Mystical Mitfords

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With The Unseen

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Happy Halloween from The Mitford Society…

An Extract from The Mitford Society Vol. II

The supernatural was a fashionable topic of conversation in postwar society, with sophisticated hostesses sampling tarot cards, Ouija boards and table-tipping to provide an unforgettable party-trick. But, among those who dabbled in the unseen for paltry motives, there were serious followers of the occult. Violet Tweedale, the upper-class author, poet and spiritualist, chronicled her psychic experiences in her memoir Ghosts I Have Seen. She also belonged to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organisation devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activities during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Violet Tweedale

Violet Tweedale

One of the most enthusiastic followers of Tweedale’s work was Jean Skeffington (née Ainsworth), the 12th Viscountess Massereene. Residing in her husband’s family seat, Antrim Castle in Northern Ireland, Lady Massereene thrived on the castle’s ghostly reputation and reported sightings of a servant girl – known by locals as “The White Lady” – and a phantom carriage which was said to recreate its calamitous drive down the estate’s lime tree avenue where it met a watery fate at the bottom of a long canal. A harmless fascination, but in the god-fearing market town of Antrim, her Ladyship’s interests were brushed off as eccentric. However, it was in London that Lady Massereene fully embraced her belief in the supernatural, prompting gossip columnists to refer to her as “one of Mayfair’s most renowned ghost experts”. Statements such as “This summer I vow to go to forty seances” were viewed as beyond the pale to those in possession of a level head. Her husband, the Viscount Massereene, expressed little tolerance to his wife’s eccentricities, and she challenged his patience – not to mention her reputation – when she summoned the police to Antrim Castle to report a missing tiara. The tiara in question, she told them, was lying on the bed of the Six Mile river. How did she know, her husband and the police, questioned. The response was a simple one: she had dreamt it.

Viscountess Massereene

Viscountess Massereene

As much as Violet Tweedale and Lady Massereene spoke of their beliefs in the supernatural with genuine sincerity, there were false mediums springing up all over London as a response to the bereft individuals grieving their loved-ones lost to WWI. They say there is a market for everything, and this certainly rings true in the form of the medium William Hope and his invention of spirit photography. Taking a photograph of a client, he used glass plates and double exposure to make it look as though their dead loved-one was watching over them. Clever for its day, spirit photography serves as an example of the mass commercialism – or accessible commodity – that spiritualism had become.

Spiritual photography: a ghostly apparition appears in a photograph of Rev. Charles and Mrs. Tweedale

Spiritual photography: a ghostly apparition appears in a photograph of Rev. Charles and Mrs. Tweedale

Away from London, in the sleepy Cotswolds village of Oxfordshire, the Mitfords were experiencing their own ghostly experience. Asthall Manor, the family’s gabled Jacobean home built around 1620 was said to be haunted by a poltergeist so active that it tore off a maid’s bedclothes. In the daytime hours, cutlery flew across the scullery, china cups and saucers were hurled from their shelves, water-taps turned on by themselves and windows flew open despite their being locked. When night fell, footsteps could be heard on the paving stones outside, and on close inspection nobody could be seen. Could this have been the workings of the children’s overactive imaginations? Perhaps. The nursery windows overlooked the old graveyard of wool merchants’ graves, and although the children were forbidden to watch the funerals, they always did. Once, Decca and Debo fell into a newly dug grave, and Nancy warned them it meant “bad luck forever”.

 

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Asthall Manor

Farve, Pamela and Diana – the two of his seven children who felt the uneasy presence of the specter – witnessed the phenomena first-hand. They ignored the eerie happenings, pushing it to the back of their minds and refraining from speaking openly about it, lest they conjure it up. Pamela, though, was more than curious to see if the poltergeist did exist, and she told Diana: “We want to do some table turning one night but we are so afraid that Farve might find us at it. That would be awful of course.”

 

Debo carried the tale of the poltergeist with her throughout adulthood. A non-believer in such things, she flippantly dismissed it as “one of those nuisances that accompany teenage girls”, and was happy to be the instigator of ghostly pranks. Knowing of the ghost stories surrounding old, stately homes, she summoned her own make-shift ghoul to terrify some American guests who were staying at Lismore Castle. Mr. Twigg (sec. of the hunt) dressed up in a sheet, a night-cap, chains and carried a lantern. She fixed fishing-wire to the chandelier in the dining room and it shook and rattled, and then Mr. Twigg appeared through the windows. One American woman nearly fainted; she screamed and demanded to leave at once, to go anywhere, even to a hotel. “She was really horror-struck,” Debo recalled. “The joke nearly went too far.” Too far indeed, but Debo was one of the few in her family who did not believe in such things.

 

Superstitions, too, governed Farve’s life to an extent that he would write the name of an enemy on a piece of paper, sometimes slotting it into a matchbox (a makeshift coffin?) and putting it away in a drawer. He believed the person who had vexed him would die within a year. Given that he often carried out this ritual on his many sons-in-law – Sir Oswald Mosley, Peter Rodd and Esmond Romilly, in particular – it is clear that his theory did not work. However, the very mention of “the drawer” was enough to send a chill through the room.

 

After ten years of living at Asthall Manor, the house was promptly put on the market. The family vacated the haunted house for temporary lodgings in Paris. Although financial difficulties inspired his decision to sell the house, the family believe the poltergeist played a significant part. For a sensible, philistine man like Farve, the very mention of a ghost turned his blood cold. Could there have been more than a hint of idle gossip in the existence of the poltergeist? His offspring seemed to think so.

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The Mitford Society’s annual is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as Barnes & Noble

The Mitford Society Annual Vol. 2

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The Mitford Society’s second annual is now available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as various retail outlets. This year’s edition features lots of exciting features, photographs and tributes to Debo from those who knew her and admired her.  I have included a complete list of contents below…
The Horror Sisters: A Mitford Tease by Meems Ellenberg & Lyndsy Spence

Evelyn Waugh & Diana Guinness by Lyndsy Spence

An American’s Conversion to U-Speak by Nathan Duncan

How Do U Do Social Qs? A Mitford Quiz by Meems Ellenberg

The Making of a Modern Duchess by Katherine Longhi

Cooking and Eating Like a Duchess by May Tatel-Scott

The Kennedys & The Devonshires: A Family Intwined in History by Michelle Morrisette

The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

The Mitfords in Love by Georgina Tranter

Tilly Losch & The Mitfords by William Cross

Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society by Lyndsy Spence

Reviving an Icon by Robert Wainwright

Decca Mitford: Rock Star by Terence Towles Canote

Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan by Lyndsy Spence

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With the Unseen by Lyndsy Spence

Tales From the Archive by Lucinda Gosling

Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

Lady Ursula d’Abo: The Girl with the Widow’s Peak by Lyndsy Spence

Wolf for Two: A Wartime Dinner with Pamela Mitford & M.F.K Fisher by Kim Place-Gateau

Only Connect by Lee Galston

The Rodds in Italy by Chiara Martinelli & David Ronneburg

The Mitfords & The Country House by Evangeline Holland

The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Memories of Debo by Joseph Dumas

Tributes to Debo

– Emma Cannon

– Emma Gridley

– Robin Brunskill

– Stuart Clark

– Leslie Brodie