Ladies Like Us: An Interview with Alena Kate Pettitt

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Years ago I wrote an article for The Fertile Fact, listing all of Nancy’s pet hates, had she lived in today’s fast-paced, non-U society. It was good fun, and I hope it was received in that light. However, it did and does beg the question: what would Nancy have thought of today’s youth, and where would she have fitted into today’s society? Of course her books are still widely read, but they offer a glimpse into a forgotten age when manners were important, conversation was a skill to be honed, and one put on what she called ‘the shop front’ (her public face/persona). As such, when Alena Kate Pettitt, etiquette guru and founder of The Darling Academy, contacted me I was intrigued. She posted me a copy of her delightful book, Ladies Like Us, concealed in layers of pink tissue paper as fine as silk with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a woman who has posted the very same parcel to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. (Sorry Kate, your mother appeared in Nancy’s list on The Fertile Fact!)

What inspired you to write a modern day etiquette book?

I have always been interested in etiquette and as a young girl used to dream of marrying Prince William (sad but true), the Cinderella fantasy captured my imagination. Being somewhat of a self-starter I read voraciously on what set “the set” apart from the rest of us. My mother used to subscribe to Tatler, likewise she was enamoured with Princess Diana, and so her influence in addition to my childhood dream was enough to start a lifelong fascination with the peerage. I wanted to learn all there was about this alternative universe of beautiful, privileged people. Which sounds crass but they do have that je ne sais quoi that most of us identify in their countenance and lifestyle. It is an unusual confidence not owned by many. Happily, during my teens due to a family marriage I entered a glittering social setting and quickly had to learn the ropes of how things were done, what was said and importantly – what was not. It took me another fifteen years to learn the greater lesson that it is more about what is in your heart than what you show to the world that makes you a pro at handling yourself in society. In the Mitfords days there were silent codes of behaviour and what you would say in place of common words that would set you apart, but as we all know, the U like to change these rules frequently. Social climbing is a dirty little secret and common hobby of the middle classes: everyone is out to do better, I just have the guts to admit it. Having read them all, I soon became frustrated with the offerings of etiquette books that told you how to do XYZ but never divulge as to why. You can teach a monkey to have a polite afternoon tea but if he doesn’t believe he is equal to, and understand his company, he will always be a monkey. No one wants to spend time with monkeys, such curious creatures.

Etiquette is less about what you do in a clinical sense in order to be seen to be doing it, and more about having your heart in the right place and learning to be at ease in your surroundings, as well as in the company of others. Whether you are dining at McDonalds or in a beautiful restaurant in Mayfair, etiquette and knowing how to present your best self is of the utmost importance. Etiquette helps you with navigating the rules, but the true prize is learning how to cultivate elegance. I hope the advice in Ladies Like Us has achieved that.

Judging from your interests, ladies from the past (such as the Mitfords) influence you. What is it about those ladies that you admire and perhaps wish to emulate?

Oh goodness, where do I start? Let’s go with the most obvious reason. I have recently identified that the majority of the women I admire are ones from “old money families”, or frequently move in such circles. Meaning that they have lived a life of privilege and wealth but they haven’t let the money define them. Many of them are held against strongest expectations or are consistently scrutinised but manage to hold it together, regardless. Having that steely determination to paint on that smile despite what is going on at home speaks volumes of a woman’s strength. The women I most admire have gone on to run the country, write novels, or marry into a dynasty that requires a lot of self-sacrifice. If they’ve married into or made money for themselves they do more with their time than simply shop or wish to validate themselves curating a “brand” on social media. In our generation, we are constantly bombarded with “role models” who remove their clothes in exchange for flashy brand new Range Rovers and footballer’s mansions. That’s not to say that the women who inspire me were complete angels, or didn’t care about the finer things, but they played their cards close to their chests and had a determination and sense of duty lost on most women today.  We live in a wealth obsessed society and the fashion is to flaunt that wealth with “things” rather than keeping hold of their sense of class and dignity. The women I admire know what really matters when you strip away the trinkets. Fool’s gold isn’t something that interests me. I want role models to challenge me to be better, be better educated, to do more for those around me – not simply to buy more things or become famous. My role models inspire me to choose quality over quantity in all things.

