The Muse: Diana Mitford and Paul César Helleu

unnamed

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

A Dangerous Devotion: Venetia Montagu

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

article-2135882-122f1154000005dc-464_233x423

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.

bookcoverpreviewtgl

These Great Ladies

bookcoverpreviewtgl

‘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.

collage1

 

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.

Collage2.jpg

Only The Sister: Angela du Maurier

3910664

Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV

When one thinks of groups of sisters throughout history, it is often their social lives that come under scrutiny, and then their literary output. It is as though they were half expected to write a novel or a volume of memoirs to compensate for their celebrity status, whether they were talented or not. Fortunately it was the former with the du Mauriers, and both Angela and Daphne (though to a larger extent) would write books. As with Nancy Mitford’s novels, predominantly The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, the du Mauriers books were largely inspired by not only their childhood and events in their lives, but of the landscape in which they lived and had visited.

Like the Mitfords, Angela (1904), Daphne (1907), and Jeanne (1911) had an unusual childhood not in the depths of the countryside but largely spent at Cannon Hall, in Hampstead, where fascinating guests filled the home, and their father Gerald dominated the girls, for better or worse. Except for a few terms at Miss Tulloch’s school, their education was confined to a governess as Gerald did not wish for his daughters to be exposed to the wicked world. The Mitfords would also be kept at home, but for different reasons: their father did not want them to develop thick calves from playing hockey. However, unlike the Mitfords, the du Maurier girls were exposed to the arts on the domestic front and there was nothing unseemly about a trip to the theatre, or harbouring an ambition to go on the stage. Whereas Farve went up to London once a year to see a play, taking his daughters with him, and often critiquing it on the journey home – ‘That foolish boy, Romeo…. and that damned nurse, bloody bitch. She was probably an RC!’ Gerald du Maurier was an actor-theatre manager, and he also had a brand of cigarettes named after himself. Their aunt Sylvia Llewelyn Davies was the mother of the five boys who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and this fed the girls’ imagination. They identified themselves as a tribe, in the vein of Barrie’s Lost Boys, and Daphne and Jeanne thought of themselves as boys, whereas Angela was happy to be a girl, even if she did think herself unattractive. And, as with the Mitfords, theirs was a feral upbringing of secret societies, schoolroom antics and silly nicknames. Angela, the eldest, was Piffy; Daphne, the middle girl, was Bing; and Jeanne, the youngest was Bird. Their mother, Muriel, was a vague presence in their lives; a former actress, she was beautiful and aloof, and did not pander to her children except when critiquing them. The same was true for the Mitfords, as their mother, as well as their beloved nanny, often told the six beauties that nobody was looking at them (especially Diana, the most beautiful). Muriel was often exasperated by her daughters’ appearance, especially Angela’s heavy build and lack of fashion sense – she was once mistaken for the nanny when she accompanied her sisters to a birthday party.

Angela’s innocence lasted all of her life, and she believed in the mythical figure of Father Christmas long into adolescence. Unlike the Mitfords who were quite cynical as children and when they were taken to see Peter Pan they would yell ‘No!’ when the cast called out, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’ Angela herself did believe in fairies and, after a well-meaning servant placed ‘fairy circles’ in the garden to enchant the children, it was her younger sister Daphne who discredited the stunt and said there was no such thing. Angela however dissolved into tears and accused her of speaking ill of the fairies. She was the only one out of her sisters who believed in the afterlife and often spoke of being reunited with spirits on a supernatural realm. Daphne, as imaginative as she was, scoffed at her ideas. Despite her inability to keep up with the quick wit of her family, her childhood home represented security and a barrier against growing up. Something the Mitfords could not relate to, for each girl, with the exception of Pamela and Debo, was aching to break free. ‘The finish of security. Doubt lies ahead. Adieu les jours heureux,’ Angela wrote in her diary. In a way, she would always retain a childlike enthusiasm, and throughout her life, as in the nursery, she was seldom without an idol to worship.

The ‘business of growing older’, as she referred to it, represented more than double figures to Angela, and she was apprehensive about swapping her childhood clothes for a grown-up trousseau; ‘one was a fish out of water, too young to listen to sophisticated conversation, at the same time not wishing to play cricket on the lawn with younger sisters and their friends’. She was sent to finishing school in Paris but she was stifled by homesickness and it was to be a miserable experience. Like Pamela Mitford, Angela was the scapegoat for her sisters teasing and the other girls’ antics, and she had no ambition to be a bright star on the horizon. Her spirits were momentarily lifted when her parents and sisters arrived to take her on holiday to the south of France and then on to Algiers. Daphne thought it a great adventure and was spellbound by the architecture, Jeanne was too young to appreciate it, and Angela, having read The Garden of Allah, was determined to fall in love. The object of her affection was Roland Pertwee, a married man whose wife had left him, and he took up with Angela and Daphne, acting as a tour guide and chaperone. But Angela’s idea of a chaste romance fizzled out when Pertwee decided she was an unsophisticated schoolgirl and, after accompanying her to Paris, he dropped her at her finishing school and vanished.

When Angela returned home she became interested in politics, having met Peter Macdonald, an MP for the Isle of Wight, and she became a Young Conservative. Throwing herself into the political campaign, she travelled to darkest Southwark but was appalled at the poverty she was subjected to, and she began to question her Tory ideals. Many doors were slammed in her face. A man shouted that he ‘voted for Labour and always would’, Angela’s only response was to sigh and say, ‘Yes, so should I.’ Thereupon, she became a converted socialist and argued with Macdonald, with whom she thought she was in love despite the fact he was married. She proposed a deal to him: if the Tories won all would be well with them, and if Labour won they would go their separate ways. This was reminiscent of Unity and Decca Mitford, albeit through a sisterly bond, they agreed to disagree when it came to politics, but each one agreed to shoot the other if they had to for the sake of their ideological cause. To Angela’s dismay Labour won the 1929 General Election and Macdonald was no longer the focus of her thoughts, but it marked a watershed in her romantic life. Around this period she began to branch out from her family, as painful as it was, and to visit friends at their country houses. On such a visit to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s home, where a group of young people were staying, Angela, who was aged nineteen, was kissed by Lord Dunglass. It had taken place in her bedroom, and she was convinced she would become pregnant. Harbouring this secret, she wrote to her aunt who reassured her that she could not.

