Dandy Gilver and A Spot of Toil and Trouble : Guest post by Catriona McPherson

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In Dandy Gilver and A Spot of Toil and Trouble there are two stately homes. One – Castle Bewer – is a dark, damp Gothic pile where a production of Macbeth is being mounted. Thus the Bewer family hope to keep the wolf from the door. Castle Bewer is more or less Caerlaverock Castle in Dumfriesshire.

The other house is Mespring. And nothing like it exists in Dumfriesshire, that’s for sure. It’s fictional. It truly is fictional. But I know some of its over-the-top décor is identical to the décor of real stately homes I’ve wandered round, with my mouth hanging open, unable to believe that people ever chose such insane levels of ornamentation for walls, floor and furniture. Visits to Chatsworth have definitely helped me write this. Hopetoun too. And Drumlanrig Castle, where I first saw leather wallpaper of the kind described here.

I thought it would be fun to have the Annandales of Mespring be quite sanguine about the look of their house, even while they prepare to open it to the public at a shilling a pop. Here’s some of the best fun I’ve ever had writing fiction – Billy Annandale giving Dandy Gilver an advance peek at the splendours of Mespring:

It was, quite simply, staggering. A game of rugby football could have taken place in this hall and still left room for the household to have tea undisturbed by the fire. It was enormous, like a cathedral, and stuffed to its waistline with marble in every conceivable shade. The floor was mustard with green veins, the fireplace ginger with pink, and the pillars were the nasty brown of chocolate ice-cream. The statues were good plain white but they were dwarfed by what was above them. Surely, I thought, this hallway had been raised at some time in its long life. Surely no architect had planned all of this at once. For on top of the green, brown and pink marble excesses was another room entirely, as though its floor had fallen through and they had simply left it hovering there. The upper room was a riot of painted frescos, crawling over walls and ceiling. Literally crawling in most instances, I noted, since the tableaux – as such tableaux tend to – suggested that people do not walk around or sit down but that instead they drape themselves on couches if mortal or clouds if not, so that a crowd of them painted on a grand scale is simply a tangle of arms and legs and the odd bit of floating drapery. Gods, cherubs, graces, nymphs and puttis rolled about from the top of the hideous marble on one wall all the way across to the top of the hideous marble on the other, eyes beseeching, limbs waving and clothes mostly falling off.

It’s-’ I said.

Billy Annandale guffawed. ‘It certainly is. Let’s keep walking. I’m afraid there’s a lot more of it before we get to the long gallery.’ He cleared his throat modestly, an impeccable imitation of a very correct footman, or perhaps a clerk in a rather staid bank. ‘This, as you see, is the great hall and if we ascend the great stairs’ – he waved to both sides, pointing out the disputed Rembrandt on the way – ‘we arrive at the great drawing room.’ Here, in a chamber forty feet long if it was an inch, as well as marble and tapestries and a fresco of the birth of Venus with a great many more flailing arms and legs and even less clothing, there was also a quantity of veneered wood in that very intricate parquetry that I am afraid makes me think of dartboards. Add the fact that the carpet was Victorian and so had not yet begun to fade the way that older carpets do – so kind to their surroundings – and the fact that the curtains were set about with tassels and tucks and looked like the costumes of a battalion of pantomime dames, and the drawing room was worse than the hall.

And now the great dining room,’ Billy said, flinging open one of a pair of doors.

What on earth is that?’ I asked, stepping through into an even longer room, which seemed to have been afflicted with some kind of fungus.

It’s leather wallpaper,’ Billy said. ‘Stamped, silvered and gilded. Do you like it?”

Uh,’ I said. ‘It’s ingenious.’

Again Billy only laughed and said: ‘if you’re wondering how much better it would look with more gilding covering the leather . . . Behold the great music room.”

Oof,’ I said, for here the gilt was dazzling and the marble border above it – quite ten feet deep – had even more naked nymphs, all managing to play violins, pipes and lutes while rolling on their backs.

We did think of redoing the chairs,’ said Billy, waving at the rows of those uncomfortable little gilt and velvet affairs one sits on during music recitals. They are wonderful at keeping one awake even after a solid dinner, but most unfortunately in this case they had been covered in what I can only call orange. It was not the gold of the leather walls nor even the cream of the damask curtains. It was an unrepentant orange. ‘But really,’ Billy went on, ‘what’s the use? If we actually started to look at any of it with the eye of taste we would curl up in little balls and weep wouldn’t we? Anyway, finally the ordeal is over and we have arrived at . . . the great gallery.’

We passed through another tall door and it was a testament to the garish nature of the rooms behind us that this – a sixty-foot gallery with red walls, red carpet and gargantuan portraits in those gold encrusted frames that look as though they have been overrun by barnacles – seemed almost soothing.

God knows what the trippers will make of it all,’ Billy said.

I think,’ I told him, quite honestly, ‘they will be over-awed and delighted but, because not everything is exactly in accordance with modern tastes, they won’t be quite so covetous and dissatisfied with their own little villas and flats as they might be otherwise.’

Billy stared at me. ‘What a nice woman you are,’ he said. ‘They’ll be happy to have paid their shilling to see this ugly barn of a place and they’ll go home to cream paint and plain rugs quite content?’

Exactly.’

Dandy Gilver and A Spot of Toil and Trouble is published by Hodder & Stoughton

The President and The Duchess by Michelle Morrissette

When John F. ‘Jack’ Kennedy arrived in Southampton, England, aboard the Normandy on 2 July 1938, little did he know that he would meet lifelong friends. And that those friends would be involved in his Presidential Administration some 20 years later, and they would help him hold on to a piece of the past he could not forget.