Which modern day vices irk you the most?

Chewing gum! Disgusting and unnecessary. I think it is the most classless and wholly vulgar thing anyone can do. Need to freshen your breath? Have a mint. However, smacking on gum and making me listen to the “pleasure” of it? No thank you. Second to this is standing to close to me in a queue. The U love their personal space, please respect it. Making your way into my personal space renders you a bumbling idiot in my book and I will be cursing you under my breath. Third, men who spit in the street. Which imbecile let them out of the zoo? Fourth, women who apply a full face of make up on public transport…. I’m realising that a lot of things irk me.

Which modern day heroine (or hero) do you think is a good example and positively Mitfordesque?

I tried to think of an intelligent and thought provoking answer, but if you are looking for my honest answer, it has to be Jilly Cooper. I love how she isn’t afraid to shock and looks at people in the most brutal of ways. Her book Class remains one of my favourites, she says what we all think and exposes the dynamics of the British class system with such accuracy. As much as people would hate to admit it, our class system is very much alive, and things haven’t really changed since she wrote that exposé in the late 70’s. She knows people and what makes them tick. Most people cannot stand her “type”, but I’d gladly crown her queen of my tribe. Given what she writes about, you’d think her trashy but from what I’ve heard on the grapevine she is a real lady. What more can you ask for? Talent, wit, brains, confidence and underneath it all, honesty and kindness.

We live but miles from each other, it takes all my strength to refrain from casually popping by asking for a cup of sugar and to have a jolly good laugh about life in town and country. Sadly, I realise she’d probably think me too lower-middle class to visit her, then I’d hotly argue that I actually consider myself middle-middle. Ha!

 

Ladies Like Us is available in paperback and on Kindle. 

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The Wild Air: A Book Review & Interview with its author, Rebecca Mascull

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‘There is nothing so dangerous as a headstrong girl who knows her own mind,’ said Mary Yellan, the fearless heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. The same can be applied to Della Dobbs, the protagonist of The Wild Air, the latest novel by Rebecca Mascull. Female pilots from the early days of flying are experiencing a renaissance (in the literary world), and having read a few books based on real life pilots and works of fiction it takes a book to stand out. Although Mascull has drawn on the inspiration of aviatrixes such as Lillian Bland and Beryl Markham, the creation of Della Dobbs is entirely her own.

Set during the Edwardian era, Della Dobbs does not fit the mould of femininity, she likes to ride her bicycle and fix it herself. She’s also a loner, and she channels her love of machinery and engineering (as in the cycle) into the latest craze: aeroplanes. When her widowed great-aunt returns from America, Della is intrigued by this outspoken woman of whom her father disapproves. She realises that a life, quite unlike her mother’s burden of housework and childbirth, awaits her. Against the odds, and with her great-aunt’s encouragement, she learns to fly and falls in with a group of male pilots, much to the fury of her father. But Della fights against his, and society’s, prejudice to fulfil her dream. World War One interrupts Della’s fledgling career and her husband goes to France, but when he is reporting missing she takes to the skies to rescue him. This subplot of the novel, in the adventures of Della from shy girl to brave aviatrix, is an example of Mascull’s writing and the marriage of her characters and their vocations – she did a similar thing with Song of the Sea Maid but I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the plot. The character development of Della is almost biopic, as though she were a real historical figure. It is a brave novel which piques the curiosity of the reader, but it is also a reminder of how far women have come.

  1. How much did Lillian Bland and other female aviators inspire your character?

The real lives of these early aviatrixes inspired me – and Della Dobbs – hugely. Their exploits were quite astounding. They fought against prejudice and expectations and forged a path for themselves in a male-dominated, dangerous pursuit. In the pre-WW1 days they were engaged in all the same challenges as their male counterparts, such as aerobatic flying and cross-channel flights. Some, like Hilda Hewlett, had their own aeroplane manufacturing companies. Melli Beese, a German aviatrix who appears in the novel, was an aircraft designer, as well as a great pilot. Katherine Stinson toured the Far East with her plane. They were fearless and determined. I admire them enormously!

  1. You mentioned, last year, that you flew in a small aeroplane to get a sense of your character. How important is primary research to you?

It’s become more important the more I write, actually. I used to think you could imagine it all (and I think to a certain extent you still can) but I realised that if you can do primary research, you certainly should. I found the brilliant pilot Rob Millinship through the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire and he was incredibly helpful with my research. When we first met, he said very soon into our conversation that he would take me flying in a light aircraft, at which I immediately baulked and said, Oh well, maybe, having no intention of really doing it! I was too afraid! He said that really I had no business writing about flying if I wasn’t going to do it. I thought, I can use research and my imagination – it’ll be ok. He asked me several times and I kept putting him off. Then one day I suddenly thought, Oh blimey, stuff it. I’m gonna do it! And I did. I can honestly say it changed my life. And it made for a much, better, truer book. He was absolutely right, too. I had no business writing about such an extraordinary thing as light aircraft flight if I hadn’t experienced it myself.

  1. How do you choose your subjects and what inspires you?

It’s all delightfully random. I’ll see something that grabs my interest, just catches my attention, a chance encounter, something on Radio 4 or on TV. It’ll present me with a situation, often a What if? kind of thing. With my first novel, it was the idea of how on earth it would feel inside your mind if you were both deaf and blind and you had no way to communicate. With my second, it was what would happen if you had a brilliant scientific idea but nobody was interested in listening to you? And with this one, it was the obsession with flight in those incredibly dangerous early days – what would make anyone want to go up in a kite with an engine, with no seatbelt, no parachute, no safety whatsoever – why would anyone want to risk it, let alone an Edwardian woman? It just grabbed me! Then, once I start doing a bit of research, I’m hooked and I won’t rest till the story is told.

  1. Can you tell The Mitford Society about your writing process?

I start with a notebook and fill that with thoughts about the story. Once that’s finished, I know I’m ready to start the research. I read a heck of a lot, watch documentaries and movies, visit key locations (whenever possible) and engage in other primary research, such as flying! Or visiting a hop field and running my fingers along the bines so I know what they feel like, for example. Then I write a detailed synopsis (yes, I’m one of those curious creatures who actually enjoys writing synopses!) and a chapter plan. I then work from this as I’m writing the chapters. The story always evolves beyond the planning as I’m going along, but I like to have it there as a foundation. This is my process for an historical novel, anyhow. I’m thinking of maybe writing something totally different next and I might alter my method for that. I might just write and see what happens! I fancy a change.

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

The Crime Writer: A Review

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Jill Dawson has a knack for writing about factual people but in a fictional way, she takes fragments from people’s lives and works them into a novel. The Great Lover is a brilliant example of this, and she manages to capture her protagonist’s unique tone in the narrative while maintaining a seamless writing style.

I was intrigued by Dawson’s latest book, The Crime Writer, mostly because I fell in love with the cover. Based on an episode of Patricia Highsmith’s life, during which time she lived in Sussex and was having an affair with a married woman, Sam. It is the mid-1960s and period of excitement and progression, but Highsmith’s life seems stuck in a rut, an empty place filled with promises from her married lover, being let down, clandestine meetings, and angst filled phone-calls. A nosy journalist comes to interview her, and Highsmith’s reluctance only fuels her curiosity. But then one night changes everything between Highsmith, Sam, and the lover’s husband, and her life begins to imitate her crime novels.

I wish I knew Dawson’s writing technique, for she has layered the story with a light touch and the complexities of a Hitchcock plot. The words creep like shadows across the page, and the reader is kept in suspense despite being let in on the crime. You will hold your breath until the last page, it is that good!