Although she held a romantic ideal of love and dreamt of having children, she was appalled by sex – this was prompted by an acquaintance telling her about reproduction and she felt sickened by the biological facts at play. ‘My father would never do such a thing,’ she said. Then, when she absorbed the information told to her, she felt ‘betrayed’ by her parents ‘because the truth was so HORRIBLE that they couldn’t bear to tell it to me’. When her mother found out she ‘harangued’ her for having learned the truth and said she could never trust her daughter again. Adding to this wretchedness, when she was twelve-years-old and walking in the woods, a German soldier whom she saw was wounded and went to help him had exposed himself to her. After this, she felt confused and distressed, and ashamed of what had happened but she knew she must keep it a secret. By her own admission it had stunted her social development.

Furthermore, Gerald had always confided his infidelities to Angela and Daphne, telling them of the young actresses whom he was stringing along, and he invited them to mock the women’s naivety, thus dividing their loyalties to their mother who knew nothing of these chats. This added to Angela’s mistrust of men, and the view that all men, once they had caught a young woman, would move on to someone else. Yet, despite their talk of his affairs, and the girls’ referring to the young women as ‘the stable’ (as in fillies vying to win a race), Gerald was pathologically jealous of his daughters’ coming into contact with young men, especially Angela who was not as loyal to him as Daphne. She recalled him watching from an upstairs window as she returned from a party, and cross examining her whenever she walked through the door. He wanted to know if anyone had kissed her, or had made a pass, or indeed if she found a young man attractive. And he warned that she would ‘lose her bloom’ if she had done so, for a man’s attention would somehow tarnish her looks and everyone would know she had been corrupted. Soon after her coming out in society, he began to call her a whore, and when she complained of pains in her stomach he accused her of being pregnant – it turned out to be appendicitis. The Mitfords father, too, could be frightening when his daughters sought love matches with men he disapproved of, and during their youth he was forever calling their male friends ‘sewers’ and threatening to horsewhip them but he did not cross the threshold of causing psychological harm.

As a debutante she attended dances in London and found a friend in a young Cecil Beaton who, despite his waspish nature, was charmed by her wholesomeness. It was the Jazz Age, and the young ladies of her generation were dressed in the height of 1920s fashion, but Angela was to suffer in the stays from her childhood corsets and flouncy dresses. She failed to become engaged, or to even find a suitor, but she developed a crush on Gwen Farrar, an actress on the West End stage who was notorious for her lesbian pursuits. Her parents, regardless of their theatrical backgrounds, did not approve of the friendship with Gwen, and they put a stop to it. Angela was heartbroken, and in many ways she shared a childish vision of romance with Nancy Mitford, her contemporary. Nancy herself pined for an unsuitable man who was not only gay but treated her badly, and yet she loved him and thought they would marry. This innocence has been attributed to the sheltered upbringing of girls of their generation. Daphne, although younger, believed life as well as love was ‘no fun unless there’s a spark of danger in it’. I think Diana and Decca Mitford certainly agreed with her sentiment.

In an attempt to distract Angela from the business of politics and her ‘unsuitable’ friendship with Gwen Farrar, Gerald suggested she play Wendy Darling in the annual Christmas and New Year performance of Peter Pan at the Adelphi theatre. Nancy would also experience a helping hand on the career ladder when she was given a job at her grandfather’s magazine, The Lady. Angela was undaunted by the task ahead, and although she was an untrained actress the play was so familiar to her that she was word perfect. Gladys Cooper was cast as Peter, and the social world of the theatre appeared to be the tonic she needed. There were rehearsals every day, and parties every night, and Angela was once again in love, this time with Ian Hunter who had been cast as Mr Darling. But the director’s vision of the play did not match Angela’s childhood memories of the story and she clashed with him. After weeks of preparation, she felt nervous and uncertain of herself in the part, and her lisp was intensified and she spoke quickly and forgot her lines. The nepotism on Gerald’s behalf in casting his daughter ahead of classical actresses proved disastrous when, on opening night, she struggled with her wire and flew into the orchestra pit. She was battered and bruised, and embarrassed by the spectacle but, regardless of her personal feelings, she carried on with the show. Although she would never make it as an actress, Angela had somewhat fallen prey to theatrical types and she was conned by a photographer in to posing nude. She was ashamed and upset by the results of her modelling.

As was her wont, Angela retreated back to the family home and into her childhood world. At the age of almost thirty she appeared content to stay at home and write in her diary, and she lived off her yearly allowance of £150. It was the era of the celebrity debutante and her fellow debs, who were now young wives and prominent London hostesses, were serving as muses for painters and photographers alike. Nancy Mitford, too, had succumbed to the alter and married an entirely unsuitable man, but at least she had finally married. Angela had no such luck, or interest. But she played the part of a jolly upper-class girl and Cecil Beaton asked Angela and Daphne to sit for him, and he photographed their blonde heads peering out from behind wineglasses. The surreal composition, though artificial to the untrained and perhaps modern eye, was thought of by Angela as the most flattering portrait ever taken of her.

It would be wrong to portray Angela as a loner, for she had a collection of close female friends whose company she sought. There was a ‘romantic adventure’ with her best friend, Angela Shaw, and her Pekinese, Wendy. They motored in Angela’s MG Midget on their way to the west coast of Scotland and the Isles of Mull and Skye, but this was cut short by a collision in Yorkshire. The car, hurled into a ditch, was so badly damaged it was possible the women and dog survived because of its open top and they were thrown clear. Angela suffered a head injury and was badly concussed, and the rescuers at first thought she was dead. Her first words, when she came to, was to ask about Wendy. Shaw, though conscious, and in agony from a smashed collarbone, resented Angela’s concern for the dog. They were taken to Ripon Cottage Hospital, where they convalesced in a children’s ward, and Wendy was placed in a cot by Angela’s bed. Shaw, high on morphine, cried out that she was at the ‘end of her tether’.

Perhaps a bitter blow to Angela’s confidence was the progression of Daphne. Like Nancy Mitford, her younger sister Diana had triumphed in many areas where she herself had not. Angela was not a natural writer, but she showed a creative flare, and she wrote her first novel A Little Less, which was rejected by publishers. Around this time, Daphne’s debut novel, The Loving Spirit, was published and her great literary career began. With the publication of Daphne’s fourth novel, Jamaica Inn, Angela’s second attempt at fiction, The Perplexed Heart, was accepted by publishers hoping to cash in on the du Maurier name. Eventually her first attempt was published a decade after it was written and it provoked parental outrage when they discovered its theme of a young woman’s love for another. How could sheltered Angela have known of such things? her parents wondered. The publishers’ rejection letters matched the sentiments of the du Mauriers: the lesbian theme was ‘too unpleasant’. And on the romance front Daphne had excelled where Angela did not. She married Sir Frederick Arthur Montague Browning, known as Tommy, and would have three children. Likewise Jeanne became a talented painter, and as with Angela, she did not marry but lived for the rest of her life with a woman. Pamela Mitford would do the same, leading to speculation as to the nature of the relationship with such companions. As with Pamela and her volatile marriage to Derek Jackson, an alpha male, Angela and Jeanne’s difficult dynamic with their father had disillusioned them towards the male sex. Angela’s case was far more complex, she was neither of her parents’ favourite – Daphne was her father’s golden child, and Jeanne, the easy-going baby of the family, was her mother’s pet – and so she was constantly searching for affection and a place to belong.

