Mystical Mitfords

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In 1919 Lord and Lady Redesdale and their children moved from Batsford Park to Asthall Manor, an early seventeenth-century property that was reputedly haunted by a poltergeist. As poltergeists are apt to do, it hurled cutlery around the dining room, crashed around the attic, and was said to have torn off a housemaid’s nightgown. Lord Redesdale, Pamela and Diana had witnessed the aforementioned, however the supernatural lodger did little to stir Lady Redesdale, Nancy, Unity, Decca and Debo. Perhaps Lady Redesdale merely ignored it – as a girl she had stayed at Wilbury, the home of Lord and Lady Malet, the latter a keen spiritualist who often asked spirits to guide her hand with a paintbrush and the results were two ugly paintings which she hung above the doorway of the drawing room. The family was no stranger to ‘the unseen’, as Lady Redesdale’s step-grandmother, Arethusa Gibson, dabbled in spiritualism and mesmerism, and held a séance for David Dunglas Hume, during which it was rumoured he levitated. There is a possibility that Nancy was too vindictive to acknowledge a darker presence than her own, and Decca, who was fixated with her Running Away Account, might have hinted at charging the poltergeist rent for its attic rooms. Admittedly Debo was too young to care, but she did write in her memoirs that it was ‘one of those nuisances that accompany teenage girls’. It was said that Lord Redesdale, Pamela and Diana suffered the most, its menacing reserved for when they were alone, and they each noted the sound of dripping water, footsteps on the floorboards, and an icy breeze when it was close.

Despite Lord Redesdale’s terror of the poltergeist the girls meddled with the spirit world. In 1925 Pamela wrote to Diana: ‘We want to do some table turning one night but we are so afraid that Farve might find us at it.’¹ The pastime of summoning spirits was the height of fashion, for in the years following the First World War the spiritualist movement had been revived. Society hostesses held seances and played the Ouija board, and Violet Tweedale, a popular socialite who claimed to have seen the spirit of Jack the Ripper, had in 1919 published the book, Ghosts I have Seen. The 12th Viscountess Massereene (nee Jean Barbara Ainsworth) was a self-confessed medium and expert on ghost lore, and she wrote of her spiritual encounters in a column for the Daily Express. As with any fad there were those who exploited the genre, namely individuals who claimed to be mediums and relied on showmanship to deceive their audience – Eva C, a French medium stripped naked and used props such as men dressed in costumes and paper tribal masks; Kathleen Goligher, an Irish medium, had seduced William Jackson Crawford, a psychical researcher, who validated her claims of levitation and table tapping; and there was also Helen Duncan, a Scots-born medium and nemesis of Harry Price, of the Psychical Research Society and Ghost Club, who exposed her so-called ectoplasm as muslin cloth illustrated with magazine clippings. One cannot help but wonder if Nancy parodied the aforementioned, wearing a turban and waving a creation which resembled ectoplasm, the perfect ingredient for a Mitford Tease.

In the early 1930s Pamela and Diana’s ghost sightings were to take place at Biddesden House, the Wiltshire home of Diana’s first husband, Bryan Guinness. A portrait of its original owner John Richmond Webb on his cavalry charger hangs in the hall and if removed the ghost of Webb gallops up and down the stairs. The ghost of Webb remained dormant, but Diana claimed to hear footsteps on the terrace outside her bedroom, which manifested when she was alone. Pamela, who was the farm manager at Biddesden and lived in the house whilst her cottage was being renovated was equally troubled when a ghostly presence stood over her and behind the headboard of her bed, and she often heard voices outside her bedroom door. ‘The ghost never left me,’ Pamela said. Guests had differing opinions of the ghost. John Betjeman stayed overnight at Biddesden and had a dream in which a card was shown to him, revealing the date of his death. However Lytton Strachey encouraged Diana to treat the haunting a joke and she followed his advice and soon laughed off the phantom footsteps. Perhaps she sensed she would be leaving soon, for in 1933 she divorced Bryan Guinness and bid farewell to Biddesden.

Although not all of the Mitfords were privy to the poltergeist they were superstitious and when vexed they often wrote the name of a foe and placed it in a drawer, believing the individual would be dead within a year. Whether or not this worked remains to be seen. In 1926 they left Asthall Manor, and although Lord Redesdale, Pamela and Diana were the lone recipients of paranormal activity, little else has been recorded about the poltergeist. Such supernatural encounters were to follow them, long after they were spirited away.

Notes

1. Mosley, Charlotte (ed), The Mitfords Letters Between Six Sisters (HarperCollins, London 2012) p. 13

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Churchill’s Secret Affair or How the Evidence was Misrepresented

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My book, NOT the subject of ‘Churchill’s Secret Affair’.

As an historian and biographer there is an invisible code of ethics I adhere to. One must never portray anything (by anything I mean letters, diaries, tape recordings, and so forth) out of context. One must investigate whatever one is told by their interview subjects. One must never sensationalise their subject, unless of course the subject was sensational. And one must never cash in on a lie. Those are the rules that I obey.

The point of my writing this blog post is to draw attention to my work on Doris Delevingne, otherwise known as Lady Castlerosse, and the long-standing rumours that she had an affair with Winston Churchill. Now, I am not saying she did not sleep with the great statesman, but I dismiss any notion that the two carried on together for four years. In light of a recent Channel 4 documentary, entitled Churchill’s Secret Affair, I must refer to their press release. Revealed, Uncovered, Exposed, and so forth, were the words used to lure the press in. Quite often a press release is harmless enough, in today’s society it’s done for click bait purposes, and usually, at the bottom of the very last paragraph, the truth is revealed. Or at least a glaring question mark is implanted as a way of enforcing a point that is open to speculation. I want to draw attention to Menace Films’s (the production company) evidence that was aired on Channel 4. The letters between Doris Delevingne/Castlerosse and Winston Churchill have not been hidden, and as many historians and biographers can attest, the letters along with Jock Colleville’s tape-recording disclosing the affair have been common knowledge for years. The tape has also been listened to by many historians, and is available for researchers to access.

The letters used in the Channel 4 documentary were taken out of context. For example, Doris writes to Churchill: ‘I am not at all dangerous any more’ (The Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust, CHAR 1/299/77) and Channel 4 suggests it meant she did not want to resume their sexual affair. The truth was, had Channel 4 ‘revealed’ the letter in its entirety it would have disclosed that she was going through a divorce and her husband, Valentine Castlerosse, was naming her male friends and escorts as potential co-respondents. The letters, some lengthy and some mere scribbles, display not a woman trying to entrap a man, but of a woman desperately trying to keep Churchill as a friendly ally. Her husband, Valentine, was close to Lord Beaverbrook, and as Channel 4 stated, Beaverbrook was equally close to Churchill. In her writing to Churchill, offering to help with his wayward children and inviting Clementine to supper, she is being cordial and attempting to keep a dialogue going.

Speaking of dinner, Channel 4 failed to ‘expose’ the truth behind Doris’s parties. Far from friendly supper parties, there was a motive: Beaverbrook was paying her to act as a society spy, and to host parties and report on her friends (see Parliamentary Archives, BBK-C-19 Castlerosse Letters). Churchill perhaps knew of this, and would a politician such as Churchill risk his reputation at a time when he was striving to become prime minister? Through the correspondence they both shared there are somewhat icy periods, when Doris slips up and inconveniences Churchill, or at least drags him into her world filled with drama and scandal (see Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust, CHAR 2/246). The main source of which was her meddling in the Churchill children’s affairs and her failed marriage to Valentine. When Doris began her lesbian fling with Margot Hoffman her husband reacted by banning her from the royal enclosure at Ascot. What does Doris do? She writes to Churchill to ask for help, as she’d like to go to the races. He responds by forwarding her letter on to Beaverbrook, and Doris resorts to writing a grovelling apology (Parliamentary Archives, BBK-C-19, Castlerosse Letters).

