Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato

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Hidden in the language of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedy Much Ado About Nothing, are several clues to an intriguing tale. It seems that the witty lovers Beatrice and Benedick had a previous youthful love affair which ended bitterly. But how did they meet, why did they part, and what brought them together again?

Marina Fiorato transports the reader to Messina, Sicily; the year is 1588 and Beatrice of Mantua comes to the court of her uncle Leonato, to be companion to his daughter, Hero. That fateful summer, Spanish lordling Don Pedro visits for a month-long sojourn on the island with his regiment. In his company is the young soldier Benedick of Padua. Benedick and Beatrice begin to wage their merry war of wit, which masks the reality that they dance a more serious measure, and the two are soon deeply in love. But the pair are cruelly parted by natural disaster and man-made misunderstanding. Oceans apart, divided by war and slander, Beatrice and Benedick begin their ten-year odyssey back to Messina and each other.

Incorporating Shakespearean language with modern day nuances, Fiorato’s novel is an updated version of the classic play. A scenic adventure from sunlit Sicily to the Armada fleet and the Renaissance cities of the north, she offers us a tour of the unspoilt splendour of Italy from the past. Beautifully written with rich descriptions, Beatrice and Benedick’s back stories are deeply complex. The portrayal of lovestruck youth, family prejudices and a way of life steeped in tradition, draws on the timeless elements of Shakespeare, and just why his plays and characters are still relatable centuries later. Thoroughly researched with elegant prose, Marina Fiorato has made historical fiction accessible for fans and non-fans alike.

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Lady Ursula d’Abo

Lady Ursula d'Abo photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1939

Lady Ursula d’Abo photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1939

Born into an aristocratic family in 1916, Lady Ursula d’Abo (née Manners) was interrelated with some of the most powerful and interesting figures of the 20th century. She counted the famous beauty and hostess Lady Diana Cooper as her paternal aunt, and among those famous aunts were Laura and Margot Tennant, part of the Victorian intellectual group known as “The Souls”. Indeed, her mother was Kathleen Tennant, descended from the extraordinarily rich Scots family who had made their fortune in bleach, and she counted the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith as an uncle-by-marriage. There were fascinating cousins, too, including childhood summers spent with Anne Charteris, the future wife of Ian Fleming – creator of James Bond. Lady Ursula’s father, the Marquess of Granby, was the second-born son of the 8th Duke of Rutland, who upon the untimely death of his eldest brother at the age of nine (he twisted a gut from turning a somersault), became his father’s heir.

It was a magical childhood, with visits to Belvoir Castle – “my playground and fiefdom” – the Rutland seat, where the vast army of servants extended to liveried footmen and the Pig Man. Although Nanny and the nursery were the centre of Lady Ursula and her siblings lives, she and her younger sister, Lady Isabel, were allowed to ride with the famous Belvoir hunt. The Master of Hounds, terrified that the two children would get squashed in the gates, would hold up the two hundred horses so the girls could pass through first. Occasionally the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, would join the hunt and he and Lady Ursula would gallop the twelve miles from Belvoir Castle to Melton Mowbray. But, following his abdication, Lady Ursula’s father (by then the Duke of Rutland), refused to have him in the house; he was shocked at his betrayal of the country. Furthermore, he and his wife’s loyalties lay with their friends the Duke and Duchess of York, who ascended the throne as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

A clever and sophisticated child, Lady Ursula counted the artist Rex Whistler – “an attractive man with an original sense of humour” – as a pen-pal. Befriending him before his fame, he sent her illustrated letters when she was at school in Italy. She also helped her father, who had inherited the Dukedom in 1925, with the restoration of Haddon Hall, the Derbyshire home of the Rutlands dating from 1066. From her childhood home, The Wood House, north of Rowsley village, Nanny drove the children in a tub cart pulled by a pony for picnics at Haddon whilst it was being restored. As her siblings played, Lady Ursula and her father worked together on the mullion windows in the Long Gallery; the small panes were a diamond pattern of greenish glass which caught the light as they were set askew. And, while restoring the chapel at Haddon, Lady Ursula discovered some medieval frescoes which had been whitewashed over in the Reformation. A remarkable find for anyone, most especially an eight-year-old child. It should also be mentioned that Lady Ursula – in spite of being a girl with three brothers – was her father’s favourite. When she was sick, it was not Nanny who sat by her bedside, but her father who would bring his child a jug of champagne and say: “Cheer up, you will be all right in the morning.”

Away from the countryside there were swimming and dancing lessons in London, and having been inspired by the ballet, Lady Ursula dreamed of becoming a famous ballerina. She took lessons with the great Russian ballerina, Tamara Karasvina, who praised her for having “a great aptitude”. However, Lady Ursula could not pursue her training as her parents did not approve of a stage career.

The path in which Lady Ursula’s life should progress was made clear, when, at the age of seventeen, the Duke and Duchess of Rutland hosted a “coming out” ball with two hundred guests at Belvoir Castle for her and Lady Isabel. Their matching white tulle dresses were from Worth in Paris, though they proved a disappointment with the girls who longed to appear grown up. In spite of the dresses not living up to expectation, Lady Ursula realised that her coming out ball would launch her into a glamorous, grown-up world. “Suddenly…I was expected to be a young lady with great social graces, and dressed immaculately in the most beautiful clothes.” The freedom “felt exhilarating” after being chaperoned for years. However, to Lady Isabel it was not enough and she eloped with Loel Guinness, an heir to the banking branch of the Irish dynasty. Sailing for over four months on Guinness’s yacht to Palm Springs and New York City, the couple’s honeymoon was so long that it wasn’t insured by Lloyd’s. Although dismayed at her sister missing out on the social season, Lady Ursula went along to the parties and “had five years of growing up in the most enjoyable way”.

Change was in the air, and a great event in history was about to draw Lady Ursula to the forefront of British society. The coronation of King George VI, following the abdication of his brother King Edward VII, brought a sense of optimism and pageantry to the people who feared Adolf Hitler and the threat of another world war. As her ancestors had done before her, Lady Ursula and her family took part in the coronation. Her father carried the orb in the procession into Westminster Abbey, her mother was a canopy-bearer to the Queen, and her two younger brothers were Page of Honour to the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Ancaster, the Lord Great Chamberlain. Lady Ursula was one of six maids of honour who carried the Queen’s ermine-trimmed velvet train. Dressed identically, the six girls wore matching tiaras and white satin, puff sleeved Norman Hartnell gowns with a motif of corn embroidered down the front.

Afterwards, Lady Ursula joined the royal party on the balcony of Buckingham Palace where she stood next to the Dowager Queen Mary and behind the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. At the end of “that magical day”, she was sent home from the palace in a taxi, still feeling quite overwhelmed by all that had happened. But it was not the end of the excitement as Lady Ursula was to discover. A certain Mr. Laurence McKinney from Albany, New York wrote a poem to The Knickerbocker Press, imploring: “In many of the pictures of the Coronation there is shown at the back of the royal party a statuesque brunette with a widow’s peak. Who is she?” The attention, she freely admitted, “produced a lot of jealously amongst my peers”.

There were duties beyond the coronation, and along with her mother, aunt Lady Diana Cooper and uncle Duff Cooper, and Winston and Clementine Churchill, Lady Ursula accompanied the new King and Queen on their first official visit to Paris. Being the youngest in the Royal party, Churchill nicknamed her “the cygnet”.

Though as much as Lady Ursula had become a society star, her father reminded her that she should set her sights on a good marriage. She recalled: “I had no money of my own and was brought up to be subservient to the male species.” Although she proved her mettle during WWII when she became a voluntary Red Cross Nurse, and then managing two thousand women in a munitions factory, Lady Ursula did indeed fulfill her father’s wish for her to marry.

In 1943, Lady Ursula married Anthony Marreco, a man she barely knew and who threatened to commit suicide if she refused to do so. The swiftness in which a wedding was organised prompted the minister to place a chair for her to sit on at the altar as he assumed she was pregnant. This, she admitted, had infuriated her. Ill-suited and separated by war, the couple divorced in 1948. She married for a second time to Erland d’Abo with whom she had three children. The marriage lasted until his death.

Lady Ursula has experienced a life of many high and lows set to the backdrop of a gilded age, the like of which we will never see again. All of this has been recorded in her charming memoir, The Girl with the Widow’s Peak.

The Mitford Society Loves….

Here at The Mitford Society we don’t believe in keeping all our eggs in one basket, and that includes books too! So, if you’re hunting for a honnish read over Easter/Passover then look no further.

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For fans of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. Set in the 1950s, in an England still recovering from the Second World War, it is the enchanting story of Penelope Wallace and her eccentric family at the start of the rock’n’roll era.

Penelope longs to be grown-up and to fall in love; but various rather inconvenient things keep getting in her way. Like her mother, a stunning but petulant beauty widowed at a tragically early age, her younger brother Inigo, currently incapable of concentrating on anything that isn’t Elvis Presley, a vast but crumbling ancestral home, a severe shortage of cash, and her best friend Charlotte’s sardonic cousin Harry…

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A novel reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. When Alice Eveleigh arrives at Fiercombe Manor during the long, languid summer of 1933, she finds a house steeped in mystery and brimming with secrets. Sadness permeates its empty rooms and the isolated valley seems crowded with ghosts, none more alluring than Elizabeth Stanton whose only traces remain in a few tantalisingly blurred photographs. Why will no one speak of her? What happened a generation ago to make her vanish?

As the sun beats down relentlessly, Alice becomes ever more determined to unearth the truth about the girl in the photograph – and stop her own life from becoming an eerie echo of Elizabeth’s…

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Lillian, a single, well-travelled woman of a certain age, wakes up next to her married lover and looks back at her life. It’s not at all the life she expected.

Walking the unpaved road between traditional and modern options for women, Lillian has grappled with parental disappointment, society’s expectations and the vagaries of love and sex. As a narrator she’s bold and witty, and her reflections – from ‘On Getting to Sex’ to ‘On the Importance of Big Pockets’ or ‘On Leaving in Order to Stay’ – reverberate originally and unpredictably.

In Lillian on Life, Alison Jean Lester has created a brutally honest portrait of a woman living through the post-war decades of change in Munich, Paris, London and New York. Her story resonates with the glamour and energy of those cities. Charming, sometimes heartbreaking, never a stereotype, Lillian is completely herself; her view of the world is unique. You won’t soon forget her.

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The winter of 1924: Edith Olivier, alone for the first time at the age of fifty-one, thought her life had come to an end. For Rex Whistler, a nineteen-year-old art student, life was just beginning. Together, they embarked on an intimate and unlikely friendship that would transform their lives. Gradually Edith’s world opened up and she became a writer. Her home, the Daye House, in a wooded corner of the Wilton estate, became a sanctuary for Whistler and the other brilliant and beautiful younger men of her circle: among them Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Tennant, William Walton, John Betjeman, the Sitwells and Cecil Beaton – for whom she was ‘all the muses’.

Set against a backdrop of the madcap parties of the 1920s, the sophistication of the 1930s and the drama and austerity of the Second World War and with an extraordinary cast of friends and acquaintances, Anna Thomasson brings to life, for the first time, the fascinating, and curious, friendship of a bluestocking and a bright young thing.

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Most famous for The Wilder Shores of Love, her book about four women travellers, Lesley Blanch was a scholarly romantic and a bold writer. Her lifelong passion was for Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East. At heart a nomad, she spent the greater part of her life travelling the remote areas her books record so vividly.

