Why Does the Britain of the Early 1900s Intrigue and Delight So Many of Us? By Tessa Arlen

Following the publication of her second novel, Death Sits Down to Dinner, Tessa Arlen gives The Mitford Society a lesson in Edwardian etiquette.

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Today the great houses of Britain’s landed aristocracy with their vast, exquisite and often drafty interiors and views of sweeping parkland attest to the power of rank and wealth of a bygone age. They also provide a stunning backdrop for elegantly clothed men and women with gracious manners who star in numerous costume dramas. We are presently enraptured by the first two decades of the 1900s.

Let us ignore for the moment those gracious country houses that have survived to continue to provide their families with shelter, by providing the public with a place to picnic, or watch a steam engine rally, or drive through a safari park. It is a spectacularly golden July day and you have been invited for a Saturday-to-Monday, as the Edwardians called a weekend, to one of their glorious country houses. Here is a little advice to bear in mind for your short stay, after all you might want to be invited back!

Whatever you do don’t alienate the servants. It is important not to underestimate how the Edwardians related to those who ensured their comfort and provided them with flawless and devoted service. Servants employed in the great houses were part of the family, but not of it; a sizable distinction because it relies on generations of subtle understanding of the polite, but offhand tact, used by the uppers when they addressed the lower orders. Butlers, footmen and personal maids will be extraordinarily unforgiving if you wear incorrect attire for the country, and cruelly punishing if you are either patronizingly familiar or arrogantly dismissive. So beware! The butler and the housekeeper will be far more intimidating than the charmingly eccentric dowager duchess or that affable old colonel you will be seated next to when you arrive in time for tea.

Your Edwardian great-grandmother would have been able to give you some good advice. Huge pointers for your comportment this weekend would be restraint, restraint, and more restraint in a way we can’t begin to imagine today. Your great-grandmother would be the first to remind you to lower your voice to a well-modulated murmur, that it is rude to interrupt, or even be too enthusiastic. Do not comment on your surroundings, the magnificence of the house, or marvel at the deliciousness of your dinner. You are not on a ‘girls’ night out’, no matter how confiding and wickedly risqué your new Edwardian girlfriends appear to be, or how many glasses of wine the footman pours for you at dinner. So sorry I meant to say self-restraint – just place your hand palm down over your wine glass to indicate no thank you, when you feel a delighted shriek start to emerge.

This was a time when women were treated like goddesses . . . then they married and were kept at home to incubate an heir and a spare. While the men at your country house weekend might enjoy shooting and fishing, you are encouraged to watch and applaud, but not join to in. By all means pick up that croquet mallet if that is your sort of thing, and certainly a game of lawn tennis is permitted, if you can actually move in your pretty afternoon dress and that killing corset. When the gentlemen sit back to their port and a cigar after dinner your hostess will beckon you away with the other women – important that you go with them. Despite the luxurious existence of the early 1900s, most women today would find it impossible to live the hidebound, restricted life of early 20th century women. So after you have lugged in the groceries after a hard day at the office, made dinner and then helped the kids with their homework before putting them to bed, just in time to collapse on the sofa to catch an episode of Downton, try not to sigh too deeply when Mathew Crawley goes down on one knee in the swirling snow to propose to Lady Mary. Most of us would have been Ivy slogging away in the scullery and not Lady Grantham reading a novel in the drawing room.

Did the Edwardian Shangri-La portrayed in Downton Abbey ever really exist even for the upper classes? The short answer is ‘Yes’ if you were Lord Grantham and not his servant, his wife or any of his daughters. If you have a problem not seeking to right the inequities of life, then don’t get on that train at London’s Marylebone station for the country. Certainly there were drunken, abusive husbands, negligent and thoughtless parents, spendthrifts and philanderers in the Edwardian age . . . and wronged wives looked the other way. The trick to coping with the darker side of human nature, if you were of society, was that it must never be referred to, never confided and most definitely never publicly acknowledged. However if you are an egalitarian at heart and social ostracism doesn’t bother you too much, you might join Mrs. Pankhurst’s suffragettes and loudly proclaim your opinions. I have heard that Holloway Prison was equipped with a special wing for militant members of the WSPU.

