwar society, with sophisticated hostesses sampling tarot cards, Ouija boards and table-tipping to provide an unforgettable party-trick. But, among those who dabbled in the unseen for paltry motives, there were serious followers of the occult. Violet Tweedale, the upper-class author, poet and spiritualist, chronicled her psychic experiences in her memoir Ghosts I Have Seen. She also belonged to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organisation devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activities during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Violet Tweedale

Violet Tweedale

One of the most enthusiastic followers of Tweedale’s work was Jean Skeffington (née Ainsworth), the 12th Viscountess Massereene. Residing in her husband’s family seat, Antrim Castle in Northern Ireland, Lady Massereene thrived on the castle’s ghostly reputation and reported sightings of a servant girl – known by locals as “The White Lady” – and a phantom carriage which was said to recreate its calamitous drive down the estate’s lime tree avenue where it met a watery fate at the bottom of a long canal. A harmless fascination, but in the god-fearing market town of Antrim, her Ladyship’s interests were brushed off as eccentric. However, it was in London that Lady Massereene fully embraced her belief in the supernatural, prompting gossip columnists to refer to her as “one of Mayfair’s most renowned ghost experts”. Statements such as “This summer I vow to go to forty seances” were viewed as beyond the pale to those in possession of a level head. Her husband, the Viscount Massereene, expressed little tolerance to his wife’s eccentricities, and she challenged his patience – not to mention her reputation – when she summoned the police to Antrim Castle to report a missing tiara. The tiara in question, she told them, was lying on the bed of the Six Mile river. How did she know, her husband and the police, questioned. The response was a simple one: she had dreamt it.

Viscountess Massereene

Viscountess Massereene

As much as Violet Tweedale and Lady Massereene spoke of their beliefs in the supernatural with genuine sincerity, there were false mediums springing up all over London as a response to the bereft individuals grieving their loved-ones lost to WWI. They say there is a market for everything, and this certainly rings true in the form of the medium William Hope and his invention of spirit photography. Taking a photograph of a client, he used glass plates and double exposure to make it look as though their dead loved-one was watching over them. Clever for its day, spirit photography serves as an example of the mass commercialism – or accessible commodity – that spiritualism had become.

Spiritual photography: a ghostly apparition appears in a photograph of Rev. Charles and Mrs. Tweedale

Spiritual photography: a ghostly apparition appears in a photograph of Rev. Charles and Mrs. Tweedale

Away from London, in the sleepy Cotswolds village of Oxfordshire, the Mitfords were experiencing their own ghostly experience. Asthall Manor, the family’s gabled Jacobean home built around 1620 was said to be haunted by a poltergeist so active that it tore off a maid’s bedclothes. In the daytime hours, cutlery flew across the scullery, china cups and saucers were hurled from their shelves, water-taps turned on by themselves and windows flew open despite their being locked. When night fell, footsteps could be heard on the paving stones outside, and on close inspection nobody could be seen. Could this have been the workings of the children’s overactive imaginations? Perhaps. The nursery windows overlooked the old graveyard of wool merchants’ graves, and although the children were forbidden to watch the funerals, they always did. Once, Decca and Debo fell into a newly dug grave, and Nancy warned them it meant “bad luck forever”.

 

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Asthall Manor

Farve, Pamela and Diana – the two of his seven children who felt the uneasy presence of the specter – witnessed the phenomena first-hand. They ignored the eerie happenings, pushing it to the back of their minds and refraining from speaking openly about it, lest they conjure it up. Pamela, though, was more than curious to see if the poltergeist did exist, and she told Diana: “We want to do some table turning one night but we are so afraid that Farve might find us at it. That would be awful of course.”

 

Debo carried the tale of the poltergeist with her throughout adulthood. A non-believer in such things, she flippantly dismissed it as “one of those nuisances that accompany teenage girls”, and was happy to be the instigator of ghostly pranks. Knowing of the ghost stories surrounding old, stately homes, she summoned her own make-shift ghoul to terrify some American guests who were staying at Lismore Castle. Mr. Twigg (sec. of the hunt) dressed up in a sheet, a night-cap, chains and carried a lantern. She fixed fishing-wire to the chandelier in the dining room and it shook and rattled, and then Mr. Twigg appeared through the windows. One American woman nearly fainted; she screamed and demanded to leave at once, to go anywhere, even to a hotel. “She was really horror-struck,” Debo recalled. “The joke nearly went too far.” Too far indeed, but Debo was one of the few in her family who did not believe in such things.