Since Jack arrived 2 months after his sister Kathleen, known as ‘Kick’, she introduced her older brother to her friends, and he formed close friendships with Debo Mitford, brothers Andrew and Billy Cavendish, and David Ormsby Gore, who would become President Kennedy’s Ambassador to Great Britain. Soon after his arrival and subsequent introduction to his sister’s society friends, he attended a ball given by Lady Mountbatten for her best friend’s daughter, Sally Norton, and there he danced with Debo. Renowned for his charisma, especially with the female sex, he failed to make a favourable impression on Debo, and she declared he was ‘boring but nice’. Her mother, Lady Redesdale, however, predicted that young Jack would one day be the President of the United States. On the evening of Sally Norton’s ball, Kick would have her first date with Billy Cavendish, and although Debo failed to see how Jack would make history, Kick and Billy were already creating their own. They concluded the 1938 social season at the Goodwood Races in Sussex. Jack was thin from various illnesses,but he lived those days as if there would be no tomorrow. It is sad to think of it now, but the world for these young people was about to change, and it would become the last season of debutante balls, and their carefree days before the Second World War.

During wartime their futures appeared certain. Debo and Andrew married on 19 April 1941; and Kick and Billy were to marry in May 1944, only for him to die 3 months later from a sniper’s bullet in Belgium. As historians know, Kick, as Billy’s wife, was to become the Duchess of Devonshire upon the death of her father-in-law. However, Billy’s early death changed the line of succession and now Andrew was to be his father’s heir and Debo would take Kick’s place as duchess. But Kick felt an affinity with England, and rather than moving back to America as her family wanted her to, she bought a house at 4 Smith Square, where she felt at home with her English friends and late husband’s family. Fate can be cruel, and Kick herself met an untimely death in May 1948 when she was killed in a plane crash. Her parents-in-law arranged for her to be buried in the family’s graveyard at St Peter’s Church, Edensor.

Despite this abrupt end to their association with the Kennedys, the two familys would share an everlasting bond throughout the years. The Kennedys visited England, and the Cavendishes watched Jack’s budding political career from across the Atlantic. Then, in 1961, Jack fulfilled Lady Redesdale’s premonition by becoming the 35th President of the United States.

Acknowledging this familial tie, he sent Debo and Andrew – now the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire – an invitation to his Inauguration on 20 January 1961, and Debo remembered that Jack was like a ‘Queen Bee’ and was followed by photographers wherever he went. On their next visit to Washington, in December 1961, Debo dined with Jack and his two friends at the White House for the first time. When dinner was announced, she went to open the door but Jack threw out his arm and said: ‘No, not you. I go first, I’m Head of State. Accustomed to his informal ways, Debo realised he was right, and said, ‘Oh, so you are.’ The following evening, Jack and Debo went together to the National Gallery of Art, and when they arrived he turned to her and whispered: ‘They think I like art. I hate it.’ During the event, an English delegate tried to monopolise the president, but he turned her down saying, ‘Not now. It’s your turn tomorrow.’ This managed to get rid of the woman in question without offending her. Formalities aside, Debo admired Jack’s humour and his willingness to laugh at himself, and she liked that he was not self-absorbed about his accomplishments or his political rank. And, if he did not know something, he said so without feeling intellectually challenged. This, she found refreshing.

The next time Debo and Andrew were in Washington was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The purpose of their visit was to attend an exhibition of Old Master Drawings of Chatsworth at the National Gallery. They dined at the White House on October 21, the night before the President announced to the nation the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade. Although Debo herself admitted she did not realise what kind of crisis America faced, she thought the atmosphere at the White House remained the same and she attributed this to Jack’s steady nerves. During that week, they laughed and talked of the old days, of Kick and the various girls he had known from his days in England, before the war. Before she left, Jack invited Debo for a swim in the White House pool, and again they reminisced.

When she returned home, she often received telephone calls from Jack. Sometimes it was a question about Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister and uncle to Andrew. Like Debo and Andrew, Jack too had begun to call him ‘Uncle Harold’. Or sometimes he would call just to talk, and it was during these transatlantic chats that Jack was given the nickname ‘Loved One’, or ‘L.O.’. In true Mitford fashion, the nickname was inspired after he called on the 4th July to ask Debo if she had her ‘loved ones around her’. Among the items auctioned at Debo’s Sotheby’s auction was a copy of Jacques Low’s 1961 biography The Emergence of John F. Kennedy (Item #138), and the President himself had signed it ‘For Debo, with happy thoughts. John Kennedy LO’.

The last time Debo saw Jack was before his death in June 1963 while on an official visit to Europe. He wished to pay his respects at Kick’s grave, and, due to the security risk, the visit was kept as quiet as possible. A wooden bridge had been erected across the park to the church, and Debo and Andrew went with him and then left him alone to visit with his sister. But the locals soon realized, due to the noise of his helicopter, that he was there, and as he left the churchyard people had gathered to take photographs. Then, against the advice of the Secret Service, he decided to visit Chatsworth. On the way there, Jack took great delight in describing the Presidential helicopter which, he said, had a bathroom. When Debo asked him ‘What for? You could not need a bath in that short a trip,’ she realized he meant a lavatory.

The awful news of Jack’s assassination on November 22 1963 reached Debo and Andrew, and they felt as though tragedy had struck them once again. They travelled to Washington alongside the Duke of Edinburgh, who represented Queen Elizabeth, to attend Jack’s funeral. Their presence was more than a formality, they had gone to attend the funeral of a very dear family member and friend.

I believe that the Duchess and the President got along so well for a number of reasons, above all else she valued his wit and laughter. And, for Jack himself, Debo was a link to his sister, whom he had loved dearly.

Michelle Morrissette is a Kennedy Researcher, and the mother of two sons. She lives in St Louis, Missouri.

Originally published in The Mitford Society Vol IV

Camelot in the Derbyshire Dales by Kim Place-Gateau

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Whenever one decides to re-imagine a bit of history, one must accept that in this alternative universe they’re creating, some of their favourite events might not have happened. But in exchange, something magical may have taken place instead.

