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.

A Fly in the Ointment: A Mitford Tease

Words by Lyndsy Spence & Meems Ellenberg

(Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol III)

The echoing footsteps of Mabel along the long, narrow hallway of Rutland Gate caught Farve’s attention. The sound of his Puccini aria spinning on the gramophone did nothing to dispel an impending sense of doom. As he watered his window box of fascinators – the seedlings he had scattered the year before – he made a mental note to check on Mr Dyer tending to the boiler in the basement. Being a fellow who was susceptible to the supernatural he pondered if Dyer, who lived a subterranean existence below the seven floors, was dead. It was a distinct possibility. Before leaving the library he locked his cold cup of coffee in the safe, lest some money’s orphan should remove his suckments.
Farve passed Mabel, who held in her hand a lilac-coloured envelope. ‘So gauche, so noveau-riche,’ Muv had groaned when these bizarre envelopes had first started to appear on the tray of post. They were always addressed to Miss Nancy. ‘What a stench!’ Muv had choked, reacting to the overwhelming scent of tuberose. She knew with certainty, as she knew most things from her days on the high seas, that tuberose was responsible for many a debaucherous deed. ‘Another one?’ Farve approached Mabel, he was looking especially exotic in his paisley print dressing gown, sipping tea from a thermos and puffing on a gasper. He took the letter and examined it. A scattering of letters rudely cut from a magazine were glued to the lilac page. ‘You are a charlaten and I hate you,’ it read, though charlatan was spelled incorrectly. Having read only one book in his life, Farve failed to notice. ‘I am a Mitford and I despise you,’ the venom dripped off the page, or was it runny glue? ‘You are ALL I despise,’ it added once more in case the message wasn’t clear.
‘Who do you suppose it is?’ Mabel asked. ‘Not Jicksy, I should hope.’

Entering the drawing room, Farve asked the girls to gather around the fire. It was serious, Debo concluded, for they were allowed to abandon the jars of dripping jam on the sideboard and crumbs remained on the good table cloth.
‘Such a bother,’ Muv bemoaned. ‘I should sooner send the table cloth up to Edinburgh than have beastly Harrods charge me a king’s ransom.’
No one remarked save Mabel, who may have been heard to mutter, ‘Penny pinching peeress.’
Nancy, taking a break from her preparing an article for The Lady magazine, slithered into the room. ‘I say,’ she rubbed the ink stains on her hands, ‘I wish Snell would up my pay. This cheap ink is too too sick-making.’

Nobody spoke, presumably nobody cared. Nancy’s constant complaints were what were too, too sick making, thought Decca, although her pique may have been due to another all-nighter reading Dorothy L. Sayers. So much bickering ensued about who said what to the Londoner’s Log about Diana’s impending nuptials to Bryan Guinness, Pam’s broken engagements and Nancy’s fledgling literary career, that Farve had to bellow for silence. But, having to have the last word, Unity sneezed. ‘Hatschie, Geräusch beim Niesen,’ she said.
Delphine Ale-Stout, the letter was signed. Nancy and Diana wracked their brains but failed to place the name. ‘Watney’s Red Barrel,’ Pam piped up and everybody laughed. She liked three-worded names: Purple-Sprouting-Broccoli, in particular.
‘Perhaps we met her on the cultural cruise?’ Debo suggested.
Unity and Decca wondered if Delphine Ale-Stout was a white slaver. ‘It certainly sounds a white slaver name,’ Decca mused.
‘Sie sicherlich,’ Unity agreed, something she seldom did.
‘In English!’ Muv exploded in a rare bout of bad temper. ‘In English,’ she said once more, repeating that, along with the King’s English, she supported the Church of England, voted Conservative and believed in the afterlife – ‘I should like to see Cecily,’ she mused. ‘And Uncle Clem.’ She spoke of the afterlife as though it were a meeting of the hounds, and certainly very English.
Ever since Nancy had started working for The Lady, Delphine Ale-Stout began to send her poison-pen letters. It all began rather incoherently, a jumble of letters and initials. ‘HstCE,’ one said in reference to that flippant tart Hamish St. Clair Erskine. ‘NFM,’ Nancy Freeman-Mitford retaliated. Though, as Blor pointed out, it could very well mean something else. ‘Errr,’ she scolded, ‘no one will want to be your friend if that’s how you talk.’ retaliated. Though, as Blor pointed out, it could very well mean something else. ‘Errr,’ she scolded, ‘no one will want to be your friend if that’s how you talk.’
Then the letters spiralled out of control. Threatening words slipped through, warning that Delphine and her followers would kill her. Nancy vaguely remembered that one had the name of a colonial drink. ‘It puts heaven in a rage,’ Diana sighed.

Nancy was most vexed. Delphine Ale-Stout, a puzzle. Delphine Ale-Stout, a cipher. Delphine Ale-Stout, a rival writer. Delphine Ale-Stout, only a name in a sea of articles, never a fot. Delphine Ale-Stout: perhaps she did not have a photography face? Pathos personified. ‘She eeees,’ Nancy murmured.