Is this the work of a woman who could have potentially blackmailed Churchill to achieve anything she wanted? I think not. On another note, on the eve of WWII she writes to Churchill, to ask if it is wise she continue on with the renovation of her Venetian palazzo. This is not a woman who had her eye on keeping the prime minister in line and blackmailing him for money and special favours, this was a woman who acts entirely in her own self-interests. She was a good friend to many, but she made no secret of her motives.

When Doris travelled to America she threw herself into establishing New York connections. A significant friend during that period was Johnny Galliher, a male version of Doris, who had a knack for getting money out of people. He seemed to be her go-to escort until he enlisted in the United States Navy. In 1941 she was very much alone in New York and she offered her services to the war effort, namely by selling badges in aid of the USO and working at a milk bar for the British War Relief. The work was hard and the hours were long and Doris had no interest in continuing. She seems to have been depressed around this time and desperate to return home. John Foster, the first secretary and legal adviser to the British Embassy informed her that Beaverbrook would be visiting America. She writes to Beaverbrook promising to do ‘any work they [War Effort] give me’ (Parliamentary Archives, BB-K-D 518) if only she can go home. He ignores her letter. Channel 4 suggested he was too busy with the War Effort to respond. I think he ignored her because whenever he was involved in Doris’s affairs it cost him a fortune and he was forever sorting out her mess. With an ocean between them, Doris was essentially out of sight, out of mind, and, most importantly, Beaverbrook was not out of pocket.

So, Doris changed her tactics. She went to stay with Winston Guest, the Godson of Winston Churchill, and it was he who informed her of Churchill’s visit to Washington. She telephoned Churchill and then wrote him a letter, detailing her ill-health and homesickness. Whatever occurred in-between is anyone’s guess, but Churchill suffered a mild heart attack, and Doris’s letter was snaffled by President Roosevelt’s adviser, Harry Hopkins (see: Harry Hopkins archive, FDRL, box 136 ‘Churchill and family’). However, what transpired was that Churchill listened to her plea of ill-health, ‘if I need a doctor’s note to prove it I can send one immediately’ (Harry Hopkins archive, FDRL, box 136 ‘Churchill and family’) and she writes that she planned to go to Bermuda or Nassau but could not because of her visitor’s visa which had a no entry permit. Why would Doris go to the trouble to prove her ill-health if she could have easily blackmailed Churchill? Anyway, she also asked to whom in the State Department she could send her ‘five papers’, in the event he would not or could not help her. This letter was unsuccessful and Doris remained trapped in America.

In 1942 Churchill secured Doris a ticket on a Clipper plane. The gesture appeared out of the blue, and there has been speculation as to why he did it. Was she going to sell his paintings of her? Or make much out of their friendship? Channel 4 breathlessly relayed that Churchill painted her three times, once reclining on a sofa. Sir John Lavery painted her twice. Does that mean they, too, had a torrid affair? And speaking of Churchill and the strings he pulled for his nearest and dearest during wartime, he also secured Enid Furness a passage home from Occupied France via Lisbon. My theory is Churchill recalled how Beaverbrook paid her to ‘spy’ on her friends and report to him, not so he could use it in his newspapers but to give him control over people. Daphne Weymouth is proof of that (see The Mistress of Mayfair, p.88, for his handling of Daphne Weymouth’s private and compromising footage). It is a cliché to say that desperate people do desperate things, and Doris had exhausted all of her contacts in order to return home. Either way, she did return to London, to the empty promises of Valentine Castlerosse, who said he would remarry her. He had inherited his father’s Earldom of Kenmare, and although attracted by the idea of becoming of a countess, Doris craved familiarity and security. It is interesting to note that Valentine had written a damning article on Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son and love interest of Doris (while we’re on the subject of salacious gossip, she also slept with Randolph’s cousin, Tom Mitford), and in 1927 he also wrote an equally damaging piece on Stanley Baldwin, which infuriated Churchill and prompted Beaverbrook to go into damage control (see: The Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust, CHAR 2/153). So rather than pin the blame onto Doris, perhaps it was Valentine who was prepared to blackmail Churchill? He had a similar set-up with Evan Morgan, Viscount Tredegar, who practised witchcraft amongst other taboo things and Valentine bribed him in exchange for not writing about him (source: Tredegar historian William Cross). Thus, it was Valentine who first lured Doris back to London, and then dropped her when he realised how old and haggard she had become. He would marry Enid Furness, an Australian wine heiress and serial widow. Please click here to read my article on Enid.

But what of Doris’s homecoming? She continued to self-medicate with the sleeping pills she had acquired in New York, a cold comfort during the nightly air raids over London. There was no war work for her to do, and no friendships to reconcile. A promise of silk stockings, make-up and scent did little to turn the heads of her friends, and many accused her of behaving badly, and of deserting Britain during its hour of need. Many had overlooked her good qualities as a friend and confidante. When Maxine Elliot was deathly ill it was Doris who travelled to Wales to bring Maxine to London, and installed her in an eighth-floor flat with round-the-clock care (See: The Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust, Char 1/272). Perhaps, now in her own hour of need, Doris expected her friends to do the same. She telephoned a bookmaker friend and asked to borrow £500 and was rebuffed. ‘If I can’t borrow £500 from an old friend when I need it, then it really is time I left this vale of tears,’ she reputedly said. A messenger arrived with £200 from the bookmaker and having received no answer from Doris, the door was forced open and she was discovered in bed, unconscious. She died a few days later.

The painting that Channel 4 referred to and which they, not in so many words, accused Beaverbrook of stealing, or at least hiding, was indeed a portrait by Churchill. Two paintings, to be exact. Why did he take them? My theory is that Beaverbrook was accustomed to sorting out Doris and Valentine’s affairs, financially and domestically, and he took hold of her possessions after her death. Note: Valentine died a short time later. Doris’s brother, Dudley Delevingne, wrote and asked for the paintings to be returned, and Beaverbrook was happy to oblige (see: Parliamentary Archives, BBK-C-19 Castlerosse Letters). Had the paintings been a threat would a man as powerful and connected as Beaverbrook not have destroyed it?

Either way, as I say in my book, The Mistress of Mayfair, a life like Doris’s could only end in riches or in tears. Of all the rich and powerful men she implored for help, it was Churchill who came through. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne is published by The History Press

Guest Post – Top Withens: The Real Wuthering Heights by Katherine Clements

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This is the plaque that greets you when you reach Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors that was supposedly the model for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Thousands of tourists make the steep climb from Haworth to this remote place of pilgrimage. I feel sorry for those who brave the mud and the changeable weather, loaded down with expensive cameras and Thermos flasks, to find that this isn’t the ‘real’ Wuthering Heights at all. Brontë scholars agree that there’s no such thing. So why has the myth become attached to this tumbledown farmhouse on the moors?

The first definite association between Wuthering Heights and Top Withens appears in a nineteenth century edition of the Brontës’ work. In 1872 publisher George Smith commissioned an artist to illustrate a new anthology. He wrote to Ellen Nussey, a close friend of Charlotte’s, asking if she knew the names and locations of the ‘places so vividly described’ in the sisters’ work. Frustratingly, we have no record of Nussey’s reply but Smith certainly wrote to thank her for her help, so we must assume she gave him some pointers. When the edition appeared, Wuthering Heights included a drawing of the Sladen valley, with three isolated farmhouses in view: Near, Middle and Top Withens.

I’ve visited several times, in different seasons and different weathers, while researching The Coffin Path – a 17th century ghost story set on an isolated moorland farm. Depending on which track you take it’s possible to find yourself completely alone, no human habitation in view and nothing but a vast sky, the call of curlew and the whistle of the ever-present wind to spark the imagination. It is wild, remote and atmospheric.

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Top Withens, March 2015

We have a tendency, these days, to romanticise these moors, but the Brontë sisters would not have experienced them as we do, with our waterproofs and wellies, a place to be visited before retreating to the safety of Haworth for a cream tea or a pint in The Black Bull. In the past the moors were seen, rightly, as dangerous places, savage and deadly, associated with superstition and the supernatural, the blanket bog a path straight down to Hell.