The third housemaid will unpack your trunk for you – five changes of clothes a day for three days need an awful lot of tissue paper. Here’s a titillating scrap of fresh society gossip to share with the company – gossip was the spice of Edwardian life –a substitute for reality TV. Gladys, the Marchioness of Ripon, an ultra-sophisticate with a ‘past’ was a wonderful example of the Edwardian double-standard and loved to gossip with her close coterie of friends. Alone in her lover’s house one day she discovered a pile of rivetingly indiscreet love letters written to him by one of her social adversaries, Lady Londonderry. Gladys swiped the lot and generously shared the juicy bits – read aloud after dinner – to her closest friends. After the fun was over she honorably returned the letters to their author at Londonderry House –when she knew husband and wife were dining alone. The butler approached his lordship and handed over the ribbon-bound bundle. After studying the contents, in silence, Lord Londonderry directed his butler to carry the letters to the other end of the dining table. Silence still reigned as Lady Londonderry came to terms with her awful predicament, a silence that was never broken between the two of them again. Far worse than having an affair, Lady Londonderry had ‘let down the side’. Adultery was a fact of life, indiscretion unforgivable; to be the subject of common gossip shameful and the scandal of divorce out of the question. Lord Londonderry never spoke to his wife in private again, and maintained a distant, cold courtesy to her in public for the rest of their long marriage.

So much more entertaining than a splashy tabloid divorce, don’t you think?

Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Cairo, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She went to the U.S. in 1980 and worked as an H.R. recruiter for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. She is the author of the Lady Montfort mystery series. And lives on an island in the Puget Sound, Washington.

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The Misadventures of Enid Lindeman

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Originally published in The Mitford Society; Vol. III

Standing at six-feet tall with handsome features and platinum hair, Enid Lindeman was never going to be a wallflower. As she gallivanted through life she accumulated four husbands, numerous lovers, and during the inter-war years her high-jinx dominated the gossip columns. Evelyn Waugh satirized her set in Vile Bodies, but the workings of his menacing imagination paled in comparison to the real thing.

Born in Australia in 1892, she was the great granddaughter of Henry Lindeman, who founded Lindeman Wines in Hunter Valley, New South Wales. A privileged, if nondescript, childhood inspired Enid to look for a life of glamour and excitement. She achieved this at the age of twenty-one when she married Roderick Cameron, an American shipping magnate twenty-four years her senior. Establishing herself as a New York socialite, Enid would stop traffic (‘the better to view this vision of perfection’) when she emerged from the Cameron building in Manhattan. But the celebrated marriage was short-lived when, a year later, Cameron died from cancer, leaving his young wife a fortune of several million dollars.

The year was 1914 and the newly widowed Enid left New York with her nine-month-old son to move to Paris to drive an ambulance for the war effort. With her beauty, charm and charisma, she became popular with officers, and it was reported that five men, having found her so irresistible, committed suicide. (One blew himself up; another threw himself under Le Train Bleu; another jumped overboard in shark infested waters). Or, as Enid put it, ‘They were not able to take the strain.’ An old boyfriend, Lord Derby, Britain’s Minister for War, was concerned about the havoc she was causing amongst the officers and, hoping to tame her, he suggested she remarry. Although a millionairess in her own right, Enid was incapable of handling her finances and, to ease this fiscal responsibility, she agreed. Derby produced her next husband, Brigadier General Frederick Cavendish, known as ‘Caviar’.

After the war, Caviar was given command of the 9th Lancers in Egypt. As she had done in Paris, Enid caused a sensation amongst her husband’s comrades in Cairo and, as a dare, she reportedly slept with his entire regiment. By day she schooled her husband’s polo ponies and by night she dressed as a man to play with the band in the officers’ mess hall. Cairo suited Enid’s flamboyant tastes: there were picnics by the Nile, parties in sandstone mansions, and rides by moonlight in the Sahara. She met Lord Carnarvon (another of her lovers) on his famous dig of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and was one of the first to be taken down to the discovery.

In an attempt to distance Enid from hedonistic influences, Caviar took his wife, stepson, and their two children to London, where the family moved into a townhouse in Mayfair. Domesticity never appealed to Enid, and she continued her pleasure-seeking ways in London’s nightclubs. However, in 1931, she was once again a widow when Caviar died from a cerebral hemorrhage at their apartment in Paris.

In 1933, she met and married Marmaduke ‘Duke’ Furness, the 1st Viscount Furness, whose second wife, Thelma, was a lover of the Prince of Wales. (His first wife, Daisy, had died on board his yacht and he buried her at sea). Although immensely rich with a private railroad car, two yachts and an aeroplane, Furness ordered Enid to sign over her personal fortune to him. Furness’s London townhouse, Lees Place, was not large enough ‘to hide’ Enid’s three children from his sight, so she rented a flat on Curzon Street for the children and their staff. Suspicious that Enid was not being faithful, and intolerant to her platonic (a rarity) friendships with men, Furness hired detectives to watch her when he was at home and abroad. In spite of his jealousy, he showered her with expensive gifts and granted her every whim, one being exotic pets which included a tame cheetah, walked everyday by the children and their governess. A sensation wherever she went, it was said that people stood on chairs in the lobby of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo just to catch sight of her as she passed through. Out of all her husbands, Enid claimed to love Furness the most: ‘There was nothing in the world he was not prepared to give me. Of all the men who loved me, and some were as rich as Duke, he was the one who was prepared to lay the world at my feet.’

A terrific gambler, Enid loved the races and casinos, and often carried a bag stuffed with £10 notes. Irresponsible with money, she squandered a fortune, and was as equally flippant with her jewels, keeping her pearls in Kleenex boxes because they were the closest thing to hand. She was also generous with money: if she saw ex-servicemen begging on the street or sitting on the pavement next to their watercolours for sale, she would order her chauffeur to stop the car, whereupon she would get out and offer them a job or find them a home. To the disapproval of Furness, she would take her children on jaunts to the suburbs to visit the ex-servicemen for whom she had found homes.

Furness died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1940. After his death, his former wife, Thelma, contested the will, claiming that their son should inherit his estate. After a long legal battle, Furness’s eldest son (having been reported as missing in action) from his first wife was declared dead and the law sided with Thelma. Enid was not rewarded the money she had surrendered to Furness when they were married, but she was permitted to keep Lees Place in London. With the war raging around them, Enid and her daughter decamped to their villa in the south of France, where they tended to prisoners from the detention camp near Eze. Two years later, they escaped France and travelled to London by way of Portugal, where Enid used her influence to secure them passage on a flying boat.

In London, Enid was dubbed ‘The Penniless Peeress’ by the press. Down on her luck, she met Valentine Browne, the Earl of Kenmare, and famous gossip writer of the Londoner’s Log (then known as Castlerosse because of his former title Viscount Castlerosse). The confidant and travelling companion of the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, Valentine had lived an excessive life of debauchery, and had been a close friend and lover of Enid’s when they both lived in Paris during WWI. Divorced from the scandalous courtesan Doris Delevingne, he was hoping for a more stable wife.

They were married in 1943, and Enid became Lady Kenmare. An enormous gentleman who was reported to have sat on a dog and crushed it to death, Valentine’s doctor warned Enid that he had a weak heart and was to abstain from sex as it would surely kill him. She rejected the doctor’s advice: ‘It was one of the only pleasures left to him in life. How could I ration him?’ He died of a heart attack less than a year after they were married. In her boldest move yet, Enid, at the age of fifty-two, claimed she was pregnant and as such could hold onto the Kenmare estate until the potential heir was born. She kept up the charade for thirteen months until the estate was eventually given to Valentine’s nephew. Having buried four husbands, Somerset Maugham dubbed Enid, ‘Lady Killmore’.

A chameleon to all the men she had fallen in love with, Enid would become their ideal woman and their interests would become hers. As her wealth grew, through inheritance and marriages, her life became a grand production. All purchases centred around the bedchamber: there were silk sheets and embroidered silk and lace pillowslips (changed everyday), and nightgowns and negligees were bought in abundance. The bedroom, her natural habitat, was sprayed with liberal amounts of Patou’s Joy, then costing three times more than any other scent, and a lady’s maid was ordered to spray the nightgowns and negligees, as well as the bedclothes. Leaving the beside lamp on, the maid would then open the door to Enid’s bathroom and fill the bath to a certain level with hot water and scent. Presumably Enid, whenever she returned, would add more hot water to it. However, Enid was never seen in bed with a man, not even her husband, for she considered that ‘vastly improper’.

