Marianne Mitford: Guest Post by Philip Ward

There’s a figure on the edges of the Mitford family saga who has received little attention. The six famous sisters had, albeit briefly, a German-Jewish aunt. She was rarely spoken of, and while Nancy might have found the connection intriguing, it would have been anathema to Unity or Diana. This was Marie-Anne, also known as Marianne, who married into the family in 1914, and just as swiftly exited from it. The story of her marriage to Uncle Jack and of the different paths the couple took after their parting is worth the telling.

Marie-Anne von Friedländer-Fuld (b. 1892) was the only child of the Berlin ‘Coal King’, Privy Councillor Friedrich von Friedländer-Fuld. Her father, a self-made industrialist who dominated the Berlin coal market, was reckoned by the New York Times to be worth in excess of $11 million, and steward of an even larger fortune his daughter stood to inherit. Friedrich, it was reported, was among the men on whom the Kaiser depended financially for his ‘patriotic schemes’. Although Marianne’s ancestry on both the father’s and mother’s side was Jewish, the family had converted to Christianity and was ennobled by the Kaiser in 1906. The family’s palatial home on the Pariser Platz near the Brandenburg Gate was a social hub, and the young heiress did not lack for suitors. Newspapers trilled that she was a ‘beautiful brunette’, an accomplished linguist and a fearless horsewoman, whose earlier engagement to a cousin of the Tsar had been thwarted only when Nicholas II learned of her Jewish parentage. Known to her friends as ‘Baby’, she was also a discerning art collector, with an eye for Impressionists and other modern masters. By 1914 she had already acquired at least one valuable asset in a Van Gogh portrait, ‘L’Arlésienne’ (of which more later).

The Hon. John Mitford (b. 1885), known as ‘Jack’ or ‘Jicksy’ within the family, was cut from rather different cloth. Reportedly the favourite among his father’s five sons, he is described in The House of Mitford as a ‘charming scapegrace’ and a ‘rolling stone’ who was ‘well known in the family for being a card’. Expelled from Eton, he’d been unable to enter the diplomatic service for which his father had destined him. He instead chose banking as a career, moving to France in 1907, ostensibly to learn Continental business practices, then to Germany. From 1910 to 1913 he was engaged in private banking for Warburg in Hamburg. He met Marianne at the Kiel Regatta – probably introduced by their mutual friend, Admiral Prince Henry of Prussia, the Kaiser’s younger brother and Patron of the Kiel Yacht Club – and proposed. According to David Pryce-Jones, whose grandfather attended the wedding, the marriage was Prince Henry’s idea: a misfiring attempt at Anglo-German alliance. In addition to gifting the couple a luxurious house in the Bendlerstrasse, as part of the marriage settlement Friedrich von Friedländer-Fuld made his new English son-in-law a partner in the family business – unkind souls suggested in order to ensure the accumulated wealth was likely to remain in Germany. It was reportedly a condition of the marriage contract that the couple were not to reside entirely in England. Whatever expectations the contracting parties brought to the table, the wedding was bound to be the highlight of the Berlin social calendar in early 1914.

Celebrations began with the ‘Polterabend’, the traditional eve-of-wedding ball, on 4 January, a spectacular affair. In a room which was an exact replica of Frederick the Great’s Concert Room at Sans Souci, a company of 300 sat down to dinner. Once the tables had been cleared, aristocratic eyebrows were raised when the tango was danced, the Kaiser having decreed that the tango was strictly forbidden at houses frequented by Army officers or members of Court society. Music was provided by the ‘Philharmonic Orchestra’ (presumably the Berlin Philharmonic?) and the evening ended with live drama. Max Reinhardt brought members of his Deutsches Theater troupe to act scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Gertrud Eysoldt as Puck and Alexander Moissi as Oberon, and there was an exhibition dance by Grete Wiesenthal, one of the leading exponents of ‘modern dance’ in Germany at the time.

After a civil ceremony the following day, the service at Trinity Church on 6 January 1914 followed Lutheran rites. Guests numbered ambassadors, Prussian ministers, military brasshats (including Moltke, Chief of the General Staff) and the most prominent Berlin families – though, not it seems, any members of the Imperial Family, who pleaded a prior engagement. The wedding broke with German precedent, for it had hitherto been custom at society weddings to wear evening dress, however early in the day. In deference to the bridegroom’s nationality, the dress code was ‘English’, i.e. morning dress. The bride was in white satin, with a veil of old Silesian lace. In his address, the pastor noted the coincidence that this union of Redesdale and Friedländer-Fuld families was forged ‘at a time when Anglo-German political friendship was increasing’ and urged the young couple to fill their house ‘not only with material things but with the Anglo-German spirit’. It was a spirit that would not survive the year, on either the personal or the international level.

What happened next is a matter of conjecture, not least since both families made efforts to hush the matter up. When the honeymooners returned from six weeks on the Riviera, something was awry. Although Lady Redesdale was able to present her new daughter-in-law to King George and Queen Mary at Court on 13 March (Marianne wearing her much-admired wedding dress), within another month it was known that ‘Baby’ had decided to live apart from her husband. Jack returned to England, Baby to her parents’ home, and the house prepared for the couple on the Bendlerstrasse was left temporarily unoccupied. Rumours circulated in Berlin that the cause of separation was ‘unnatural conduct on the part of Mr Mitford’. This gossip was picked up by The Sporting Times in London and ill-advisedly repeated in an article in July. The paper didn’t refer to the Mitfords by name, but only by inference after linking their story to that of another married couple. Still, this was enough for Jack to launch a libel action against the paper. In an affidavit he attested that he had lived an ‘absolutely clean life’ and there was ‘not an atom of truth in the abominable suggestion’ in the article. In his eyes, the couple were ‘perfectly happy’. His wife, he said, had become ill in May and entered a sanatorium. On his second visit to her there, she had informed him they were ‘unsuited’. He couldn’t account for her ‘strange and sudden determination’ but believed it to be only temporary. As evidence that she was still ‘full of affection’ for him, he produced a letter she’d written to his mother, Lady Redesdale. The tone is certainly conciliatory – but perhaps disingenuous, given the legal action she was contemplating in Germany to end the marriage. She apologises for ‘the pain I am giving your beloved son’ and assures her mother-in-law that Jack ‘never wronged anyone’; nevertheless, since the couple ‘lived away from one another inwardly’, she insisted there had to be a parting of the ways.

For some reason, Jack had gone down a precarious legal route. Under English law at the time, prosecutions by private individuals could be begun by ‘criminal information’ as well as by indictment. However, individuals had to obtain the leave of the court to file an information. A case in 1884 had already decided that that there would be a presumption against granting this right to private individuals as distinct from someone in public office. (Indeed, ‘criminal informations’ were abolished in 1938.) In Jack’s case, the Lord Chief Justice opined that while the paragraph complained of undoubtedly contained ‘matter of a grave character’, he didn’t consider it grounds for a criminal information, given that Jack was not a holder of public office.