Emily Brontë had an intense relationship with these moors. Throughout her life she walked them regularly, alone or with her sisters, and they feature heavily in her writing. Her fictional interpretation of the landscape is one of the reasons for our own romantic view, consolidated over time by rose-tinted onscreen iterations of her famous novel, but Emily would have been well aware of the hardship and danger for the people who lived and worked in this unforgiving environment.

The first recorded owner of the place called ‘Wythens’ (later to become Withens or Withins) was George Bentley, a clothier who bought the land from Thomas Crawshaye and his sister, Anne, in 1567. Of the Crawshayes and those that came before, we have no knowledge, but the land was farmed and they probably kept cattle, rather than sheep. On his death, George bequeathed his estate to his grandson William and then, in 1591, the land was divided between William’s three sons, Martyn, Luke and John. It’s believed the three brothers built the three farmhouses we know today.

The next recorded owner (and indeed the first reference to Top Withens itself) doesn’t appear until 1813; a John Crabtree who, in turn, leased it to Jonas Sunderland. Jonas, his wife Ann and their descendants lived at Top Withens until the end of the nineteenth century. It’s likely the family would have known the Brontë siblings, at least by sight. By the time the house passed to Ann Sharpe (née Sunderland) and her husband, Samuel in 1888, the area had already been dubbed ‘Brontë Country’ (the term first appears in a guidebook of that year).

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The Sunderlands at Top Withens

By 1895, Ann Sharpe was dead, leaving Samuel to bring up their young daughter, Mary. It must have proved too demanding a prospect for Samuel – a year later they had moved to a valley farm named Sheep Holes and the house was abandoned.

As far as we know it stayed that way until the early 1920’s when an invalided ex-soldier named Ernest Roddie took up residency. The Yorkshire Evening Post ran a series of articles about him and even sent a reporter to interview the mysterious Ernest, who lived alone with just his dogs and chickens for company. Following his first winter he said:

I think Top Withens is the place for me all right. We have some rough weather up here … It’s been fearful cold since Christmas and there are days when the snow’s been so thick I couldn’t get the cart down to Stanbury.’ But, he said ominously, ‘a man can’t be lonely at Wuthering Heights.’

How much of this is poetic license on the part of the journalist we’ll never know, but by 1926, the harsh lifestyle had beaten Ernest too and he moved back down to Haworth, leaving the house to the elements.

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Top Withens circa 1930

The crumbling ruins have been a source of scholarly conflict ever since. A grade II listing in the 1950s was revoked in 1991 and clumsy concrete repairs do little to retain any historical authenticity. The Brontë Society famously repudiated the link with Wuthering Heights, as the firmly worded plaque suggests, but Brontë fans still come from all over the world to pay homage.

Emily would have known Top Withens as a working farm inhabited by the Sunderland family. Its situation at the top of the valley on the edge of the windswept moor may bring to mind the setting of the Heights, but the building itself is not the house described in her novel.

Several other houses that Emily would have known have been put forward as prototypes, including Ponden Hall (also mooted as the model for Thrushcross Grange) and High Sunderland Hall, now sadly demolished. My money is on the latter. But I suspect it’s not that simple. The Coffin Path is similarly set on an isolated working farm on the West Yorkshire moors and I’ve used elements from several local houses to create a fictional one: Scarcross Hall. I suspect that’s exactly what Emily did too.

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The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements is published by Headline Review

Festive Reads: Honnish Holidays

33848298These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

Set to the backdrop of a Parisian summer, this contemporary novel tells the story of the tenants of an apartment block. The fast-paced narrative, intertwined with the characters’ personal histories, their failed lives, love affairs, and secrets hold the readers attention. A landlady searches for her lost youth; another lives in her childhood apartment, remembering her privileged past; a young mother is frustrated with her life and is losing her mind; a young man wrestles with his faith; and another campaigns against a Muslim couple moving in. Meanwhile the divided politics and anti-Islamic threats rage through the city, risking livelihoods and lives. A timely issue, the book does not shirk from examining the varying ideologies at play. This is best displayed when a mild-mannered tenant deceives his wife and negotiates his place within the Far Right, a step that goes too far. A realistic character study of many humans existing together with their private lives worlds apart, Fran Cooper has written a Ship of Fools for the modern reader. Sharp and engaging, she brings forth the poetry and pathos of everyday lives and scenarios. A strong debut that is certain to appeal to, and strike a chord within, all readers.

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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

In this sparkling prequel to Practical Magic Alice Hoffman brings the Owens family back to life, this time focusing on the upbringing of three siblings, Franny, Bridget ‘Jet’ and Vincent. The setting is New York City in the 1960s, and the children are raised in a conventional household by a child psychologist father and a mother whose background is quite mysterious. Through their mother they are blood witches and related to Maria Owens, a scarlet woman whose heartbreak turned into a curse, so whomever they fall in love with is destined to die. However when they spend the summer in Massachusetts with an aunt, they soon learn the rules of magic. Its charming imagery of eccentric aunts, black cats and spell books are balanced with the social issues such as the Vietnam war, Civil Rights, and the rise of hippy culture. And the narrative incorporates the subject of seventeenth-century witchcraft with discreet nods to authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. The combination of magic and the universal themes of love – romantic love and sibling love – allows the reader to have one foot in a magical world and another in real life. Much like the bewitching heroines of this book.

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A Letter From Italy by Pamela Hart

It is 1917 and Rebecca Quinn, an Australian journalist, has come to Italy with her husband to report on the Italian war campaign. Given her profession and determination to make her own way in the world, she is an anomaly amongst her gender and colleagues. She is also confused by the language barrier, and the welcomed advances from an American-born Italian photographer, Alessandro. Recalling a time in both Italian and Australian history, Hart conveys the inner conflict of not only her protagonist, but of women from that era and the challenges they faced both politically and morally. Based on the real life war correspondent, Louise Mack, it brings to life WWI and journalism from a woman’s point of view. An inspiring read.

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The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

An evocative and atmospheric novel set in the 2000s, even though it feels like a 1950s mystery: with the dramatic backdrop of the barren landscape of Kansas, much of the action occurs in a mansion whose walls contain too many secrets. Lane, a girl from New York, harbours a romantic vision of her family’s estate, Roanoke – despite her unstable mother’s warnings that it was hell. After her mother’s suicide, 15-year-old Lane goes to live there with her maternal grandparents, whom she does not know. At first, she senses a strange atmosphere, which she blames on her aloof grandmother and rebellious cousin Allegra. Both girls have come to Roanoke to be raised by their ageing grandparents, and they are bonded by decades of secrets trickling down the generations. From the opening page until the last sentence, the plot is packed with suspense and danger, and an unsettling feeling radiates off the characters. With its vivid visual imagery, this is a book that stays with you.

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Histories by Sam Guglani

In this striking collection of short stories Sam Guglani reveals the inner-workings of a hospital along with the private observations of those who work in it. From a consultant, a junior doctor, a porter and a domestic, each individual seems to exist only in a medical environment and the stretch of corridors, wards, medical apparatus and patients make up the fabric of their lives in that moment. A doctor is struck by the beauty of a woman, even though her body is dying; a janitor fades into the background; a domestic is harassed by youths; a chaplain comforts the dying; an oncologist sees what the body hides. Throughout the interconnected stories morals are questioned, common sense is often overruled by literature, the hierarchy of roles within the hospital are taken for granted, and a patient fights for their life. With his vivid prose Giglani examines the fine line of mortality, and the role that each human plays throughout the discourse of the narrative. His background as a doctor at an NHS hospital and talent as a writer merges the two worlds to offer a unique look at a system under stress but one where humanity prevails. For fans of Lucia Berlin.

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Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay

Although there has been various books published about Daphne du Maurier this is the first biography to be written as fiction. Originally translated from French and written in the present tense, the author’s handling of her protagonist is aloof; she relays facts without adding context, and the setting jumps around. It feels cinematic, as it slowly offers snippets of information to relay the fundamental qualities of what made Daphne tick. In that sense the biography is a clever one, and entirely original. Rosnay also draws on Daphne’s French heritage, and explores how this shaped her as a writer. The author manages to capture the balance between a courageous young woman, in both her private and public life, and the barrier she put up when around others who were not part of her world. An insightful and endearing book, it’s a must read for admirers of Daphne and her work.

