Crimson & Bone, a guest blog by Marina Fiorato

Welcome to my exclusive Crimson & Bone blog, which will take you round London, Norfolk, Florence and Venice, visiting the places which inspired my novel.

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I’m starting in the same place as the book. This is Waterloo Bridge, where my heroine, low-­‐born prostitute Annie Stride, attempts to leap to her death at the novel’s opening, and where her friend, the unfortunate Mary-­‐Jane, met her watery death. This bridge has a very grisly history — there were so many suicides from this spot -­‐ often ‘ruined’ women —  that it became known as the Bridge of Sighs. The artist George Frederic Watts painted a picture of such an unfortunate woman, and called his piece Found Drowned. His work forms the basis for my fictional artist Francis Maybrick Gill’s painting of a drowned Mary Jane under Waterloo Bridge, entitled The Bridge of Sighs.

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Here we are in Gower Street, where I imagined Francis’s house to be. It’s in a smart part of the Borough of Westminster very near the British Museum. The blue plaque at number seven denotes the house where the Pre-­‐Raphaelite brotherhood was formed, and since I identify Francis with the movement this seemed like the street for him. The houses give on to the picturesque Bedford Square. When Francis saves Annie at Waterloo Bridge and takes her to Gower Street, his house would have presented a marked contrast to her home in Bethnal Green.

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For the interior of Gower Street I visited one of the best-­‐preserved residences of an affluent Victorian artist. At Frederic Leighton’s House (now a museum) in Kensington you can see a perfectly preserved interior, with gorgeous jewel-­‐coloured wallpaper, a winter studio with vast windows, and even a beautiful little fountain court tiled in teal and gold which recalls the Moorish bathhouses of the Alhambra. Leighton painted the iconic Flaming June and, as an artist who fell in love with his low-­‐born model Ada Pullan, formed part of the inspiration for her character of Francis Maybrick Gill.

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This is St Jude’s Road in Bethnal Green. Today it has some pleasant housing by the railway line, but in Victorian times it would have been little better than a slum.

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The Old George is a very old public house dating from well before Annie’s time, and still stands today. It’s a lovely gastro pub now, but in the story it represents the darkest moments of Annie’s life, for it was in the upper room of the Old George that she endured the horrific abuse of her childhood.

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This is the church of St Matthew in Bethnal Green, not very far from the old George pub. This is where Annie made her only contact with religion, attending Sunday school and learning to read. It was from the priest of St Matthew’s that she learned the Bible stories she would later remember in Florence, particularly the story of Mary Magdalene, the saint whom she embodies for Francis.

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One of the greatest pleasures of writing this book was embracing the incredible Victorian art that is all around me in my home city of London. The tube at Pimlico hints at the wonders that await you in the nearby Tate Britain.

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It was at the Tate Britain that I enjoyed one of the most enchanting moments of my research for this book. My daughter had a very early interview at a nearby school which meant I got to the Tate just as it was opening. For thirty minutes I got to be the only person in a vast room full of priceless pre-­‐Raphaelites. It’s an experience I highly recommend, to have all those beautiful, serene faces staring down at you from the walls, and all those swags and hanks of red and gold hair hanging down around you.

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For the darker side of the story I had great Gothic fun exploring the Wellcome Collection and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. The Hunterian does a very nice line in horrible things in belljars, and the Wellcome medical collection has some fascinating exhibits which in Victorian times might have been labelled ‘Freakish’. That such exhibits share a city with those beautiful pre-­Raphaelite women perfectly illustrates what is fascinating to me about Victorian society, the beautiful, civilised face and the dark underbelly; the skull beneath the skin. This contrast is the central theme of Crimson & Bone.

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Here I am in Norfolk, where the story began for two of my characters, Mary Jane and Francis. Both grew up on this beautiful coast, in very different circumstances. Mary Jane was the daughter of two felons —  her father was sent to the ‘Hulks’ or prison ships, and her mother ‘hanged by mistake’, sadly a common consequence of the law

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At the other end of the social scale, Francis Maybrick Gill was brought up in the
beautiful Holkham Hall, pictured here. He would have been a privileged child, indulged
by a fond mother, and alienated by a strict and distant father. Young Francis’s life changed when his father entered into an affair with a prostitute, and it was on this lake that Francis’s life changed forever. The events at Holkham affected Francis profoundly, and at Holkham’s ornamental lake his obsession with women and water began.

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The second half of the novel takes place in Italy. Francis and Annie’s Italian odyssey begins in Florence, at the Ponte Vecchio.

13This incredible bridge is not just part of the infrastructure of Florence, but part of her artistic heritage too. The arcades on the bridge house goldsmith’s shops below, and above the colonnades lies a secret corridor connecting the Uffizi gallery with the Medici palazzo in the Boboli gardens. The corridor is filled with priceless art, and the art of the Uffizi is hugely significant to the story. In the Uffizi’s hallowed halls Francis teaches Annie about the art that is important to him —  the visceral, bloody art which came before Raphael. And there too she meets two characters who are to become very important to her —  one long dead and one very much alive. For it is here that she sees Mary Magdalene for the first time since Sunday School, and here too she first feels the
gaze of the mysterious Rainbow Man.