In her memoir, Wait for Me, Debo devotes a chapter to her relationship with the Kennedys. And no wonder; not only were she and Kick good friends, Debo and her sisters had moved in the same social circles as had the Kennedys when Joe Sr. was ambassador in the late 1930s, and they’d married into the same family. Thus her connection to this remarkable and tragic family endured.

John F. Kennedy, known as ‘Jack’, certainly felt this same connection. He made a point of including Debo and Andrew in important Washington events, including his inauguration in 1961. He also visited them at Chatsworth. He sometimes called her at 3AM, just to talk things over. Some have speculated that perhaps Debo has fallen sway to Jack Kennedy’s famous charm, and that they were lovers. This writer remains agnostic on that conclusion; it seems far more likely that Jack, having been so very fond of Kick, simply saw Debo and her family as part of the Kennedy clan. (A terribly attractive, magnetic and utterly fascinating part of the family, perhaps, but still part of the family.) Bobby picked up the correspondence after Jack’s death, and continued to flirt amiably with her until his assassination in 1968.

So had Billy and Kick succeeded as the duke and duchess, it’s certain that Jack and Kick, as close friends as well as siblings, would have created a social and political alliance between their generation of Devonshires and Kennedys.

Let’s imagine this, for a moment. What if Billy Cavendish had returned from the war? He would have inherited the estate and the title in 1950, assuming Eddy’s drinking and wood chopping had continued apace. It’s tempting, however, to wonder if Eddy would have been as dedicated to drink as he was had he not lost Billy and Kick. This happy turn of events would have enabled the family to hang onto many of the real estate and art treasures that had to be sold to pay death duties on the estate, which leads us down even more alternative paths.

In any case, Billy and Kick would have already started a family by 1950. Jack and Jacqueline Bouvier, married in 1953, would have been frequent guests through the 1950s, as Jack was a dedicated Anglophile, and as his political career blossomed, Congressman Kennedy, then Senator Kennedy, and eventually President Kennedy and his growing family would have likely had a suite waiting for them at Chatsworth. Once there was a president in the family, surely Uncle Harold would have been invited to these high-powered family gatherings. David Ormsby-Gore would have completed the picture. Chatsworth would have become the political, social and style centre of England. It would have served as a retreat for presidents and prime ministers and a backdrop for important summits. Perhaps Jack, infamous playboy that he was, would have found a way to stash a mistress there periodically (though I suspect he would have had to accomplish this without Kick’s overt co-operation).

Of course, in this alternative universe, it would still be the grand country house it is in reality, but in addition, it would be in the international spotlight as the impossibly beautiful home where the English aristocracy, with all its wealth and tradition, mingled with American power and youthful glamour. It would have been Camelot, brought back home to England.

The Jet Age is the perfect backdrop for this imagined scenario. Travel between Washington, D.C. and England was suddenly quite fast, though still very expensive – not a problem for the Kennedys or the Devonshires, of course. With a young, beautiful monarch on the throne; a handsome duke and his fetching, charming wife at Chatsworth; a prominent Kennedy on either side of the Atlantic and the easy availability of international airports, it’s difficult to imagine how the Kennedys and the Devonshires wouldn’t have turned Chatsworth into a hub of international intrigue, and the very centre of everything fashionable and modern. On the other side of the Atlantic, imagine the media coverage of Kick, Billy and their children playing American football at the famous Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port. Already a regular fixation of the US media, the addition of English nobility would perhaps have been more than the American public could bear.

Debo, of course, wouldn’t be duchess in this alternative universe, and that would be a loss. Andrew would have lived the life of a second son; making his way in business, or law, or perhaps taking up residence at Lismore Castle, which Andrew inherited in 1947. (Adele Astaire, presumably, would still have been a frequent guest.) But surely Debo and Kick would have remained close friends, since Kick would surely have admired Debo’s flair for business and entertaining, and would have found her fascinating and scandalous family an irresistible diversion. Debo and Andrew would have frequented the power gatherings at Chatsworth, different as it may have been from the Chatsworth they oversaw in the real world during this period.

One of the enormous challenges Debo and Andrew faced, of course, was paying off the death duties on the estate after the death of Edward Cavendish in 1950. Had Billy and Kick been the Duke and Duchess instead, perhaps some of Joe Kennedy’s millions would have been available to preserve more of the assets than Debo and Andrew were able to. What effect would that have had in England? Joe didn’t distinguish himself as ambassador, after all, as exciting as his family might have been to the English public. And what would Nancy have thought? New, American money invested in Chatsworth? It is a dreadful prospect, do admit.

And then there’s the children. Kick’s American children would have been part of the English aristocracy. Of course, English aristocrats were fond of marrying American socialites and heiresses, so this wasn’t an uncommon turn of events. But Kick’s great-grandparents, Patrick and Bridget Kennedy, were working-class Irish immigrants to the United States, and had she lived, one of Kick’s children would have been in line to inherit one of the most valuable estates in England, along with a prestigious title. It’s heady stuff. As baffled as the immigrant Kennedys would have been by their descendants’ rise to such monetary and political success, surely being part of the English nobility would have been the second least believable part, right behind their great-grandson being the US president. And, of course, this means that Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s children would be nearly as tied to England as their cousins, with an English duke for an uncle and a vast estate from which to base their foreign travels and social lives.

I like to imagine Kick and Billy, by then in middle age, smoking cigarettes on the South Portico of the White House, along with Jack, Jackie, Andrew, Debo and perhaps Bobby or Teddy, kings and queens of the 1960s landscape. It’s true, Chatsworth would likely have lost some of its essential Englishness had Billy and Kick lived, but imagining these two powerful, famous families jetting between our two countries, enjoying a shooting party in Scotland in September, a reception in the Rose Garden in May, and sailing off the New England coast all summer, almost makes up for the loss of Debo’s remarkable transformation of Chatsworth. Almost – but not quite.