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Ava: A Life in Movies by Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski

In this illustrated book on Ava Gardner, film historians and authors, Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski reveal the layers of Gardner’s life, amidst her Hollywood fame and tumultuous romances. From her impoverished upbringing, to the highs and lows of a career spanning several decades, to her fabled marriage to Frank Sinatra, the authors, although respectful to Gardner herself, leave no stone unturned. Through their meticulous research and rare photographs we meet the woman behind the smokescreen, whose talent has become overshadowed by scandal and second-hand tales. What the reader will come away with, is a sympathetic portrait of a woman who was, perhaps, too human for Hollywood. A biography Gardner herself would be proud of.

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Ghosts of Christmas Past edited by Tim Martin

Ideal for those (such as myself) who dislike the hype surrounding Christmas but still enjoy a little festive cheer. A collection of brilliant short stories written by past and contemporary authors. Drawing on big houses, mystery and scandal it is the ideal stocking-filler for those who the macabre. The perfect companion for the dark winter nights.

Festive Reads: Fiction

Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones

51HlIU41pWLBeginning in the early 2000s and working backwards to 1950, this is a story of a marriage told in reverse. Milly and Jack meet in San Francisco at the age of 21; he is a war hero, and she a secretary. When she marries and has children, Milly begins to feel as though her identity has been stolen. Jack is working in a job he hates and is frustrated at how his life is panning out. And so the conflict begins, and escalates as the years go on. As they examine their lives, they realise they have simply settled for less – she fights her inner thoughts about her children and how they do not fulfil her, and he feels short- changed by the American Dream. But the experiences they have shared over 60 years ultimately bind them together. Told from both of their perspectives, with a dash of black humour, it is an insightful book that reveals home truths about love. A compulsive read.

Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato 51KoJDpxHCL

Marina Fiorato is an expert at creating stories out of fascinating women’s lives, either factual people or fictional characters, and her books transport the reader on a journey to faraway places, and Italy is a recurring theme. Her latest offering does not disappoint. Here, she tells the story of a pregnant, suicidal prostitute, Annie Stride, who is saved from jumping to her death by Francis Maybrick Gill, a promising painter. From their chance meeting on Waterloo Bridge, her life changes forever and Francis transforms Annie from a fallen women to an artist’s muse, and she becomes the darling of the art scene. Capturing 1850s London in her prose, the dark underworld of the city is brought to life, as is the beauty of Florence and Venice set to the backdrop of the desperate situation Annie has found herself in and the secret she uncovers. Far from a saviour who has put her on a pedestal, Francis’s sadistic tastes spell danger, and Annie cannot escape her past, especially when Francis’s dark deeds are exposed. A dark and brooding tale of survival, Fiorato expertly handles the complexities of the plot, the locations, and her characters to deliver a thrilling tale of love, lust, and revenge.

51WpV1adJELThe House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy

Using dual narratives and time-frames this book follows the ordinary lives of Oliver and Kate, whose lives are forever changed when she inherits an old family estate, and he quits his job to prepare the house for sale. It is then, through Oliver’s discovery of an old diary, that Sophia is brought to life and the story shifts to the 1920s. Written in an engaging way, McCarthy effortlessly brings her characters together to explore the complexities of their relationships, and how the past haunts both themselves and their families. A slow burn with an unexpected end, it is a captivating read.

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A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

This novel, set in 1939 on-board an oceanliner headed for Australia, is reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes. With an insight into life on the ship, we see everything from Lillian’s point-of-view. Bright, beautiful and brave, she is both heroine and suspected murderess. Her new friends, passengers from both tourist and first class, are a mixture of rich Americans, oddball siblings, and Jews fleeing the rise of Hitler. They each have a story to tell and a secret to keep. With nods to Agatha Christie, the complexities of the characters, combined with a suspenseful plot, make this a perfect mystery novel.

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The Daughter of Lady Macbeth by Ajay Close

Freya is a modern woman, advancing in her forties, and happily married. She has everything she wants except her mother’s love, and a baby. Lillas, a former actress, makes no secret that she didn’t want Freya, and loathes anything to do with domesticity. But Freya embarks on a course of IVF and, falling pregnant with another man’s child, her life becomes a tangled web of lies. Through Ajay Close’s engaging writing, she manages to get under the skin of her characters and the reader becomes caught up in their story. Her portrayal of Lillas: brittle, glamorous, and desperate to stay relevant reads like a factual portrait of any given star. Behind the artifice of Lillas’s stories of ‘Redgrave, Olivier, Gieguld’ et al, we realise her life is an empty place, and yet she is her own worst enemy. Freya, as independent as she is, clings onto the hope that her mother will fix everything about the past, and each time she is disappointed. Their pain springs off the page, as they each confront the demons from their youth. Close has written a gripping read about redemption, love, and self-discovery.

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Yuki Means Happiness by Alison Jean Lester

Diana, a young nurse from Boston, answers an advertisement to work for a Japanese couple, Naoki and Emi, who have travelled to America to await the birth of their first child, Yuki. However, under the close scrutiny of Naoki (often from afar), Diana senses something is not right, but she ignores her instincts and assumes her uneasy feelings are the result of a learning curve. Then, a few years later, she is offered the job of nanny to Yuki, who is now three, and she moves to Tokyo. The household is, again, controlled by Naoki and Emi is gone, her disappearance is not explained, and the silence surrounding her abandoning Yuki evokes Diana’s old feelings. She finds herself trapped in a world that is filled with secrets, and discovers the truth about why Emi left. With Alison Jean Lester’s beautiful prose, the simplicity of the narrative, and the uneasy complexities of her characters bubbling to the surface, the plot is much more than what the nanny saw. It is a character study of a young woman adapting to a new life and culture while trying to come to terms with her own past and struggling to step into a future that has not been tainted by familial issues, unresolved feelings about love, and it is those factors which drive her instinct to protect Yuki. In that sense the character study of Diana did remind me of Lillian, as the narrative, written in Diana’s voice, draws the reader into her experiences of Japan (the author lived in Japan), and her descriptions of its pop culture, the underground, the food, and daily rituals offered a glimpse of a young woman’s life, albeit fictional. Like Lillian, she exposes the intricate detail of a woman’s life and, as before, she has the Midas touch.

 

 

 

 

Festive Reads: Non-Fiction

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Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Using biographical information, press snippets, and relying on his own imagination to invent scenarios which may or may not have (90% of the time) did not happen. From anecdotes about her upbringing in the shadow of Lilibet, to her rebellious teen years, her love of showbiz, and failed affairs and marriage, Craig Brown puts a new slant on the queen’s glamorous sister. Divided into 99 short chapters, it is an ideal book for dipping in and out of. Put this title on top of your Christmas list!

 

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The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice by Judith Mackrell

This group biography focuses on a trio of women who once owned and inhabited the Palazzo Venier. Luisa Cassati, a mad aristocrat with dyed orange hair and live snake jewellery, turned the palazzo into a piece of living art. Doris Castlerosse, known in other echelons as Doris Delevingne, acquired the palazzo after her divorce from Viscount Castlerosse and subsequent lesbian fling with a rich American. She hosted lavish parties on the eve of WWII and fled when war became more than a whisper. Peggy Guggenheim, its last owner, filled the palazzo with fascinating people, works of art, and today it is home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Of course the book is more than a potted history of the three women; it focuses on their backstories, their triumphs and failures, and the hold which Venice had over them. A dazzling read.

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How They Decorated: Inspiration from Great Women of the Twentieth Century by P. Gaye Tapp

Focusing on sixteen iconic women this stylish book looks at how these rich and affluent individuals decorated their homes. From Irish designer Sybil Connolly to Anglophile Fleur Cowles, to Truman Capote’s ‘swans ‘Babe Paley and Bunny Melon, to European aristocracy, the aesthetic tastes are examined to offer a glimpse of their personalities and the techniques they used. The influential touch of famous interior decorators is also apparent, most notably Syrie Maugham’s trend for white rooms, and their keen eye for upholstery, art and antiques. Gloria Vanderbilt said: ‘Decorating is autobiography’ and Tapp, who has effortlessly cultivated a historical guide as well as a visual treat, proves this to be true. A delightful piece of arm-chair travel.

