Guest Post by Marina Fiorato

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


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

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

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

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

Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan

Viscountess Castlerosse

You may think it fun to make love. But if you had to make love to dirty old men as I do, you would think again


The most notorious courtesan of 1930s society, Doris Delevingne boasted that she had reached the height of her profession. Indeed, by the mid ‘thirties, she had risen from humble beginnings in a small terrace house in Beckenham where she lived with her tradesman father, to a swanky address in Mayfair. Advancing on her foundation of beauty, brains and a fancy surname (she fibbed she was descended from a noble Belgian family), Doris set herself up as a one-woman-business, with nothing to trade except her body, and her sparkling wit should her admirer care for conversation. ‘An Englishwoman’s bed is her castle,’ she quipped, quite proud of her achievements. To some it was shameful; but to Doris it was a small price to pay for Rolls Royces, designer shoes, Parisian clothes and baubles from Cartier. She even shortened her name to Delavigne, fearing the original spelling might be too complicated to spell on a cheque. Where most women modestly dismissed their beauty, Doris knew she was beautiful and demanded that her fabulous legs should have a new pair of silk stockings every day, imported from Paris and costing a guinea a pair. She also had a fondness for Italian shoes, buying as many as 250 pairs on a single shopping trip. Anything Doris wanted, she got. Wives of powerful men, and mothers of heirs and spares feared their sons passing Doris’s infamous door on Deanery Street, for they knew one encounter with Doris and they would soon be contributing to her lavish lifestyle. Echoing their qualms, and summing up her scandalous reputation, a society matron snapped: ‘She should write a book and call it around the world in 80 beds.’


Early in her pursuit of riches, Doris met the theatrical actress Gertrude Lawrence who had become the mistress of a Household Cavalry Officer. Becoming flatmates, it soon became clear that both women were intent on climbing to the top. ‘I’m going to be the most celebrated actress in London,’ Gertie announced. ‘And I’m going to marry a Lord,’ Doris replied. An early conquest appeared in the form of Tom Mitford, but this was short-lived and he was not as rich as she had imagined. She soon turned her sights on Cambridge-educated Laddie Sanford, an American multimillionaire known for winning the 1923 Grand National. Setting up home in Park Lane, Doris joined him and found a love-rival in Edwina, Lady Mountbatten. Swiftly moving on from losing her horseman, she snared Sir Edward MacKay Edgar, twenty-five years her senior with enough money and arrogance to buy anything that took his fancy, first a title, and then Doris. But such passing flirtations didn’t last long, and she met the man who would become her husband.


Valentine Castlerosse was working in London as a gossip columnist, but it was his extra-curricular activities that appealed to Doris. He was an heir to an Irish earldom, and he was fat, nasty and broke; though she cared little for his financial status, for she herself had become rich from the money she hoarded off her rich admirers, she set her sights on his title and his castle in County Kerry. The title Lady Castlerosse, she decided, would bring her the type of social acceptance she craved. Quite tellingly, they married in secret, for Castlerosse was too afraid to tell his parents that his wife was a haberdasher’s daughter from Beckenham. Still, marriage meant nothing to Doris and she peddled on with her seduction of rich men – her husband, after all, needed the money. Winston Churchill was so smitten by her charms he painted her portrait three times – or so it was believed. His son, Randolph, too fell under her spell and they began an affair. ‘I hear you’re living with my wife,’ Castlerosse bellowed down the telephone not long after they were married. ‘Yes, I am,’ answered the younger Churchill, ‘which is more than you have the courtesy to do.’ Courtesy did not come into the equation; the couple had tried to live together but to disastrous results. They would kick and punch one another in private, and she would bite and thrash him about in public. Before long, Doris tired of her husband and threw him out of the marital home. Embittered by her rejection, and behaviour, he stood guard across the road, watching well-heeled gentlemen enter and exit the house, often giving them a swat with his blackthorn cane.


When Castlerosse finally plucked up the courage to divorce Doris, he chose to name not one of her many dalliances as co-respondent, but one of the best-known homosexuals of London society, Robert Herbert Percy. But this unusual piece of evidence was not entirely unfounded. Percy had been advised to visit Doris as an attempt to cure him of his homosexuality, and up to the impossible task, she produced a female prostitute and ordered the unsuspecting Percy to cane the terrified wench. Too shy, or perhaps too polite to accept the challenge, Doris gruffly picked up the cane and barked, ‘Here, let me show you how.’ Such antics might have amused her, but it appalled even the closest of her friends. The writer Edith Oliver dismissed her as ‘a common little demi-mondaine…why should one put oneself out for her?’ The high-jinxes were no longer funny; no longer the topic of a risque anecdote. This outsider had outstayed her welcome in Mayfair.


Moving to New York City, Doris lived a semi-gilded existence amongst America’s elite, but at the age of forty she was no longer the high-spirited society girl and her ways and means of getting men into bed for money had become sordid. Two years later, in 1942, Churchill summoned her back to Britain, where she took a suite at the Dorchester. Encountering the old Duke of Marlborough one evening in the hotel’s dining room, she was unnerved by his snide comment about people deserting their country in wartime. The acid remark shook her to the core, for she had gotten into trouble with the police for flogging diamonds in New York – a crime during wartime – to fund her homeward trip. She retired to her bedroom and fixed herself a drink, laced with a fatal dose of sleeping pills.





‘Am I not the last of the Marlborough gems?’


The second wife of Charles ‘Sunny’ Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough was far from conventional. His first marriage to the American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt ended in 1920. Hardly surprising, as it was a marriage doomed from the start. Consuelo’s mother longed for her daughter to have a title, and Sunny was a Duke on the hunt for a rich wife. So, a deal was struck – Mrs. Vanderbilt warned her: ‘I do the thinking, you do as your told’ and Mr. Vanderbilt handed over a dowry of $2.5 million. Consuelo (the reluctant debutante) became the Duchess of Marlborough and chaletline of Blenheim, and Sunny got his cash.

But within months of losing the saintly Consuelo, Sunny found himself another woman…

Gladys Marie Deacon was a society beauty with an unflattering past. Her father, Edward Parker Deacon, shot her mother’s French lover dead in their suite at the Hotel Splendide in Cannes, for which he was arrested, and then he went insane. Grief was not on the agenda for Mrs. Deacon and she soon ran off with an Italian nobleman. An American child brought up in Paris, she spoke with a French accent and was a celebrated beauty wherever she went – Rodin and Proust were among her admirers, with the latter writing: ‘I never saw a girl with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm.’  At the age of sixteen, when she visited Blenheim with a group of friends, the Crown Prince of Prussia fell madly in love with her, and during an outing to Oxford, the Prince kept turning around to look at her, much to the irritation of those seated next to him. When the Kaiser learned that the Prince had given Gladys a ring, he demanded she give it back. But she did not grumble, for she only had eyes for Sunny.

Gladys was no shrinking violet, and she boasted that she had slept with every Prime Minister in Europe ‘and most kings’, too. Bemoaning her youthfulness and not the marriage status of the Duke, she said: ‘I am too young though mature in the arts of woman’s witchcraft.’ And acting on her statement, Gladys’s childhood dream came true when she became the mistress of Sunny. Though, it would be another twenty-five years until they were married; the bride was forty and the groom was fifty.

Gladys Deacon, a painting by John Sargent

Gladys Deacon, a painting by John Sargent

Years before, at the age of twenty-two, Gladys had attempted to preserve her famous face by injecting paraffin wax into the bridge of her nose. This bizarre treatment proved unsuccessful and the wax slipped from its original place. Diana Mitford remarked that her face resembled ‘a deflated balloon’. But in spite of her botched looks, she had charm in abundance, and she moved at the centre of 1920s society.  In 1923 she was presented at Court ‘wearing a classically draped dress of silver lamé with a ceinture of silver embroidered in diamante’.

A painting by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1901

A painting by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1901

All that glitters is not gold, and Gladys soon became bored with Sunny. She began to breed Blenheim Spaniels, and multiplying at such a rapid speed the dogs overtook the house, driving the Duke to distraction. With her behaviour becoming more and more erratic, the Duke distanced himself from her, especially when she brought a revolver to dinner and when questioned what she intended to do with it, she answered: ‘Oh, I don’t know. I might just shoot Marlborough.’ Needless to say, Sunny fled.

To force his estranged wife from Blenheim, Sunny resorted to cutting off the electricity and dismissing her servants. When the removal vans arrived to ferry her things away, Gladys boldly stood on the steps and photographed the vans as they left. Sunny repeated the same tactics when Gladys moved into their London house in Carlton House Terrace. Diana Mitford, having just divorced Bryan Guinness and wallowing in her Eaton Square house awaiting sporadic visits from Sir Oswald Mosley, formed a friendship with the equally scandalous Gladys. She remembered with a degree of fondness, dining on the balcony overlooking the Mall, their table lit up by the streetlights below. Leaving the house was a hazardous undertaking, with guests moving along the dark landing, holding onto the wall as they negotiated the stairs to the front door.

Sunny died in 1934 before their divorce was final. As the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, Gladys moved to Oxfordshire where she lived as a recluse surrounded by cats. She wore hats and veils to disguise her famous face from curious onlookers and when a journalist became too familiar, she poured a bucket of water over his head. Her Polish helper, Andrei Kwiatkowsky, was her only link to the outside world, and from an upstairs window she would lower a key to the front door. In 1962 she moved against her will to a psycho-geriatric hospital in Northampton where she died in 1977, aged ninety-six.