Born in 1904, she died aged 103, having gone from being a household name to a mysterious and neglected living legend. She was writing about her eccentric Edwardian childhood at her death and that work, never before published, now forms the beginning of this wonderful memoir. Lesley Blanch chose to ‘escape the boredom of convention’: having first worked as a theatre designer and illustrator, she became British Vogue’s features editor during World War II and then, in 1946 she sailed from England to travel the world with her diplomat-novelist husband, Romain Gary. By the time they reached Hollywood in the late 1950s they were literary celebrities. When Gary left her for the young actress, Jean Seberg, Blanch headed East and travelled across Siberia, Outer Mongolia, Turkey, Iran, Samarkand, Afghanistan, Egypt, the Sahara, making her mark as an indefatigable and generous travel writer.

Edited by her goddaughter Georgia de Chamberet, who was working with her in her centenary year, this book collects together the story of Blanch’s marriage, previously published only in French; a selection of her journalism which brings to life the artistic melting pot that was London between the wars; and a selection of her most evocative travel pieces, to create the story of a fascinating, bohemian – and, at times outrageous – life that spanned the twentieth century.

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When Addie Baum’s 22-year old granddaughter asks her about her childhood, Addie realises the moment has come to relive the full history that shaped her.

Addie Baum was a Boston Girl, born in 1900 to immigrant Jewish parents who lived a very modest life. But Addie’s intelligence and curiosity propelled her to a more modern path. Addie wanted to finish high school and to go to college. She wanted a career, to find true love. She wanted to escape the confines of her family. And she did.

Told against the backdrop of World War I, and written with the same immense emotional impact that has made Diamant’s previous novels bestsellers, The Boston Girl is a moving portrait of one woman’s complicated life in the early 20th Century, and a window into the lives of all women seeking to understand the world around them.

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And, if you’re partial to a Mitford read, this is my latest offering.

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

Extracted from The Mitford Society Vol. II

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On the 3rd of May 2004, Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, died following a protracted decline leaving his wife Deborah with a new title, the Dowager Duchess, and in need of a new home – but not just at once. Deborah remained at Chatsworth for a year-and-a-half following her husband’s death, but, as she wrote in her 2010 memoir, Wait for Me!: “The passages began to seem long and the stairs steep. It was time to move, to make way for the next generation.”

The Dowager Duchess wouldn’t be moving far to her dower house. Over the hill from Chatsworth about a mile lies Edensor, an idyllic English village. Deborah was no stranger to the village, having lived there from 1946-1959, before moving to Chatsworth. In December 2005 Deborah would take up residence in the Old Vicarage, an attractive fourteen room, eight bedroom stone building with parts dating back to the 18th century. “The house… has no architectural merit,” Deborah admitted, “but its atmosphere makes it a happy place – the influence, I believe of the devout men who occupied it for two hundred years.” It required extensive renovations before Deborah could move in, and on this endeavour she was assisted by her friend, the illustrious interior designer David Mlinaric, whose clients have included Lord Rothschild and Mick Jagger, and such venerable London institutions as the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert museum. He assisted her in seamlessly transforming the vicarage into a home fit for a 21st century duchess, and in placing “electric points, light switches, baths and so on”.

Much of the interior decoration, however, was left up to Deborah herself, who saw in her “mind’s eye” precisely what she wanted and was no stranger to outfitting homes of any size. Many might find it difficult to downsize from Chatsworth, one of the grandest of England’s stately homes, into what one might call a rabbit hutch, but not Deborah. In fact, she would take the design principles she learned there and apply them to the Old Vicarage. “One thing I learned from Chatsworth was what a good finish a fillet gives round the cornice, the doorcases, and skirting,” the Dowager Duchess told The World of Interiors magazine. This was employed in the soft pink drawing room, where Deborah would receive journalists, friends and family. An inviting floral covered sofa faced the fireplace, and before it was an upholstered ottoman, its surface home to books waiting to be dipped into. Flanking either side of the fireplace were baskets overflowing with firewood, a necessity during the bleak Derbyshire winters. Bric-à-brac covered the chimneypiece; everything from urns to framed personal family photos. The Dowager Duchess’s desk was placed in front of the window, affording her views of the garden. The dining room was informal, with a painting of a flower with a vibrant royal blue background, at home with more formal portraits on the adjacent wall. In her bedroom the bed sheets were stained with ink, a side-effect of her penchant for early morning writing in bed. Irreverent as ever, the wall colour of the guest bathroom, a cerulean blue, was inspired by a plastic bracelet she had worn during a recent hospital stay.