35166885Too Marvellous for Words by Julie Welch

This memoir is filled with hilarious anecdotes of student life in a bygone world 1960s boarding school. While England was springing to life with rock & roll the girls’ were kept in line by strict disciplinarians – the science teacher was prone to throwing objects at them, another girl was punished for wearing an Alice band. Although it focuses on Welch’s time at school, it’s very much a social history and a collective biography of her schoolmates and the teachers, too. She recalls the inedible food, the horsehair beds, the dorm ghost, midnight feasts, writing to boys (one girl subscribed to a boys’ magazine and masqueraded as ‘Charles’ in order to receive a letter from the opposite sex), and the fast girls who were expelled. Written as though she were telling an old friend of her experiences, she maintains a sense of adventure as she recounts those days, and an air of pity for those narrow-minded teachers who were stuck at the school. An insightful look at tradition and eccentricity, the like of which we’ll never see again. Perfect for those who loved Ysenda Maxtone-Graham’s Terms and Conditions.

diana petreThe Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley (Slightly Foxed reprint edition) by Diana Petre

Diana Petre was a natural writer and confidante to many, and several times she killed a book on purpose. Born in 1912 to a bewitching woman named Muriel, she knew nothing of her mother’s life except that she drank at night-time and that she was a nurse during the two World Wars, for which she was given an OBE. When Diana was eighteen, Muriel told her that ‘Uncle’ was her father. Uncle was Roger Ackerley, a banana merchant known as ‘the banana king’. Before she had learned the truth she always felt ashamed, and wondered if Muriel was a divorcee – her only explanation for this secrecy. But then Muriel vanished one day, and the children were left with an elderly housekeeper, to re-appear, years later, when Diana was ten. Written without an ounce of self pity and in a witty and engaging way, Diana attempts to piece together her mother’s mysterious past, while confronting her own demons. What we are presented with is a portrait of Muriel, a woman who suffered greatly for falling in love with the wrong man, but who had the conviction to live as she pleased. An inspiring read which gives life to an unlikely heroine.

28965132In The Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary

This is the first biography written about Margaret Wise Brown, whose children’s book Goodnight Moon has captivated readers for years. Amy Gary is a Brown enthusiast and had access to her unpublished manuscripts, personal letters, and diaries. Born in 1910, in New York, Brown had a difficult childhood: a depressive mother who was fascinated with spiritualism, and a father whose expectations she could not match. After school and doing odd jobs, she found herself moving at the centre of a publishing revolution within the children’s genre – this gives the biography a lot of scope when exploring the writing scene of 1940s New York. Not only did Brown write unique books, she lived the life of a nonconformist and had affairs with both men and women, including the ex-wife of John Barrymore. Within the text one can sense the exploratory process Gary has undertaken, in not only the prose but in her subject too, and, as she had been in life, there is a distance between Brown and the reader. What is certain, is that Brown was a forceful character who knew her own mind and she reaped the rewards in the end, albeit too briefly. A revealing portrait of a mysterious woman.

35667650Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick

This is the first biography of Joan Leigh Fermor written by Simon Fenwick, archivist to the Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor papers. He retraces her rambling life across the British Isles, the Continent, Russia and America, delving into her guises of debutante, muse, photographer, and lover of Paddy. Famous names of the twentieth century make an appearance: Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, and one of her first paramours, Alan Pryce-Jones. With access to Joan’s archive and having conducted interviews with her loved ones, Fenwick leaves no stone unturned. The text is bulked out with information about her family, and the various places she called home: a country manor, a Parisian finishing school, and Crete. Bringing a forgotten individual to life is always tricky, but Fenwick has succeeded in his challenge. A riveting biography.

34100964The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler

‘Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you’re dead,’ is the opening line of Christopher Fowler’s new book, a collection ninety-nine great authors who have fallen into obscurity. Amongst his potted histories are Lesley Blanch, whose posthumous memoir/essays were published to acclaim last year; Georgette Heyer, still the unrivalled queen of Regency bodice rippers; and Barbara Pym, whose reissued fiction has attracted a new generation of readers. Aside from those names, recognisable to bookworms and history aficionados, the tome is packed with forgotten names, whose work can be instantly recalled even if the authors are not i.e. Bambi, The Rainbow Children, Ruthless Rhymes, and Bridge Over the River Kwai. Apart from its biographical merits it’s packed with anecdotes offering literary trivia, as well as evoking pure nostalgia for childhood reads, as well as old classics. Not only that, it explores literary criticism and the stylistics of what is deemed a popular novel, and how history will remember it. More than a book of essays, it reminds the reader of the importance of words, and the stylistic approach to literature, and how something can or cannot stand the test of time. A book to jog the memory, or an excuse to revisit an old favourite. It is, as Nancy Mitford would have said, a bibliophile’s dream.

 

The Stucco Venus: The Life and Times of Enid, Countess of Kenmare

A glamorous shot of Enid, late 1920s

Originally published in Social and Personal magazine

Despite accusations of gold digging, drug taking and murder, Enid Lindeman was certain of one thing: she was never going to be a wallflower. Born into the Lindeman wine family, in Australia in 1892, she had an upbringing befitting a young lady but she longed to escape colonial life. At the age of twenty-one, she married Roderick Cameron, a forty-five-year-old shipping magnate from New York. The marriage lasted a year, before Cameron’s death from cancer, leaving her with a baby son and a million-dollar fortune. She then began an affair with Bernard Baruch, an American financier and presidential adviser, but marriage was out of the question, for Enid thought ‘he was not much good in bed and he was very mean’.

The First World War gave Enid the excitement she craved and she moved to Paris to drive an ambulance for the war effort. Standing almost six-feet-tall with red hair and emerald green eyes, she caused havoc amongst the officers and one threatened to commit suicide. This was not a new occurrence for Enid, and during her many affairs five of her lovers killed themselves – one jumped into shark infested waters, another blew himself up. In 1917 she married Frederick ‘Caviar’ Cavendish, her reason for marriage was simple: she needed someone to manage her money. She followed Caviar to Cairo, where he was given command of the 9th Lancers, and as a dare she slept with his entire regiment. By day she schooled Caviar’s polo ponies, and by night she dressed as a man and played the piano or her Swanee whistle in the band of the officers’ mess. She also met and began an affair with Lord Carnarvon, custodian of Highclere Castle and dedicated Egyptologist, and she was among the first to be shown Tutankhamun’s tomb after its discovery in 1922. But she soon found herself in the familiar state of widowhood, after Caviar’s death from a cerebral haemorrhage.

Enid’s next marriage in 1933 was a bold move, even by her standards. Her new husband was Viscount Furness, the sixth richest man in the world. His first wife, Daisy, had died aboard their yacht during a cruise and he buried her at sea. Some say he murdered her, and others believed he would hang if the evidence was ever revealed. His second wife, Thelma Morgan Converse, from whom he was divorced, had been the mistress of the Prince of Wales and was the best friend of Wallis Simpson. He first saw Enid at a casino in Le Touquet, and after their first meeting he pursued her relentlessly: flowers and jewellery would arrive daily, and planes, yachts and Rolls-Royce cars were put at her disposal. Enid herself claimed she received the aforementioned without making any effort whatsoever. But her lifestyle came at a cost and Furness, a jealous man prone to uncontrollable rages, directed his anger towards Enid and her three children. This, she thought was a sign of his love for her. ‘There was nothing in the world he was not prepared to give me. Of all the men that loved me, he was the one who was prepared to lay the world at my feet.’ As the ‘thirties drew to a close the rows between Enid and Furness escalated. No longer did she discreetly see other men and outsmart the detectives he set upon her, she flaunted her affairs openly. One paramour, the Duke of Westminster, known as Bendor, was a threat to Furness as he was only man who rivalled his wealth. Furness departed overseas, a rare move for he rarely left Enid’s side, afraid that if he did she would cast her eyes elsewhere. What would follow would be something of a charade: she sent Furness a letter, claiming she was going to commit suicide by shooting herself. In great distress, he returned home and sent a search party to find her. She was discovered at the London Clinic with a wound on her head, but it was from a face-lifting operation.