Kim lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband, cats and dog. A friend of hers in Scotland recently had her piano tuned by Decca’s son, a fact which gives her enormous pleasure.

Originally published in The Mitford Society Vol IV

Guest Post: The Most Exotic Mitford of them all: Algernon Bertram Mitford (1837-1916) by Robert Morton

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Bertie by Samuel Laurence, drawn in 1865, just before he went to China.

Of course, the Mitford sisters didn’t come from nowhere. Mitties know about ‘Farve’ – David, 2nd Lord Redesdale – and probably wonder how such an eccentric, but apparently untalented, man could have produced such exceptional daughters. Few, however, go one generation further back, to his remarkable father, Algernon Bertram Mitford, a man of considerable ability and personality, who played a significant role in a faraway revolution.

Bertie (being Mitfords, they pronounced it ‘Bartie’) had a difficult early life. His mother abandoned the family when he was four and he was sent away to board at Eton at the age of nine, where he struggled. He recovered, however, going on to Oxford, and then entering the most prestigious government department, the Foreign Office. As a young adult, he had everything going for him: he was tall and handsome, always immaculately dressed, with large blue eyes and an elegant pointed, slightly hooked nose, set off by a carefully-groomed moustache.

Bertie had seemed set to follow the same course as his father by taking a congenial overseas posting (in his father’s case, Florence), before settling to a calm aristocratic existence in Britain. But in 1865, Bertie did something strange. The top civil servant in the Foreign Office casually mentioned that he was having trouble finding someone for a junior attaché position in Beijing and Bertie amazed him by volunteering for it. Beijing was considered the ultimate hardship posting: remote, lonely, dangerous and uncomfortable. And the following year, Bertie went somewhere that was a lot more hazardous: Japan.

In spite of this, it was a country that suited Bertie much better than China. There, he found that his elegant manners, combined with his status as a diplomat, gave him access to the highest levels of government and society, just when they started tolerating the presence of outsiders. He met with the Emperor face-to-face when almost everybody else, including the Shogun, could only talk to him from behind a screen. He became friendly with the last Shogun and was in the first group of Westerners to witness a hara-kiri (ritual suicide). He played a part in one of the great turning points in world history: the chaotic1868 revolution that saw the demise of the 250-year feudal dynasty ruled over by the Shoguns and its replacement by a modern state.

Bertie showed remarkable courage in Japan: he almost drowned, could have burned to death or died of exposure, was shot at, and was nearly cut down by samurai swords, but he did not flinch. The country was the making of him and his classic Tales of Old Japan, which is still in print nearly 150 years after it was first published, turned him into a celebrity in Britain. This set him on a path of fame which would lead him to being made Lord Redesdale by Edward VII in 1902. This meant that on his death, David succeeded to the same title, making his daughters ‘Hons’ – the style that they used so memorably.

Bertie died in 1916 and so only knew his older grandchildren. Nevertheless, there were two things that he did towards the end of his life which had fateful consequences for them all, but especially for Unity. The first was to write a long introduction to a book by a British writer who lived in Germany, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, entitled The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. The work attracted Hitler’s attention, for obvious reasons: ‘Physically and mentally’, Chamberlain wrote, the Aryans are ‘pre-eminent among all peoples’, and ‘for that reason they are by right … the lords of the world’, while the Jews were ‘everlastingly alien’. Bertie was not anti-Semitic, but he went along with Chamberlain’s crackpot racial theories. Because of his association with the work, Hitler held Bertie in high regard, which made him look on Bertie’s descendants favourably; when he was showing Diana and Unity the grave of Wagner, Hitler told them it was an honour to be visiting it with the great Lord Redesdale’s granddaughters.

The other thing Bertie did was insist on Unity being given the middle name Valkyrie, a strange choice at any time, but especially for a baby born four days after Britain had declared war on Germany in 1914. Bertie pointed out that the Valkyrie were Scandinavian, not German, war maidens, but the choice was a reflection of his love of the operas of Richard Wagner. The name Valkyrie became important because Hitler thought that it made Unity a talisman of good fortune for him.

It is easy to see much in Bertie that carried down to the sisters: looks, aristocratic bearing, literary talent, bold imagination and an ambitious, enterprising spirit. What he did not share with them was their susceptibility to scandal. He was the son of divorced parents and knew how painful social disgrace could be, so his own family life was a model of respectability – on the outside. He appeared – and indeed was, in many ways – a devoted husband to his wife Clementine, and they had five sons and four daughters together. When Sydney first met them, she was impressed: he was ‘the best looking old man’ she had ever seen, ‘with pure white hair and glittering … blue eyes, together with a bony rather hooked nose and a good figure’. Clementine, on the other hand ‘had a fine presence and much personality. She was beautiful in her youth but … was too fat.’ She gave birth to their youngest children, twins, when Bertie was fifty-eight and she forty-one, which suggests that they kept some spark in their marriage over the years. Jonathan and Catherine Guinness (Diana’s son and granddaughter) in The House of Mitford portrayed her as a conventional woman, a ‘bit stuffy’, but fair-minded. It looks like she ruled the roost indoors, while Bertie was allowed to do what he wanted outside.

Which is certainly what he did. His most significant affair was with Blanche Hozier, the mother of Winston Churchill’s wife, another Clementine – there is a strong chance Bertie was her father (see Sonia Purnell’s post on Blanche for fuller details!). In carrying on with Blanche, he was having an affair with his wife’s sister, something which would have utterly outraged society, so Bertie was taking a big risk. However, he made sure that they were not found out.

How much easier, but how much less interesting, life would have been for his granddaughters had they been as careful as he was.

A.B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan as a Modern State: Letters Home by Robert Morton is published by Renaissance Books

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A.B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan as a Modern State: Letters Home, by Robert Morton is published by Renaissance Books

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Robert is a biographer and historian living in Japan. In the few free moments he has when he isn’t thinking about the Mitford family from far away, he is a professor at Chuo University in Tokyo.