 

Superstitions, too, governed Farve’s life to an extent that he would write the name of an enemy on a piece of paper, sometimes slotting it into a matchbox (a makeshift coffin?) and putting it away in a drawer. He believed the person who had vexed him would die within a year. Given that he often carried out this ritual on his many sons-in-law – Sir Oswald Mosley, Peter Rodd and Esmond Romilly, in particular – it is clear that his theory did not work. However, the very mention of “the drawer” was enough to send a chill through the room.

 

After ten years of living at Asthall Manor, the house was promptly put on the market. The family vacated the haunted house for temporary lodgings in Paris. Although financial difficulties inspired his decision to sell the house, the family believe the poltergeist played a significant part. For a sensible, philistine man like Farve, the very mention of a ghost turned his blood cold. Could there have been more than a hint of idle gossip in the existence of the poltergeist? His offspring seemed to think so.

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The Mitford Society’s annual is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as Barnes & Noble

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The Mitford Society Annual Vol. 2

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The Mitford Society’s second annual is now available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as various retail outlets. This year’s edition features lots of exciting features, photographs and tributes to Debo from those who knew her and admired her.  I have included a complete list of contents below…
The Horror Sisters: A Mitford Tease by Meems Ellenberg & Lyndsy Spence

Evelyn Waugh & Diana Guinness by Lyndsy Spence

An American’s Conversion to U-Speak by Nathan Duncan

How Do U Do Social Qs? A Mitford Quiz by Meems Ellenberg

The Making of a Modern Duchess by Katherine Longhi

Cooking and Eating Like a Duchess by May Tatel-Scott

The Kennedys & The Devonshires: A Family Intwined in History by Michelle Morrisette

The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

The Mitfords in Love by Georgina Tranter

Tilly Losch & The Mitfords by William Cross

Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society by Lyndsy Spence

Reviving an Icon by Robert Wainwright

Decca Mitford: Rock Star by Terence Towles Canote

Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan by Lyndsy Spence

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With the Unseen by Lyndsy Spence

Tales From the Archive by Lucinda Gosling

Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

Lady Ursula d’Abo: The Girl with the Widow’s Peak by Lyndsy Spence

Wolf for Two: A Wartime Dinner with Pamela Mitford & M.F.K Fisher by Kim Place-Gateau

Only Connect by Lee Galston

The Rodds in Italy by Chiara Martinelli & David Ronneburg

The Mitfords & The Country House by Evangeline Holland

The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Memories of Debo by Joseph Dumas

Tributes to Debo

– Emma Cannon

– Emma Gridley

– Robin Brunskill

– Stuart Clark

– Leslie Brodie

Charles_HRH’s guide to Great Britishness

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This was one book that I wanted to like. Having skimmed through the content I noticed that the author (the fake Prince Charles of twitter, @Charles_HRH) included lots of topics that are quintessentially British, such as: Royal Mail, parliament (including the present Cabinet and past PMs i.e. Churchill and Thatcher), seaside resorts, British showbiz personalities, members of the Royal family, and tea. I did laugh as I read the first few pages, which began in the tone of the real Prince Charles and the topics seemed to stay within what one would expect Prince Charles to chat (or grumble) about. But then it veered off to a variety of random topics, and the tone of Charles began to slide, I began to wonder if the author was, in fact, a Leftie using the book to have a go at the establishment, especially with his insults of various members of the Royal Family, and of Thatcher. I know, not everyone admired her and the Duke of Edinburgh referred to her as ‘that bloody woman’ and ‘that grocer’s daughter’ – still, the author could have made it a light, amusing observation rather than a stinging insult/rant which broke the lighthearted tone. How do we know what Charles thinks of M.T.?