In the early days of the Second World War Enid and Furness were staying at La Fiorentina, his villa in Cap Ferrat. He was bed-bounded with cirrhosis of the liver and surrounded by medical staff who cared for him until his death. Trapped in the south of France and short of money, Enid pawned her jewellery and bought a few goats so she could turn their milk into butter and cheese. There was a detention camp close to the villa, and she would often see the prisoners. It was not long before she began to help them escape, dressed in the gardener’s clothes or any civilian attire she could find. The police soon grew suspicious of her activities, and Enid began to plot how she and her daughter could leave France. Owing to her connections within the British government, she secured passage on an airship departing from Lisbon.

At the height of the Blitz, Enid moved into Claridge’s while she awaited her inheritance from Furness to be settled. As fate would have it, Enid discovered an old boyfriend, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat, Valentine Browne, once the most famous gossip columnist in London, had taken a suite at the hotel. He had been married to Doris Delevingne, a notorious courtesan, which ended in divorce. Over the years he and Enid had contemplated marriage to one another, but as Enid put it: ‘My husband or his wife got in the way.’ Despite his fame and Earldom of Kenmare, he was always short of money. Enid, however, must have suspected his title came with a fortune, and Valentine himself assumed she was a millionairess. Their love of money and false impression of one another inflamed their love affair, and they were married in January 1941. Now the Countess of Kenmare, she followed her husband to Ireland, where she established herself at his family seat, Killarney, in Co. Kerry. Eight months later, she was, once again, a widow after Valentine suffered a fatal heart attack. As he died without an heir, Enid, who was fifty-one at the time, fabricated a story that she was pregnant. Remaining at Killarney she kept up the ruse for a year, during which time a baby failed to materialise.

Having been gossiped about and associated with the rumour that she had killed four husbands, Enid would become embroiled in a real scandal. In 1954 she and Donald Bloomingdale, of the department store family, crossed paths at the Sherry-Netherland hotel. Over the course of her stay, Bloomingdale asked for heroin and she gave it to him. It was said that the heroin was delivered in a lace handkerchief embroidered with a coronet and her initials. Another claimed it had been smuggled in a silver frame behind a photograph of Enid. Either way, the dose proved fatal and Enid fled New York. ‘You know how the American police are,’ she said at the time. In light of the Bloomingdale scandal, Enid’s own drug-taking past was scrutinised. She was said to be a former heroin addict herself, and was on the drug register. This was partly true: in the 1930s she had fallen from her horse and was prescribed morphine to ease a back injury. Having become addicted, she entered a clinic to cure herself. If she was absent from a party or late to arrive, Daisy Fellowes, with whom Enid shared a difficult relationship, would say: ‘Probably busy with her needle.’

After the incident, she never discussed Bloomingdale and for a long time she stayed away from New York. Her society friends had their theories, but they never asked her about it. Daisy Fellowes was far more blatant: she was going to host a dinner party and invite twelve people. ‘All murderers, very convenient,’ she said. ‘There are six men and six women. And Enid will have the place of honour, because she killed the most people of anyone coming.’ She was never kind to Enid, describing her as ‘an Australian with a vague pedigree’. Once, when they were conversing, Enid began with, ‘People of our class . . . ‘ Daisy raised her hand and stopped her, ‘Just a moment, Enid, your class or mine?’ And at a dinner party on Long Island her host asked why she was known as ‘Lady Killmore’ – a nickname given to her by Somerset Maugham. Enid rose from the table and said she had endured enough, she was leaving. Predicting her reaction, earlier in the evening the host had sent her car back to Manhattan, but Enid walked to the highway and hitch-hiked home.

In her old age Enid lived at Broadlands, a farm in South Africa, from where she bred race horses. Her old friend, Beryl Markham, trained them but their partnership was tested by various factors, notably Enid’s refusal to give her control of the stables. This frustrated Beryl, and she said: ‘Enid was getting very old and difficult. She couldn’t understand what I needed, and so I left.’ She felt the loss of Beryl greatly, and the running of the farm became increasingly difficult. For the remaining years of her life, until her death at eighty-one, she was in great pain but refused to take medication, fearing her old morphine addiction would return. She was determined to overcome weakness, but strong enough to recognise it. Her motto for life springs to mind: ‘Never be ill, never be afraid, and never be jealous’.

The above is an edited extract from These Great Ladies: Peeresses and Pariahs by Lyndsy Spence

The Film Star’s Husband who Went to Antrim and Became a War Hero

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Margaret Lockwood and her daughter Margaret Julia Leon aka ‘Toots’. Scanned from My Life and Films and published in Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen. Image courtesy of Julia Lockwood-Clark 

Originally published in the Antrim Guardian 

In today’s society of instant celebrities, one might be forgiven for drawing a blank at the name Margaret Lockwood, but mention a handful of her iconic films and the wheels begin to turn. A Hitchcock heroine, she starred in The Lady Vanishes, the film which launched director Alfred Hitchcock’s career in Hollywood, and she led the cast of The Wicked Lady, the first British film to gross £1-million at the box office. While Hollywood had a stable of A-list actresses, the British film studios banked on only one name to keep the industry afloat during the war years, and that was Margaret Lockwood. What is more extraordinary to me, as Margaret’s biographer, was the discovery that her husband was stationed in Antrim for a year during the Second World War, and this played a pivotal part in the couple’s marriage at the height of her fame. And, perhaps unlike his fellow comrades, the events which took him to Antrim were unique.

Rupert Leon was a Londoner who came from a wealthy family; his father headed British Steel, and so when it came to marrying Margaret, a starlet on the rise, he was not content to play second fiddle to his wife, in both her earning capacity and her career. It is interesting to note that no photographs exist in the public domain of Rupert from that time, except one shot in which his back is turned, rather tellingly, to the camera. The couple met in their teens and secretly married when Margaret was twenty-one, two years later she was sent to Hollywood under contract to Twentieth Century Fox to star opposite Shirley Temple. But it proved a miserable experience: she was homesick, the war was imminent, and on impulse Rupert resigned from his job at British Steel and caught the next boat to America to join her.

After several months in America, the London they returned to was unrecognisable and Britons were preparing for a war that was yet to be declared. Life for Margaret went on as before and her time was consumed by the studio. But for Rupert, who was unemployed and facing an uncertain future, he signed up to the Territorial Army. He had some army experience behind him, having gone to Germany in 1932 where he experienced Nazism first-hand, and seeing Adolf Hitler deliver a speech had left a lasting impression on the young man – ‘I would as soon slept with a cobra as trust Adolf Hitler’ – and he joined the London Rifle Brigade upon his return. All his life he would despise the politicians who had appeased Hitler in those early days – ‘Guilty men,’ as he called them. But at twenty-five his age went against him, and to his fury he was sent to a training camp in North Wales where he served as a Royal Artillery officer due for commission. However, a visit from his famous wife lost him that commission when he shirked his responsibilities to spend his days with her before she returned to London to film the wartime thriller Night Train to Munich with Rex Harrison and Paul Henreid. He then received word that he was to be posted to the 145th Field Regiment RA serving as a gunner with the 61st Division in Northern Ireland.

Not every young soldier could have said that Hollywood played a part in their war record, but like many men who went overseas, Rupert had to leave his wife, who was expecting their first child. The prospect of becoming a father put his own mortality into perspective, and his main objective was to not only stay alive but to ‘get the hell out of Northern Ireland’. His regiment was posted as a deterrent for Hitler, who could have conquered Ireland with his parachute army, but, to quote Rupert: ‘We up north in Ulster would have proven a tougher nut to crack.’