Thus he had only succeeded In drawing his marital problems into the public arena. Baby remained fixed in her determination to end the marriage and in June 1914 petitioned the German court on the grounds that Jack was ‘addicted to masculine indolence and unbearable selfishness’. She successfully invoked a curious provision in the German Civil Code which allowed a spouse to dispute the validity of a marriage if either party was ‘mistaken as to the personal attributes of the other spouse’ at the time of the marriage. The court, finding in her favour, declared the marriage null and void in October 1914. Jack was not best pleased. He instructed his lawyers in Germany to refute the charges against him. However, after the outbreak of war in August, he couldn’t communicate with them directly and was unable to give evidence in person. His counsel appealed twice on his behalf in 1916 – ultimately to the Imperial Supreme Court – but the higher courts upheld the original decision.

We know all this from reports of another court case initiated by Jack in the English courts, which seems to have been as ill-starred as his earlier libel action. Marianne had remarried in 1920, to the diplomat Richard von Kühlmann. In March 1921, Jack, who still regarded her as his lawful wife, petitioned the High Court in London for dissolution of his marriage on the grounds of Baby’s alleged bigamy and adultery with Kühlmann. The English court found – predictably, one would have thought – that since the dissolution of the first marriage and the contracting of Marianne’s second took place in Germany under German law, the English court had no jurisdiction. The ground of ‘mistaken identity’, though it would be immaterial in English law, was valid under German.

But this is jumping ahead. To revert to the events of autumn 1914… At the outbreak of war Jack did not wait to be conscripted but immediately joined the Life Guards, to serve with the British Expeditionary Force in France. The empty marital home in Berlin was used at first to house East Prussian refugees before welcoming a more illustrious resident at year’s end. Marianne had met the poet Rainer Maria Rilke at a funeral in November. An invitation to tea followed and Rilke was soon a regular visitor at her parents’ home to which she had now retreated. Hearing that Rilke was in need of accommodation, she offered him rooms in the half-vacant Bendlerstrasse house. He moved in before Christmas. ‘She is a marvellously beautiful creature,’ he wrote later, ‘who, emerging from childhood of which she still bears the dark traces, had suddenly been transformed by a touch of fate into an independent limpid personality, transparent through and through.’ She became one of his closest confidantes and throughout the war, when far from Berlin, Rilke honoured her with lengthy letters drawing on their shared passion for art in which, as his biographer puts it, a ‘faint hint of the erotic was always overlaid by his didacticism and self-preoccupation.’

The death of Marianne’s father in July 1917 left her a very rich woman. In 1922 she became a limited partner in the family firm, a position she held until 1936 when Nazi race laws forced the exclusion of Jewish staff and the confiscation of family assets. The marriage to Kühlmann which so exercised Jack’s litigious instincts was short-lived. After the birth of a daughter, Antoinette, they divorced in 1923. She then married the painter Rudolf von Goldschmidt-Rothschild. Marrying this time into an observant family, she returned to Judaism. A son, Gilbert, was born in 1925. As a refined Berlin salonnière she flits across the pages of diarists in the 1920s. The artistic patron Count Harry Kessler was one such. He records her taste for amateur dramatics (at one soirée she improvises a parody of a play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, causing Kessler, one of Hofmannsthal’s closest friends, to see the hollowness of a work he once revered). He visits her one afternoon in 1926: ‘She received me in bed, between pink damask sheets and in blue pyjamas, the Chinese bed upholstered in yellow satin. A setting appropriate to the bedroom scene in a play about adultery.’ Three years later, after she hosts an intimate dinner party, thirty Van Gogh letters in an ‘excessively ornate, ugly binding’ are handed round with cigarettes and coffee. Kessler starts to fret that acquisitiveness may have got the better of connoisseurship. ‘Poor Van Gogh!’ he muses to his diary, disgusted at the ‘falsification and degradation of intellectual and artistic values to mere baubles, “luxurious” possessions.’

Entering the 1930s, she was increasingly exercised by the plight of German Jewry. It was said that, after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, she took (in defiance?) to wearing a Star of David of yellow diamonds. In September 1936 Winston Churchill, returning from one of his painting holidays on the Côte d’Azur, dined with her in in Toulon and heard early hints of an unfolding horror in Europe. He wrote to his wife Clementine that Marianne was a remarkable woman who had told him ‘terrible’ tales of the treatment of Jews in Germany.

Like the two before it, the marriage to Goldschmidt-Rothschild did not last, and Marianne was once more a divorcee when she fled Germany in October 1938. She emigrated first to France, before making her way in 1940, via Spain, Portugal and Mexico, to the USA, where she sat out the remainder of the war. Accompanying her were the two children from two marriages and some of the precious artworks, including the Van Gogh. On returning to Europe in the late ‘40s, she sought restitution of property and assets, with partial success. She published her letters from Rilke (in French translation) in 1956 under the pseudonym ‘Marianne Gilbert’. As for ‘L’Arlésienne’, she vowed that when Paris was liberated she would donate the canvas to the French nation: following her death in 1973 it hangs now in the Musée d’Orsay.

Jack, for his part, never remarried. After his failed law suit in the early ‘20s, he seems to have accepted that Baby was lost to him. Pryce-Jones describes him in later life as ‘a somewhat Ivor-Novello-model of a bobbish man about town’ and ‘the inspiration behind the International Sportsman’s Club in Grosvenor House.’ He was secretary of the Marlborough Club and a regular visitor and competitor at St Moritz for the Cresta Run, where he was pictured with various photogenic young women, including Sheilah Graham, the upwardly mobile Englishwoman who would go on to have an affair with Scott Fitzgerald. A photo spread in the Tatler in 1933 captures Unity and Deborah Mitford on the ski slopes watching their ‘adored Uncle Jack’ compete in the Curzon Cup. He made headlines briefly in February 1940 after Unity had been invalided out of Germany following her suicide attempt, telling reporters he ‘did not credit the theory’ that his niece’s bullet wound was self-inflicted. Thus are conspiracy theories born. (Several months after this George Orwell records in his diary a rumour that Unity was pregnant by the Führer – another canard that continues to resurface to this day.) In his final years Jack was looked after by his unmarried sister Iris. He inherited the baronetcy from his childless older brother Bertram in 1962, to become the fourth Baron Redesdale, but died only a year later; as Jack was also without issue, the title passed to his nephew Clement.

Perhaps it was all there in the wedding photo. A slightly Bertie-Woosterish bridegroom inclines towards a serene bride, her gaze fixed straight ahead. An elderly lady (the bride’s mother?) looks on sceptically, wondering if it will last. An affable, sporty English gentleman, none too bright, whose pleasures were skiing and sailing, weds a cultured German socialite with a compensating social conscience, at ease among poets and artists. Add in the fissures of nationality and race that ran through their troubled era. The outlook was never good for this particular Anglo-German alliance.

[Principal sources: The Times Law Reports; New York Times; Jonathan and Catherine Guinness, The House of Mitford: Portrait of a Family (1984); David Pryce-Jones, Unity Mitford: A Quest (1976); Donald Prater, A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke (1986); Count Harry Kessler, The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan, 1918-1937 (1971); Marianne Gilbert, Le tiroir entr’ouvert (1956).]

Philip Ward is a writer and translator with particular interests in literature, music and drama. He blogs at


The West Indian: Guest Post by Alison Jean Lester

My mother, Valerie Lester, was a prolific writer, first of poetry and then of plays, but when she made her mark she did so as a historian-biographer. From time to time she’d start writing a novel, but she only completed the one that, over many decades, wouldn’t let her go.

I remember when she started it, in the 1980s, aged around 50. The summer she finished her first draft, I visited my parents at their little fisherman’s cottage on an island off the coast of Maine. Perimenopausal heat launched Mum out of bed in the very early hours, and I woke up to the thundering of her fingers on her keyboard, resounding in the wood ceiling above the sofa-bed. I read that draft suffering from a fever, and dissolved into tears at the end. It was called Cinchona, and was a historical novel set in Jamaica in the 1770s. I adored it. Apparently my judgment was clouded, though, as the writing still needed some work. Like me, my mother put everything and the kitchen sink in her first drafts.

The novel asserted itself between her other projects. There were always other projects, not because she made a living as a writer – she lectured in the humanities department at George Washington University – but because she had such a curious mind, and was a very gregarious extrovert. These projects all became published books, with hardly a connection among their subjects other than that they had grabbed my mother and held her for long enough. They are:

1995 – Fasten Your Seat Belts: History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin

2004 – Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens (Mum was Phiz’s great-great-granddaughter)

2009 – The Magnificent Meaulnes (a translation of Le Grand Meaulnes, Henri Alain-Fournier’s lovely coming-of-age novel)

2015 – Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World (You might recognise ‘Bodoni’ from your font list. He was a notable 18th-century typographer. Mum heard at a dinner party about the theft of an important Bodoni book from a university library, and taught herself Italian in order to do original research)

2018 – Marvels: The Life of Clarence Bicknell, Botanist, Archaeologist, Artist

Whenever the novel asked for attention, she worked on the structure, added characters around the core, sent it out to her most helpful, critical friends, and changed the title. After Chinchona it was Peter Mason, then Spanish Town. It always had the same first line, though: ‘All night Peter hears the screaming’. Any novelist can imagine just how that line got its hooks in and refused to let go. But I also know that it was Jamaica’s hooks that were in her. Had she not been the child of an officer of the British colonial government, this book would not have been written.

Mum was conceived in Barbados, and her mother returned to England for the birth, which took place in Bromborough, Cheshire (now Merseyside) in 1939. I think Mum was nine months old or so when my grandmother boarded ship for the return journey. My grandfather was posted to Jamaica when Mum was four, and this was where her memories of her life began. Sunshine. Swimming pools. Pawpaw and mango. Drawing faces on dried mango seeds, letting the fibres be their hair or beards. Loving, laughing nannies as primary caregivers. School at The Priory House, founded in 1944 by Jamaican political activist and patron of the arts and educational causes, Henry Fowler.

But then my grandfather was told he would next be stationed in Nigeria, and my grandparents deemed it better for their only child to begin the next stage of her education in England. Aged ten, she was sent from Kingston to her Scottish maternal grandparents in Nottingham, and thus began the darkest, loneliest, most difficult year of her life. I suppose the silver lining could be that when she was installed at age eleven in a mediocre boarding school in Sussex, where the girls spent much of their time cold and hungry, it was actually an improvement for her emotionally. She was surrounded by other girls in similar situations, and she was away from the cousin who had set fire to her hair.

At seventeen there was finishing school in Switzerland, at eighteen there was secretarial school in London. And that was to be her education. There had never been talk of university; it was time to earn a living and find a husband. After working as a secretary in Jamaica and then Canada for short spells, she swerved, and took a New York-based job as a Pan Am stewardess. She met my father on a plane.

During their 46-year marriage my parents lived in San Francisco; Los Angeles; St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands; Bridgewater, Massachusetts; London; Scituate, Massachusetts; Washington, DC; Annapolis, Maryland and Hingham, Massachusetts. They were both rolling stones – Mum had escaped British conservatism and Dad had escaped that of the American Midwest. They made the very best of wherever they stopped, but Mum was happiest if she had access to the ocean. ‘I don’t like it if I can’t find the edge,’ she said.

When my father died, in 2009, I was living in Singapore, and my mother began spending a good chunk of the winter with me there. She revelled in the humid heat, the flora, the food. She got herself a senior-citizen bus pass and went to the local library to work. From the top of a nearby hill she could see the harbour. She shopped in local ‘wet markets’, swam languid lengths, consulted a specialist about her glaucoma, and was told by another that a mole she was concerned about was fine.

It wasn’t.

The last time my mother re-read her novel and decided it was well worth working on again, she was managing melanoma, and when she asked me to help come up with a new title in December 2018, she knew she would most likely die of it before long. She was still feeling well, though, and went at the task with joy. She had energy, a sort of boyfriend ten years her junior who happened to be a wonderful book-designer, and working on the manuscript offered a return to her tropical childhood as she faced her end.

The final version would not only be, as the back cover describes, ‘a mystery, a romance, a slice of historical fiction, and a narrative of colonial life in Jamaica.’ To those who picked up on the hints, it could also be seen as an origin story for Heathcliff. It would be titled The West Indian. For its cover, she would use an image of a painting she woke up to every morning – A View of the Blue Mountains, by Jamaican artist Albert Huie. Inside, she added four woodcuts also by Huie, and a 1755 map of the island. She inserted ‘It is June the thirtieth, 1770’ before ‘All night Peter hears the screaming’. There were two more pages or so that she felt she needed to add, upon reflection, and she and Bruce set a date for him to visit and finalise the text and design, before a mid-April self-publication date on Amazon.

On March 16th, however, the brain tumours that had been causing the occasional technicolour lightshow before her eyes suddenly asserted themselves more forcefully. When doing her morning crossword, she could neither think straight nor write properly.

Knowing her life might end sooner than she had expected, the desire to finish The West Indian became more intense. Bruce scrambled to get down to her in Massachusetts from his home farther north and Mum gathered together all her remaining mental resources. She dictated the remaining pages to him, then he transcribed them from notebook to Word document. Mum sent them to me to proofread. (Her spelling had always been impeccable, but she typed the word as ‘prufrede’.) They published the novel on March 22nd, 2019 – an expression of her love for her childhood memories, and for the terrific classical and literary education she had arranged for herself, having started university part-time, aged 40, while working as a secretary at Harvard.

My brother and I moved Mum into her choice of residential hospice on April 5th. She died, aged nearly 80, after a peaceful, love-filled, satisfied decline, on June 6th.

It is June the thirtieth, 1770. All night Peter hears the screaming, and just before dawn he creeps out of bed, tiptoes down the stairs, softly crosses the dining room, and tugs open the doors to the gallery. Cool air streams in. He pads past the rocking chairs and down the steps into the garden. He picks up a stick and drags it all the way to the tamarind tree, scuffing his feet on the pathway and making a wake of dust behind him. He hauls himself onto the lowest branch, and it sweeps the ground with his weight; then limb by limb, he makes for the top. The sky is grey but shifts to rose in the east, then orange, and Peter watches the colours slink around the horizon.

The screaming stops.

For more about Valerie Lester’s work, and a wonderful photograph of her jumping into a swimming pool in Jamaica, go to

Alison Jean Lester is the author of the novels Lillian on Life and Yuki Means Happiness, and the short-story collection Locked Out: Stories Far from Home.


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

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

Originally published in the Antrim Guardian 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Crimson & Bone, a guest blog by Marina Fiorato

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

Thanks and love,
Marina xx


Museum photographs courtesy of

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

Follow Marina on twitter  @marinafiorato
Instagram  @marinafiorato

The Mitford Society’s Christmas Reads


Written by historian and author extraordinaire Essie Fox, this beautiful book is loosely based on silent screen vamp Theda Bara and the strange rumours that were affixed to her screen reputation. However, before Leda Grey returns to the spotlight, we spring forward to 1976 when a young journalist named Ed Peters meets Theo, a mysterious shopkeeper who deals in film memorabilia. Looking for a photograph of Bette Davis, his late mother’s favourite, Ed is drawn to a photograph of Leda Grey, who is Theo’s sister, and the seeds of curiosity are sewn. In the seaside town of Brightland, on top of a rocky cliff resides Leda, who has lived as a recluse for several decades. Theo hints that darker elements are at play, such as the curse surrounding the story of an Egyptian queen, the silent film which brought Leda fame. Ed goes to see the reclusive Leda, whose crumbling house is a museum dedicated to her heyday when the great film director Charles Beauvois had made her a star, albeit for a brief moment. She welcomes Ed into her home, and slowly reveals the events which led her into a life of obscurity. I was especially touched by the merging of the two worlds: the ‘has-been’ actress and the bright young man struggling with his mother’s suicide, and the parallel universe of the young girl onscreen and the old woman who has found a captive audience. Fans of Essie Fox will be familiar with her knowledge of and love for the Victorian era, and although her latest book is set in a different time period, her flawless aesthetic remains true. This is a magical read that will hold your attention long after the story fades to black.


In the heyday of 1930s Hollywood Carole Lombard’s star shone bright. She found stardom as a comedienne opposite John Barrymore in Twentieth Century, and the title of this book is a nod to that. I’m quite pleased to say that I chose the title! But moving along . . . As with many Hollywood ladies, Lombard’s legacy has somewhat been overshadowed by her famous husband, Clark Gable, and the tragic plane crash which cut her life short. This book, although it mentions the plane crash, veers away from dwelling on the cause of Lombard’s death (for a book on the crash I recommend Robert Matzen’s Fireball). What we are presented with is a detailed look at Lombard’s private life as a human being and her many struggles which ring true today, and ultimately her rise as a film star. I discovered after reading this book that I not only know more about Lombard, but I have found a person whom I admire both as a private individual and a lead player in her industry. A fitting tribute to a woman who should be revered in her own right.


I admit that I knew nothing about Astrid Lindgren before reading this volume of wartime diaries but I was drawn to the cover because of her resemblance (at least in this photograph) to Daphne du Maurier. As one of the most famous and loved children’s writers of her generation Lindgren championed the qualities of love, hope, understanding, and kindness in her books, and when war is declared with Germany in 1939 she is forced to put the aforementioned into practice. Her diary, published for the first time in English, displays not only the violence that is sweeping Europe, but the perspective of a woman on the Swedish home front. The topics that she writes about are relevant today: racism, fascism, intolerance, and how we individuals can take a stand against evil. During her work at the Swedish Mail Censorship Office, and her domestic world as a wife and mother, she came up with the idea for Pippi Longstocking – a bright note in this, to quote Lindgren, ‘…poor plant in the grip of madness’. Perhaps it is due to the English translation but I found the sentences very clean and straightforward, a quality which I like. It is so common for diarists, who are expecting to be read in the future, to embellish facts or dress up their thoughts and feelings, but Lindgren, although candid, is to the point. A no nonsense woman in a world gone mad.


As Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote a frank memoir (Slipstream) before her death in 2014, one can be forgiven for asking what else can be added to a factual study of her life. At first glance and from the opening chapters alone it seems the question is to be vain, for Artemis Cooper borrows heavily from her subject’s memoir. However, as the book picks up its pace and Howard grows up, or, rather, makes a series of foolish decisions, it is clear that this is no ordinary biography. With access to Howard herself, and using letters and diaries, Cooper examines a women who tried to make sense of her life by putting it into her fiction novels – most famously the Cazalet Chronicles. She looks at those who were in Howard’s life and who, perhaps, have been unfairly portrayed in past works – this makes Howard herself a far more complex, and indeed sympathetic, character. DuriI ng her lifetime and in her writing Howard did not pretend to be a good person, or even a nice person, but her honesty often disarmed her harshest critics, and Cooper’s biography does the same. Devoted fans of Howard might not learn anything new from this book, but they will certainly develop a deeper understanding for their heroine. It is a fitting tribute to one of our greatest writers.


I freely admit that my head is often turned by pretty books and this was no exception. Reminiscent of Judith Lennox’s family sagas, The Last Debutante is set during the years when debutantes and ‘coming out’ were the singular most important event in a young aristocratic woman’s life. The prologue, set in 2014, introduces us to an elderly Kit and sets the tone for family secrets. Regressing back to the 1930s and then through to the Second World War, the book’s setting has a sprawling landscape, taking place in the Dorset countryside, London, Germany, Iraq, Oman, and the West Indies. As with most historical fiction, especially aimed at women or about women from that period, secrets and lies drive the plot and this is no exception. In 1936 Kit, then aged thirteen, is confined to the nursery while her elder sister, Lily, has been initiated into the grown-up world. But there is more to Kit’s banishment than her age, for the guests are German and with Britain on the verge of war, they are therefore outcasts. Her parents, Lord and Lady Wharton, are having financial difficulties and so it is important that Lily marries well. And this potential husband happens to be German. Within six months she is married and is living in Germany, and now a Nazi sympathiser she becomes friends with Unity Mitford. Kit realises the social impact this will have on her future, and she is pulled further into the web of lies when she is dispatched with an uncle to bring Lily home to England. But something happens and changes her life completely, and it will have consequences for her future descendants. I am always a bit dubiois of books set in the far off future which travel back in time as I fear they stick to cliches, but Lesley Lokko’s writing was engaging and Kit was very likeable. This was defnitely a surprising read and I think one for fans of the Cazalets and Jane Thynne’s Clara Vine series.