As she grew older, Angela’s debilitating homesickness left her and she travelled around continental Europe, staying in luxurious hotels. It has also been said that Gerald’s death in 1934, although a great loss for Daphne, had liberated Angela from his put-downs and teasing. She would live with her mother until Muriel’s death in 1957, and be a constant presence in Daphne’s life. The sisters, including Jeanne, might not have been as candid with one another, as say the Mitfords, but they were prolific letter writers. In her later years her common sense and strength of character made Angela the sister they could all rely on. She would outlive both Daphne and Jeanne, dying at the age of ninety-eight in 2002. The landscape of the places she visited, most especially western Ireland, had become embedded in her imagination and in her work. She continued to write, whether her novels were well received or not, and in her lifetime she published eleven works of fiction and two autobiographies. Friends warned her to censor her life, thinking she was (surprisingly) too advanced for the modern reader. She heeded their warning, and censor it she did though it was far from dull. Having plucked up the courage to live the life she dreamed of in the nursery, Angela would never entirely shed the insecurities of her youth, but she bravely took the reigns of her destiny. Her best-known book, an autobiography, was inspired by those who diminished her work in favour of Daphne’s. Its title, Only the Sister, verifies just that. But she was so much more…

41iwc2altbl

Available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Beaten by Beaton: Doris Delevingne and Her Love Affair With Cecil Beaton

41keljbpdnl

The year was 1932 and the name Doris Delevingne, or rather, the title of Lady Castlerosse, was synonymous with scandal and debauchery. She had outgrown her marriage to Viscount Castlerosse, the portly gossip writer for the Sunday Express and Lord Beaverbrook’s employee and stooge. Having married in 1928, before the Roaring Twenties ended not with a whimper but a bang, due to the Wall Street Crash and economical depression which followed, the warring Castlerosses were yet to divorce. Although Castlerosse had tried, Doris could not play by the rules, and so their divorce case would drag on for a decade. A powerful but penniless man, the journalistic viscount had all of London on his side, and Doris was something of an outcast. But she had one ally, in the form of Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, the eccentric 14th Baron Berners, who was seventeen years her senior. His estate, Faringdon House, in the market town of Oxfordshire, was a haven for social pariahs. With the tension mounting between herself and Castlerosse, Doris came to look on Faringdon as a second home. Also residing there was Gerald’s long-term lover and heir, Robert Heber-Percy, known as ‘Mad Boy’, who was thirty years his junior. Not in the least effeminate or camp, Doris thought Mad Boy was entirely heterosexual and, when they were formally introduced, she asked with total sincerity whether or not they had slept together, as she could not seem to remember.

Carrying a torch for Doris, Gerald was ready to leap to her defence when others spoke badly of her latest hijinks. Taking her place on the sofa and with Gerald behind the piano, it was the custom routine for Doris to say, ‘Let’s dish the dirt!’ and he would listen to her tales of rascality. After exchanging society gossip, she spoke of her dwindling finances and he offered his financial support. Acknowledging his kindness, she kissed him on the lips and said: ‘Dear Gerald, anything you could do wouldn’t last me two days’. More than a friend, she would serve as a muse and he would include Doris in his farcical novel, The Girls of Radcliff Hall, which included characters inspired by Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel and Peter Watson. She was the only female to feature in the story and, ironically, her character was a male. She was the dancing master, Mr Vivian Dorrick, an oversexed gentleman who was ‘no novice in the art of lovemaking…his personality was veiled, to a certain extent, in mystery’. Gerald wrote the novel while staying at his Roman villa with Diana Mitford, and it was privately published for his friends. Doris laughed at the portrayal, but Beaton did not, and he attempted to and succeeded in destroying almost every copy.

It was at Faringdon where Cecil Beaton had first met Doris, who arrived in her chauffeur driven Phantom Rolls Royce with several trunks bearing a viscountess’s coronet. She carried with her a heavy box containing the precious Cartier jewels she had collected from her various rich lovers over the years. With his spectacular eye for detail, Beaton noticed Doris’s slender legs and he admired her ‘Giselle-like ankles’; her exquisite clothes – suits and dresses – were from Worth and Reville, and she continued to shun skirts in favour of tailored shorts – a daring choice – to display her best features. A Bright Young Thing, Beaton moved at the centre of this set, photographing mischievous young aristocrats, and as the 1930s advanced his status was further elevated when he photographed Queen Elizabeth. But Beaton did not confine his lens to the Court; he worked for Vogue, photographing models, film stars and New York socialites, which ultimately boosted his standing across the Atlantic. The professional merits were many, but his love life stalled. Peter Watson, a wealthy young man who, along with Cyril Connolly, would later co-found the literary magazine Horizon, was the subject of his infatuation. However Watson was not attainable to Beaton, for he was in love with Oliver Messel. And, moving on from Messel, he attached himself to Mad Boy. In an attempt to avert Beaton’s passion, Watson dismissively told him: ‘I’d be delighted if you had an affair.’ Beaton took this advice but, surprisingly, it was not another young man to whom he diverted his attention.

In August, Doris travelled to Venice where she stayed for a fortnight at the Villa Foscari, known as ‘La Malcontenta’, its name derived from the spouse of one of the Foscaris who was imprisoned in the house because she would not fulfill her conjugal duty. The villa was owned by the Baroness d’Erlanger, whose guests for the fortnight included Sir Oswald Mosley, who had since founded the British Union of Fascists, and his wife, Cimmie; Emerald Cunard and her lover, Sir Thomas Beecham; Lady Diana and Duff Cooper; Randolph Churchill; Brendan Bracken; and Tilly Losch, who was estranged from her husband, Edward James. It was a louche circle of wealthy revellers who were interconnected by society marriages and, more than anything, illicit love affairs. Diana and Bryan Guinness joined this set on the Lido, verifying the truth behind the rumours sweeping through high society that she was having an affair with Mosley. There, Watson’s suggestion of an affair came to fruition when Beaton looked to Doris with the hope of making him jealous. But it was not Beaton who made the first move. And, perhaps, owing to his homosexuality he never would have approached Doris in the first place. She took the initiative and, planning her seduction of Beaton, she scattered tuberose – ‘the most carnal of scents’ – on his bed. Beaton adored attention, and he responded to the flattery she paid him. Doris herself refused to believe his sexual orientation would pose a problem, and she told him: ‘There’s no such thing as an impotent man, just an incompetent woman.’ To ease Beaton’s reluctance in going to bed with her, she assured him he ‘wouldn’t have to do a thing’, and she advised him to ‘think of your sister’s wedding’.