Stationed in the unforgiving landscape of the glens, and in the winter of 1940, the conditions as well as the physical training were tough. ‘They asked the impossible from us, and we gave it to them,’ he said. Trucks became bogged down by rain, sleet and snow on the hills, and they were ordered to haul the guns by foot. Sleep became a luxury and during every brief halt in their marching, the men were known to nod off. When he was not on guard duty, Rupert was given the task of cleaning latrines and peeling potatoes. In spite of the distractions, morale was low and officers were pulling strings and leaving Northern Ireland in their droves. Sensing he would be killed when the Germans attacked (which they did in April and May 1941), Rupert harboured an ambition to leave too.

In the summer of 1941, he was granted compassionate leave to travel home to England for the birth of his child, a daughter named Margaret Julia Leon, best known to future audiences as the actress Julia Lockwood. He spent those few days with Margaret at a nursing home in Hampshire, but tensions on the home front ran high due to his disapproving mother-in-law usurping him from their happy home life. Forbidden to spend his leave at the family’s cottage, purchased by Margaret before the war and inhabited by her formidable mother, Rupert returned to Northern Ireland, frustrated by the semi-estrangement from his wife (they divorced after the war) and his absence in his daughter’s life.

On a rare day off, Rupert travelled into Portrush and visited the Giant’s Causeway. Having walked the mile long route of hexagon rocks, he discovered a wishing well. ‘These wells are the homes of Irish fairies which are said to have special powers,’ he remembered. ‘If they like the wisher, they will grant that the wish come true, that is if you believe in fairies, as I do!’ He threw a penny into the well and wished to leave Northern Ireland. ‘The good fairy did not take offence,’ he said, ‘for she must have realised that I meant nothing personal against her well or her country.’ A week or two later, the wish was granted. Rupert spied a notice requesting volunteers for special duties, one of which was the ability to speak German fluently. The next day he caught a train to Larne and boarded a ferry to Stranraer, from where he then journeyed to London for his interview. Remembering this turn of good fortune, he said: ‘I guess the good fairy had done her part and now it was up to me.’

In 1944, after intense training in York and having served in Africa, Rupert was posted to Germany with the Intelligent Corps. He was the first man on the side of the Allies to learn of Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun and of their joint suicide. He interrogated senior Nazis and, after the war ended, he exposed one of the top leaders of the Wehrwolf organisation. The physical effort of his future war work, he said, ‘was puny compared to the training I [received] in Northern Ireland’.

Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen (Fantom Films, 2016) was written and released to coincide with Lockwood’s centenary. As Britain’s number one box-office star during the war years, her iconic films gained her legions of fans and she won the Daily Mail Film Award three times. With a career spanning fifty years, she reinvented herself from a film star, to an Agatha Christie heroine on the West End, to a television icon in the 1970s series, Justice. This biography details the life of an independent woman who was intensely private away from the spotlight and whose life was unlike anything that was reported in the press.

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A.B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan As a Modern State : Letters Home

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Much has been written about the Mitfords girls’grandparents, with anecdotes peppering the many biographies and volumes of letters published on the family. Both of their grandfathers were eccentric men who sired children with their mistresses, and they each led adventurous lives – Tap Bowles on his yacht, sailing the Orient with his mistress, Snell; and Bertie Mitford travelling to Japan in the mid-1800s, at a time of political uncertainty and dodging an assassination attempt. They each dabbled in politics, and worked in some capacity in the publishing industry – Tap in his founding of The Lady magazine, and Bertie with his travel writing and introducing Japanese literature to Britain. He wrote introductions for H.S. Chamberlain’s books on philosophy, the most prominent being Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which was said to have influenced Hitler’s ambition for an Aryan race. Bertie’s friendships would mirror the choices his granddaughters Diana and Unity would make decades later, whether or not that was intentional remains to be seen. And, like his granddaughter Diana, his mother was a bolter who left her husband and comfortable marriage to set up home with a Mr Molyneux. It seemed the girls inherited many aspects of their characters from their grandfathers, for a traditional life befell their parents, David and Sydney Redesdale.

A fascinating individual such as Bertie Mitford, First Baron Redesdale, deserves a biography or at least an extensive study of his life. Robert Morton’s clever book brings to life all elements of his personality; his upbringing, his marriage, his place in society, and his thirst for adventure. He was prone to brilliance but he was also selfish and foolish; he built Batsford Park and its Japanese gardens, and squandered his inheritance. Morton brings forth the facts to present a complex man who, in his own way, played a part in nineteenth century history. I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to know more about the Mitford girls’ forebears, outside of ‘Muv’ and ‘Farve’.

You can read more about Bertie Mitford here.

 

The Disappearing Act of Miss Muriel Perry

Photograph of Muriel - Original - Secret Orchard

Image of Muriel Perry, courtesy of the J.R.Ackerley Estate

Seldom do we encounter a living person who appears to have dropped from nowhere. Granted this introduction was partly by accident, and part of a literary study, but the circumstances of which are entirely exceptional. Diana Petre’s compelling memoir, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley tells the story of her unusual childhood, and explores the enigma that was her mother, Muriel Perry. Diana was the illegitimate daughter of Roger Ackerley, a director of the fruit-importing company, Elders & Fyffes and was known as ‘the banana king’; he was called Uncle Bodger by his children (twin daughters Sally and Helen, born in 1909, as well as Diana, born in 1912), and during his lifetime they did not know the truth of their paternity. Muriel informed the children shortly after his death in 1929 – Diana, told after the twins, was delivered the news in a luxurious hotel room in Vienna, the tickets having been purchased before his demise and Diana accompanied her mother in Ackerley’s place. ‘Are you pleased?’ Muriel simply asked her, after delivering the news. Yes, she replied. Finally, the fragments of her life appeared to be slotting into place.

From an outsider’s perspective Muriel was a beautiful, glamorous woman, with almost black hair, dark expressive eyes, alabaster skin, and an enviable wardrobe. ‘Anyone could tell she was full of secrets. You only had to look at her to feel the mysteriousness of her. She was a fascinator: one of those creatures who seem to come from nowhere and to be going nowhere, but who permeate the mind as a serum gets into the bloodstream,’ Diana wrote in her memoir. Those who knew of Muriel’s predicament, and there were not many at the time, would have agreed she was a woman who had accepted her lot in life. Always the mistress, never the wife. But life is not as simple as that, and although little is known of Muriel’s background, her situation with Ackerley was a complex one.

From the beginning, having met him when she was barely out of her teens, Muriel believed there was a Mrs Ackerley, who was the mother of his three children: two boys and a girl, a generation above his children with Muriel. Still, despite there being a so-called wife, Muriel began to refer to herself as ‘Mrs Perry’ and on her children’s birth certificate a Mr George Perry was listed as the father. Incidentally, when Sally married Gerald Grosvenor, who became the fourth Duke of Westminster, her biography in Debrett’s repeated much of the aforementioned. In those days illegitimacy was a social taboo and, although it was rife in high society, Muriel felt ashamed. Aged twenty and pregnant, Ackerley had placed her in a small flat with a nurse to care for the twins (a stillborn son had been born the year before). She took her exercise after dark, and never became friendly with her neighbours. Perhaps they thought her aloof – she looked the part – and she hoped they would mistake her for a widow or a divorcee. She was soon pregnant again, this time with Diana, and now the father of six children with two separate families (his secret orchards), Ackerley had had enough. His mistress, although still young and beautiful, was not as attractive when up to her elbows in baby paraphernalia. A friend, who was living a similar lifestyle, advised her to forget the children and to devote herself to Ackerley; she wouldn’t want to lose him, would she? And so, despite loving her infant children (she was fond of newborn things), she left. It was a means of survival, rather than neglect. But the children did not view it that way.