Granted, these sort of books aren’t everyone’s cup of tea – some people thought I was off my head when I wrote The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life, but I did keep my themes within the girls own views (having waded through endless letters and memoirs to find their points of view!). The author of this book simply writes an etiquette book from HIS own perspective, and the humour of Charles is lost. Though, there were some laugh out loud observations:

  • “First one would like to congratulate you for making the right choice in purchasing a book written by a real member of the British Royal Family and not Pippa Middleton, who recently released a book containing tips on entertaining guests throughout the British year. One’s tip to you all: don’t bother reading it.”

 

  • “The Second World War started due to Adolf Hitler’s wish for world domination; something that One Direction are obsessed with today.”

 

  • “Her Majesty has been on the throne for sixty-two years, which means she’ll be entitled to a fantastic pension when/if she retires.”

 

  • “Might have to sell France to pay for Richard III’s car-park fine.”

 

  • “Margaret Thatcher was often compared to Florence Nightingale – the lady with the lamp. Unfortunately Thatcher’s lamp turned out to be a blowtorch.”

 

  • [On Northern Ireland] “It is the only part of Britain that shares a border with a foreign country, the Republic of Ireland (working title).”

I would have liked the narrative to have continued on in Charles’ voice. My brother glanced through the book and he found the author’s criticism of the British government to be hilarious. I suppose it really depends who is reading it and what their expectations are. I can’t, however, knock the effort that has gone into it. The cover is beautiful and just the type of pretty gift book one would be thrilled to receive for Christmas. Though it might be lacking in parody, it is a genius example of how the internet has shaped the publishing industry (Headline are behind this book), and shattered the once scared institution of the Royal Family. Imitation, after all, is the highest form of flattery.

One Last Dance by Judith Lennox

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Judith Lennox has written a sprawling tome spanning the Great War and the latter part of the twentieth century. In 1974, elderly Esme Reddaway prepares for a family gathering, she knows the get-together will prove difficult but she must follow through with her commitment. As she reminisces about her life thus far, the narrative takes us back to 1917, where her sister Camilla’s fiancé Devlin Reddaway is on leave from the Western Front. Having promised to rebuild his ancestral home, Rosindell, for Camilla, he is devastated to learn she is engaged to someone else. Angry and vengeful, he marries Esme, who has been secretly in love with him for years.

In a similar light to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Lennox has given us a sympathetic heroine who struggles to gain her husband’s love. Esme begins by reviving Rosindell’s annual summer ball but as the years pass, she begins to wonder if the house has a malign influence on those who inhabit it, and the revelation of a shocking secret on the night of the ball tears her life apart. Decades later, Esme knows it is she who must lay the ghosts of Rosindell to rest.

Fans of Downton Abbey will revel in Lennox’s tale of sibling rivalry, heartbreak, betrayal and forgiveness. A gripping family saga from beginning to end.

The Crimson Ribbon

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Sometimes death comes like an arrow, sudden and swift, an unforeseen shot from an unheeded bow

 

England, 1646, the country is in the throes of a civil war, Oliver Cromwell leads an army of people against the ‘tyrannical’ King Charles I and witches are being hunted down. A young woman, Ruth Flowers, is on the run. After her mother, a healer, is dragged off to the gallows, Ruth must find a safe place. With a letter of introduction to the Poole family and an expected travelling companion in the form of Joseph Oakes, an ex-soldier who has deserted his regiment, she heads to London. As she had hoped, with her letter of introduction, she finds work as a servant in the Poole household consisting of Master Poole and his daughter, Elizabeth. A real life historical character, Elizabeth was an individual who claimed to have visions and who argued for the life of Charles I to be spared. Alongside the fictional storyline, Katherine Clements interweaves the factual events of Elizabeth and the trial of Charles I. Clements incorporates several themes into her novel: Joseph’s love for Ruth, Ruth’s unconventional love for Elizabeth. She explores religion, politics and fear – namely the fear of being labelled a witch – to drive her plot.  Although history has shown us the fate of Cromwell and the English Civil War, Clements’ novel is full of twists and turns, and this unpredictability ensures we have become invested in Ruth and her story.