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And so to Venice where our story ends. Francis and Annie visit the Fenice theatre for the
world premiere of La Traviata. The story of the opera, the tale of a fallen prostitute who is elevated to mistress, echoes Annie’s own. Strangely, the opera was not well-­‐received on its opening night, but it became a firm favourite over the centuries that followed, and, as you can see from this playbill, is still playing at the Fenice to this day.

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The Fenice is a jewel of a theatre, painted in eggshell-­‐turquoise and gold. It’s like being inside a jewel box. Performances here have to be particularly eye catching as it’s easy just to sit and gaze at the decor. Even Napoleon and Josephine, who attended a performance here, were said to have been impressed by such riches.

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We end where we began —  at a bridge. This is the  actual Bridge of Sighs, the bridge from which Waterloo Bridge got it’s nickname. This bridge was so called because it connected the Doge’s palace to the notorious ‘Piombi’ the prisons of Venice. The prisons were reputed to be inescapable because the guards were told that if their charges escaped they themselves would finish  the felon’s sentence. Only one man ever managed it —  a certain Giacomo Casanova. Because they knew they would never escape, condemned prisoners always crossed the bridge with a sigh, as they looked their last on the world. In Crimson & Bone the bridge represents an ending too — but for whom, and how, I can’t say. You’ll just have to read the book, and I hope you do!

Thanks and love,
Marina xx

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Museum photographs courtesy of visitlondon.com

CRIMSON & BONE by Marina Fiorato is out now from Hodder & Stoughton

Follow Marina on twitter  @marinafiorato
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Website  marinafiorato.com

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. 

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

The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley

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My review of this wonderful book will appear in The Lady in due course but owing to word-count restrictions I am posting my extended review on here. It really is a super book and worthy of the attention it appears to be generating. You can read an extract by clicking here: https://foxedquarterly.com/shop/the-secret-orchard-of-roger-ackerley-no-33/

Diana Petre was a natural writer and confidante to many, however the urge to create was often supressed by her vulnerability when it came to the written word. She killed books before they had a chance. Aged nineteen she married a writer who was in his fifties, and although the marriage was brief he encouraged her talents. Molly Keane’s biographer described Diana as ‘gifted’ and ‘wounded’ as a result of her upbringing. Despite her reservations when it came to the eleventh hour of publishing a book, and her personality flaws (more on that later), we can all rejoice that she wrote her memoirs, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley.

This memoir, although peppered with barmy anecdotes relating to Diana’s life, is centred around her bewitching mother, Miss Muriel Perry. Who was Muriel? Nobody knows. Muriel herself deemed certain things to be ‘common’ and she is a classic example of someone who did not let the truth get in the way of a good story. The truth was ugly and it anchored her to a life she’d rather forget. And so she destroyed evidence throughout the years; passports were cut up, letters were censored, not even her birth was registered. She also had three children fathered by Roger Ackerley, a rich banana merchant also known as ‘the banana king’. The story goes that she kept the books for a respectable pub, and that was how they met. She had been standing in the doorway of his room, and he invited her to come inside to get warmed up. Muriel was soon pregnant, but the baby was stillborn. Twin girls, Sally and Elizabeth, followed (Sally married a future Duke of Westminster, but their true names are censored in the book), and Diana arrived two years later. All three were illegitimate, a damning sentence in those days, and so ashamed by this Muriel would only leave her flat at night-time. They moved a lot in those days, until Roger settled a house for his small family. He had told Muriel he had a wife and children, but this turned out to be a lie: the wife was long dead, and the mother of his other children was his mistress. He had two families, and Diana only discovered this after his death. Sitting on her mother’s bed, at an hotel in Vienna, Muriel revealed that ‘Uncle’ was her father. It seemed at the age of eighteen Diana’s life began, or at least she felt the urge to go on a quest to assemble her parentage. The problem was that both of her parents were mere ghosts, and Muriel gave nothing away.

When the children were young, Muriel vanished and left them in the care of an elderly housekeeper. Aside from her spells of ill health and work during WWI, she moved in with Doris Delevingne. This was at the very beginning of Doris’s pursuits as a courtesan, and Diana herself doubted that Doris knew of Muriel’s predicament. She appeared one day, aghast that her twins were twelve and Diana ten, and none of the children knew what to make of their pale faced, dark haired mother, with long limbs, and a trousseau of exotic clothes. She drank gin in the evenings, when she thought her children were asleep. Diana recalled her roaming the landing like Lady Macbeth, weeping, and going into her bedroom, pressing her face close to hers while she slept. Sometimes it frightened her, and the twins on closer inspection discovered the empty gin bottles stashed at the back of the wardrobe. The twins ran away aged eighteen, and their illegitimacy came to light when the law was powerless in ordering them to return home, as illegitimate children came of age at eighteen and not twenty-one.