When questioned about her background Muriel would dissolve into tears, and protest that Diana was wicked to pry. She was born Muriel Haidée Perry, around 5 March 1899, or so she told Diana, but there was no such record of her birth at Somerset House. She abandoned her middle name when she was old enough to make up her own mind. It was believed, by Diana, that she had dropped the Haidée for fear of mispronouncing it. Adding to this fictional childhood, Muriel said she spent her youth in Clifton and was raised by her step-brother, an artist named Henry John Foster, who had known many famous painters. Diana dismissed Muriel’s statement, claiming she showed no appreciation for art, and there were no traces of a well-known artist by that name. When her research rendered fruitless, she concluded Muriel had grown up in an orphanage. However, Muriel had offered Diana a snippet of information: she had come to London in her teens and, according to Muriel herself, found work in an office. Another story presented itself, when Muriel let slip she had no choice but to move to London, after she and Ackerley were spotted in a box at a theatre in Bristol. Later, when she was old and infirm, she spoke of a pub within a hotel, The Tavistock, at Covent Garden, and claimed to have been its bookkeeper. Diana pointed out that Muriel could barely do sums, so this seemed to be another one of her fantasies, or embellishments. Her job was to stand at the desk and tick off the patrons who came in late, and to ensure the scuttles in the bedrooms were stocked with coal. On one occasion a gentleman checked in and teased her relentlessly. It was Roger Ackerley, and she did not take kindly to his teasing. She went to his room to check the scuttle, and found him in bed. As she stood in the doorway, he said: ‘Why don’t you come in and get warm?’ And she did.

For the greater part of Diana’s childhood she did not know her mother, nor could she recall any memory of her. Muriel left for ten years, four of which were spent helping with the war effort. The children were placed in the care of an elderly Scottish governess, known as Auntie Coutts, who hoarded the money Muriel sent via Ackerley to care for the children. Thus, Diana and her sisters were undernourished, poorly clothed, and somewhat feral. Their mother, however, was having the time of her life; she claimed to love the war, to have thrived when under pressure, and somewhere along the time-frame of 1914-18 she founded the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Free Buffet at Victoria Station, in which servicemen were fed at the cost of one penny. While operating the buffet, she had also fallen in love: the man in question was Pat de Bathe, a war hero, husband and father. Despite being married, he proposed and she accepted. Muriel failed to mention her connection to Ackerley, and her children, but de Bathe was a jealous man prone to obsessions and he discovered her secret family and their whereabouts. A scene on the platform of Victoria Station ensued, and he seized her hand to remove the engagement ring and broke her finger in the process. Then, in disgrace, Muriel drove a motor-kitchen to the Front, in aid of the Italian Red Cross. In Italy she fell for Emanuele Filiberto, the Duke of Aosta and a scion of the House of Savoy, whom she met after being one of two women presented to him. A short while later she wrote him a letter, and uncertain of how to address royalty, she wrote ‘Dear Man’ and this charmed him. Although he was old enough to be her father, and married, their romance appeared harmless and he placed Muriel in a convent in Trieste after she developed dysentery. Several weeks later, she returned to London but not to her old life. It was 1919, and the war was over, but Muriel’s career was not, and she went to Belgium to organise a rehabilitation centre for wounded soldiers. The relationship with the duke faltered, but her reputation did not and she was decorated seven times for her war work, which included an OBE.

After the war Muriel returned to London but not to her children. She shared a flat with Doris Delevingne, then a wily courtesan determined to scale the social ladder one bed at a time. It was unclear how they had met, and perhaps their paths had crossed when Doris, then an ambitious eighteen-year-old, was working as a scullery maid on behalf of the war effort at a London hospital. The wandering came to a halt around 1922, the year Doris moved in with Laddie Sanford, an American millionaire, and that must have been Muriel’s cue to leave. Knocking on the door of her children’s home she was greeted by her identical twin daughters, standing six-feet-tall and looking bedraggled. Diana, small and fair, had no memory of her mother. Each of her three girls treated her with disdain, although it was Diana who was the more inquisitive of the trio. It was a feeling that was short-lived, for she was sent to a series of schools, none of which Muriel ever entered, and she was seldom allowed to bring a friend home. Although she had never been warned to keep secrets, she instinctively knew her mother and their lifestyle were not the same as others. There was no mention of a father, but they had a house and an income, and so her worldlier schoolmates assumed Muriel was a divorcee. Diana asked her mother, and was greeted with: ‘Why can’t other people mind their own business?’ The family moved again, this time to a home in south London, bought by Ackerley in Muriel’s name. He had also taken a substantial sum from her bank account to pay for his eldest daughter’s wedding, and had promised to replace the money but he never did. Muriel sensed the money pit was running out, but she continued to receive payment, which she spent on the children but in general was a bad manager. She had also begun to drink heavily; always at night, always when the children were sleeping. Stalking the landing after the midnight hour, she resembled a sort of Lady Macbeth, with her make-up dissolved by tears and streaked down her face, tripping over her feet. The children raided Muriel’s wardrobe and behind the expensive gowns they discovered bottles of booze. She went to a clinic and dried out, but Muriel could never exorcise her demons.

It was after the move that Ackerley had fallen ill with cancer of the tongue. The twins had run away, and when Muriel appealed for the authorities to return them she was told that illegitimate children came of age at eighteen, not twenty-one. Again, Diana remained oblivious to this clue of their parentage, and was dismissed by Muriel with a flimsy statement that some children had different circumstances. This left Diana and Muriel alone in the house, and it was a dynamic that appeared to work. Caught up in nursing Ackerley, she seldom had time for her daughter, and the three went to seaside hotels for Ackerley to take the cure. During this stint of hotel living his grown-up children visited their father, and Diana was introduced to her half sister and brother (another brother had been killed in the war) for the first time, but not as their sibling, although, owing to a family resemblance, they solved the clue. Nancy was a divorcee with a young son; Joe was a writer and editor, and openly homosexual with a boyfriend who often accompanied him to visit his father at the hotel. They had little time for Muriel, who would make herself scarce when they arrived. Joe, the friendlier of the two, took Diana to a pub and asked her an array of questions, but she was too struck by Joe’s joie de vivre to engage in conversation. Despite these fleeting visits, it was Muriel who was by Ackerley’s side when he took his last breath.

After the death of Ackerley in 1929, Muriel discovered two significant things: the money he had put aside for her had dwindled away and there was no Mrs Ackerley, as he had led her to believe. Although she had loved him, despite her view that all men were wretched, she must have felt a sense of freedom in the wake of his demise. The children now knew the truth, the twins were long gone, and Diana’s curiosity had been piqued. It also began a period of ill-health for Diana: she was prone to vomiting, fainting, and fatigue – this, years later, she self-diagnosed as a result of her deep unhappiness – and she, too, copied the twins and ran away. Muriel, now alone, met and married Lt.-Colonel Alfred Scott-Hewitt, a rather dull gentleman whose focus centred around the home. But adventure was on the horizon, and the Second World War gave her the opportunity to escape England, her husband, and the troubles surrounding her grown-up children. Being abroad suited Muriel, and she thrived on nursing the wounded and dying. Hotels replaced a permanent residence, and she draped her pretty clothes around the furniture to give a sense of homeliness. The chambermaids became her confidantes, and she liked to drink brandy with her friends – she never overcame her alcoholism. After the war, she was, at least in the traditional sense, widowed once more and the death of her husband had little effect on her. ‘Never let a man know you care,’ she often told her daughters. However, she had given up on men.

In her later years Muriel lived with a female companion, who doubled as a nursemaid and, from Diana’s point-of-view, a jailer. It was a strange dynamic, but it filled a void during the periods in which she was estranged from her children. When she was dying, Sally took charge and Diana helped as best she could, though she harboured resentment for Muriel, and failed to make a dent in her familial research. ‘Why did you hate me?’ she asked Diana, shortly before she died. The question took Diana by surprise, but she was grateful for her mother’s honesty. There was no direct answer; the past was too complicated to dissect during the limited time between spells of lucidity and the finality of death. Discreet until the end, Muriel offered only one nugget, perhaps a hint of her origins: ‘I think I should be a . . . prostitute. Of course I’d be very choosy; I wouldn’t take anyone.’ She died on 5 May 1960.

The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley (ISBN: 978-1-906562-85-4, RRP £17.50) by Diana Petre is published by Slightly Foxed 

This feature was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol V