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.

One Last Dance by Judith Lennox


Judith Lennox has written a sprawling tome spanning the Great War and the latter part of the twentieth century. In 1974, elderly Esme Reddaway prepares for a family gathering, she knows the get-together will prove difficult but she must follow through with her commitment. As she reminisces about her life thus far, the narrative takes us back to 1917, where her sister Camilla’s fiancé Devlin Reddaway is on leave from the Western Front. Having promised to rebuild his ancestral home, Rosindell, for Camilla, he is devastated to learn she is engaged to someone else. Angry and vengeful, he marries Esme, who has been secretly in love with him for years.

In a similar light to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Lennox has given us a sympathetic heroine who struggles to gain her husband’s love. Esme begins by reviving Rosindell’s annual summer ball but as the years pass, she begins to wonder if the house has a malign influence on those who inhabit it, and the revelation of a shocking secret on the night of the ball tears her life apart. Decades later, Esme knows it is she who must lay the ghosts of Rosindell to rest.

Fans of Downton Abbey will revel in Lennox’s tale of sibling rivalry, heartbreak, betrayal and forgiveness. A gripping family saga from beginning to end.

The Girl With The Widow’s Peak


Before the war started you could choose between four great balls every night, rivalling each other in luxury and grandeur. There was a court ball every summer and London tingled. There was little premonition of the tragedies and disasters that were soon to unfold. There were wonderful weekend parties organised for the young people at country houses such as Cliveden. I loved being invited by my aunt Lady Diana Cooper. She entertained with great flair the most famous people from all over the world and you were honoured to be asked. She was my father’s younger sister and famed for her beauty. She appeared in all the magazines in the latest fashions, which she adored. She was very nice to me but used to tick me off because I didn’t really care about the way I looked. She would say, ‘Darling it’s all very well being a wild child in the garden and playing at Mrs. Mop, but it’s very selfish because other people have to look at you. – An extract from The Girl With The Widow’s Peak by Lady Ursula d’Abo. Click here to read more

The forthcoming publication of Lady Ursula’s memoirs, The Girl With The Widow’s Peak, will appeal to admirers of Mitfordiana. Born in 1916 to the Marquess and Marchioness of Granby, Lady Ursula’s memoirs recall a gilded age at the centre of high society. Recalling her childhood spent at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, the rigid formalities of liveried servants, maids and the ‘pig man’ are reminiscent of Downton Abbey. Following her father’s ascent to the Dukedom of Rutland in 1925, Lady Ursula writes about the extensive restoration of another Manners’ family seat, the medieval Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. Fans of Debo and the restoration of Chatsworth are sure to enjoy this section of the book!


In 1934, Lady Ursula was presented at Court and three years later, she swapped her Prince of Wales feathers for a Norman Hartnell gown when she acted as one of the six maids of honour in the Coronation of King George VI. After the Coronation, Lady Ursula writes, she was recognised everywhere. With her striking black hair, pale skin and distinctive widow’s peak, it is not difficult to see how her beauty would have turned heads. In 1938, she accompanied the new King and Queen on their first state visit to Paris and Versailles.

Lady Ursula stands on the balcony of Buckingham Palace

Lady Ursula stands on the balcony of Buckingham Palace

A year later, and with the outbreak of war, Lady Ursula stepped away from her glamorous life and into the role of nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. She then took charge of 2,000 women making bullets in a munitions factory in Springfield, Grantham. Those who enjoyed John Julius Norwich’s book Darling Monster will appreciate the letters included in this memoir, sent by Diana Cooper detailing Lady Ursula’s wartime work to her son.

The young beauty photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1939

The young beauty photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1939

As with any fascinating memoir, Lady Ursula touches on her extraordinary friendships, and such friends included the artist Rex Whistler, the Maharaja of Jaipur, Paul Getty and Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen. But unlike the fabrication of Downton Abbey, Lady Ursula’s account is entirely real.


Lady Ursula is still beautiful at 97

After the war and a brief marriage to Anthony Marreco, Lady Ursula went to India. She married Edward d’Abo in 1951 and settled down to family life at West Wratting Park in Cambridgeshire, with two sons and a daughter. Lady Ursula is now 97 and  lives in London.