Before Diana learned the truth about Uncle, she felt something was a miss. It was a childhood filled with secrets, and she asked Muriel if she was a divorcee. Muriel was furious, and declared divorce to be common. Then she wondered if her mother had been raised in an orphanage, which Diana believed to be on par with a mental asylum. Muriel said Uncle had made her feel safe, but he was often absent, and certainly not involved with the babies until they were older. He, of course, paid for everything: the house, the bills, the children’s school, Muriel’s allowance. When he died Muriel was heartbroken, and on the eve of WWII she remarried a dull widower but living with a man was foreign to her and she escaped by joining the war effort. During WWI she joined the Red Cross and was a nurse, and had an affair with a duke. She did the same during the second war, minus the duke, and was interned in a camp, and was eventually given an OBE. When she was released she came home to London, but her health was bad and her nerves were frayed. Her husband died, but it was not the same as Uncle’s death. The following years were bitter.

After the war Muriel became estranged from her children, with the exception of one of her twins. This twin, named Stella in the book, was Sally, Duchess of Westminster. She was kind to Muriel, gave her money, and paid her hospital bills. Muriel, by then, had invited a widow to live with her in exchange for housekeeping and cooking. The widow-cum-servant was sinister, and Diana did not trust her. But Diana herself was seldom around, only appearing when Muriel was dying of cancer. She appealed to her mother to answer questions about herself, Uncle, and the parts in between but Muriel refused. And so many things went unsaid, and were unresolved. Diana did not go to her funeral but went along with Sally to scatter Muriel’s ashes into the sea.

In many ways the memoir retains an air of sadness but it is not a misery memoir. The prose is witty and often quite light, and written in a conversational way. The foreword explains that Diana presented her memoir as a detective piece, with clues intertwined throughout the text, inviting the reader to help her discover Muriel. I enjoyed the anecdotes, often told out of sync. Many stories were hilarious, and bizarre. In the end I loved Muriel and sympathised with her. She reminded me of the Bolter in Nancy Mitford’s fabled novels, but in the end she came back. I think that says it all.

The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley was first published in 1975 and has been reissued by Slightly Foxed: https://foxedquarterly.com/shop/the-secret-orchard-of-roger-ackerley-no-33/

diana petre

The Possessions: A Blog Tour Post

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I freely admit that I love a good ghost story, or a plot which verges on the supernatural. It veers away from my usual reading list of women’s biography, historical fiction, and anything inter-war related. Some of you might be familiar with Osbert Sitwell’s A Place of One’s Own, in which a young woman becomes possessed by a girl who was murdered, and she is using her body to not only communicate with the living, but to seek retribution for the crime committed. In The Possessions, a clever debut novel by Sara Flannery Murphy, Eurydice (Edie) works for the Elysian Society, an organisation which allows the dead to inhabit the body of its living workers to communicate with their loved ones. Edie, cold and without much joy, is committed to her role at Elysian – and is a shell, so to speak. But when a new client, Patrick, a young widower who lost his wife in strange circumstances, begins to use Edie, she comes to life, so to speak. And the premise for the plot, and the character development, begins there. Although the genre could fit into horror, the book is written in an almost light-hearted style, allowing Edie to bring the reader into her confidence before taking them on a warped journey. A lot like her role at Elysian. The author’s prose is confident and engaging, and not a sentence or word is out of place or used in vain. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which arrived the day after I finished the equally brilliant The Roanoke Girls. It is a spellbinding and, perhaps, hypnotic read.

Molly Keane: A Life

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I must admit, having been born in Ireland (N. Ireland, but still . . . ) and harbouring a love for all things Anglo-Irish, pagan, druid, old world et al, I had never heard of Molly Keane. Perhaps I had, in passing, since my heroine Mariga Guinness warrants a mention in the book, somewhere in the 1950s, before the 18th-century had taken hold of her and she’s a shy princess in an Aran jumper and jeans, with her first baby sleeping on the sofa. This easy reference to Mariga should tell you that the book, written by Molly’s daughter Sally Phipps, is a trove of names. But not name-dropping, that’s not the Anglo-Irish way.

The book itself is more anecdotal than biography, however for the first seventy pages or so it does explore Molly’s childhood, her mother’s background in Antrim, and various other things. I did not read this in one go, and left gaps between delving in and out, so, to me, it did seem a bit longwinded. I really felt the book took off after this and I lapped it up in two sittings. The contrast of the two worlds in Ireland intrigued me, and I appreciated the author’s views on both, even Molly herself felt conflicted by a lifetime spent in country houses with servants and the threat of Sinn Fein. But with Molly, who had been accused of being a snob (‘the Irish Nancy Mitford’), she appeared to sidestep those tensions and people loved her, and she loved people.

I particularly enjoyed the asides about the people surrounding her in those days just before and during WW2 (a war she felt emotionally involved in, but was isolated from due to southern Ireland’s neutrality). A servant prays in the kitchen with a plate of dirty rosary beads; the local undertaker uses his hunting horses to pull coffins and often worried about meeting the hounds on the way to the graveyard. She befriended builders, seamstresses, even her house staff, and everything operates on a level that might have been impossible had Molly been more Anglo than Irish. But it is not all stiff tweeds, horse shows, and visits with the gentry (Adele Astaire (Lady Cavendish of Lismore Castle) pops in and out). There is a sting between the pages of Molly’s wit and generosity, and her daughter does not shirk from writing about her mother’s cruel put-downs, her slamming the door in her face, her telling her that she ‘talks a lot of nonsense’. Emotionally scarring, perhaps, but she rises above her grudges to portray a woman who, although brittle on the outside and was prone to flattery, had incredible inner strength.