‘Oh blissipots!’ Debo bubbled. Nancy’s problems had been nothing to her as she had been invited by Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie to go shooting. Cousin Clementine wrote to say that Diana was welcome at Chartwell. Uncle Wolf wired an invitation to Fraulein Unity, but Muv said nein to ‘going abroad with a stranger’. Decca, darling little D, was already packing for a weekend with the Paget twins. And, Pam, where was Pam? Surely she couldn’t…Nancy snatched the letter. ‘Charlaten,’ her triangular green eyes honed in on the misspelling. Hmmm, poor Pam, she thought, always the thesaurus, never the dictionary.
‘Here I am,’ Pam breezed into the room in slow motion, her presence was as long and lingering as her vowels. ‘I was just across town selling eggs to the Bed of Nails. Say!’ she whipped two newspapers out of her basket, ‘your tiff with Delphine Ale-Stout has made the front pages. Looook!’
It was too sensational, too good to be true. ‘Disney with knobs on!’ Nancy squealed.
Blor, thinking a horrible accident had occurred, rushed into the drawing room. ‘So sorry,’ she gasped. ‘I thought Miss Decca was on the roof again.’
‘Look, Naunce,’ Pam scanned the article. ‘It says here that Delphine Ale-Stout has many occupations. She’s a philanthropist. Haberdasher. And sometime chanteuse.’
‘So non-U,’ Nancy remarked.
Blor sniffed meaningfully.

The crossing to Dieppe was choppy. Decca opened her picnic hamper and noted Muv had packed a whole meal loaf and Pam had boiled up a dozen new potatoes – a fitting luncheon for a farmer in a brown suit. The Paget twins agreed to meet her at the port, and together they would enjoy a motoring holiday around the Channel coast.
In the car, the twins rapidly spoke about a tour of Austria, and Decca listened intently to their itinerary. They would be staying with an elderly aunt, they said. ‘A good alibi if one wanted to forge a naughty letter,’ they added.
‘I couldn’t run away,’ Decca’s eyes widened at the thought. ‘I haven’t lodged my Christmas money for one thing. Besides, Cousin Winston would send a tanker to find me.’
‘The mountains,’ advised the Paget twins. ‘No water to sail a tanker on in the mountains.’
They were brick girls, those Paget twins.

The following week another letter arrived for Nancy from Delphine Ale-Stout. This time she slipped up and included Lady as a prefix. Muv retrieved her well-thumbed copy of the Peerage and scanned through the double-barrel names and the list of those tradesmen who had risen a rank or two. ‘Really,’ she was aghast; ‘the peerage resembles a shopping-list these days.’ There was no Delphine Ale-Stout, no Ale, no Stout…
Farve agreed, commenting that the peerage’s pandering to household brands was lower than the belly of a snake. ‘What next?’ he harrumphed. ‘Women in the House of Lords?’
‘I don’t see why not,’ Pam looked up from polishing the silver. ‘After all, you worked for a lady’s magazine.’ He scowled in reply and reminded himself that Pam’s turn in Rat Week was long overdue.
‘Settle down,’ Muv scolded. ‘After luncheon I shall read Tess of the d’Urbervilles aloud. Or would you prefer White Fang?’
They returned to the sick-making business of Delphine Ale-Stout. She had written a strongly worded, though incoherent, letter to rogue newspapers that dared to paint her as a villain. ‘I committed no crime,’ one of the more intelligible sentences read. She accused the newspapers of rewriting history and claimed that nobody would have heard of Miss Nancy Freeman-Mitford had she not put her on the radar.
Nancy shrieked whether in joy or consternation, was unclear.
Farve’s mind scrambled to his latest list of suspects. The Wid was swiftly added to it and, recalling the sight of a discarded handkerchief in a hedge, he also included the Duchess of Marlborough. He also remembered that sewer with the comb in his breast-pocket. The list was growing.
But there was a twist at the end of this letter. Delphine Ale-Stout demanded a sum of money.
‘Blackmail is such an unfortunate word,’ said Muv.
Nancy could bear the riddle no longer. Delphine Ale-Stout demanded £50. She was explicit in her instructions. £50 in a lilac envelope (enclosed) should be left under an empty milk bottle at the Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street.
‘The Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street?’ repeated Farve. ‘I shall escort you.’

Nancy and Pamela went along with Farve to the Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street. As Pam had errands to run on behalf of Muv, she left Nancy in a Lyon’s teashop and told her to pay attention to the comings and goings at the stores. The morning rush was too divine and Nancy whipped out her pen and notepaper and began taking notes on the conversations on mantelpieces and settees ringing in her ears. She thought of constructing an article for The Lady, or perhaps a future book. Farve contented himself with reviewing the new shipment of entrenching tools.