Porchey Carnarvon’s Two Duped Wives: An Interview


The Earl of Grantham’s stately pile Downton Abbey is as famous as any of the characters of the hit TV series but fans of the show might be interested to learn of Highclere Castle’s (the real Downton) other storyline which rivals any of the plots Julian Fellowes dreams up! I was intrigued by the story which first appeared in the Sunday Express so I decided to contact William Cross, the author of Porchey Carnarvon’s Two Duped Wives to inquire further about this fascinating, and relatively unknown, back story.


First of all William can you explain to The Mitford Society how you became interested in the lives of Tillie and Catherine?

My interest in aristocratic women of the past spans several projects. Tilly Losch and Catherine Wendell have been hovering around my study walls over the several years I‘ve spent researching and writing about the occupants of Highclere Castle.

These two women are first mentioned in “The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon”, my full length biography from 2011 of Almina Wombwell, the  indefatigable Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, of Old King Tut fame. Afterall, they were married to Almina’s only son, Henry ( better known as Porchey Carnarvon, who was the Sixth Earl of Carnarvon) : making Almina their mother-in-law.

My informants who offered up stories about Almina also  swept in tales about  her son’s two wives. Having slavishly written up Almina,  and  revealed her untold story to the world, Tilly and Catherine were relegated somewhat to bit players. Since I was left with many facts, anecdotes and testimonies about these two remarkable ( albeit very different) women it was inevitable,  When I decided to continue the Carnarvon-Highclere  story with a follow up title to “Secrets”, that I would hone in on  them again as the two Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon, and finally give them headline billing.

What research did you undertake in writing your book, and how long did the creative process take?

Research is a long drawn out ritual, it’s an art. It’s the part of the whole process whose  sum total makes a book credible or not. For the book on Tilly and Catherine it was a mix of culling from hundreds of printed sources in books, especially diaries and memoirs from the timelines of these woman,  delving into newspapers, journals  and  plundering archives in Britain and America. The British Library and National Archives  provided a good deal of the material.  In America the librarians and archivists holding Tilly’s papers at Binghamton University, New York State and Catherine’s family records at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in New Hampshire  were  helpful  and supportive. In the USA I was blessed in having help from another writer  named Joyce Sachs ( the wife of a relative of Tilly )  who is also currently working on highlighting Tilly’s legacy ( for a play ) and  who is  hugely  knowledgeable about the content of Tilly’s letters and diaries ( including those at Binghamton University written in German-  Tilly’s mother tongue).

I had the assistance of Diana Fitzpatrick,  a friend in America who acted as proxy researcher at Portsmouth and went through dozen of boxes of Wendell papers on my behalf. I was also helped by George Jackson a distinguished journalist and  ballet critic in the USA ( who knew Tilly and her dance history )  and Charles  W Wendell  a member of the Catherine’s wider family  carried out some recognisance work for me on the ground at places in New York associated with Catherine’s parents and other relatives.   It helped that Charles was a notable figure in the Holland Society of New York : the Wendells are, of course,  of Dutch origin!

The people  I’d previously interviewed for my biography of Almina were seen again including her godson, who lived under Almina’s roof for 30 years and knew Catherine and Porchey interactions extremely well. I also interviewed  several  new people including a well informed octogenarian who spent his entire life at close quarters to Highclere and knew the family over several generations.  Some equally aged  members of the British peerage replied to enquiries providing additional details  from their own memories of knowing both women and the notorious Porchey. I also carried out site visits to places associated with Catherine’s childhood years in Hertfordshire.  I even made a pilgrimage to Catherine’s grave.

After sketching an outline I tend to draft chapters as I research. As this book had a good head start it was completed in about a year, including the final stages of  shaping and editing and tracking down images.  My book on Almina took three years to reach  the same stage.  The End Notes in the book set out every detail of the research sources used.

Why did you write a combined biography on the two women as opposed to a single biography of Tillie?