The affair was not confined to Venice, and when they returned to London, Doris and Beaton often stayed at Faringdon. Guests, eager to judge if the affair had been farce, crept to the lovers’ bedroom door and were further astonished when they overheard Beaton squealing: ‘Oh goody, goody, goody!’ The droll antics continued when Beaton threw a party, and the guests were ordered to dress as their opposite. For this, Doris came as a nun. There was also a circus-themed party which Doris and Beaton attended with Lady Diana and Duff Cooper, Chips Channon, Nancy Mitford, and Daphne Weymouth. Doris – along with Nancy, Daphne and Beaton – dressed as an eighteenth-century equestrian, and Beaton chased her with a whip. They were photographed for Tatler, and Doris commented: ‘We all look very drunk, I think.’

However, when she joined Beaton at Ashcombe, his Georgian manor house in Wiltshire which he had taken a fifteen year lease on in 1930, the reception was not as welcoming as it had been at Faringdon. She was shunned by Beaton’s friend, the ageing writer Edith Olivier, who was enraged by this ‘common little demi-mondaine’ attaching herself to him. Edith recalled how she and Lady Ottoline Morrell were invited to lunch by Beaton, who claimed he was ‘alone with Gerald’. When they arrived they found him sitting in the courtyard, with Gerald painting a portrait of Doris, who was sitting on a mattress, her legs on show in a pair of shorts. This confirmed to Edith that the rumours she had heard were true. ‘It is a liaison between the two. “We” always includes her. It makes me feel I can never go there again,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘Why should one put oneself out for her?’ Lady Ottoline acidly noted that Mrs Keppel, at least, was ‘on the grand scale – a king’s mistress’. Doris, Edith bemoaned, ‘is nothing but a woman with a physical attraction which she exploits in a mercenary way’.

Doris defended her affair with Beaton, though she did not admit to the financial awards in which she hoped he would lavish her with – his salary from Condé Nast alone was $12,000 per annum. She was far more forthright in her confession: she claimed she was sleeping with Beaton for his own benefit. In an age when homosexuality was illegal, Doris maintained that she was merely trying to cure him of his sexual persuasion. But, in truth, this ran deeper than money; she had developed a deep and complex passion for him, and in turn he repeatedly warned her that he was ‘terribly homosexualist’. In his diary, Beaton wrote: ‘Peter loves people that are not in love with him and I in my turn am now worshipped and adored by Doritizins [his pet name for Doris] for whom I hold no emotion whatsoever. It seems so terribly unfair that there cannot be a great straightening out and saving of waste.’ In person, however, he played along with her, ‘if only to soothe the ache produced by years of rejection’ by Peter Watson. He went to bed with her ‘in desperation’, and he chastised himself when he realised he ‘could be so celestial with the bedfellow I love’. Although Watson had encouraged Beaton to have an affair, he did not imagine that it would have been with Doris, whom he loathed. It backfired on Beaton, and Peter, ‘so incensed’ by his ‘relationship with Doritizins,’ became ‘so bitter’ and refused to see him.

News of Doris and Beaton’s affair reached Castlerosse, and adopting the view of their contemporaries, he thought it a joke. On one of his outings to a London restaurant, Castlerosse spied his wife dining with Beaton and, turning to his companion, he quipped: ‘I never knew Doris was a lesbian.’ This extramarital affair did little to stir him, and he added Beaton’s name to his growing list of evidence for his much sought-after divorce. In March 1933, a deed of separation was entered into between Doris and Castlerosse, with no financial clauses. They had, for some time, maintained separate abodes, and the legal confirmation of their status was of little consequence to either of them. A month prior, a man had arrived to subpoena Beaton, who had been listed as evidence in their divorce petition. But, he was in New York and thus narrowly avoided being drawn into the lengthy saga.

With Beaton in New York, Doris was momentarily reunited with her old flame, Sir Alfred Beit, but she was more than he could handle and he broke off the affair. He was looking for the stability of marriage and someone with whom he could share his passion for art and philanthropy, and although Doris was in the process of divorcing Castlerosse, she was not the type of wife he sought. He would later marry Clementine Freeman-Mitford, a first cousin of the Mitford girls. To escape Doris, he fled to South Africa ‘to cool down’, for it was only with a great distance between them that he felt safe from her preying clutches. Diana Vreeland, who ran a lingerie shop near Berkeley Square, was friendly with both Doris and Beaton, and she repeated the familiar bon mot that circulated London society at the time: ‘Beaten by Beaton and bitten by Beit.’

Beaton returned from America, and they restored their old routine of lunching at the Ritz Hotel. On one occasion, he and Doris dined with Elsie Mendl and her companion, Johnnie McMullin, the social columnist and fashion editor of Vogue. During their luncheon, Elsie exclaimed, ‘I love whores!’ Doris responded by yelling, ‘What about homosexuality?’ The question was a veiled jibe at Beaton, whose diary she had read. She was still reeling from the shock of learning about his love for Peter Watson. However, aside from the confession in his diary, Beaton harboured another secret which he kept from Doris. He had met a rich American, William Odom, and he invited Beaton on a European tour, all expenses paid. This balancing act of a faux romance with Doris and attaching himself to Odom for self-gain was an ‘exciting game’ to him, and he admitted: ‘I am always fond of anyone who is fond of me.’ Gradually, as she realised the true nature of Beaton’s feelings, Doris detached herself from him. Though, she continued to enjoy his company and appeared good natured about his departure with Odom. She joined Beaton in Paris, where he had callously abandoned his American admirer on the grounds that he was not cultured enough for his cultivated tastes. They went to the ballet with Daisy Fellowes, who was working for the French Harper’s Bazaar in her short-lived position as editor of the magazine. And they mingled with the artist Pavel Tchelitchew, famous in Paris but relatively unknown in London, the poet Edith Sitwell, and the photographer Horst P. Horst, whom Beaton viewed as a rival.

With Doris’s arrival, Beaton declared he had become the ‘envy of the city’; her appearance marked a ‘great sex interlude’ in which he became ‘a peacock and felt so self-assured and even beautiful’. The revelation of Beaton’s diary and, now, the belief that she had become a pawn in his game for self-promotion, conspired to upset Doris. He felt sad that she had suffered for his vanity, but he was not sorry because ‘being the loved one does me good morally’. Doris returned to London and Watson arrived in Paris, and she found herself usurped by the object of Beaton’s affection. But Watson did not reciprocate his feelings, and Beaton wept ‘in a taxi’ and ‘in the bright sunlight of the Ritz bar’.

When they returned to England, Beaton continued to string Doris along. His brother, Reggie, died on 18 October after he was hit by a tube train at Piccadilly Circus underground station. The driver told the inquest that Reggie had held out his hands in front of him and dived under the approaching train. It was believed to be suicide. Beaton heard the news after he had dropped Doris home from a dinner party given by Sybil Colefax for the American socialite, Mona Harrison Williams. His friends were sympathetic, though Beaton remained oddly unmoved by the death. Doris invited him to dinner at Ciros, but he felt it was too soon to be seen socially after Reggie’s demise.

The affair with Beaton fizzled out when he abandoned Doris after realising Peter Watson was not jealous and had become friends with her. They both formed a close bond after Beaton had ‘shoved them away’, though Watson did not shirk from firing the occasional acid remark in her direction. As Doris had displayed with her attachment to Beaton, she did not believe a person’s sexuality stood in the way of romantic love, regardless if they were compatible or not. She had no scruples when it came to sex, for she used it as a ploy to get what she wanted. It was, to her, a means of survival and a way to fund a lifestyle that had become such a way of life that she saw no alternative. To live within her means was foreign to her, and without her materialistic things she felt lost and without a purpose. So, when Castlerosse commented, ‘I never knew Doris was a lesbian,’ he was honest in his observation. However, as time would tell, there was more than a fragment of truth in his statement.

The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne is published by The History Press. Click here to pre-order a copy. This edited extract was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV.

Further Reading

Cecil Beaton: The Authorized Biography by Hugo Vickers

The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff

Castlerosse by Leonard Mosley

A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing by Anna Thomasson

The Mitford Society: Vol IV

41iwc2altbl

Hello Mitties! It’s that time of year again, the launch of a new Mitford annual. As always, it features the infamous Mitford Tease (Friends and Frenemies) as well as a host of features on the Mitfords and their set. I have included the table of contents below. Next year I will be making a start on Vol. V a lot sooner as it will be a celebration to mark Decca’s 100th birthday! So, there is no time like the present. If you would like to be included in Vol. 5, or have an idea, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! You can purchase the annual on both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Table of Contents

 Friends and Frenemies: A Mitford Tease

The Muse: Diana Mitford and Helleu

A Very Mitford Reading

Lucia Joyce: The Pioneering Modern Dancer That Almost Was

Pam and Betje: An Enduring Friendship

Beaten by Beaton: Doris Delevingne and her Love Affair with Cecil Beaton

The Company She Kept: Unity Mitford and her Friends

Too Naked for the Nazis: How Betty Knox Went From Chorus Line to Front Line

Lady Bridget Parsons: The Pursuit of Love by

Literary Ladies: The Fictional Worlds of Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Lucia Berlin

The Big Tease: How Olivia de Havilland Fell for Nancy Mitford

In The Footsteps of the Mitfords

Debo and Cake:  A Royal Friendship

Lady Irene Curzon: A Dim View of Diana

Private Enemy Number One

Camelot in the Derbyshire Dales

The President and The Duchess

Only the Sister: Angela du Maurier

Nancy Mitford and Harold Acton: A Life-long Friendship

Literary Ladies: Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard & Lucia Berlin

Extracted from this year’s Mitford Society: Vol IV

collage1

(Images taken from Google, no copyright infringement intended)

Although from different backgrounds, both socially and professionally, the stylistic approach of Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard (known as Jane), and Lucia Berlin were markedly similar. Everything they had gone through in their lives – their difficult upbringings, relationships with their family and friends, and love affairs – were woven into the text of their stories, for better or worse. As an admirer of all three women, I find the clues within their fiction canon an intriguing puzzle. Interestingly, only Jane wrote an autobiography (titled Slipstream), whereas Nancy threatened to write her memoirs but never got around to it, and Lucia made a start but never completed hers. Perhaps the early deaths of both Nancy and Lucia, in 1973 and 2004 respectively, brought their factual writing to a halt. Using one’s peers and experiences to craft fiction is nothing new, but the aforementioned women did it with such authenticity that the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred.

It was with her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945 that Nancy unashamedly used her sisters and parents personalities, as well as their experiences, in her work. Each character is a mishmash of their collective lives; from their initiation into secret societies (the Hons’ Cupboard), love affairs, and to the dialogue they spoke, it had all happened in real life. And so, as a Mitford enthusiast, this gives Nancy’s work a feeling of de ja vu. This, we are aware of because of the extensive publications detailing the Mitfords letters; from nursery teases to political leanings, she collected each nugget and put it into her books. Her earlier work – written in haste to supplement her pithy allowance borrowed fragments from her misadventures with the Bright Young Things – lacks a venomous bite. The pathos of a young woman of 18 coming out in society, hoping to find a husband to not only elevate her rank in society but unburden her parents, is heartbreaking when dissected. Love did not come into the equation, and Nancy often chased the four lettered word with little success.

The sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, had darker undertones and seemed to express more of Nancy’s own personal woes than those of her sisters, but in essence they are present in the text. Her wartime affair with a Free French Officer, riddled with tuberculous, saw Nancy become pregnant while her husband was fighting overseas. The child, who was very much wanted by Nancy – she had had several miscarriages throughout her unsuccessful marriage – resulted in an ectopic pregnancy, the consequence of which meant a hysterectomy. This, she never really got over and when Debo, the youngest and sweetest sister, gave birth to a baby which died shortly after, Nancy compared the death of a child to the loss of a manuscript. The remark, though callous, foregrounds the importance of her work. In the end, when lovers had strung her along and then left her, and her husband squandered her earnings and then divorced her, her writing was all she had to give her a sense of purpose. Concluding Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy has Linda die in childbirth, having conceived a child with her French lover. As we know from reading both books, Linda had married a rich descendant of a German family, bore a daughter whom she disliked, and left him for a Communist sympathiser. Shades of Diana, though it was a fascist for whom she left her husband Bryan Guinness. Communism was perhaps a nod to sister Decca. But the tragic ending, a combination of both reality and fiction, could explain how Nancy felt after losing her chance to have children, and the fate which she felt Diana deserved. ‘Nancy is a very curious character,’ her mother, Lady Redesdale, had once said. As a compulsive Mitford reader, I am grateful for her idiosyncrasies.

However, during the pursuit of their writing career, all three women had, at one point in their lives, worked in the literary field. During the war, Nancy worked at Heywood Hill, a smart bookshop on Curzon Street in Mayfair; Jane reviewed books for Queen magazine; and Lucia accepted the post of visiting teacher and then associate professor at the University of Colorado – her creative writing workshops were especially popular with students. Any serious writer who is good at what they do will lament the reading of books as the secret to their success, and their bookish professions must have enriched their work. Their work appeared in periodicals before it made it to book form, with Nancy writing for The Lady and Vogue, Jane working for the Daily Express, and Lucia’s early short stories appearing in The Atlantic and The Noble Savage.

In comparison to the American Lucia, Nancy and Jane were the products of their social classes. Nancy was born into an aristocratic family but with financial difficulties, and Jane was born into an upper-middle-class family whose fortune was derived from a successful timber business. Both used the backgrounds of their parents and forebears in their books. Nancy drew on her parents ‘muv and farve’ for her portrayal of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate – the mother vague and disinterested in her children but enthralled with domesticity, and the father a philistine character with narrow interests and an equally small mind. Jane, too, crafted an exact portrait of her parents, in the form of Villy and Edward, in her hugely successful Cazalet series – her own mother, as in the series of books, was a former ballerina who struggled with ‘the horrid side to married life’ and showed little interest in Jane but adored her sons; and her father, as in the character of Edward, lavished praise on to his daughter and, in her mid teens, began to abuse her. Although detailed in Slipstream, Jane had already exorcised those childhood demons in the Cazalets, and she cast herself as Louise, the daughter of Edward and Villy. Both Nancy and Jane’s settings took place in large country houses in the English countryside, surrounded by various cousins, aunts and uncles, and siblings where a healthy dose of rivalry existed. Nannies and governesses make an appearance, as do maids and cooks, and chauffeurs. And although competent and successful writers, Nancy and Jane were acutely aware of their lack of education and all their lives they endeavoured to make up for this.

Lucia, however, was perhaps the most complex of the women and her writing reflects this. Hers was a myriad of themes and settings, with down and out addicts roaming the streets, to debutantes waltzing in the sultry heat of Chile. Perhaps it was her American birth, or perhaps it was unique to her family life, that allowed her to move through several rungs of the social ladder with ease and, despite being well educated and working in ordinary professions during her literary career, it is difficult to categorise her. Whereas Nancy and Jane’s complexities lay within their emotional range, Lucia’s were physical and they were displayed with startling honestly. Born in Alaska in 1936, her father worked as a mining engineer and her mother began to drink heavily shortly after her birth. Alcoholism haunted the maternal side of Lucia’s family, and she, too, would suffer because of it and then overcome her addiction. The Second World War saw the family move to Texas and her father went overseas with the army. Here, in her grandparents home, she was subjected to a sinister environment provoked by her grandfather’s, uncle’s, and mother’s drinking, her grandmother’s religious fanaticism, and then her grandfather’s sexual abuse. This, she mentions in several of her short stories, predominantly Dr. H.A. Moynihan, which centres on her dentist grandfather. Unlike Nancy and Jane, she never wrote a full length novel, the closest was Andado which offers a snippet (though told as fiction) of her teenage self leaving her family home to receive the hospitality of an upper-class gentleman in the Chilean countryside only to be raped during her stay. I should also note that, in Love in a Cold Climate, Polly marries her childhood abuser. And in the Cazalet series, beginning with the first book The Light Years, Louise is ashamed when her father makes several passes at her but she does not begrudge him or think him wicked. Jane shared this view of her own father. There are too many of Lucia’s short stories to list and the dissection of each one deserves its own retrospective, but as with Nancy and Jane, the darker elements of her upbringing and adulthood are on display: her failed marriages (she was married three times), the birth of her four sons, abandonment, addiction, poverty, and her various careers. While Nancy’s and Jane’s novels have a limited setting – the English countryside, London, Paris, New York, and the respectable resorts of the Riviera – Lucia takes her reader on a visual journey across America, to the deserts of Texas and the Mexican border (in one story it is for a family reunion, another for an abortion), to Puerto Vallarta where she had eloped; to downtown New York, the urban sprawl of the West Coast, and the grandeur and upheaval of pre-revolution Chile.

The common thread, at least in terms of romance, was the (acknowledged) feeling that Nancy, Jane, and Lucia had made a mess of their lives. With the exception of Nancy, Jane and Lucia married in their teens and had children young. Nancy, marrying at the age of 29, had done so on the rebound from a failed love affair. Both Jane and Lucia would remarry several times, choosing unsuitable men and sacrificing their own happiness and career development in doing so. Nancy seemed to use this as an incentive to make her professional life a success. Each poured this into their characterisations: Nancy’s regret at being childless, and at being at the disposal of her lover; Jane’s in having abandoned her child to pursue her own interests; and Lucia’s at feeling guilty for drinking during her sons’ childhood. This tinged their novels with a sense of pathos, and also evoked sympathy. Somewhere, in the depths of their prose and plot, their women readers could relate.

During their lifetime, Nancy and Jane would reap the merits of their literary careers and enjoy fame and fortune. It offered them a comfortable and secure lifestyle, something that was lacking in other areas of their lives. Lucia’s literary fame, however, is far more extraordinary. Published by independent presses, she had a small but devoted readership but was somewhat undiscovered. In 2015 a posthumous collection of her short stories were compiled in A Manual for Cleaning Women and it was published to international acclaim. Now a household name, Lucia Berlin has risen to the ranks of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Jane Howard. All three, I believe, deserve their place as great female writers, not only for their unique stylistic approach, but their contribution to the world of literature.

41iWc2alTBL.jpg

The Mitford Society Vol. IV is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

 

Lady Blanche Hozier by Sonia Purnell

51ieafoffxl

When I visited Lord Stanley of Alderley to research my book on Clementine Churchill, it was fun to look through his extensive album of family photographs. Almost everyone of the past few generations of this illustrious family was present; but there was one noticeable gap. Above the hand-written name of Lady Blanche Hozier, the space for the photograph was empty, although no-one seemed to know why.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Lady Blanche – with her beautiful blonde hair and seraphic face – was widely considered within the family of her time to be ‘mad’. She had, after all, broken so many of the rigid Victorian conventions that had defined her early life and overshadowed even her later years. Her natural rebelliousness may have made her a popular ‘aunt Natty’ to the young Mitford sisters (who were awestruck by her elegant defiance), but it barred her from many a smart London salon and even many of her own family gatherings.

She was born the eldest daughter of the 10th Earl of Airlie and grew up in a romantically haunted castle in the Scottish Highlands. It was Lady Blanche’s mother (also known as Blanche) who was a member of the Stanley tribe of assertive and erudite English matriarchs, and who was the dominant force in the household.

The Stanleys’ radical Liberal views did not exactly chime, however, with Lady Blanche’s unconventional approach to such issues as marital fidelity (of which she was not in favour), extravagant spending (which she adored) or the need for female education (deemed only partly necessary).

A sort of Victorian wild-child who threatened to become a major embarrassment, Lady Blanche was hastily married off by her parents at the age of 25 to Colonel Henry Hozier. Alas, Henry had neither the fortune she was hoping for nor much in the way of warm feelings towards her. Serially unfaithful, he declared he was not interested in having children and left Lady Blanche largely to her own devices while he pursued a slightly rackety career at Lloyd’s of London.

Bored, sexy and lonely she soon sought comfort – and the prospect of children – in the arms of other men. One of her most attentive lovers, it would seem, was the 1st Baron Redesdale, Bertie Mitford, and later to become, of course, the grandfather of the Mitford sisters. He was handsome, kind and in possession of those dazzling Mitford eyes. He was also married to Lady Blanche’s sister Lady Clementine, with whom he already had several children.

We should perhaps pay tribute to Lady Clementine for sharing her husband in this way with her sister. For he is almost certainly the father of at least Lady Blanche’s first two children. Lady Blanche liked to circulate conflicting rumours on the paternity of her brood – perhaps in part to protect the reputation and pride of her own sister. But it is noticeable how her second daughter – born in haste on the drawing room floor in 1885 – also had dazzling sapphire-blue eyes and a similar profile to Bertie’s. Named Clementine – perhaps in honour of the forbearance of her aunt – she went on to marry Winston Churchill. No doubt he came to realise that Bertie was probably not only the young Clementine’s uncle by marriage, but her father too. After all, it was Bertie who was sitting next to Lady Blanche in the front row at Winston and Clementine’s wedding. Clementine junior was therefore probably related to Nancy, Pamela, Unity, Jessica and Diana Mitford in more ways than one.

Lady Blanche went on to have four children in total – Kitty, Clementine and the twins Nellie and Bill. It is highly unlikely that any was Hozier’s, as he himself quickly realised. Lady Blanche’s frantic love-life was spectacularly well-known, complete with lurid tales of fights between jealous rivals. The numbers were equally astonishing, as she was widely reputed to keep up to ten lovers on the go at once. Her unstuffy attitude to life was clearly quite a draw, and even at her worst moments she was inevitably stylishly if unconventionally dressed.

Divorce soon followed – as did exclusion from the sort of upper-class circles in which she would normally have been expected to move. It was not so much the bed-hopping that counted against her, as the brazen way in which she conducted it. Respectable upper-class ladies of the time made sure they provided their husband with an heir, before discreetly taking on one lover at a time. Lady Blanche did neither.

Hozier, a cold and splenetic man now with a sense of grievance, refused to pay alimony and Lady Blanche was reduced to living on family handouts and the odd bit of cash from writing cookery articles for the press. She was quickly reduced to moving from one set of cheap lodgings to another to stay one step ahead of her creditors. And yet despite this itinerant life with her brood, she made each temporary home a haven of simple, good taste – complete with billowing white curtains and spotless white sofas – all on a budget. Her food was also famously good – even if sometimes she was too distracted or even hard-up to put it on the table for her own children.

She nevertheless still evidently feared the retribution of her ex-husband, and was concerned that Henry might try to take one of her children to live with him. To this effect, she once packed up overnight in their rooms in the Channel town of Seaford and fled to France with her children the very next morning. Lady Blanche settled her young family in Dieppe, where she proceeded to lose what money she had at the casino and forced her elder daughters to ask for credit to buy food in the shops. She also took up with the artist Walter Sickert – recently implausibly named as the possible real identity of Jack the Ripper. Sickert, an ill-tempered man, was also carrying on with a Mme Villain, the queen of the Dieppe fishmarket and mother of several children looking uncannily like Sickert. To her children’s horror, Lady Blanche would engage in jealous exchanges with Mme Villain in the street. These altercations – and her insistence on wearing her hair in a plait down her back rather than in the traditional bun – were mystifying for the local French who expected something rather different from a titled English milady.

This sojourn in France came to an abrupt end around a year after the death of Lady Blanche’s favourite and eldest daughter, Kitty. Lady Blanche never even tried to disguise her feelings for this puckish and pretty girl over the then shy and more nervous Clementine. Kitty even advised her younger sibling to try to ignore her mother’s hurtful neglect as ‘she can’t help it’. Kitty developed typhus, probably from drinking contaminated water, and died just short of her 17th birthday. Lady Blanche never recovered from the tragedy, and merely withdrew further from Clementine, whom she deemed too judgmental and reserved for her tastes.

The family returned to England, where Lady Blanche set up home in Berkhamsted, just outside London, to take advantage of the local schools. She was intent on launching Clementine into the sort of smart society from which she was now excluded and thought her daughter needed more polish. That also meant, in Lady Blanche’s view, making sure that her daughter did not destroy her marriage prospects by learning such unladylike subjects as maths. She believed young women should be intelligent and educated, but only in languages such as French and German and other appropriate humanities subjects rather than ‘unseemly’ sums.

Over time, Lady Blanche became more irascible and dictatorial; disappointment in her own life only added to her increasingly tetchy demeanour. Even when Clementine was a young woman, her mother would think nothing of boxing her ears when displeased and seemed to have little affection for her daughter – although she was very much in favour of her new husband, Winton Churchill. Lady Blanche’s increasing drinking only served to widen the distance between the two women – and to cause concern with the younger Nellie and Bill. Lady Blanche eventually went back to settle in Dieppe once more, throwing away what money she had in the casino there. She may well have made the move precisely because casinos were still illegal in Britain.

It was there that she died, lonely and impoverished, in March 1925. Clementine was by her side as she endured her final illness, but they were never entirely reconciled. Clementine felt her childhood had been largely loveless and had left her with profound insecurities. Churchill, however, had a higher regard for a woman whose pride, tenacity and sense of style had never faltered. On the occasion of Lady Blanche’s death, he wrote that he was ‘glad & proud to think her blood flows in the veins of our children’.

Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol III

Sonia Purnell is the author of First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill (Aurum Press). She is an author, journalist and broadcaster known for her investigative skills and lively writing style. She also writes for a variety of newspapers and is a regular broadcaster in Britain and abroad. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.

A Fly in the Ointment: A Mitford Tease

Words by Lyndsy Spence & Meems Ellenberg

(Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol III)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dandy Gilver & A Most Misleading Habit an extract by Catriona McPherson

9781473633414.jpg

Prologue

24th December 1932

There was not a sound to be heard, nor a creature abroad to hear it. The village lay still and cold in the moonlight, the long street a pale ribbon, the cottages on its either side no more than inky smudges, their windows set too deep to gleam. Only on the stained glass of the church did the moon’s reflection catch at the little panes and shatter into spangles.

Inside, silently as midnight came, the villagers bent their heads and clasped their hands. Some were praying, some merely waiting; but others, struck by awe, let their thoughts drift up and out into the moonlight, over the quiet countryside to other churches where other heads were bent in silence, to stables where donkeys might kneel if the legends were true, across the seas to distant lands where prayers were said in strange tongues and people quite unlike themselves were awestruck too.

Peace on earth, they told themselves, thinking of those faraway places. Joy to the world, they thought; the words lately sung, still resounding. Silent night, holy night. If only they had known.

For at that moment, not five miles away, klaxons shrieked and guards bellowed, their boots ringing out on the ironhard ground as they gave chase. Out upon the hills, hunched shapes flitted and darted between the shadows, each one cursing the moonlight.

Later that same night, not five miles away, a bell would toll and women’s screams peal out as flames leapt merrily higher and higher. Black smoke rising in billows from a chapel roof would hide the moon.

And before the morning came, not five miles away, alone in his bed, a man would quietly die.

 

Chapter One

‘If you read the newspapers or listen to the wireless,’ Sister Mary began, ‘you might remember the trouble we had here at Christmas time. The newspapermen have tired of it now and turned their attentions elsewhere but our troubles are far from over. The great harm done to our house has weakened us and we are not equal to dealing with mischief as well as recovering and carrying out our duties. We are in sore need of a woman such as yourself and can offer you a measure of comfort here if you should choose to help us.’ It sounded almost as though she wanted me to profess a vocation. I read on. ‘It cannot take much longer. The moor has been aswarm with policemen for a month now and in the end they shall surely prevail.’

Of course I remembered the events at which she was hinting. Either a breakout from an insane asylum or a fire at a convent that killed a nun would be memorable each on its own. Both together, a few miles apart and on Christmas Eve besides, had given the headline writers almost more than they could handle. Still, a little more detail in Sister Mary’s letter would have been welcome. I read it over again to see what I might have missed and found myself tutting.

I had long suspected that women who go in for nunnery had some melodrama about them. The early rising, the lying prostrate on stone floors, not to mention the glamorous costume – for who would not look dashing swathed in snowy white and with her neck hidden? – and this letter did nothing to change my mind. The great harm, the fickle newsmen, the troubles far from over. ‘Aswarm indeed!’ I muttered to myself. Then, finally, I caught the meaning. If policemen were swarming over the moor even now, that meant that the breakout was still in business. There were inmates at large. Did I really want to go and stay in a house full of women then?

‘What’s that?’ said Alec, looking up at my muttering. Hugh was behind The Times.

‘Interesting case,’ I said. ‘Although interesting isn’t perhaps the word, exactly.’

‘Same here,’ said Alec. ‘Interesting, but “case” isn’t perhaps the word, exactly. I’ve been asked to help a friend.’

‘Do it,’ said Hugh suddenly, letting the paper drop. ‘If you’ve the chance to help a friend, Osborne, do it.’ He had a peculiar look upon his face, strained about the eye, and not quite steady about the jaw.

‘What is it?’ I asked him.

‘Friend of mine in the obituaries,’ he said. ‘Sooty Asher.’

‘Oh, Hugh!’ I said. ‘I am sor—’

Hugh shook his head as though to get rid of a fly and went on, sounding angry now rather than stricken. ‘He killed himself. Shot his own head off. Got past the Boers, got past the Hun, settled himself in a good job, rising through the ranks, and then bang!’

‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘Well, you must try to get to the funeral, no matter how the roads are. Where is it?’

‘God knows,’ said Hugh. ‘He lived in Hyderabad. So they’ll probably have it there and send a tin pot of clinker back on a ship. You know what Indians are like. Poor old Sooty Asher.’

‘What was his Christian name?’ I asked. ‘Where are his family? I shall write to them and you can sign it, if you like. But I can’t call him Sooty.’

‘No family,’ said Hugh. ‘At least . . . I think there was a sister, but it was all rather under wraps. He had a patron, you know. We never asked and never cared.’ He glared at me as though I had been unfeeling. ‘So there’s no one to write to,’ he concluded, sounding bleak. Then he rose and left the room.

‘You didn’t deserve a scrap of that,’ said Alec.

‘I don’t mind,’ I replied. ‘Gosh, if one can’t snarl at one’s wife when an old pal blows his head off.’

‘Well, at any rate, I think I shall take Hugh’s advice and help my old pal Tony Gourlay,’ Alec said, but he looked over the letter with no great enthusiasm as he spoke.

‘Help him do what?’ I asked.

‘Keep his neck out of the noose,’ said Alec. ‘His mother writes to tell me I’m their last hope.’

‘What’s he done?’ I said. ‘Wouldn’t a lawyer be better?’

‘If I know Tony, he hasn’t done anything,’ said Alec. ‘He couldn’t, even if he wanted to. There was this one time in— And Tony didn’t even— Just stood there and waited for— If I hadn’t—’

I had grown used to the way Alec spoke of the trenches and was able, just about, to fill in the dreadful words for myself.

‘But what has he been accused of?’ I said.

‘Murder,’ said Alec.

‘And he protests his innocence?’

‘He protests nothing,’ Alec said. ‘He hasn’t spoken for fifteen years. He’s got the worst case of shell shock I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. He’s been mute since before the Armistice, living in a mad house out on the Lanark Moor, that goes by the jaw-dropping title of Hopekist Head. Hardly! Anyway, he lives there, carving wood and digging flowerbeds – rotting in other words. And then suddenly this Christmas he’s supposed to have broken out, set fire to a chapel and killed a nun! What is it, Dandy? You’ve gone paler than Hugh.’