Meanwhile in Dieppe, Decca had bumped into old Aunt Natty, otherwise known as Blanche Hozier, Farve’s aunt. She was in high spirits, having come into an unexpected windfall of money. ‘You must come to the casino,’ she told Decca and the Paget twins. They agreed, whereupon they were introduced to Natty’s admirer, the local and much-married fishmonger.
‘How lucky to see you,’ Natty said as she rolled the dice. ‘We’ve just returned from our little benjo.’ Pulling pound notes out of her handbag she ordered the fishmonger to place more bets.
‘Where did you get all that money?’ Decca enquired. The Paget twins were competing against one another at the billiards table.
‘I pawned my Kodak,’ said Natty.
‘There must be fifty pounds in there, Decca began to count the pound notes.
‘Don’t count, darling,’ Natty snatched the money. ‘Arithmetic is so unseemly for girls.’

‘Oh look,’ Muv drawled. ‘Decca’s written to say she bumped into Aunt Natty in Dieppe. ‘She said Natty treated her and the Paget twins to a honnish evening in the casino where they went back to her house and gambled fifty pounds playing Snakes and Ladders.’
‘Who won?’ asked Nancy.
‘Oh,’ Muv rolled her eyes. ‘She did not say.’
‘Fifty pounds!’ exclaimed Pam.
‘Such a waste of money. Of course one can’t help it if one’s rich but….’
‘Don’t you see!’ interrupted Pam. ‘Don’t you get it? Delphine Ale-Stout wanted fifty pounds. Naunce, you were at the teashop, tell them what you saw…’
‘Well I…’ Nancy thought for a moment. She decided to embellish the truth. ‘I saw a very tall lady, very well-dressed with a Scottish terrier. She wore a cape over her nightgown, much to my everlasting embarrassment, you must understand.’
‘Yes, and?’ they shouted at once.
‘Well that’s all I saw,’ she shrugged. ‘So sorry.’
‘Natty,’ bellowed Farve.
‘Natty,’ whispered Muv.
‘Telephone Cousin Winston,’ he ordered his wife. ‘We must send a tanker at once!’

Later that evening, Decca was back at Rutland Gate. The Paget twins caught a lift on the tanker and stopped off at Peter Jones to spend their Snakes and Ladders winnings. ‘Five hours was all it took,’ she chirped. Muv was most impressed at the efficiency. Pam said Dieppe was so close it was just like home. Nancy scoffed and said Paris was the place to be. Within the hour, Debo returned, covered in pheasant feathers and pigeons blood and weeping about a gruesome tale called The Little Houseless Match. Unity was upstairs, or so it was assumed by the goose-stepping thuds coming through the ceiling and the repeated playing of ‘Horst Wessel Leid’ on the gramophone.
‘So tell me everything, from the start,’ Muv ordered.
Decca said that Aunt Natty was her charming self and, after suggesting they go back to her house with the fishmonger, and having been hosed down at the front door, they all sat down to a thrilling game of Snakes and Ladders.
‘Not Racing Demon?’ Debo asked.
‘No,’ Decca stated. ‘Oh, before I forget,’ she reached into her pocket. ‘Natty said to give you this.’
Narrowing her green eyes to slits, Nancy accepted the odoriferous lilac coloured envelope. ‘Dare I open it?’ She looked at Muv and Farve. Before awaiting their answer she tore into the envelope and realised there was fifty pounds inside.
‘She is a good woman,’ Muv said.
‘Such a clever cove,’ Farve agreed.
Like rich people, Muv told the children, some people could not help being naughty. Diana and Decca readily agreed and nodded in unison.
‘Well, let’s say we forget the whole ghastly business of Delphine Ale-Stout,’ Nancy tossed the letter onto the fire.
‘Whatever do you mean?’ Decca jumped to her feet. ‘Natty isn’t Delphine Ale-Stout. She simply had no note-paper and the Paget twins came to the rescue.’ With great difficulty she retrieved the half-singed letter from the fire. ‘Money for an old war debt, love Natty,’ she read aloud.
Blor sniffed. ‘The Paget twins, eh?’
Five minutes later there was a knock on the door and Mabel entered, bearing another letter from Delphine Ale-Stout. It was an odd letter, quite rambling in its tone. ‘Dearest Nancy Freeman-Mitford. I don’t know who you are. I have never heard of you. I was impersonated by an old governess wishing to seek revenge and destroy my reputation. Please don’t write back. I have blacklisted you.’
Nancy did not throw the letter onto the fire or tear it up. She added it to her pile of correspondence. ‘One day I shall publish a book of letters, you’ll see,’ she told her disbelieving family.
They all laughed and forgot about the non-U escapade that was Miss Delphine Ale-Stout.
‘One last thing,’ Muv interrupted the jovial scene. ‘What else did Natty say?’
‘Oh,’ Decca beamed, ‘she promised to introduce me to her grandson, Esmond Romilly.’
There were floods. Absolute floods.

(Apologies for WordPress’s lack of formatting. It is too, too sickmaking!)