The book is sub- titled “ The Two Duped Wives of Porchey Carnarvon”. The focus of much of the book is  on their relationship/ marriage to  The Sixth Earl and what these women had to endure as Porchey’s  Countesses.  At the outset they were both in the same boat of having to find a husband who was better of than they were but the individual stories of the two women  ( including I hope their indomitable spirit)   is adequately covered in the book and their lives before and after  their  time  at Highclere.  These women were  great survivors and they successfully turned their lives around without Porchey.

There is room for a full length biography of Tilly Losch: she was a very accomplished  star of stage and film  in her time. Rumours circulate in USA. I am told that the references in the late Ann Marie Koller’s long dormant biography of Tilly are being updated by her daughter for publication before the year is up.

We’re aware of the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, and the more recent book on Catherine written by the Countess of Carnarvon, how did that impact your project? Has it been a blessing or a curse?

Downton Abbey has shone a light on many forgotten stories from the past. But Downton is still essentially fiction.  It is an enjoyable romp.  The trouble with the tales outlined  in “ Real Downton Abbey” books  is that these are often just not a  full reflection on how it all was, that’s worse than fiction since the parts left out  are among the most  intriguing, albeit controversial and the family would rather these secrets weren’t disclosed . Those behind the  titles do NOT  offer the complete picture of  life stories of the Fifth and Sixth Earls and Countesses of Carnarvon.  My researches  on Almina and Catherine and Tilly ( and on the two Fourth Countesses  Lady Evelyn Stanhope and Elsie Howard ) and their husbands and families all predate Downton  and I have undoubtedly sold copies of my books on the back of Downton’s publicity machine and its great popularity.  My  take on the Carnarvons is  offered to readers in good faith, warts and all and not to cash in on a TV series.  I hope the legal deposit copies of my books ( and my working papers)  will  stand as a credible history of these people concerned long, long after Downton has ended its run.

Tillie’s name is always appearing in the endless volumes of Mitfordiana but if it weren’t for Downton do you feel the stories of these women would have otherwise been forgotten?

Tilly Losch  is enjoying a renaissance at present, not only because of Downton  The coverage given by Binghamton University in their Newsletter last summer and on their website  is certainly a Downton Abbey spin off.  But she is in the limelight again in her very own right. You can’t keep a girl like Tilly down.  Her famous Tanz der Hande ( Dance of the Hands , and can be see on You Tube )   together with many stunning  photographs of her early days dancing for the Max Reinhardt Company in her native Austria  is the subject of an exhibition currently running in Vienna  ( until 13 March, 2014  at the Bonartes Gallery ).  This  celebrates a notable period of pioneering dance history. The show has an enchanting catalogue of images of  this most stunning creature and her fellow dancer  Hedy Pfundmayr.  I’d love to see  the exhibition  staged  in London and in the USA.  Perhaps the Tate Gallery  or Barnes Museum in  Philadelphia ( or even Binghamton University ) who all  have examples of Tilly’s paintings ( Binghamton have many)   could think about its public appeal. Perhaps Highclere coffers could offer sponsorship for staging a celebration of Tilly,  the amazing dancing Countess of Carnarvon.

It is no surprise that Tilly ( a blinding star  on the London and New York stage and with several films in Hollywood )  was seen by  the great Society photographer Cecil Beaton ( and others)  as one of the most beautiful women of her time.  As to Tilly’s links with the Mitfords, especially her fling with Tom Mitford, close friendship with Nancy and her falling out with Diana ( over Tilly’s treatment of her first husband, the poet  Edward James, to whom Diana was devoted), my book reflects on all on these overlaps and much more.  I have also recently completed a short tribute entitled “ Tilly Losch ‘ Schlagobers’ Sweet Fragments From Her Life.”  I will add more in years to come.  I doubt I will ever get closure with Tilly.

I for one will carry on writing about such extraordinary woman ( and some men ) whose stories are  less well known, hence my work on the Morgan dynasty of Tredegar House, South Wales which not got an iota to do with Downton Abbey.

Are you currently working on a project? What can we expect in the future?