The Muse: Diana Mitford and Paul César Helleu

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Diana at Cecil Beaton’s ‘Opposites’ party. The Sketch, 1932

At the age of sixteen, Diana Mitford arrived in Paris under less than glamorous circumstances. Her father, David, had succeeded in selling the family’s home, Asthall Manor, and with the money garnered from its sale, he set about building a new family home, Swinbrook House. The final phase of building was yet to be completed, and the Mitford family, along with their pet gerbils, chose to economise by taking cheap lodgings at the Villa St Honoré d’Eylau. Caught between the world wars, Paris was bustling with excitement. The epitome of the roaring twenties, the jazz age brought rich American tourists and bohemian writers alike to sample the cosmopolitan delights the city had to offer. The reconstruction of the Boulevard Haussmann, damaged by bombs during the First World War, was underway, and Paris was once again a vibrant, metropolitan city not yet plunged into austerity by the Great Depression.

The topic of beauty would govern Diana’s Parisian experience. Whilst in Paris, her mother, Sydney, rekindled her friendship with the celebrated artist, Paul César Helleu who, in the years before her marriage, had immortalised her in a painting. Now this admiration transferred to Sydney’s children. Smitten by her offspring, his painter’s eye appreciated the fine colouring of their blonde hair and blue eyes, with the exception of Nancy, who possessed the dramatic colouring of black hair and green eyes. But it was Diana who charmed Helleu. She, in particular, he likened to a Greek goddess. Advancing in his sixth decade, he was considered an old man, but Helleu’s liberal outlook did not let something as trivial as their vast age difference prevent him from admiring Diana’s looks. ‘Tu es la femme la plus voluptuesse,’ he often praised her. From a cynical point of view it was hardly an appropriate adornment for Diana, who stood at the statuesque height of 5ft 10in, with a slim figure to match.

Caught in the limbo between childhood and adulthood, Diana overlooked Helleu’s compliments, and her attention was absorbed by his drawing room. She thought his collection of Louis XVI furniture, especially the chairs upholstered in white and grey silk, to be aesthetically pleasing. She was curious as to why Helleu hung empty eighteenth-century gilt wooden frames on his walls. His answer was far more peculiar than his action. He advised Diana that if one was not rich enough to possess the pictures one wished for, it was best to have empty frames and use one’s imagination. She was further elated when Helleu drew her into his confidence, telling her that he admired three things above all else: women, racehorses, and sailing boats.

Fearing that her impressionable daughter would fall victim to boredom, the opposite sex, or both, Sydney enrolled Diana in the Cours Fenelon, where she was to study art. After the lessons, Diana walked one-hundred-yards around the corner, to take afternoon tea with Nanny Blor and her siblings at the hotel. This ordinary advancement of walking home alone meant the world to Diana, as it was the first time she had been without a chaperone. This freedom was confined to Paris, as she learned when the family returned to England to spend the Christmas holidays in London.

In the new year of 1927, Diana prepared to return to Paris, this time without her parents and siblings. Travelling alone in those days was strictly forbidden for a young, unmarried girl of her social class. The idea of sending a member of staff, or worse still, paying for a chaperone to accompany Diana, troubled Sydney. Much to her relief, the journey coincided with Winston Churchill’s visit to meet Mussolini and he offered to drop Diana off in Paris on his way to Rome. Accompanying his father, Randolph was thrilled to see Diana again – in love with her during his childhood, he would continue to carry a torch for her long after she had broken his heart by marrying Bryan Guinness, and then Sir Oswald Mosley. But his hope of cutting a dashing figure was thwarted when he fell victim to seasickness, brought on by the rough Channel crossing. ‘Poor little boy!’ Churchill said when Diana told him of Randolph’s plight. Upon reaching the Gare du Nord, Diana spied two elderly sisters with whom Sydney had made boarding arrangements. She summarised her first impressions of the elderly sisters: ‘One of them is horrid and wears a wig, the other is downtrodden and nice’. Pressed for time before catching his connecting train to Rome, Churchill swiftly entrusted Diana into their care and the three left for her new dwellings at 135 Avenue Victor-Hugo.