Before reading Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women last year I was not much of a short story fan. That has changed. This elegant little hardback is pleasing to the eye and would make a beautiful gift. With seven stories contributed by famous writers it has a variable tone and a different theme throughout. Each story is a joy to read and each theme will strike a chord within the reader. A surprising little read, I definitely recommend it.


Renowned for writing biographies of great figures from the twentieth century ranging from Beryl Markham to the Churchills, and of course the Mitfords, Mary Lovell focuses her attention on a building. The Château de l’Horizon, to be exact. Built for and presided over by Maxine Elliot, it was an exclusive haven for famous and infamous people alike. Elliot played host to Winston Churchill during his ‘wilderness years’, Noel Coward and Cecil Beaton were frequent visitors, as were the naughty society girls Daisy Fellowes and Doris Delevingne. Lovell details the lively atmosphere of the 1920s and ’30s heyday of the Riviera when it was a playground for aristocrats, heiresses and artists. If you are anything like me and have read extensively on the period many stories will be familiar to you, but it’s nice to see them compiled in one place. After Elliot’s death in the 1940s, Aly Khan bought the Château and it’s from there that he wooed Rita Hayworth, and it became a hideaway for Hollywood stars and playboy moguls. Lovell expertly chronicles the two worlds: the past where those with wit, background and breeding dominated the scene, and the present when everything has the shiny veneer of the nouveau riche. What is definite, and she makes this clear, is that the Château was the catalyst for all that is en vogue. Although a host of characters flit in and out of the text (too many to name), Lovell dissects their lives and curates the interesting parts, bringing together the crème of high society. A sparkling biography detailing a bygone era.


Muv in Wonderland by Kathy Hillwig

Everyone knows of the Mitford girls – and the Mitford girls knew everyone. There were few celebrities of the early twentieth century that at least one of the Mitfords had not met. One is less inclined to think of Sydney Redesdale (née Bowles) in those terms, yet she also knew an assortment of the famous and colourful people of the time, including Lewis Carroll, the nom de plume of Charles Dodgson.
Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Sydney Bowles was not born when the book was published, in 1865, but her father, Thomas Bowles, was a friend of Charles Dodgson. Remaining in touch with Dodgson, he naturally took an interest in his friend’s offspring.
In May 1891, when Sydney was eleven-years-old, Dodgson sent her a letter, and enclosed was a copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground. Perhaps, given that her birthday was in May, it was a birthday present from the author. From the tone of the letter, it is evident that Sydney had not met Dodgson, for he writes that he ‘didn’t know of your “existence” before ‘hear[ing] that you had sent me your love!’
Formerly a mathematics tutor at Cambridge before finding fame as a novelist, Dodgson had a predilection for young girls. Having met Mary Prickett, he was introduced to her three charges Ina, Alice (the inspiration for his novel) and Edith, where he visited the Liddell family home and photographed the girls without their mother’s consent. He would go on to take nude photographs of the then fourteen-year-old Ina – again, this was not uncommon in the Victorian era. It was also fairly common in the Victorian era for an adult male to take a fancy or become engaged to a female child (perhaps in her teens) and wait until she was of age to marry. However, his fixation with the eleven-year-old Alice was a daring one, even in those days. A book, The Looking Glass House, written on the subject of the Liddells, Dodgson and their governess Mary Prickett, who loved him and saw her charges as her rivals in love, was written by Alice Liddell’s granddaughter, Vanessa Tait. On the subject of letters to his ‘child friends’, it should be noted that Dodgson’s love letters to Alice were discovered by her mother, hidden in her dollhouse. His visits and association with the family came to an abrupt end.
Back to his correspondence with Sydney, the letter is fairly unsettling by today’s standards. He writes: ‘If only I had known you were existing, I would have sent you heaps of love, long ago. And, now I come to think about it, I ought to have sent you the love, without being so particular about whether you existed or not.’ Perhaps, a lonely man himself, he felt an infinity with Sydney: a young, motherless girl, who spent her childhood on her eccentric father’s yacht, sailing the Mediterranean and the Orient. Whatever the nature of his feelings and the truth behind his motives of befriending Sydney, it amounted to nothing.
The letter is dated May 22 1891, and is reproduced in Sophia Murphy’s book, The Mitford Family Album. On the facing page is a picture of an eight-year-old Sydney Bowles, looking very much like Dodgson’s romantic vision of Alice. The letter and book – which Dodgson notes is ‘the book just as I first wrote it, with my own pictures’ – seem just another example of the Mitford way of being, quite effortlessly, in the thick of every interesting event.

Kathy Hillwig lives in eastern Kentucky. Her dream holiday would be a week at Chatsworth, drinking tea and binge-reading the sisters’ correspondence.

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.


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.

Book News


Hello Mitties!

I am excited to share with you the news that my book on Margaret Lockwood, the British film star, will be published by Fantom Films in July. The book has been a labour of love and several years in the making, and it will be released ahead of Margaret’s centenary in September 2016. Although this is a new genre for me, it still fits on the spectrum of British heritage and is very much keeping within the era that I write about. My other forthcoming book, The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne, is still on track for a November release.

Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen is available for pre-order. 


Guest Post: The Maverick Mountaineer by Robert Wainwright


When a 13-year-old boy chased a mob of wallaby up Mt Canobolas on the outskirts of the inland New South Wales town of Orange one spring morning in 1901 he could not have imagined that his climb would be the precursor to one of the great pioneering adventures of modern times – and lead him to the roof of the world.

That day, George Finch, a rangy and steely-eyed Australian youth, stood in wonderment at the land stretched before him and decided then and there that he wanted to see the world from atop its highest vantage point. Along the way he would challenge the hostile demands of the British establishment which would not take kindly to a vocal and maverick colonial youth who wore his hair long, spoke German and climbed alpine peaks with modern equipment and without the traditional professional guides.

But this intriguing polymath and anti-hero was inspired by more than just the physical world. Intrigued by the wooden eighteenth century instrument designed to demonstrate Newton’s law of motion in his father’s library, George would also become a scientist of pioneering the use of bottled oxygen at altitude, and designing a jacket made of balloon fabric and eiderdown stuffing that would be the forerunner of today’s ubiquitous puffer jacket.

He would twice be decorated a war hero, once as a soldier in the Great War and then as a civilian helping London resist the Blitz of 1941, he helped unravel the mysteries of metals that would improve the efficacy of the combustion engine, build a camera to inspect microscopic electrons and be involved in the synthesis of ammonia from air that would allow manufacture of fertilizer in commercial quantities.

So who was this man, and why has his extraordinary life gone largely unrecognised?