Her son and daughter-in-law graciously allowed her to pilfer pieces of furniture and artwork from Chatsworth in order to make her new home feel familiar, including White Tulips, a still life by William Nicholson. But Deborah had a formidable personal collection of her own. A painting of eggs in a basket by Lucien Freud, an old friend, was given pride of place. (Deborah always brought along a basket of eggs when she visited the painter in London.)

The Dowager Duchess’s family and friends quickly felt at home at the Old Vic, as Deborah referred to her new home. “It was always incredibly exciting, going to Chatsworth,” her granddaughter, the famed model Stella Tennant told Vogue in 2010, but added that the vicarage was less intimidating “because there aren’t so many precious things about”. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including Tennant’s brood, were given the run of the place. “[T]he lift is great fun. She also had one of those chairs that tipped you out; it was quite useful because so many old people come to stay, but the children broke it. She’s very tolerant of all of us rampaging about.”

Edensor, the Dowager Duchess wrote, is decidedly not “sleepy” and “is as animated as the cross-section of people who live in it.” Family was at her doorstep: Deborah’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth, was just steps away “at the top of the village”. Edensor, which is pronounced ‘Enza’, is a pastiche of architectural styles. It was rebuilt from 1840-1842 by the 6th Duke of Devonshire and the gardener and architect, Joseph Paxton. (Paxton, who designed the Great Stove at Chatsworth, a marvel of engineering and design, would go on to design the building that was dubbed the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London.) The village was originally situated near the River Derwent immediately below Chatsworth, but was moved out of sight. In the heart of the village is St Peter’s Church. It was enlarged by Sir George Gilbert Scott for the 7th Duke of Devonshire in the 1860s, and contains a memorial to Henry and William Cavendish, the sons of Bess of Hardwick. The churchyard is the final resting place of most of the Dukes of Devonshire, Joseph Paxton, John F. Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen (Deborah’s sister-in-law), and Deborah’s three children who were stillborn or died at birth.

Several years after relocating to Edensor, the Dowager Duchess received unwanted attention from an elderly man whom she had met during a walk in the village in November 2010. She was forced to obtain a restraining order when he continued to make communication, even going so far as to propose marriage.

But with that small exception, the Dowager Duchess’s relations with the public in Edensor were just as harmonious as they were during her forty-six years spent at Chatsworth. Until recently when her health began to fail her, each year on Edensor Day, the village’s annual fete, Deborah would throw open the doors of the Old Vicarage and for £5 would allow the public to come take a peek inside (with monies benefiting the village in some way, such as a new roof for the church). Deborah would act as tour guide and show guests around her home – nothing was off limits – and was tickled by what the public found interesting. “What people love is the shoe cupboards and the lavatories and all that. And sometimes they say, ‘You’re very brave to do this,’ and I say, ‘You’re very brave to come,’ because there’s always a queue. So funny.” But some visitors, expecting the grandeur of Chatsworth, were invariably left disappointed. “I came to see the chandeliers and all I found was Habitat [the UK home furnishings retailer],” one visitor said. “What is wrong with Habitat?” Deborah wondered.

Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire died on September 24th 2014. Luella Bartley, the great fashion designer and magazine editor, once said of Deborah that “when she goes so will a part of England”. In the event, her words proved prophetic, and upon her recent death the media and the Dowager Duchess’s countless admirers mourned not only the loss of a woman who embodied a gilded age, but one who made her life count. It was a life that was undoubtedly enhanced by her final decade spent at the Old Vicarage in the village of Edensor.

Andrew Budgell is a Managing Editor and Community Manager for a Toronto company. He has a passion for theatre, film, writing, music, books, travel and design, and spent much of 2013 living in London, fulfilling a lifelong dream. He received an Honours BA in English Rhetoric and Literature from the University of Waterloo in 2010 and established DameElizabethTaylor.com, a tribute to the legendary actress in 2002.