As I am yet to read anything by Molly Keane – Good Behaviour will be devoured this spring – I felt a bit lost in the literary criticism her daughter deploys in the book. I wanted to learn more about Molly’s traits, but perhaps I am greedy. All in all, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good read.

Molly Keane: A Life by Sally Phipps is available from Amazon as well as all good book stores.

 

A Dangerous Devotion: Venetia Montagu

The following is an edited extract from These Great Ladies (pub. The Mitford Society, £9.99)

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History remembers Venetia Stanley, later Montagu, as a temptress in the Cabinet of Herbert Henry Asquith (known as Henry), Britain’s wartime Prime Minister. From 1912 until 1915 she was, with the exception of his wife Margot, the only woman in England to know his political secrets, and this gave her unreserved power. As the best friend of Henry’s daughter, Violet, she was therefore a significant presence within the Asquith home, and in the platonic marriage of Henry and Margot.

In any era, especially one of political uncertainty and social upheaval, the friendship between the twenty-five-year-old Venetia and the sixty-year-old Prime Minister was a dangerous subject. Adding to this tangled web was Venetia’s closeness to Violet, which many thought verged on lesbianism. Their impassioned letters spoke of their longing to be with one another: ‘I can think of nothing but you at every instant’; ‘Don’t stop loving me’; ‘I do want you SO much’.

There was also the close bond between Violet and Henry, which ousted Margot at every given opportunity, and she had once bemoaned that, during her long marriage to Henry, they had only spent six weeks together. Violet was possessive of her father, and since the age of four she had slept in his bedroom after the death of her mother. Presumably, Violet condoned his interest in Venetia because it caused Margot considerable worry. And behind the scenes at Downing Street there was the topic of rivalry. This came not only from Margot, who felt threatened by Venetia and was jealous of her stepdaughter Violet, but from the unsettling knowledge that Henry’s private secretary, Edwin Montagu, was in love with Venetia, and another, Maurice Bonham Carter, with Violet.

As the most powerful man in Britain, with the exception of King George V, Henry wielded his authority. And, amid his diary being filled with government business and Cabinet meetings, he reserved each Friday for drives with Venetia. It was a bitter pill, not only for Margot, but for his closest advisers who oiled the wheels of his propaganda machine. While young men were being slaughtered on the battlefields of France, Henry was falling in love. This love affair had been simmering for years, ever since Venetia had met Violet during their debutante season. A frequent guest at the Asquiths home and having accompanied Violet on holidays with her father, Henry recalled with crystal clarity the moment his avuncular feelings turned to love. They had been sitting in the dining room, chatting and laughing, when ‘in a single instant, without premonition on my part or any challenge on hers, the scales dropped from my eyes: the familiar features and smile and gestures and words assumed an absolutely new perspective; what had been completely hidden from me was in a flash half-revealed’.

In Conspiracy of Secrets, a book written by Bobbie Neate, the author suspects that her stepfather was the product of Venetia and Henry’s affair. The theories, although at first glance appear outlandish, are backed up with various snippets of evidence. She wrote that Venetia had been confined to the family home and was said to be ill with jaundice, and that letters written by her during this time reveal that she was suffering from a lengthier illness. The author believed this to be pregnancy, and Venetia was therefore adhering to the appropriate confinement before and after the birth. Neate explained that the baby, her stepfather, was given to a foster family, arranged by Venetia’s parents, and that he was possibly the second child born to Venetia and Henry.

Those who knew Henry were aware that he often took an interest in Violet’s friends. A flunky was surprised when he found Henry playing musical chairs with Violet and a group of young girls, one being Venetia. He was known to correspond with them and to consider such young women as companions. Margot herself referred to it as his ‘little Harem’, and his contemporaries dismissed him as a ‘notorious groper’. Lady Diana Cooper, then Manners, was a member of his inner-circle, and even she suspected his feelings for Venetia ran deeper than friendship.

But Venetia was different from the other girls, and her appeal lay in the steadying effect which she had on him during the years of political unrest: Irish Home Rule, the Suffragette movement, the rise of the Labour Party, and the First World War. It was rumoured that, on the eve of Britain entering the war, Henry was not only on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but he was feeling suicidal. Apparently Venetia had lifted his spirits, encouraged his sobriety (political opponents nicknamed him ‘Squiffy’ because of his fondness for alcohol), and was a calming influence during those troubling times. And, unlike the gossiping Margot, she could keep a secret, even political ones. He was known to write to her during debates in the House of Commons and, on occasions, in Cabinet meetings. Amid his romantic prose, he offered her tidbits of his daily life: he spoke of a fretful king regarding the issue of Irish Home Rule; he wondered if he should create a new office for David Lloyd George; and he asked her opinion of a young Winston Churchill, an early boyfriend of Violet’s. All of which, he promised not to act until she had given him her response. Once he postponed a meeting with King George because a letter from Venetia had arrived, and his reading and responding to it took priority over the Crown.

