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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