It was a role she knew well, and with copious amounts of money at her disposal, Enid played the part to perfection. Having outlived her lovers, in her later years she presided over La Fiorentina, her son’s villa in the south of France – a hub for Hollywood royalty. She died in 1973 at the age of eighty-one.

Enid features in my forthcoming book, The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne (The History Press, Nov 2016).

Book News

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Hello Mitties!

I am excited to share with you the news that my book on Margaret Lockwood, the British film star, will be published by Fantom Films in July. The book has been a labour of love and several years in the making, and it will be released ahead of Margaret’s centenary in September 2016. Although this is a new genre for me, it still fits on the spectrum of British heritage and is very much keeping within the era that I write about. My other forthcoming book, The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne, is still on track for a November release.

Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen is available for pre-order. 

 

Kick Kennedy-Part Two

[The introduction below is a recap from Kick Kennedy – Part One]

It is unusual for two biographies on the same subject to be released within a month of each other, but then again Kick Kennedy is an unusual subject. The second-born daughter of Irish-American parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy, she is forever associated with her political family, most especially the American president John F. Kennedy. All of the Kennedy children had star quality, Lady Redesdale (Muv) had once remarked that JFK would one day become president of the United States. And so their charisma hypnotised London high society in the late 1930s, when Joseph Kennedy was posted there as the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The older girls were presented at Court, and Kick began to move in the exclusive circles of the aristocracy. She was an anomaly for her time: outspoken, forward-thinking, and silly. She could laugh at herself and openly joke with the gentry at a time when English girls, who adhered to formality, could not. Surprisingly, this won her a great deal of admiration and her greatest friends became Sarah Norton (daughter of the beautiful Jean Norton, Lord Beaverbrook’s mistress), Billy and Andrew Cavendish (sons of the Duke of Devonshire), and, of course, Debo Mitford.

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The acclaimed author Paula Byrne’s biography of Kick Kennedy first caught my attention before I realised Barbara Leaming also had a biography, written on the same subject, coming out. While both women know their subject extremely well, their respective biographies are entirely different. For instance, Leaming bypasses much of the Kennedy info to focus entirely on Kick and the aristocratic cousinhood, whereas Byrne explores Kick’s Kennedy forebears in remarkable detail. For someone who knows a little about the Kennedys but virtually nothing on their background and upbringing, this was helpful. It’s also a great insight as to how Kick, an American girl, shook up the aristocracy on the eve of WW2.

As with her previous books, Paula Byrne has undertaken a mountain of research to not only present her subject between the pages of this fabulous book, but to offer informative context. I felt as though I’d known Kick’s parents and siblings, and this shaped my understanding of Kick herself and why, even though I know a great deal about this era, she was viewed as a whirlwind by her future in-laws. We all know how the story petered out and how it ended, but what happens before, during and after is as magical as it is poignant.

I don’t like to parallel the two biographies too much in case I risk persuading a reader to opt for one instead of the other (honestly, purchase both), but I feel the need to highlight the difference in how the Kennedy backstory is treated. Here, we have the best of both worlds. Whereas Barbara Leaming has written several books on members of the Kennedy family, Paula Byrne has written about Kick’s English circle, and therefore both authors understand their subject’s backstory, albeit from different points of view – as demonstrated in their works.

Although she died at twenty-eight, this biography is not as pithy as Kick’s lifespan. As an individual, as well as the wife of a future duke, she managed to encapsulate many experiences in her short life. From Kennedy offspring, to debutante, to journalist and Red Cross army nurse, her own achievements were many. But it is, perhaps, the tragic love story between Kick and Billy Cavendish which stands out and the question, which I am sure Debo often felt, was ‘what might have been?’

Paula Byrne’s biography is a sympathetic portrait of a girl living during a complex time, and who might have been the queen of high society, had she been given the chance.