It appeared Margot had suspected for several years, as far back as 1912, that Henry’s roving eye had been caught by Venetia. Tall, dark and handsome, and with ‘a gruff baritone voice’ – the description in which she had been described – Venetia had a masculine energy and a steely self-assurance that came with her background as the daughter of a rich baronet. As the youngest of seven children, she was spoiled, and her behaviour was established early on. A prankster, she was known for her outlandish displays in public, and on one occasion, during a christening, she spoke in a loud voice about ‘drowning the little gorilla’. Home was Alderley Park in Cheshire, with a menagerie of animals including a pet monkey which slept on top of the bookcases or pelmets and dropped on unsuspecting guests, and a bear cub who roamed around the grounds and pounded on doors. Her father, Edward Stanley, a Liberal politician was the heir to three baronies (Alderley, Sheffield, and Eddisbury), and she was a distant cousin of the Mitford girls who, a decade or so later, would run amok through high society. Above all else, she was single-minded and snapped her fingers at the morals of the day. She did not think a chaperone was necessary, she declined several marriage proposals, and, more importantly, she was not threatened by Margot.

If anything, Venetia emphasised the lack of poison in Margot’s venomous bite. Margot herself had confided to her stepson’s wife that Edward Stanley was not Venetia’s biological father and she had been the product of an affair between her mother and the 9th Earl of Carlisle. A jealous woman whose beauty had been obscured in her early twenties by a broken nose, she was reed thin with dark brown hair and was often painted with a crooked mouth, displaying her intolerance. She made enemies, and such feuds were usually the figment of her own imagination and meddling. Oscar Wilde’s former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote a poem in which he referred to her as ‘Merry Margot, bound with lesbian fillets’. And, during Venetia’s spell over Henry, Margot turned her frustration towards Clementine Hozier, for having, as she viewed it, stolen Winston Churchill from Violet.

Venetia herself was privy to Violet’s supposed heartbreak, and it was said that she had tried to commit suicide upon hearing the news of his engagement to Clementine. They were at Slains Castle, in Scotland, when Churchill had broken the news. Violet retaliated by running away, and it was announced she had gone missing along the rocky coastline. Venetia, sensing something was afoot (or having been a part of it), had burst into the drawing room to deliver the news that Violet was in danger. Henry was convinced she had fallen to her death, and Churchill himself considered calling off his engagement. For hours the servants and guests trekked along the rocks, carrying fire torches and calling out, ‘Violet, Violet.’ The press reported that she had slipped on the rocks and had hit her head, thus explaining her faux vanishing act. Margot held the view that Violet, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, had staged the incident, and she would refer to it as: ‘This unfortunate, foolish and most dangerous escapade.’

Although the feud was between Violet and Clementine, Margot’s feelings about the marriage gave Venetia, a cousin of Clementine’s, some clout. Margot dismissed Clementine as having no brains and accused her of being ‘mad’, no doubt this was a jibe at Clementine’s often precarious mental health. But Venetia argued that her cousin was sane to the point of dreariness. Regardless of their dim view of the new Mrs Churchill, Venetia was armed with the knowledge that Margot was emotionally unstable, and she knew of the chinks in her armor. The biggest insecurity in Margot’s life was the doctor’s orders that she must ‘close the bedroom door’ to Henry, indefinitely, due to having risked her life throughout her five pregnancies, in which only two children had lived. Hence Venetia’s presence, and her husband’s preoccupation with this young woman, meant more than an idle fancy.

There were striking similarities, not only in looks but in intellect, between Venetia and Margot which, undoubtedly, Henry found attractive. Margot came from the Anglo-Scottish Tennant family and, like Venetia and Violet, in her youth she had an inseparable companion in her sister, Laura. The two girls entered society together and had belonged to a set known as the Souls, a pre-war group of intellectuals whose main objective was to form a salon where they could meet without arguing about politics. The Souls abhorred hedonistic pursuits, such as violence, alcoholism and adultery, and they regarded the arts as, above all else, the most important thing in life. However when Laura married Alfred Lyttleton in 1885, Margot thought her life was over, and this was intensified by Laura’s death a year later following the birth of her only child. Margot never recovered from the death of her sister and closest friend, and as a result she began to suffer from chronic insomnia, which plagued her for the rest of her life. Venetia and Violet moved at the centre of the Coterie, a group of intellectuals who were the offspring of the Souls, but whose recreational habits were frowned upon. Nicknamed the ‘Corrupt Coterie’, they drank and smoked in an age when it was frowned upon for a woman to do either, and they took drugs which were easily obtainable through a chemist. Morphine and varieties of opiates were often the drug of choice, as was cocaine.