George Ingle Finch was born in 1888, in a stone homestead on the sheep and cattle station established by his grandfather 170 miles inland from Sydney. A self-made man from an English village near Cambridge, Charles Wray, George sailed to the colonies as a soldier but quickly worked hard to become a prominent landowner, farmer and politician. However it was George’s father Charles Edward, who deeply inspired his young son, encouraging early independence and freedom to explore the untamed wilds of his inland home while stirring the young man’s interest in the mysteries of science.

The combination was irresistible when the family sailed to Europe in 1902 for what was supposed to be a yearlong tour but instead became their new home, led by George’s bohemian mother Laura. As much as Charles Finch was a straight-laced man of 60, his much younger wife longed to shed the boredom of an Australian bush life and insisted on settling in Paris. Even when Charles returned home to New South Wales, Laura stayed with her three children – George the eldest, brother Max, and sister Dorothy. The boys would never see their father again.

From their first climbing adventure – scaling Notre Dame Cathedral by moonlight – George and Max would challenge authority and convention, their enthusiasm for alpine peaks slowed only by their mother who insisted on height limits and teachers who instilled the need for honing skills with icepick and rope, patience and careful planning on the pair. It suited George’s logical brain and would be one of the few times in his life that he accepted the advice of others over his own intuition.

Having struggled through his early school years and rejected medical studies at the Sorbonne, he found an academic home at the Zurich Institute of Technology where, after managing to become fluent in Swiss-German within six months, he studied physical sciences, not only passing but winning the university’s gold medal. Albert Einstein was among his tutors.

Weekends and summer holidays were largely spent with younger brother, Max exploring the Alps, travelling by train to villages in Switzerland, Italy and France and then hiking to ramshackle mountain huts from where they would launch audacious assaults on peaks such as the Eiger, Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and dozens of others, often leaving in the early hours of the morning to avoid the inevitable avalanches cause by the morning sun. Their great joy was sitting atop a peak, boiling a brew of tea by melting snow on a small stove and sharing tins of peaches drenched in condensed milk.

The Finch boys however were different as climbers, passionate and at home with nature and uninterested in the established practice of paying local guides to lead them up the mountain’s easiest lines of ascent. Instead, they chose the tougher routes, challenging themselves often on the steeper north faces of the giants that had rarely – or in some cases – never been conquered.

Their exuberant exploits brought them head to head with the tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking gentlemen of London’s stitched up Alpine Club of Savile Rowe. These aging, often arrogant men were founding members of the ‘golden age’ of mountaineering when Europe’s Alpine peaks were climbed one after another, usually led by paid local guides.

George Finch’s audacious climbs, leading strong if inexperienced climbers up dangerous ascents using new technology including silk ropes, pitons and better designed ice axes, incurred the wrath of the Alpine Club, often in print back in London. George, already recognised as the leading climber of his generation, would fire back with gusto, equally publicly. In one particularly barbed salvo published in 1913 in the English sports magazine, The Field, George didn’t hold back:

A man who climbs consistently with guides may be a great mountaineer but he need be nothing more than a good walker to ‘climb’ any peak in the Alps. The man who has to depend on his own skill, strength and nerve must have the craft at his finger-ends. The guided mountaineer need only follow patiently in the footsteps of a guide. He may and often does climb for years without the power to lead up easy rocks, to cut steps in ice, or find a route up an easy snow route. In the early days mountaineering, because of its expense, was almost exclusively the luxury of men who had made a position in life. It was controlled by men to whom years had brought prudence, men who looked with suspicion on enterprise beyond traditional limits.

It is no longer the monopoly of rich Englishmen. The younger men are taking up the sport and gradually coming to the front. The development of guideless climbing has brought the Alps within reach of young men with limited means. For good or evil, guideless parties composed of young Englishmen are becoming more and more common. The attitude of the older climbers is changing. The spirit that saw the Alps a preserve for moneyed and middle-aged Englishmen is dead.

That article would come to define a large part of his life battling both mountains and men.

London certainly beckoned in 1913, not least because George could sense that war with Germany was now not just a possibility but a likelihood. He had witnessed the growing instability inside the country where he had been working as a research assistant and then factory foreman, helping to turn the theory of producing ammonia from oxygen into the reality of the commercial production of fertilizer. The project he worked on would earn two men, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, Nobel Prizes, and come to be regarded as one of the most important industrial breakthroughs of the twentieth century.

George was nearing his 25th birthday when he arrived in the British capital, a young man already known for his mountaineering exploits but perfectly happy to enter the anonymous world of teaching at London’s Imperial College. His fears came to fruition a year later when the Great War erupted. George volunteered soon after but he would not see action until 1916 when he was sent not to France, as expected, but the Balkans front at Salonika.

Here, amid the heat and disease of the eastern stalemate, he would make a name for himself, firstly for coordinating the repair of thousands of missiles that had been made useless by the heat melting the seals. George and a small team were forced to take apart and then reseal the arsenal, piece-by-piece, using a temporary wax seal devised by a young Australian scientist.

But it was an ingenious device to thwart an ace German pilot that brought George fame. In September 1917, 21-year-old Rudolf Von Eschwegge, the Red Baron of the Balkans, as he was known, was creating havoc on the frontline. He was more skillful and better equipped than the British pilots he faced, and even shot down observation balloons. George rigged the basket of one balloon with 500lb of booby-trapped explosives, triggering it from the ground with a hand held detonator as ‘The Eagle’ attacked the balloon. George was awarded a military MBE, presented by King George V, after the war had ended.

But as he reveled in the limelight, George Finch’s personal life was unraveling. A few months after signing up he had met and swiftly married Betty Fisher, an attractive, vampish young woman from London. But within weeks of leaving for the front, Betty embarked on an adulterous affair with a Poona Horse officer named Wentworth ‘Jock’ Campbell.

When George was called back to London in early 1917 he found Betty nursing a baby boy. Peter Finch would grow up to be a famous Hollywood actor but died in 1977 still unsure of which man was his father, a frustration echoed in final role as Howard Beal in the movie Network, in which he played the angry newsroom executive who was ‘as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’. The performance would earn him the first posthumous Academy Award for best actor.

In his fury at his wife’s infidelity, George found and thrashed Campbell, and made Betty promise to cease the affair. She agreed but then renewed the relationship. In the resulting divorce, George took Peter, then 2-years-old, and sent him to his own mother, Laura, to be raised. Betty, pregnant again, would marry Jock although it was not to last. She would deliver another son, named Michael, who would spend his life also wondering about his father.

In the meantime George had met and fallen in love with a nurse who had helped him back to health from a bout of wartime malaria. But the infatuation with Gladys May would fade after the war ended and mountaineering resumed. He returned from a climbing trip in 1919 to end the relationship only to find that Gladys was pregnant. In a naive effort to save her from the shame of a child out of wedlock, he went ahead with the marriage, only to leave her a few weeks later. This time he would not take the baby – another son named Bryan – but promised financial support.

