The Mitford Society Loves

Is there anything more honnish than an autumnal read? Although I receive many books ahead of their publication date, I prefer to squirrel some away until the right moment. Here are some books which fall into this category.

 

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Drawing on six society hostesses who manoeuvred the minefield of social niceties between the world wars, and revered for their wit, beauty, and often scandalous behaviour, they were far from boring. But it was not all glitz and glamour – Nancy Astor was the first female politician to take her seat in Parliament; Sybil Colefax paved a career as a celebrated interior designer; Edith Londonderry founded the Women’s Legion; Emerald Cunard was a pioneer of the arts scene; Laura Corrigan sold her jewellery to help the French Resistance during WWII; and Margaret Greville remained defiant in her hotel suite as the Luftwaffe dropped bombs around her.

As a social historian, Sian Evans explores the class system, which was ultimately weakened in the aftermath of WWI and, as a result, it became easier to enter those exclusive circles. She eschews singular chapters for each lady, their individual stories are mingled together, and so it is interesting to compare their rise every step of the way, while competing with one another for prestige. Often waspish, and sometimes ruthless, it is easy to forgive the Queen Bees of their weaknesses. An exciting read, Evans has painted a compelling portrait of six inspiring women.

 

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When I first received this book I did not know what to expect (mine had a different, more feminine cover) and I wrongly dismissed it as chick lit. But delving into the opening chapter, I was pleasantly surprised. Stephanie Bishop’s novel, based on the true story of her grandparents, presented the other side of immigration. In the 1960s Britons were leaving for Australia in their droves and they were tempted by the promotional messages of year-round sunshine, outdoor living, and spacious homes and grounds. However, Bishop’s protagonist Charlotte, a new mother and expecting another baby, is reluctant to leave her cramped cottage by the sea, to begin a new life. Her husband, Henry, an Anglo-Indian, is restless for an adventure and a new life, and he persuades her to go. There, they struggle to adapt to their new surroundings, and to each other. Although Bishop portrays the life of an émigré searching for a home (or Hiraeth, as the Welsh call it), the underlying element of Charlotte’s post natal depression comes into play. There are things beyond their control tearing them apart, and neither Charlotte or Henry know how to fix it. At 256 pages it is a quick and compulsive read, but the message it leaves behind is far more enduring. I still catch myself thinking about this book. I will definitely read it again.

 

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I am not quite sure what to make of this book. Told by the point of view of three characters, Netty (the mother), Jack (the father), and Annette (the daughter), it evokes an unsettling atmosphere as family secrets come to light. Jack and Netty are dead, but they remain in their home, observing their (now) grown-up daughter, Annette, as she begins, or rather assembles the pieces of her life in her childhood home. But during quiet moments, their own lives are recalled and we learn of Netty’s mysterious illness and of Jack’s infatuation with their male lodger, who is a faith healer. This is an evocative read. I wonder if Ashworth named her character of Annette as a tribute to Osbert Sitwell’s character of the same name in his ghost story, A Place of One’s Own? The two novels could certainly be companions.

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This hefty biography is a multi-layered story centring on various characters, each with their own tale to tell and secrets to hide. On the eve of WW2, the foreign-controlled port of Shanghai was a playground for outlandish socialites, all under the watchful eye of the hotelier, Sir Victor Sassoon. The legendary New York reporter, Emily ‘Mickey’ Hahn arrives at the height of the Depression, nursing a broken heart after a turbulent affair with an alcoholic screenwriter and checks into Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel. Convinced she will never love again, Mickey throws herself into the Shanghai social scene. Amidst the hedonism, she meets the Chinese poet, Zau Sinmay, and the two begin a forbidden love affair. Zau Sinmay introduces Mickey to the real Shanghai: a city of rich colonials, triple agents, opium-smokers, displaced Chinese peasants, and desperate White Russian and Jewish refugees. Through Taras Grescoe’s clever juxtaposition, the reader is faced with the excitement of Mickey’s antics and the dangerous undercurrent of political unrest. An intriguing account of a fascinating time and period, which exposes the old world of Shanghai, before poverty and unrest gripped a nation.

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Muv in Wonderland by Kathy Hillwig

Everyone knows of the Mitford girls – and the Mitford girls knew everyone. There were few celebrities of the early twentieth century that at least one of the Mitfords had not met. One is less inclined to think of Sydney Redesdale (née Bowles) in those terms, yet she also knew an assortment of the famous and colourful people of the time, including Lewis Carroll, the nom de plume of Charles Dodgson.
 
Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Sydney Bowles was not born when the book was published, in 1865, but her father, Thomas Bowles, was a friend of Charles Dodgson. Remaining in touch with Dodgson, he naturally took an interest in his friend’s offspring.
 
In May 1891, when Sydney was eleven-years-old, Dodgson sent her a letter, and enclosed was a copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground. Perhaps, given that her birthday was in May, it was a birthday present from the author. From the tone of the letter, it is evident that Sydney had not met Dodgson, for he writes that he ‘didn’t know of your “existence” before ‘hear[ing] that you had sent me your love!’
 
Formerly a mathematics tutor at Cambridge before finding fame as a novelist, Dodgson had a predilection for young girls. Having met Mary Prickett, he was introduced to her three charges Ina, Alice (the inspiration for his novel) and Edith, where he visited the Liddell family home and photographed the girls without their mother’s consent. He would go on to take nude photographs of the then fourteen-year-old Ina – again, this was not uncommon in the Victorian era. It was also fairly common in the Victorian era for an adult male to take a fancy or become engaged to a female child (perhaps in her teens) and wait until she was of age to marry. However, his fixation with the eleven-year-old Alice was a daring one, even in those days. A book, The Looking Glass House, written on the subject of the Liddells, Dodgson and their governess Mary Prickett, who loved him and saw her charges as her rivals in love, was written by Alice Liddell’s granddaughter, Vanessa Tait. On the subject of letters to his ‘child friends’, it should be noted that Dodgson’s love letters to Alice were discovered by her mother, hidden in her dollhouse. His visits and association with the family came to an abrupt end.
 
Back to his correspondence with Sydney, the letter is fairly unsettling by today’s standards. He writes: ‘If only I had known you were existing, I would have sent you heaps of love, long ago. And, now I come to think about it, I ought to have sent you the love, without being so particular about whether you existed or not.’ Perhaps, a lonely man himself, he felt an infinity with Sydney: a young, motherless girl, who spent her childhood on her eccentric father’s yacht, sailing the Mediterranean and the Orient. Whatever the nature of his feelings and the truth behind his motives of befriending Sydney, it amounted to nothing.
 
The letter is dated May 22 1891, and is reproduced in Sophia Murphy’s book, The Mitford Family Album. On the facing page is a picture of an eight-year-old Sydney Bowles, looking very much like Dodgson’s romantic vision of Alice. The letter and book – which Dodgson notes is ‘the book just as I first wrote it, with my own pictures’ – seem just another example of the Mitford way of being, quite effortlessly, in the thick of every interesting event.
 

Kathy Hillwig lives in eastern Kentucky. Her dream holiday would be a week at Chatsworth, drinking tea and binge-reading the sisters’ correspondence.