By 1915, Venetia had begun to receive two or three letters a day from Henry. Unfortunately her responses do not survive. Although the first political topic he had discussed with her was the economic budget, the correspondence began in earnest in August 1914 with France’s involvement in the war. Lord Kitchener had sent a telegram to Henry, containing military information, and Henry immediately enclosed it in his letter to Venetia. He spoke of inventing a code which they could use when corresponding by telegram, and he told her he wanted her to know what was happening across the Channel, before anyone else.
Undoubtedly this made Margot feel as though she was being usurped in her role as chief confidante to her husband. ‘My fondness for Venetia has never interfered and never could with our relationship,’ he wrote to Margot. Margot, however, was convinced Venetia was ‘teaching Henry to avoid telling [her] things’.

This loyalty and trust he felt for Venetia had been inspired by tragedy when, in 1909, Violet’s admirer, Archie Gordon, the son of Lord and Lady Aberdeen, had been injured in a motorcar accident. He had been hospitalised, after which he lived for twenty days, with Violet presiding at his bedside during his final hours. They announced their engagement, and Venetia was on hand for moral support. Violet recorded their last conversation in her diary, writing that Gordon said: ‘Venetia will nearly have to live with us, won’t she?’ And, then, he asked Venetia to kiss him.

During Henry’s dependency on Venetia, she was being pursued by another man. Edwin Montagu, Henry’s private secretary, had been in love with her since their first meeting in 1911 and had, on various occasions, proposed marriage. Despite her turning him down, he continued to accompany Henry, Violet and Venetia on their holidays, and on one particular trip they went to Scilly. They played hide and seek in the garden with Edwin, whom Violet thought was ‘the best person in the world to play it with’ and she wrote in her diary that he was ‘so frightened and so frightening’. Around this period, Henry and Violet visited Venetia’s family home, and the press failed to pin any significance to the visit, or to their friendship, and he was photographed with Venetia’s pet penguin. It was believed that Venetia’s mother was unhappy with the devotion the prime minister was showing to her daughter, and she encouraged Edwin’s pursuit.

In the years that Edwin had known Venetia, she did not hide the fact that she was stringing him along. This did little to quell his infatuation, and through time Venetia began to view him as a potential husband. This apparent change of heart occurred on her twenty-sixth birthday, which marked a watershed moment in her life. For, in those days, it would have been considered a comparatively late age for a woman to marry. She was reluctant to acknowledge her birthday, and wrote to Edwin that she hoped her future would be filled with ‘permanent fun’.

With his inheritance, Edwin could offer her all the ‘fun’ she desired, and it would grant her the freedom to continue her unconventional behaviour. And so, after years of refusing his proposals, she agreed to marry him. But she made it clear to Edwin that, not only did she find him unattractive, she did not love him and had apparently warned him that their marriage would be a celibate one. Edwin himself had agreed to such terms, perhaps he did not believe Venetia’s stipulations and imagined that, once they were married, he would take charge of their relationship. This was not to be, and from all accounts he was devoted to her, and she walked all over him.

The news of Venetia’s engagement was badly received by Henry. ‘This breaks my heart,’ he wrote in a letter on the day she had told him. She responded with only one word, which caused him further anguish, and he implored her to write to him. She did, and sent him a ‘most revealing and heart rendering letter’. It appeared they had a disagreement, recorded in their letters, for Henry declared her response as ‘terrible . . . No hell can be as bad’. Perhaps Venetia had suggested they refrain from writing to one another, owing to his feelings about the engagement, for he called their mutual silence ‘cruel and unnatural’. He was glad when they resumed their correspondence after ‘two most miserable days of my life’. Violet was equally disturbed by the news, and she wrote in her diary that the thought of Venetia marrying Edwin ‘filled [her] with horror”. She then listed the reasons for this ‘horror’ and spoke of his ‘physical repulsiveness . . . the thought of any erotic amenities with him is enough to freeze one’s blood’.

Despite Venetia’s mother thinking Edwin would serve as a welcomed distraction from Henry, she, along with her husband, were alarmed by their daughter’s conversion to Judaism. This undertaking was done on behalf of Venetia for materialistic gain, rather than religious reasons. Her late father-in-law had made stipulations in his will, stating that Edwin could only inherit his millions if he were to marry a bride of the Jewish faith. Marrying a Christian would have seen Venetia and Edwin living in reduced circumstances, and so it made sense to her, a shrewd character, to convert.

Henry voiced his disapproval, and he sent a poem to her in which he described her as a ‘Christian child’ who had been ‘too easily beguiled’ by the ‘silken tents of Shem’.¹⁹ The silken tent was a reference to the nickname Venetia and Henry had given Edwin’s lavish family home at 24 Queen Anne’s Gate in London. There were antisemitic undertones, too, as Jews were said to have descended from Shem. His openly expressing such views was deemed acceptable in not only that period but in his class. Venetia’s parents also held a similar disdain for Judaism. Marrying Edwin was one thing, but converting to his faith was another.