Yes, several new books in progress for 2014, including  a final look at the Evan, Viscount Tredegar and before that a book on a  gay witch hunt in Abergavenny, South Wales, in 1942.   I am also working on “Rosemary and Alastair: ‘Everything is More Beautiful Because We’re Doomed’ ” ,  the tragic story of the daughter and son of the great Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland.

William Cross is offering readers the chance to purchase his book for £10 (price includes p&p). This offer will end on 15th April. Click here for details. 


‘The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone’


Beautiful Diana Skeffington

The Hon. Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington [1909-1930], the only daughter of Viscount Massereene and contemporary of Diana Mitford, spent her childhood at Antrim Castle – once a prominent feature in an area known by locals as The Castle Grounds. As a little girl Diana was a member of the Girl Guides – later becoming the leader of the Primrose Patrol- and many of her childhood companions were the children of local merchants. It was quite unheard of for a girl from her background to mix so freely with non-aristocrats. Diana’s closest friend, Sadie, was a fellow Girl Guide whose father worked as head gardener for Viscount Massereene. Escorted by her governess, Mrs. Molloy, Diana visited Sadie at her home on Castle Street, causing a scene each time she entered through the back door. Sadie’s mother was mortified as Diana passed through the scullery to the parlour; the gentry always entered by the front door and often to a small fanfare.


Antrim Castle in its heyday. Could this be Diana and her little brother?

Viscount and Viscountess Massereene were not alarmed by Diana’s familiarity with ordinary people. At the age of 17, Diana attended a fete at Mount Stewart – home of Lord and Lady Londonderry- where she did not hesitate to lend a hand, which prompted an astonished Lady to remark: ‘There is a remarkably good looking, tall girl here, I don’t know who she is, but she is working as hard as any waitress in the restaurant.’ A year later, all of London’s high society would know who Diana was when she came out as a debutante in 1927.  Through this social whirlwind, known as The Season, Diana met Edward, Prince of Wales, who would later ascend the throne as King Edward VIII and cause a scandal by abdicating to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. It was an open secret that Edward had fallen in love with Diana. How different the current royal family’s lives would have been had fate not intervened. Diana might have become Queen consort, and our current Queen Elizabeth II would have faded down the line of succession to live the life of a minor royal.

On 15 October 1930, Diana served as a bridesmaid at the society wedding of her friend Miss Susan Roberts to the Hon. Somerset Maxwell Farnham. On this day, Diana asked for a glass of water – a seemingly harmless gesture. The water was contaminated and a week later Diana collapsed at her mother’s family home, Ardanaiseig House, in Argyll. The diagnosis was typhoid fever and a doctor in Harley Street had been alerted of her condition and the necessary arrangements were made for her to travel to London for treatment. Hopes were raised when Diana claimed to feel better and it seemed she would be well enough to return to Antrim. On Trafalgar Day, Diana took to the street to sell flags in aid of servicemen, it was a cold day and her friends were concerned about her fragile appearance and urged her to rest. ‘If I go to bed now, it will be weeks before I shall be up again,’ she joked. Suddenly all expectations of a complete recovery were dashed when Diana – still battling typhoid- developed pneumonia and her condition took a turn for the worst. The raging fever consumed her and at the age of 21 she was dead. The words of Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes, following the untimely death of Lady Sybil, could have been applied to Diana’s demise: ‘The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone.’


Diana’s final resting place

A solemn mood filtered through London’s social scene and, at home, the people of Antrim were in mourning for the girl they had loved so much. The funeral was held at All Saints Parish Church and the town came to a standstill; the local residents and shopkeepers lined the road to pay their respects. In her short life Diana had touched many, and the Girl Guides of Antrim walked alongside her coffin, followed by her parents, Viscount and Viscountess Massereene.

Today the small burial ground is hidden behind hedges and imposing trees and in this quiet, secluded part of the Castle Grounds rests Diana, her body clothed in her bridesmaid’s dress, in a grave purposely angled to face Scotland. Had fate dealt Diana a kinder hand she might have become a prominent figure in the history of the twentieth century. And like the ruins of the castle, and her ornate grave, the name Diana Skeffington should serve as a reminder that Antrim once played a part in a forgotten, gilded age.