Lady Blanche Hozier by Sonia Purnell

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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.

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

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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?
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‘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.’

Why Does the Britain of the Early 1900s Intrigue and Delight So Many of Us? By Tessa Arlen

Following the publication of her second novel, Death Sits Down to Dinner, Tessa Arlen gives The Mitford Society a lesson in Edwardian etiquette.

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Today the great houses of Britain’s landed aristocracy with their vast, exquisite and often drafty interiors and views of sweeping parkland attest to the power of rank and wealth of a bygone age. They also provide a stunning backdrop for elegantly clothed men and women with gracious manners who star in numerous costume dramas. We are presently enraptured by the first two decades of the 1900s.

Let us ignore for the moment those gracious country houses that have survived to continue to provide their families with shelter, by providing the public with a place to picnic, or watch a steam engine rally, or drive through a safari park. It is a spectacularly golden July day and you have been invited for a Saturday-to-Monday, as the Edwardians called a weekend, to one of their glorious country houses. Here is a little advice to bear in mind for your short stay, after all you might want to be invited back!

Whatever you do don’t alienate the servants. It is important not to underestimate how the Edwardians related to those who ensured their comfort and provided them with flawless and devoted service. Servants employed in the great houses were part of the family, but not of it; a sizable distinction because it relies on generations of subtle understanding of the polite, but offhand tact, used by the uppers when they addressed the lower orders. Butlers, footmen and personal maids will be extraordinarily unforgiving if you wear incorrect attire for the country, and cruelly punishing if you are either patronizingly familiar or arrogantly dismissive. So beware! The butler and the housekeeper will be far more intimidating than the charmingly eccentric dowager duchess or that affable old colonel you will be seated next to when you arrive in time for tea.

Your Edwardian great-grandmother would have been able to give you some good advice. Huge pointers for your comportment this weekend would be restraint, restraint, and more restraint in a way we can’t begin to imagine today. Your great-grandmother would be the first to remind you to lower your voice to a well-modulated murmur, that it is rude to interrupt, or even be too enthusiastic. Do not comment on your surroundings, the magnificence of the house, or marvel at the deliciousness of your dinner. You are not on a ‘girls’ night out’, no matter how confiding and wickedly risqué your new Edwardian girlfriends appear to be, or how many glasses of wine the footman pours for you at dinner. So sorry I meant to say self-restraint – just place your hand palm down over your wine glass to indicate no thank you, when you feel a delighted shriek start to emerge.

This was a time when women were treated like goddesses . . . then they married and were kept at home to incubate an heir and a spare. While the men at your country house weekend might enjoy shooting and fishing, you are encouraged to watch and applaud, but not join to in. By all means pick up that croquet mallet if that is your sort of thing, and certainly a game of lawn tennis is permitted, if you can actually move in your pretty afternoon dress and that killing corset. When the gentlemen sit back to their port and a cigar after dinner your hostess will beckon you away with the other women – important that you go with them. Despite the luxurious existence of the early 1900s, most women today would find it impossible to live the hidebound, restricted life of early 20th century women. So after you have lugged in the groceries after a hard day at the office, made dinner and then helped the kids with their homework before putting them to bed, just in time to collapse on the sofa to catch an episode of Downton, try not to sigh too deeply when Mathew Crawley goes down on one knee in the swirling snow to propose to Lady Mary. Most of us would have been Ivy slogging away in the scullery and not Lady Grantham reading a novel in the drawing room.

Did the Edwardian Shangri-La portrayed in Downton Abbey ever really exist even for the upper classes? The short answer is ‘Yes’ if you were Lord Grantham and not his servant, his wife or any of his daughters. If you have a problem not seeking to right the inequities of life, then don’t get on that train at London’s Marylebone station for the country. Certainly there were drunken, abusive husbands, negligent and thoughtless parents, spendthrifts and philanderers in the Edwardian age . . . and wronged wives looked the other way. The trick to coping with the darker side of human nature, if you were of society, was that it must never be referred to, never confided and most definitely never publicly acknowledged. However if you are an egalitarian at heart and social ostracism doesn’t bother you too much, you might join Mrs. Pankhurst’s suffragettes and loudly proclaim your opinions. I have heard that Holloway Prison was equipped with a special wing for militant members of the WSPU.

The third housemaid will unpack your trunk for you – five changes of clothes a day for three days need an awful lot of tissue paper. Here’s a titillating scrap of fresh society gossip to share with the company – gossip was the spice of Edwardian life –a substitute for reality TV. Gladys, the Marchioness of Ripon, an ultra-sophisticate with a ‘past’ was a wonderful example of the Edwardian double-standard and loved to gossip with her close coterie of friends. Alone in her lover’s house one day she discovered a pile of rivetingly indiscreet love letters written to him by one of her social adversaries, Lady Londonderry. Gladys swiped the lot and generously shared the juicy bits – read aloud after dinner – to her closest friends. After the fun was over she honorably returned the letters to their author at Londonderry House –when she knew husband and wife were dining alone. The butler approached his lordship and handed over the ribbon-bound bundle. After studying the contents, in silence, Lord Londonderry directed his butler to carry the letters to the other end of the dining table. Silence still reigned as Lady Londonderry came to terms with her awful predicament, a silence that was never broken between the two of them again. Far worse than having an affair, Lady Londonderry had ‘let down the side’. Adultery was a fact of life, indiscretion unforgivable; to be the subject of common gossip shameful and the scandal of divorce out of the question. Lord Londonderry never spoke to his wife in private again, and maintained a distant, cold courtesy to her in public for the rest of their long marriage.

So much more entertaining than a splashy tabloid divorce, don’t you think?

Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Cairo, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She went to the U.S. in 1980 and worked as an H.R. recruiter for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. She is the author of the Lady Montfort mystery series. And lives on an island in the Puget Sound, Washington.

Guest Post: Janet Todd on historical Italy and A Man of Genius

Annabelle looked at the corpse. Hands and head separate. Blood had leaked from wrists and neck. Fluid covered part of the distorted features. The open eyes were stained so that they glared through their own darkness. A smell of rotting meat.

By itself the face was unrecognisable, yet she knew it was her father’s. What was a father? A man begot a body but not a mind. She prodded the head with her foot. The blood must have congealed for her boot remained clean.

Had she killed him? It wasn’t clear. She rather thought she had. She was sure she’d not cut him up. She hadn’t the strength. She would order the bits thrown in the Arno to mix with filth from the city. She turned away.

How many people do you have to murder before it becomes habitual? Before you cannot remember which corpse is which and who is its dispatcher?

She wiped old blood off her hands with her handkerchief. Her maid would wash it clean.

He’d come silently into the room and read from behind her. He smiled.

Ann felt the smile. ‘I will cross out the fluid and rotting meat,’ she said without looking up.

I began my novel with this invented passage because I wanted to introduce my main character, Ann, through what was in her head: the kind of work she wrote and read. She’d been writing Gothic novels for many years and her own and other people’s plots had filled her imagination from childhood to the present day (the early 1820s). Yet, when faced with a Gothic world of torment and pursuit she was as bewildered as anyone else would have been—and as any of the heroines of the novels she read and invented.

After this preface I opened the novel proper by going back to Ann a few years earlier:

She met Robert James in St Paul’s Churchyard. The bookseller
J. F. Hughes held a dinner once a week for his distinguished
writers and a few hacks. She was invited to leaven the party with what
a prized pornographer called ‘femality’. Mary Davies, who wrote
children’s primers for numbers and letters, was absent. Hers was a
more respectable trade than Ann’s gothic horrors but Mr Hughes
judged Ann less prissily genteel in men’s company.

An Italian was there. He said little except when talk veered towards argument. Then he remarked there was a sundial near Venice that claimed to count serene hours alone. How good, he added, to take notice of time only as it gives pleasure.
‘That sundial had not the English art of self-tormenting,’ said
Richard Perry, an intense, gentle man introduced by Mr Hughes as a
reviewer and former bookseller.
‘It’s surely not so easy to efface cares by refusing to name them,’
said Ann.
Nobody pursued the point. Signor Luigi Orlando felt no need to
facilitate further.

Later, much later, she wondered why Robert James had been
invited. He’d published nothing of consequence beyond that amazing
fragment of Attila. Did Mr Hughes believe in his promise as fervently
as his friends did? As he did?

At first he’d been silent and she hadn’t much remarked him.
During the introduction she’d failed to note his name, being too
engrossed in her own. Then, as afternoon turned to evening, and
wine and conversation flowed, he’d started to dominate the talk, to
catch and keep attention. He spoke animatedly.

She knew who he was then.

My purpose in A Man of Genius is to bring together a woman writer who sees herself as a jobbing novelist and a male poet who’s regarded by many as a ‘genius’. The exhilaration and pain of their relationship come from a combination of fascination and repulsion on both sides. She may suffer more severely but the relationship is, at base, one of mutual torment. However the work is a psychological and historical mystery and nothing is ever quite what it seems at first….

For my work as a critic and biographer of women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I read a lot of Gothic novels. I relished the gory woodcuts that often accompanied their title pages. Wonderfully crude and energetic.

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I was especially interested in the women who wrote them. The authors weren’t all women but a substantial number clearly was. On the whole their lives are obscure but, when we can hear them at all, they make no claims for their hack work and are eager to state they are not encroaching on the male territory of Literature. Often they claim they write only for money and because they have to: they are spinsters with ailing fathers or they are widows or abandoned wives.

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While the mass market was growing for cheap novels and sensational tales, fed by scribbling writers, a contrasting cult of the ‘genius’ grew up. He—and it was usually a ‘he’—was understood to be a distinctive and specially endowed human being. Consequently he was not constrained by the same morality and rules as other mortals. To sustain his role he needed immense self-confidence as well as the belief, even adulation, of others.

My biography, Death and the Maidens, described the effect of a real and haunted ‘genius’–the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley–on Fanny, the eldest daughter of the great feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as on her half sister Mary Shelley, whom he later married, and on his first wife Harriet. In A Man of Genius, an entirely fictional work, I imagine what occurs when the assumed genius begins to doubt his superior powers and when his lover fears her idol might have no substance.

The setting for much of A Man of Genius is Venice. I describe the city at a special moment in its history. For centuries Venice had grow rich and powerful as the dominant maritime and commercial state along the Adriatic. It boasted a thousand-year-old past as an independent republic. It had been home to the greatest sculptors and architects, as well as to the most celebrated Renaissance painters, Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian. Its richness in money and art was legendary.

But, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had suffered a long decline and the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte found little opposition in 1797 when he decided to conquer it and subsume it into his Italian empire.

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After this shaming defeat, Venice was shunted back and forwards between France and Austria until after the battle of Waterloo and the final defeat of Napoleon it fell finally into Austrian hands and was made part of the kingdom of Lombardy and Venetia. A few Venetians collaborated with the Austrian masters, appreciating some aspects of the order they brought to the city, others preferred the French as being closer to them in temperament, though more plundering of Venetian treasures. Others hugely resented what had happened to Venice and plotted for independence –an independence that would never return.

In 1866 Venice was subsumed into the new kingdom of Italy.

The run down and conquered city of 1819-20 is the backdrop of my story. Venice was still at that time part of the grand tour for gentlemen from Britain for it retained much of its amazing art and architecture. At the same time it was beginning to attract more modest middle class tourists. These were armed with an increasing array of guidebooks.

The era of mass tourism was, however, still in the future. It awaited the coming of the railway.

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One of the more bizarre events happening at the time my characters travelled to Venice was the scandal of the British royal family. As so often in history, the royals provided much entertainment for the public at home and abroad. To secure the succession the dissolute Prince Regent had been urged into an alliance with a German princess Caroline of Brunswick. He took an instant dislike to her and desperately sought a way out of the hated marriage. Over the next years, as she travelled with a rather louche entourage around Europe, he worked to establish enough evidence to bring about a divorce. She was especially linked in scandal with an obscure Italian called Bartolomeo Pergami, much decorated with the honours she bestowed on him: the pair provided great amusement through the newspapers and cartoons. My characters in Venice couldn’t avoid hearing of what was entertaining all of Europe.

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So — my novel is set in specific history but is not about history. It occurs in a particular place that is both real and imaginary. But, then, there is always something ‘imaginary’ about Venice.

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Janet Todd has just retired from being an academic mainly in the US and the UK. Her last positions were as Professor of English in the University of Aberdeen and President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Her most recent works have been introductions to the novels of Jane Austen and biographies of women writers from Aphra Behn to Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn. A Man of Genius is her first original novel.

Guest Post: Love and Ginger Biscuits by Jolien Janzing

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21 April marks the 200th birthday of Charlotte Brontë. The author of – to name one – Jane Eyre will be celebrated in Brussels, the city where she studied and fell in love. Belgian author Jolien Janzing traveled from Belgium to Yorkshire in search of the true identity of one of England’s most beloved writers.

The sea, the sea. It is the title of one of my favourite novels, by Iris Murdoch. A wonderful title that evokes the endlessness of the sea; the rolling of the waves is captured in the repetition. It is morning, and I am eating buttered toast and scrambled eggs on board of a ferry about to enter the port of Hull. Last night, as the ferry left Zeebrugge harbour, I was rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of the sea. This morning is shrouded in a thick fog, and the vague contours of containers and stacks of bricks are all I can discern of the shore. The idea of traveling to Hull by ferry, like Charlotte Brontë made the trip from London to Ostend by steamer, seemed inspiring to me. She from England to Belgium, I from Belgium to England. Somewhere along the way, the two ships could have crossed in the night, if it weren’t for the fact that Charlotte’s steamer made the journey in 1842.

This is the third time I am on my way to visit the scene of Charlotte’s childhood: Haworth with its steep high street, high up in the barren hills of West Yorkshire. Once upon a time, Haworth was a small industrial town with a population of domestic weavers and families of which almost all members above the age of six worked in the textile factories down by the river. The textile factories are abandoned nowadays, but the town has been preserved beautifully as a pilgrimage for Brontë fans.

After a three-day stay in Haworth I will travel on to Shipley, where I am to be received by the Brontë Society. The literary society is hosting its annual lunch – this year’s edition marks the start of a series of festivities to celebrate Charlotte’s 200th birthday. I have been invited as a guest speaker, but I am not particularly nervous. It is as if, after having submerged myself in Charlotte Brontë’s life for five years, she has become a sister to me. As if she is sitting across from me, sipping tea. Her world has become familiar. The figure sitting across from me is, of course, only my Charlotte, my interpretation of everything that is known about her.

The life of Charlotte Brontë reads like a novel. Born in the village of Thornton, Charlotte was the third child of Anglican minister Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria. Three more children followed: Branwell, Emily and Anne. When Charlotte was three-years-old, the minister was appointed the town of Haworth as his parish. The family moved into the rectory, a spacious manor overlooking the treeless hills and the cemetery. Maria would die of cancer not long after the relocation, leaving Patrick with six children. He sent the four eldest girls, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily, off to a boarding school for daughters of impoverished clergymen. This soon proved a fatal mistake, as the school was poorly run and the children suffered from cold and hunger. Maria and Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis and were taken home, where they would pass away. Later in life, Charlotte would write about this horrendous school in a way that anyone who has read Jane Eyre will not lightly forget.

Less commonly known is that Charlotte and Emily came to Brussels in their early twenties to perfect their command of the French language. Charlotte had taken up the idea to found a school in Yorkshire with her younger sisters, and such an undertaking would require a considerable level of French proficiency on the part of the Brontë girls. Brussels was an obvious choice, both because life in the Belgian capital was significantly cheaper compared to Paris, and because the city had become familiar terrain for the English following the battle of Waterloo.

I spend my first night in Haworth at Ponden Hall, a large 17th century farmhouse in a valley near Haworth. I read by the fireplace and later crawl into the bedstead that closes by means of two small doors. On the side of the outer wall is a cutout in the wood panel with a small, old window, fogged by the damp mist that covers the fields outside. A number of books are stacked on the stone windowsill, warped by the mildew. This is the window tapped by the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Back in the Brontë sisters’ days, the house belonged to Robert Heaton, a well-off captain of industry. Ponden Hall contained the most extensive library in the area, frequented by the young Charlotte and Emily. As women were not allowed to borrow books from the village library, the sisters happily seized the opportunity to read books in the deep window recesses of Ponden Hall. Robert Heaton was in love with Emily, but when he declared her his love in the kitchen one afternoon, young Emily slid off her chair to play with a couple of puppies under the table – she never was particularly interested in men.

Although Emily possessed a remarkable, lively imagination, she founded her stories on her surroundings the same way Charlotte did. Indeed, the description of the room with the bedstead and the small window in Wuthering Heights is so reminiscent of my bedroom here at Ponden Hall that I simply know this must be the place where Emily’s heroine came knocking. Cathy, with the wild hair and fluttering nightdress, her face pale and contorted with grief, in search of her beloved Heathcliff.

The annual lunch of the literary society takes place at Hollins Hall, a decent hotel in Shipley. The place is atmospheric: a rippling Schubert in the background, the smell of earl grey, ginger nuts and the sloping landscape outside.

I read from Charlotte Brontë’s secret love, the English translation of my novel De meester. On a warm summer day, a lonesome and sad Charlotte walked the streets of Brussels. Eventually, she entered Sint-Michiel’s cathedral and went to confession with a young priest. For the daughter of an Anglican minister, it was unthinkable to enter a catholic church, leave alone go to confession, but Charlotte had fallen in love with a married man and felt the need to talk about her predicament: an anonymous confession provided the solution.

We have a lunch of roast, Yorkshire pudding and peas. The last strawberries of the season with cream for dessert. I talk about the morals and customs in the city of Brussels in the mid-19th century. About how adulterous behaviour on the part of married gentlemen was often tolerated by their wives. The possibilities were many, as long as one did not discuss them openly and went to confession every week. ‘Is it possible that monsieur Heger awakened our Charlotte sexually?’ asks a lady who had traveled all the way from London to attend the literary lunch.

After Charlotte’s death, many of her fans visited Constantin Heger in Brussels. Heger, on these occasions, never failed to profess how the famous novelist had been in love with him and proudly showed the letters she wrote to him. At the same time, he presented himself as a devoted husband and father who would not have considered turning a young woman’s head. Although Charlotte’s biographers have taken his version of the story for the truth, it is my belief that there are plenty of reasons to believe Heger was an incorrigible flirt. For instance, there is the sensual letter he wrote to another one of his female pupils, in which he tells her how he conjures her image as he sits in his study at night, enjoying a cigar. If a male teacher were to write a similar letter in this day and age, there would be no end to the trouble he would be getting himself into. Furthermore, he received a number of love letters from Charlotte after her return to England. The letter written in the fall of 1845 – no less than one year and ten months after their goodbye – is especially passionate and desperate. I find it impossible to imagine that the intelligent Charlotte, no matter how sensitive and weakened by her heartbreak, would write such a letter to a man who supposedly never actively ignited the passion inside of her.

From Yorkshire I travel to London, where I meet Jenni Murray for an interview in Woman’s Hour at the studios of BBC Radio 4. The other guest on the show is the writer of Charlotte Brontë’s new biography. Jenni asks me why I chose to let Emily befriend Louise de Bassompierre, another student at the Pensionnat Heger, in my novel. She obviously finds this peculiar, as it is known of Emily that she liked to keep to herself. I replied that the friendship existed in reality. Upon their goodbye, Emily gave Louise a sketch of a pine tree struck by lightning. Their friendship was special, precisely because it was very rare for Emily to form an attachment to someone. Given her misanthropy, her fondness of her home with its daily routines, and her love for animals, I am inclined to think she may have been slightly autistic.

The interview is short, but we have a little time to chat afterwards. About Charlotte, of course. As is often the case, opinions are divided. In the new biography, Charlotte is portrayed as a disappointed, even somewhat bitter woman, and no longer as a feminist. I do not recognize my Charlotte in this defeated character. My Charlotte got back up to fight whenever she was kicked to the ground. She lost her older sisters and her mother as a young child, but she scribbled wonderful stories in tiny booklets; she experienced heartache at the hands of Constantin Heger, but wrote Jane Eyre; she lost her sister Emily, her brother Branwell and her sister Anne, but she straightened her back and wrote Shirley. In the lobby of my hotel, I read from my novel to a group of Brontë fans. The train, the train. How Madame Heger traveled to Ostend with Charlotte to ensure her pupil took the packet boat to England. Indeed, she could no longer tolerate that English young lady jeopardizing her marriage.

That night I, too, take the boat. I am on the deck and I am saying goodbye. The moment that every writer longs for, but fears at the same time, has arrived. Goodbye to the years that I have dedicated to this story: to Emily’s piano playing, to Charlotte’s letters, to the girls’ voices in the corridors of the Pensionnat Heger, and to the old Brussels. A world that was mine for such a long time, now swallowed by the waves.

Guest Post by Marina Fiorato

Marina Fiorato is the bestselling author of historical fiction. Her charming book, Beatrice and Benedick, about Shakespeare’s fabled lovers, was reviewed on The Mitford Society. She has written a guest-post on gender, a major theme in her forthcoming book, Kit.

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Gender and what defines it seems to be more in the news than ever. Across the pond Caitlyn Jenner has hit the headlines, while here in the UK Grayson Perry is becoming almost an establishment figure. Well before transgender surgery was an option, cross-dressing has been a way for men and women to experience the world of the opposite sex.

The Roman Emperor Elegabus had his whole body depilated, French spy Charles D’Eon became the handmaiden of a Russian Empress, and Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated in order to dress as a man for the rest of her life. But my imagination was caught by a woman who entered the ultimate man’s world: the battlefield.

Kit Kavanagh was a redheaded Irish beauty who happily ran an alehouse in Dublin with her husband Richard. In 1702 the regiment came to town; when they left the next morning Kit’s husband had disappeared too. Discovering that Richard had been pressed into service, Kit promptly cut off her hair, dressed in her husband’s clothes and enlisted in the army under the name Christian Walsh. She travelled to Continental Europe in search of her ‘brother’ and fought four campaigns under the Duke of Marlborough’s command, before taking a musket ball to the hip. Subsequent operations in the field hospital gave her away, but not before she had been decorated for her bravery and commended by the Duke himself. She even accepted the paternity of a child in order to conceal her gender.

Did she find her husband? Well, that would be telling. But that’s also not really the point. The point is that Kit was an extraordinary woman in so many ways, but what was perhaps most incredible about her was that she was also an extraordinary man. Her male clothes gave her the opportunity to not just imitate ‘male’ skills but to excel at them. By any standards, Kit Kavanagh was one of the most successful soldiers in the British army. On her return to England she was given a pension by Queen Anne, and a special dispensation to return to the army as a sutler. Her wish to continue serving demonstrated one of the problems that has always faced those who choose to cross-dress – that once you’ve experienced the freedom that a change of dress gives, it is hard to go back. What happens if you prefer life through the looking glass? In my novel I explore the two sides of Kit Kavanagh, and how her male dress allowed her to live much more fully than she ever had as a woman.