Prior to Venetia confirming her engagement to Edwin, Henry suspected something was afoot and he sensed her attention, when responding to his letters, was being spent elsewhere. He warned her not to fail him, for that would precipitate his complete collapse, not only emotionally but politically too. ‘Will you still be the same in 1915?’ he had asked. It is therefore poignant that her letter, containing the details of her engagement, arrived on the day he received the worst press of his political career. And then, feeling as though he had lost his element of stability, his thoughts turned to betrayal. Not only had Venetia betrayed him, but Edwin had too, for he had confided in him his love for Venetia. Henry wrote to Venetia’s sister, Sylvia: ‘I don’t believe there are two living people who each in their separable ways are more devoted to me than she and Montagu: it is the irony that they should deal a death-blow to me.’ Margot had also used Edwin as something of a confidante, years before, in the early days of Henry’s writing to Venetia. She expressed to him her opinion of Venetia, claiming she was a young woman with an immoral outlook, and she said: ‘How I loathe girls who can’t love but claim and collect like a cuckoo for their own vanity.’

Adopting an unorthodox view of marriage, Venetia suggested a prenuptial agreement to Edwin, and they both agreed that she could have affairs with others. He could too, but his love for Venetia prevented him from doing so in those early days, or at least from flaunting them so openly. Although, to a certain extent, she was granted freedom she was reluctant to continue with her plan to marry Edwin. Aside from his religion, his physical appearance came under scrutiny from her closest friends and she worried they would give her up in ‘disgust’. Her friends loyalty was important to Venetia, for her own family, especially her elderly father, had disapproved of her conversion to Judaism. To quote Venetia, her parents ‘boycotted’ both herself and Edwin.

Violet, too, refused to accept Venetia’s decision, and she accused Edwin of blackmailing Venetia into converting. She thought him manipulative, and instrumental in (potentially) ruining Venetia’s reputation, both socially and within her family circle. Edwin resented Violet’s words, and he forwarded her letter on to Venetia. But Venetia misread the criticism as concern for the step she was taking, and she thought Violet ultimately approved. Margot however, did approve of the marriage and she encouraged Violet to refrain from teasing Venetia. Her motives were clear: she was glad Venetia would have a distraction and would be too busy devoting herself to Edwin’s promising political career to give Henry much thought.

With Venetia’s brother’s encouragement, her parents began to come round to the idea of her marrying Edwin. Although they did not accept her decision to convert to Judaism, they realised that Venetia, now aged twenty-eight, and with no suitors other than a married prime minister forty years her senior, would finally settle down. But her extended family remained unconvinced and they accused Venetia of ‘turning Jewish for the sake of £8,000 a year’.

Before the wedding took place, and in the interim of Venetia’s official conversion, she accepted a voluntary nursing post at an army hospital in France, tending to the wounded and dying soldiers. It had been rumoured that, during Venetia’s short stint at a London hospital the year before, Henry did not bid farewell to his son who was leaving for the Front. He had more important matters to deal with: he had gone to the hospital to catch a glimpse of Venetia in her nurse’s uniform.

During her time at the French hospital, in 1915, her letters to Edwin lacked any mention of the conflict surrounding her, or of her feelings for him. Instead she wrote to complain about the ‘dreadful condition’ of her hands, caused by the ‘acids and disinfectants’, and of the pimples and freckles that had developed on her face. The hospital, she told Edwin, was crowded and dirty, and ‘the one real tragedy about the place’, she explained, was the inability to have a hot bath. ‘Isn’t that dreadfully squalid?’

Thinking she might change her mind about marrying him and of her impending conversion, Edwin implored her to confirm a date for her departure from France. But Venetia remained vague and explained that her hospital work was ‘too thrilling’ to leave. In the end, Edwin told her the two rabbis he had engaged for the conversion were leaving for the Front in July, and he encouraged her to submit her application for conversion before the twelfth. She agreed, and returned to London on the 10 July.

Venetia’s arrival in London was greeted with mixed feelings. Edwin was ecstatic, but Henry adopted a high-handed approach when writing to her. He ‘prayed with [his] whole soul’ for her happiness, and he admitted it would have been out of character for him to be disloyal to her. However in his letter he asked her not to respond and to not ‘wish me now to say more’. Then, after what he perceived to be Venetia’s desertion, he wrote to Diana Cooper to offer her the ‘vacancy’ as his mistress. Although fond of him, Diana had no interest in becoming the mistress of an ageing politician. She allied herself with Venetia and Edwin, and for years to come would receive the Montagus hospitality at their marital home.

The conversion was, as Venetia had warned Edwin, a farce. She went through the motions in order to save his family fortune and, as she had told him, to restore the relationship with his mother, whom she met for the first time on her wedding day. Religion, she explained, meant nothing to her, and she proclaimed to have none. When he requested their future children should be brought up Jewish, she called him a hypocrite, for Edwin himself did not practice his faith, and she said she would raise them without religion. ‘I go through the formula required,’ she wrote to him, ‘because you want it for your mother’s sake and because I think one is happier rich than poor.’ But there were other factors at play which threatened to undermine Venetia’s religious conversion. She complained that she could not study the book that ‘Old Joseph’, the rabbi, had given her because it was too boring. This caused Edwin considerable worry, but in the end she memorised enough of the text to pass the test and was therefore received into the Jewish faith.

Two days before the wedding, Venetia visited Henry in person, and it turned out to be their last meeting for some years. Afterwards, he wrote to her that he valued her companionship and that she had given him ‘unforgettable and undying memories’. She married Edwin in a traditional wedding ceremony, and absent among their small gathering of family and close friends were Henry and Violet, who chose not to attend. Instead, Henry sent Venetia two silver boxes with a brief note: ‘With all my love and more wishes than words can frame for your complete and unbroken happiness.’

In the years following Venetia’s desertion and marriage, Henry had begun to write his memoirs and, naturally, Venetia featured. He struggled with his portrait of her, aware that he could not speak frankly about the true nature of their relationship. Instead, he focused on her personality traits and of her much publicised conversion. He wrote that ‘she had no sense of sin; no penitential moods; no waves of remorse; no mystic reveries . . . ‘

Although in its day and with a degree of hindsight Venetia’s relationship with Henry has been analysed, her marriage to Edwin has also come under scrutiny in various publications. Some believed that the marriage was never consummated and that Edwin, a man torn apart by self-hatred and hypochondriac tendencies and who sensed he would die comparatively young, was satisfied with whatever crumbs Venetia offered him. Although intelligent and with a political mind, she found him a boring politician and took little interest in his work. He appeared to have had a mistress named Pearl, and by whom he had a child – ‘Pearl has just given me a little daughter and we are very happy about it’. Edwin’s admission, by letter, was written before Venetia gave birth to her own daughter, Judith. Despite the claims that Edwin was asexual and pined for Venetia, it seemed he had forged his own life in London and during his political tours of foreign countries.
Venetia, too, was conducting her own affairs, and a significant admirer was the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, whom she trusted with her investments and who offered her financial advice. They travelled around Europe, often accompanied by Beaverbrook’s close friend and employee, Viscount Castlerosse, and their mutual friend Diana Cooper. Although she would be replaced by Jean Norton as his chief mistress, the two would enjoy a lengthy friendship which outlasted their affair.

In 1923 Venetia gave birth to her first and only child, Judith Montagu. It was widely accepted that she was the daughter of William Ward, later the 3rd Earl of Dudley, and Venetia did not dispel such rumours. Judith, however, was brought up as the child of Edwin and he settled a trust fund for her. It was a timely gesture, for in 1924 he died at the age of forty-five from unknown causes, but it was believed to have been the result of blood poisoning. His death did not upset Venetia, and she settled into widowhood with a generous inheritance which granted her the freedom to live as before, and to travel extensively around postwar Europe. She entrusted her baby daughter into the care of nannies, and Judith herself claimed her mother treated her with an air of indifference. Regardless of Venetia’s parenting skills, she would ensure Judith was given a good education and was taught to be independent, as she valued those qualities above all else.

After the death of Edwin, Venetia and Henry resumed their friendship. Although it was not as intimate as before, he visited her at her country home, Breccles, and made the acquaintance of Judith. Judith recalled the tears on Henry’s face as he said, ‘This, then is the child.’ It was an emotional visit for both Venetia and Henry; he was in ill-health and had suffered the loss of movement in one leg, and upon arriving at Breccles he could not exit the car without assistance. Although he knew his days were numbered, he did not disclose his illness in great detail to Venetia, and she sensed he was fading away. He died three months after their final meeting. ‘It was most good of you to take me in,’ he had written in his last letter to her. His death closed a chapter in her life, though in those days it was a select group of friends who knew the true nature of their relationship. And Venetia herself, as daring as she could be, did not kiss and tell. Refusing to be bound by her gender and class, she continued to live with the freedom she had always known.

Until her death from cancer in 1948, Venetia travelled around the world in her own private aeroplane, smoked, drank, gambled, and pursued various love affairs. Beaverbrook remained her ardent admirer long into their old age, and she always retained a fondness for him. But it was Henry Asquith who had captured her heart.

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These Great Ladies

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‘Oh dear,’ said Evelyn Waugh of his society friends, ‘these great ladies.’ In this book of pen portraits the reader is introduced to obscure ladies who were society stars in their day. From the Churchills to the Mitfords, British and European Royals, to international playboys and film stars, these ladies knew everyone. And everyone knew them, for better or worse.

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Margaret, Duchess of Argyll: Famous for her naughty polaroids, and whose divorce from her Duke saw 88 men named as her lovers.

Mariga Guinness: A bewitching German princess with a harrowing childhood, who fought to preserve Irish buildings and became an icon.

Sylvia Ashley: A girl from the wrong side of the tracks who married two English lords, two Hollywood stars, and a Russian prince.

Joan Wyndham: A bohemian aristocrat who shunned a debutante existence to live a life of debauchery in Chelsea.

Enid Lindeman: An Australian wine heiress who married four rich and titled men, and buried them all.

Venetia Montagu: A society girl who moved at the centre of H.H. Asquith’s wartime government.

Irene Curzon: A ‘poor little rich girl’ who dared to break the rules and challenge her brother-in-law, Sir Oswald Mosley.

Jean Massereene: A dazzling viscountess whose association with Sir Edward Carson almost ruined her reputation. A true eccentric, fashion icon, and champion of the spiritualist movement.

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