The elderly sisters’ apartment was not luxurious in any sense of the word, and Diana was alarmed to discover the French taste, which she held in such high esteem, had been lost on her landladies. If the outside was grim, the inside was strictly primitive. She was allocated a bedroom in the basement, its window level with the pavement, with tightly clamped shutters that were to remain closed, should a pedestrian attempt to break in. The room was dark, and as Diana lay in bed she could hear the hustle and bustle of footsteps on the pavement and the revolting chorus of men clearing their throats and spitting. The Dickensian surroundings extended to basic hygiene. She was permitted to bathe twice a week in a miniscule tin tub, brought into her bedroom for the occasion, whereupon a maid filled it with a scalding kettle, counteracted by a jug of cold water. The balance was never quite right and the bath, to Diana’s dismay, was freezing. She wrote a long letter to Sydney, moaning of her discomforts and was sent enough money for an occasional bath at the Villa St Honore d’Eylau. The elderly ladies thought this extravagant and an insult to their hospitality. Owing to Diana’s displeasure with her living arrangements, a frosty relationship ensued.

Despite the discomfort, Diana found the location useful with its close proximity to the Cours Fenelon, her violin lessons near the Lycee Janson, and Helleu’s apartment. She walked to all three places without a chaperone and the freedom was intoxicating. Emboldened by this freedom, she took the first step towards adulthood and cut her waist length hair into a shingled bob – a popular trend in the late 1920s. Her father affirmed to the Edwardian ideal of how women should look, preferring them with long hair and their faces free of make-up. Given this stance, she would have hesitated to cut off her hair had she remained at home. When Nancy first cut her hair, David recoiled in horror, proclaiming that no self-respecting man would want to marry her. Sydney sided with David, and she commented, ‘No one would look at you twice now.’ Having learned of Diana’s rebellion, David teased that her new look was ‘a symbol of decadent immorality’.

It had been almost a month since Helleu last set eyes on Diana, and her short hair, he opined, was ghastly, but it did little to diminish her looks. When she was not taking lessons, Helleu escorted Diana around Le Louvre and the Palace of Versailles, giving her impromptu lessons on paintings, fine art and sculpture. After their day-long excursions, he treated Diana to luncheon where she ordered Sole Dieppoise and Sancerre. Although infatuated by her appearance, his behaviour was always proper. Seizing this moment of high spirits, he asked her to sit for a portrait. There was no question of what her answer would be, for Diana it was the ultimate compliment. ‘I pose for endless pictures,’ Diana confided in a letter to her friend and admirer, James Lees-Milne, and Helleu’s flattering comments, she claimed, ‘never become boring because they are always unexpected.’ Helleu sketched and painted Diana several times, and his most favourable piece was a dry-point etching of her head in profile view. The strong lines detailed her ethereal beauty; an attractive jawline, emphasised by her shingled hair, cut as short as a boy’s at the back with the sides reaching her ears, formed into soft waves. The sketch was reproduced in the popular magazine, L’Illustration, and the prolific recognition turned Diana into a minor celebrity at the Cours Fenelon. The excitement was short-lived and the elderly sisters hastened to plant a dart; ‘Helleu?’ they hissed at the modern-looking girl sitting before them. ‘It is not Helleu to me at all. Frankly I think it is very pre-war.’

Helleu’s flattery was never ending and, blinded by Diana’s beauty, he expected his peers to share his enthusiasm. He brought Diana to visit his friend, the sculptor Troubetzkoy, who at the time was working on a head of Venizelos, the Greek politician. ‘Bonjour, monsieur, la voici la Grèce!’ Helleu jubilantly cried as he pointed to Diana, who stood before the sculptor in her plain clothing and her face devoid of make-up. Venizelos, engrossed in his work, cast a lacklustre eye over Diana, before turning away, barely acknowledging her. She felt a fool and thought her exuberant friend had gone too far. To the sculptor and politician (and many of the grown-ups around her) she was merely going through what the French called ‘l’âge ingrat’ – the awkward age.