Perhaps it was the war that shook his usual emotional sure-footedness but George then reached the darkest time of his life. Two failed marriages and two sons – he was unlikely to have even known about Michael – were taking their toll on his spirit until he met a vivacious and intelligent young Scots woman Agnes Johnston. George would fall in love with the woman he called Bubbles and this time the marriage would last, eventually producing three daughters, two of whom are still alive.

There would be another huge event that would change his life: the chance to climb Mount Everest. In 1919, the Tibetan Government decided to lift the longtime ban on foreigners entering the only known route to the highest point on earth, Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the World.

No European had been within 100 kilometres of the mountain, let alone attempted to climb it. Conquering Everest wasn’t just about adventurous spirit of man but saving the face of the British Empire which had been beaten to both poles: to the south by Norwegian Roald Amunsden and the north by America Robert Edwin Peary. The Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society joined forces to create the Everest Committee and jointly chose a team, first to make a reconnaissance expedition in 1921 and the following year to attempt an ascent.

The two most obvious candidates as lead climbers were George Mallory and George Finch, two very different men in thought and behavior but the perfect foil for one another – one a rock climber of balletic poise and the other a methodical man of ice and snow who scaled the Alps like a spider. But while Mallory was a Cambridge man and a darling of the British establishment, George Finch was the opposite; an antipodean upstart, educated on the Continent and who loved nothing more than challenging convention.

The man who most hated George was a Cambridge mathematician named Arthur Hinks, a brilliant but bitter man who served as secretary to the RGS and the Everest Committee. Hinks hated anything modern including the telephone, and George, to him, embodied modernity.

It was only because of the support of Percy Farrar, the charismatic president of the Alpine Club, that George was ultimately chosen to go on the reconnaissance mission. His selection would not last long however: he ‘failed’ a cursory medical examination despite contrary evidence from tests at Oxford University that he was actually the fittest man on the expedition. While a 13-man team of climbers and scientists and soldiers left on the 4-month journey, George stayed in London, choosing to set aside his disappointment and concentrate on exploring the concept of using oxygen at altitude to counter the thin air at the top of Everest.

The reconnaissance mission would be a partial success. The mountain was reached and climbed to a point from where a camp could be established to launch an ascent allowing the area to be mapped for the first time. The team also returned with tales of a barren land, a behemoth of granite swept by blizzards and a collection of plant specimens. Mallory told a crowd of thousands who packed out a London theatre that he was prepared to try but had doubts that Everest could be climbed.

George would ultimately be included in the expedition in 1922, seconded not as the brilliant climber he was but as the man in charge of the oxygen apparatus he had not only designed himself but had built from experiments conducted in a steel tank at Oxford.

The new equipment, however, sparked a bitter debate over the use of oxygen in the climb and whether it would constitute an artificial boost and thereby be seen as a kind of ‘cheating’. George argued that it was akin to improvements in boots, clothes, hats, tents, tools and nutrition, but the purists of the Alpine Club described it as a heresy and only grudgingly approved its inclusion.

By the time the team had arrived at the foot of Everest in May, the team leaders had decided against the use of oxygen – and George. Charles Bruce was the portly, ageing expedition leader and Colonel Edward Strutt its snobbish second in command. Strutt despised George, even condemning him for wearing his specially-made green jacket of balloon fabric stuffed with eiderdown – warmer than anything known at the time – while the others struggled in Norfolk tweed suits and layers of cotton, wool and silk.

As the approaching monsoon threatened to shut down the expedition, Strutt decided to make an attempt with four climbers but not allowing them oxygen. Mallory would lead with Howard Somervell, Edward Norton and Henry Morshead, leaving the only other recognised climber – George Finch – at base camp.

George had been laid low with dysentery but had expected 2-man teams and was set to climb with Somervell who was one of the few who supported the use of oxygen. When George realized what had happened he chose two soldiers – a British officer named Geoffrey Bruce and a Gurkha named Tejbir to climb with him, despite the fact that neither had climbed a mountain before.

By the time the Mallory and the others returned, frostbitten and dazed after two days on the mountain and being forced back at just under 27,000 feet, George and his novice team-mates had prepared and tested the oxygen equipment, substituting faulty breathing tubes with a makeshift mouthpiece made from toy football bladders he had bought from a market in India.

The three men set off in good spirits, the oxygen clearly making a physical and mental difference. All seemed possible as they moved steadily upwards, but within hours the weather had closed in, forcing them to seek shelter on the north-west ridge. Here, the men would spend almost 48-hours huddled in a tiny tent, anchored precariously to the side of the mountain as the winds threatened to lift their shelter and cast them into oblivion. On the second morning they emerged, determined to push for the top.

Tejbir lasted only a few-hundred-metres before collapsing, exhausted. He returned to the tent while George and Bruce continued upward, past the mark of Mallory and the others before altering their line and climbing across the face to shield themselves from the fierce winds. Once beneath the summit, George began climbing upwards once more until he heard a shout. Bruce had broken a glass valve, could get no air and was about to faint and fall to his death. George reached down and grabbed his companion by the shoulder hauling him back to safety on a tiny ledge. They were at 27,300 feet and could see the cairn of small rocks that crown the summit.

George shared his oxygen with Bruce while using a toolkit and spare parts to fit a replacement valve. The oxygen system was working again but Bruce could go no further. George thought momentarily about going on alone but quickly abandoned the attempt. Bruce would die without him. ‘Turn back,’ he called above the rising wind. Tears filled Bruce’s eyes in response.

Although some would call it a heroic failure, the public responded to George Finch and George Mallory as returning heroes, filling town halls across Britain for months as they recounted their adventure. George Finch in particular held the halls spellbound as he used glass lantern slides taken from his photographs to illustrate the alien landscape and exotic cultures of a land beyond their imagination.

Although his success filled the coffers of the Everest Committee, Arthur Hinks could only seethe at the admiration of George, using his association with The Times newspaper to continue belittling his achievements. Against the advice of promoters, Hinks banned George from spruiking his achievements and refused to allow lectures in Europe, insisting wrongly it would impact negatively on the marketing of the expedition movie made by John Noel.

The row reached its peak in the summer of 1923 as the committee finalised the expedition members for the next assault on Everest. George challenged the right of Hinks to prevent him lecturing before attempting to find a compromise but Hinks would not relent and threatened his expulsion from the 1924 expedition. In his frustration, George accepted his fate calmly: ‘I understand indirectly that for reasons doubtless sufficient to the committee I am not to be asked to join the next expedition, notwithstanding the relative success gained by my own party and my subsequent very willing services in connection with the improvements in the new oxygen apparatus.’

Instead of using his scientific genius to build a better oxygen system and manage it on the mountain, the committee chose a 21-year-old, third year chemistry student, named Sandy Irvine who would not only oversee the oxygen but partner Mallory when they made their attempt on June 8 1924 from which they would not return.

We will never really know but there are many historians and writers – including the novelist Jeffrey Archer whose 2009 novel Paths of Glory was based on the life of Mallory – who believe mountaineering history might have been very different if it had been the two Georges – Mallory and Finch – on Everest that day.

Did the belligerent interference of an arrogant administrator with no climbing experience cost the lives of two men and the chance of conquering the world’s highest peak almost three decades before Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay would do so?

Hillary was quick to credit George Finch when he triumphed on May 29 1953 using a revamped version of George’s oxygen equipment. Now aged 70 and living in India where India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had personally chosen him to manage the country’s first scientific research facility, George and his third wife Agnes Johnston had reared three daughters in the years since his Everest disappointment.

He had made his last ascent in 1933 after a climbing holiday turned to tragedy, watching three friends ignore his advice and try to traverse a dangerous section of a mountainside before falling to their deaths. Although he was clearly blameless, the experience convinced him, at the age of just 51, to retreat to his other passion – science and teaching.

By then he had also established himself as one of Britain’s most senior scientists, a professor at London’s Imperial College, member of the Royal Society and the recipient of its highest honour, the Hughes Medal, which he was awarded at the height of World War II. George’s work had helped in the scientific understanding of the behavior of fire and incendiary bombs and helped London’s defence strategies during the blitz by improving fire fighting techniques. He was also instrumental in the design of a range of bombs, including the famous J-Bomb, that created havoc across German cities during the retaliations of 1944 and 1945.

There would be some reckoning in his later years when, in 1959, he was elected president of the Alpine Club. But even with this official vindication, it is difficult not to wonder what might have been, had George Finch and George Mallory climbed together in 1924.

The Maverick Mountaineer was published by Allen & Unwin. Click here for more details.

Robert Wainwright is a London-based freelance journalist and author with more than 30 years experience in national daily newspapers. He has won a number of journalism awards over the years, the most notable being as a three-time finalist with Australia’s most prestigious journalism prize, the Walkley Awards, in 2004, 2009 and 2010. His career as an author grew from his journalism and he has written and had published nine non-fiction titles, ranging from crime and mystery to biographies and social history. Two of the books have been finalists in prominent Australian literary awards. One has been turned into a television movie, another was the basis for a musical and two others are currently under production as feature films.

This piece was originally published in The Mitford Society Vol.III

The Mitford Society’s Festive Reads, Part Two

The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan


Reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Kate Riordan’s novel jumps between 1933 and 1898, as she tells the tale of two women connected by fate. Alice, an unwed mother, arrives at Fiercombe Manor under false pretences to wait out the birth of her baby. The house has an air of mystery, and during her respite she discovers the tragic circumstances of its former inhabitant, Lady Stanton. Unlocking the secrets of the past, Alice realises their lives have become intertwined. An atmospheric read from start to finish.


Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry


Set in New York in 1895, this is a depiction of the city from an outsider’s perspective. Sylvan Threadgill finds a newborn baby while cleaning out the tenement privies. Odile and Belle Church were part of a sideshow act in a circus. Alphie wakes up in an asylum; the last thing she remembers is blood on the floor and her mother-in-law screaming. Belle was committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors, Alphie knows this young woman harbours a dark secret. These complex characters strive for acceptance in the city’s underworld. Expertly written, this jarring depiction of the misfit’s plight will stay with you long after the show is over.


The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant


Anita Diamant’s characters are presented with such depth and realism that it’s hard to think of them as fictional. Written as a faux memoir, her latest offering tells the story of Addie Baum, a young Jewish girl born at the turn of the 20th century in Boston in the US, to immigrant parents who have escaped poverty and violence in Russia. Coming of age during the First World War and Prohibition, Addie adapts to fit in with the changing world. Following the pattern of the American dream, she works her way up from typist to successful columnist – in spite of adversity and the menfolk who try to drag her down. One for fans of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Diamant’s narrative is as confident as its plucky heroine.


The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements


Being a massive fan of Margaret Lockwood and her iconic film, The Wicked Lady (1945), this book was a treat to read. It is based on the real life heiress, Lady Katherine Ferrars, whose privileged world is crumbling under Cromwell’s army. Married off for the sake of money and breeding, she discovers an exciting life with the roguish Ralph Chaplin, and the pair become highway robbers in a bid to find excitement and escape poverty. She knows if she is caught there is only one way it can end: death. But that excites her all the more. The Silvered Heart is Katherine Clements’s second novel – her debut, The Crimson Ribbon, was published to much acclaim. A wizard of a storyteller and master of the genre, Clement’s follow-up novel does not disappoint. In fact, I loved it!


Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

Single Carefree Mellow tpbk.indd

The elegant cover of Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow conceals the lives of modern women stripped bare to reveal the turmoil and, sometimes, the unrequited love we feel in all aspects of our relationships. Set in New York City, the fast-paced city life mirrors the swiftness of Heiny’s writing. Fidelity is a strong theme throughout the individual stories, and it bonds the characters to the decisions they make, their connection to other people (also in a non-romantic sense) and how it influences their daily existence. A look at how fickle the human heart can be, Heiny’s flawed characters are saved by her witty observations and subtle use of humour.


The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester


Frankie George, a tomboy upstart, is working as a trainee journalist in a world dominated by men. However, where there is trouble, Ebony is never far away. But now she’s the one in trouble and Frankie has landed a gem of a story when Ebony disappears in the middle of a performance. Pulled into a world of tricks, society columnists, corset enthusiasts, suffragettes and circus freaks, Frankie follows the trail of a murderous villain from Fleet Street to the headquarters of the suffragettes. How did Ebony vanish, who was she afraid of, and what goes on behind the doors of the mysterious Hourglass Factory? Lucy Ribchester’s debut novel The Hourglass Factory is a glorious tale encapsulating the London of 1912 set amidst suffragettes and circuses.


The Widow’s Confession by Sophia Tobin


Edmund Steele has fled a failed love affair and arrives at the Parsonage to stay with Theo Hallam. Delphine Beck and her cousin, Julia, have left their London home to save money. The two ladies come originally from New York and Delphine has been exiled by her wealthy family, following a scandal. Miss Warings is an older lady, visiting with her niece, the beautiful Alba. Mr Ralph Benedict is an artist, who has housed his family in a nearby town so he has freedom to work. Mrs Quillian is Theo’s aunt; who establishes herself at the Albion Hotel and then attempts to make the various visitors into a little group, with whom she can arrange pleasant trips. What could possibly go wrong? A girls body is found on the beach with a mysterious message etched in the sand beneath her, and, although it seems suspicious, the local doctor is quick to dismiss her death as an accident. But more bodies are found – young girls seem to wander into the sea. Spooked by this strange incident, the locals turn against the visitors, whom they accuse of bringing with them bad luck. Can this group of outsiders unite to help solve the murders? The atmospheric blend of a seaside resort out of season and the suspicion of murder lingering over the community conspires to give even the most skeptical of readers a chill down their spine.