Sensing that her husband’s young friend was pining for familiar home comforts, Madame Helleu provided Diana with an inviting atmosphere away from the Avenue Victor-Hugo. After lessons, she would drop in for tea and often stayed to supper, indulging in Madame Helleu’s heavenly cuisine of roast veal, boeuf en gelee, iles flottantes and rich black chocolate cake. Helleu loved to see Diana eat and he would happily exclaim: ‘Mais prenez, prenez donc!’ The Helleus’ daughter, Paulette, although several years older than Diana, became a critical friend. Paulette found fault with Diana’s clumsy home-made clothing and her lack of make-up, still strictly forbidden. She might have attacked Diana’s weak spots, but she could not deny her beauty, and that sparked an unspoken rivalry between the artist’s daughter and his adolescent muse.

Although flattered by Helleu’s treatment, Diana was becoming accustomed to receiving compliments on her beauty rather than her brains. In a letter to James Lees-Milne, she asked him ‘not to feel jealous’ about her flirting with French boys. Having gained his confidence, she confessed that she only confided in him because he was ‘so far from England’s green and pleasant land, where scandal travels fast’. During this time she had become an expert in deceiving the elderly ladies, and although she was permitted to venture out without a chaperone during the daytime, she was forbidden to do so in the evenings. She cared little for their rules and she feigned invitations to sit for Helleu, or cited extra music lessons with her violin instructor. Once out of their supervision, Diana met the young man in question. She juggled several suitors, always escaping with them to the darkness of the cinema, then the height of sophistication for a teenager. She spoke confidently of a trip in a taxi around the Bois de Boulogne with a boy named Charlie (Charles de Breuil), a fairly rich count, extraordinarily handsome, but very vain. Before Diana had encountered Charlie, she enjoyed a flirtation with a young suitor named Bill Astor, heir to Viscount Astor and his immense fortune. Diana said little of her experiences with Bill, except that she had only flirted with Charlie because French flirting interested her and because it made her think of Bill. At a loss for words, Jim praised her mental fidelity towards the unsuspecting admirer.

Diana dutifully penned chatty letters to her mother, but Sydney was too preoccupied with the preparations for Nancy and Pamela’s parties – they had already come out as débutantes but had failed to become engaged – to give much thought to her younger daughter’s daily life. A dull round of lessons, she imagined. Only Diana and her diary knew the truth. Neither Sydney nor David relished the idea of entertaining and they made a dreary saga of the details, writing to Diana, ‘The dance is turning into an immense bore …’ Sydney sent her a parcel containing a pair of ‘evening knickers’ and a dark blue silk dress with white polka dots. Diana was delighted with the underwear, a sophisticated treat having only just shed the fleece-lined liberty bodice her nanny forced the children to wear. The euphoria dimmed when she tried on the silk dress, only to discover it was too big. The whirlwind of Diana’s social life did not interfere with her schooling and her end of term report, that March, spoke glowingly of her ‘parfait’ conduct, describing her as ‘excellente élève dont nous garderons le meilleur souvenir.’

The glittering atmosphere was not to last. At the end of March, Helleu fell gravely ill and his unexpected death from peritonitis was a bitter blow to Diana’s self-esteem. The man she worshipped and who, for three months, had worshipped her, was dead. ‘I shall never see him again …’ her letter to James Lees-Milne ached with melancholy ‘… never hear his voice saying, “Sweetheart, comme tu es belle”’. Shortly before Helleu’s death, Diana had called at his flat, hoping to visit her ailing friend. Paulette answered the door. ‘May I see him?’ she desperately asked. ‘Of course not.’ Paulette brusquely turned her away. His death was to have a lasting effect on her. ‘Nobody will admire me again as he did,’ she said at the time.

Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford is published by The History Press. The above was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV