These Great Ladies

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‘Oh dear,’ said Evelyn Waugh of his society friends, ‘these great ladies.’ In this book of pen portraits the reader is introduced to obscure ladies who were society stars in their day. From the Churchills to the Mitfords, British and European Royals, to international playboys and film stars, these ladies knew everyone. And everyone knew them, for better or worse.

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Margaret, Duchess of Argyll: Famous for her naughty polaroids, and whose divorce from her Duke saw 88 men named as her lovers.

Mariga Guinness: A bewitching German princess with a harrowing childhood, who fought to preserve Irish buildings and became an icon.

Sylvia Ashley: A girl from the wrong side of the tracks who married two English lords, two Hollywood stars, and a Russian prince.

Joan Wyndham: A bohemian aristocrat who shunned a debutante existence to live a life of debauchery in Chelsea.

Enid Lindeman: An Australian wine heiress who married four rich and titled men, and buried them all.

Venetia Montagu: A society girl who moved at the centre of H.H. Asquith’s wartime government.

Irene Curzon: A ‘poor little rich girl’ who dared to break the rules and challenge her brother-in-law, Sir Oswald Mosley.

Jean Massereene: A dazzling viscountess whose association with Sir Edward Carson almost ruined her reputation. A true eccentric, fashion icon, and champion of the spiritualist movement.

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The Misadventures of Enid Lindeman

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Originally published in The Mitford Society; Vol. III

Standing at six-feet tall with handsome features and platinum hair, Enid Lindeman was never going to be a wallflower. As she gallivanted through life she accumulated four husbands, numerous lovers, and during the inter-war years her high-jinx dominated the gossip columns. Evelyn Waugh satirized her set in Vile Bodies, but the workings of his menacing imagination paled in comparison to the real thing.

Born in Australia in 1892, she was the great granddaughter of Henry Lindeman, who founded Lindeman Wines in Hunter Valley, New South Wales. A privileged, if nondescript, childhood inspired Enid to look for a life of glamour and excitement. She achieved this at the age of twenty-one when she married Roderick Cameron, an American shipping magnate twenty-four years her senior. Establishing herself as a New York socialite, Enid would stop traffic (‘the better to view this vision of perfection’) when she emerged from the Cameron building in Manhattan. But the celebrated marriage was short-lived when, a year later, Cameron died from cancer, leaving his young wife a fortune of several million dollars.

The year was 1914 and the newly widowed Enid left New York with her nine-month-old son to move to Paris to drive an ambulance for the war effort. With her beauty, charm and charisma, she became popular with officers, and it was reported that five men, having found her so irresistible, committed suicide. (One blew himself up; another threw himself under Le Train Bleu; another jumped overboard in shark infested waters). Or, as Enid put it, ‘They were not able to take the strain.’ An old boyfriend, Lord Derby, Britain’s Minister for War, was concerned about the havoc she was causing amongst the officers and, hoping to tame her, he suggested she remarry. Although a millionairess in her own right, Enid was incapable of handling her finances and, to ease this fiscal responsibility, she agreed. Derby produced her next husband, Brigadier General Frederick Cavendish, known as ‘Caviar’.

After the war, Caviar was given command of the 9th Lancers in Egypt. As she had done in Paris, Enid caused a sensation amongst her husband’s comrades in Cairo and, as a dare, she reportedly slept with his entire regiment. By day she schooled her husband’s polo ponies and by night she dressed as a man to play with the band in the officers’ mess hall. Cairo suited Enid’s flamboyant tastes: there were picnics by the Nile, parties in sandstone mansions, and rides by moonlight in the Sahara. She met Lord Carnarvon (another of her lovers) on his famous dig of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and was one of the first to be taken down to the discovery.

In an attempt to distance Enid from hedonistic influences, Caviar took his wife, stepson, and their two children to London, where the family moved into a townhouse in Mayfair. Domesticity never appealed to Enid, and she continued her pleasure-seeking ways in London’s nightclubs. However, in 1931, she was once again a widow when Caviar died from a cerebral hemorrhage at their apartment in Paris.

In 1933, she met and married Marmaduke ‘Duke’ Furness, the 1st Viscount Furness, whose second wife, Thelma, was a lover of the Prince of Wales. (His first wife, Daisy, had died on board his yacht and he buried her at sea). Although immensely rich with a private railroad car, two yachts and an aeroplane, Furness ordered Enid to sign over her personal fortune to him. Furness’s London townhouse, Lees Place, was not large enough ‘to hide’ Enid’s three children from his sight, so she rented a flat on Curzon Street for the children and their staff. Suspicious that Enid was not being faithful, and intolerant to her platonic (a rarity) friendships with men, Furness hired detectives to watch her when he was at home and abroad. In spite of his jealousy, he showered her with expensive gifts and granted her every whim, one being exotic pets which included a tame cheetah, walked everyday by the children and their governess. A sensation wherever she went, it was said that people stood on chairs in the lobby of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo just to catch sight of her as she passed through. Out of all her husbands, Enid claimed to love Furness the most: ‘There was nothing in the world he was not prepared to give me. Of all the men who loved me, and some were as rich as Duke, he was the one who was prepared to lay the world at my feet.’

A terrific gambler, Enid loved the races and casinos, and often carried a bag stuffed with £10 notes. Irresponsible with money, she squandered a fortune, and was as equally flippant with her jewels, keeping her pearls in Kleenex boxes because they were the closest thing to hand. She was also generous with money: if she saw ex-servicemen begging on the street or sitting on the pavement next to their watercolours for sale, she would order her chauffeur to stop the car, whereupon she would get out and offer them a job or find them a home. To the disapproval of Furness, she would take her children on jaunts to the suburbs to visit the ex-servicemen for whom she had found homes.

Furness died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1940. After his death, his former wife, Thelma, contested the will, claiming that their son should inherit his estate. After a long legal battle, Furness’s eldest son (having been reported as missing in action) from his first wife was declared dead and the law sided with Thelma. Enid was not rewarded the money she had surrendered to Furness when they were married, but she was permitted to keep Lees Place in London. With the war raging around them, Enid and her daughter decamped to their villa in the south of France, where they tended to prisoners from the detention camp near Eze. Two years later, they escaped France and travelled to London by way of Portugal, where Enid used her influence to secure them passage on a flying boat.

In London, Enid was dubbed ‘The Penniless Peeress’ by the press. Down on her luck, she met Valentine Browne, the Earl of Kenmare, and famous gossip writer of the Londoner’s Log (then known as Castlerosse because of his former title Viscount Castlerosse). The confidant and travelling companion of the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, Valentine had lived an excessive life of debauchery, and had been a close friend and lover of Enid’s when they both lived in Paris during WWI. Divorced from the scandalous courtesan Doris Delevingne, he was hoping for a more stable wife.

They were married in 1943, and Enid became Lady Kenmare. An enormous gentleman who was reported to have sat on a dog and crushed it to death, Valentine’s doctor warned Enid that he had a weak heart and was to abstain from sex as it would surely kill him. She rejected the doctor’s advice: ‘It was one of the only pleasures left to him in life. How could I ration him?’ He died of a heart attack less than a year after they were married. In her boldest move yet, Enid, at the age of fifty-two, claimed she was pregnant and as such could hold onto the Kenmare estate until the potential heir was born. She kept up the charade for thirteen months until the estate was eventually given to Valentine’s nephew. Having buried four husbands, Somerset Maugham dubbed Enid, ‘Lady Killmore’.

A chameleon to all the men she had fallen in love with, Enid would become their ideal woman and their interests would become hers. As her wealth grew, through inheritance and marriages, her life became a grand production. All purchases centred around the bedchamber: there were silk sheets and embroidered silk and lace pillowslips (changed everyday), and nightgowns and negligees were bought in abundance. The bedroom, her natural habitat, was sprayed with liberal amounts of Patou’s Joy, then costing three times more than any other scent, and a lady’s maid was ordered to spray the nightgowns and negligees, as well as the bedclothes. Leaving the beside lamp on, the maid would then open the door to Enid’s bathroom and fill the bath to a certain level with hot water and scent. Presumably Enid, whenever she returned, would add more hot water to it. However, Enid was never seen in bed with a man, not even her husband, for she considered that ‘vastly improper’.

It was a role she knew well, and with copious amounts of money at her disposal, Enid played the part to perfection. Having outlived her lovers, in her later years she presided over La Fiorentina, her son’s villa in the south of France – a hub for Hollywood royalty. She died in 1973 at the age of eighty-one.

Enid features in my forthcoming book, The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne (The History Press, Nov 2016).

Evelyn Waugh & The Mitfords by Jeffrey Manley

Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. I. Copyright of Jeffrey Manley/The Mitford Society

Evelyn Waugh was a close friend of two of the Mitford sisters (Nancy and Diana), and an acquaintance of a third (Deborah). Waugh met Nancy in the late 1920s in connection with his courtship of, and marriage to, Evelyn Gardner (“She-Evelyn”). Nancy was, at the time, a close friend of She-Evelyn and was present at the 1927 party in She-Evelyn’s flat to which Alec Waugh (by then a successful novelist) brought his younger brother (“He-Evelyn”). It was there that He-Evelyn met his future wife for the first time. Nancy was also She-Evelyn’s companion during the periods in 1929 when He-Evelyn left their marital flat in Islington for extended periods to write Vile Bodies. It was in these absences that She-Evelyn started her affair with John Heygate, which resulted in the dissolution of her marriage. Nancy was said to have been unaware of the affair prior to the break-up. Nancy ended her friendship with She-Evelyn after the separation but remained on friendly terms with Waugh.

It has been suggested that it was Waugh who encouraged Nancy to write, and many of her early novels resemble Waugh’s own early comic works. Some literary scholars have also described two of Nancy’s post-war novels (Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love) as having been inspired to some extent by the success of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It is also widely accepted that Nancy’s husband Peter Rodd, to whom she was unhappily married for over 20 years, contributed heavily to the character of Basil Seal, who appears in several of Waugh’s novels. In addition, Waugh’s 1948 novel The Loved One is dedicated to Nancy and she was godmother to Waugh’s daughter, Harriet. Nancy dedicated her 1951 novel, The Blessing, to Waugh.

Nancy and Waugh engaged in an extended correspondence which began after they had both established themselves as writers. Their regular correspondence dates from the last years of the war and concludes with Waugh’s death in 1966. During this period they commented on each others work, sometimes seeking and offering advice on works-in-progress. Waugh’s friend, novelist Anthony Powell, commented that Waugh “got more from Nancy about upper-class life than he would probably have cared to admit.” (Anthony Powell, Journals: 1900-1992, London, 1997, p. 98) Most of their correspondence has survived and was published in 1996 where it is described by editor Charlotte Mosley in her preface as, “like overhearing a conversation between two quick-witted, provocative, very funny friends, who know the same people, read the same books, laugh at the same jokes and often share the same prejudices.”

Waugh was also, but more briefly, a close friend of Diana Mitford, whom he met in 1929. Waugh knew her first husband Bryan Guinness from Oxford. After the break-up of his marriage, Waugh lived for extended periods during 1929-30 with the Guinnesses. He wrote the last part of his novel Vile Bodies while visiting them, and most of his travel book Labels was written while he stayed by himself in their summer house in Sussex. Both of those books are dedicated to them, and he gave them the original typescript of Vile Bodies when it was published in January 1930. (This typescript was sold by their son, Jonathan, in 1984 for £55,000.)

Waugh also seems to have become infatuated with Diana while visiting with them in their Paris residence during the confinement for her first pregnancy. After the child (Jonathan) was born, she resumed a more active social life, and Waugh felt neglected. He was godfather to Jonathan, but after the baptism they maintained a more distant friendship, meeting infrequently. They each were married a second time, he to Laura Herbert and she to Oswald Mosley.

Just before Waugh’s death, their correspondence resumed, and they effectively sought each other’s forgiveness for the rupture that had occurred in 1930. In this late correspondence, they also acknowledged indirectly that Diana to some extent contributed to the character of Lucy in Waugh’s novel fragment Work Suspended. Waugh’s last published letter was on this subject. It was sent to Diana on 30 March 1966, and he died a little over a week later.

Waugh met the youngest Mitford sister, Deborah, at a drunken Christmas party in Wiltshire near where her husband, Andrew Devonshire, was stationed during the war. The first impression was not a favorable one, as Waugh’s debauched behaviour rather shocked Deborah, who seems to have shared her negative impression with her sisters. In her memoirs (p. 116), Deborah recalled that at one point Waugh “poured a bottle of Green Chartreuse over his head and, rubbing it into his hair, intoned, ‘My hair is covered in gum, my hair is covered in gum,’ while the sticky mess ran down his neck.” When Waugh learned of her discomposure, he made an effort to repair his reputation by sending her a hat from Paris shortly after the war.

Waugh’s standing was sufficiently restored to merit an invitation several years later to Chatsworth House, but he again put his foot in it by complaining that a chamber pot in his room had remained un-emptied. This was probably intended as a joke but engendered more correspondence among the Mitford sisters in which Deborah expressed her chagrin at his behaviour. On this occasion, Waugh seems to have restored himself by sending Deborah a presentation copy of his biography of the Roman Catholic theologian Ronald Knox. It was accompanied by a letter assuring Deborah that nothing in the book “would offend her Protestant persuasion.” When she later opened the book, she found that the copy she had been sent consisted of blank pages. In this instance, she got the joke.

Jeffrey Manley is a retired lawyer and member of the Evelyn Waugh Society. He lives in Austin, Texas. Visit the Evelyn Waugh Society at evelynwaughsociety.org

Mrs Guinness & Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh had made up his mind to dislike Diana Guinness, the third-born and most beautiful of the six Mitford girls. As the young wife of the brewing scion Bryan Guinness, Diana had already established herself as a dazzling society hostess. She was the epitome of what Evelyn (at that time) despised: rich, frivolous and, as he privately imagined, not very bright.

During Evelyn’s years of friendship with Nancy Mitford, Diana had become a phantom presence in his life. He had read about her antics in popular magazines of the day: Tatler, Bystander and The Sketch, and he did not fail to recognise that her celebrity was in ascent – a dizzying element for a girl who had spent her childhood as the scapegoat for Nancy’s teases and vitriolic putdowns. Evelyn himself was plotting his own coup-de-main in the form of a novel that would parody Diana and her disciples.

Knowing of Evelyn’s desire to witness this set first hand, Nancy invited him and his wife, Evelyn Gardner (they went by the monickers of He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn), to Diana’s tropical party on board the Friendship, a riverboat permanently moored at Charing Cross Pier. Out of place in the gaiety of the Friendship, Evelyn observed the misbehaving guests dressed in Zulu costumes and in sarongs, as ordinary commuters scurried along the embankment to catch the last train home. From this first evening with Diana, Evelyn felt he had gained substantial material for his novel. But, most importantly, he had achieved his ambition of catching snippets of how the Bright Young Things spoke – “too, too divine”, “utterly sick-making”, etcetera. The bonus, of which, was hearing Diana’s “Mitford Voice” in person with its swooping intonations, the shrillness of her laughter and the private language she and Nancy indulged in. To Evelyn’s astonishment – and his horror – he found himself captivated by her.

If, at the age of nineteen, Diana was prone to immaturity her generosity more than made up for this juvenile streak. Since the abandonment of She-Evelyn two days after the celebrated Tropical Party, Evelyn was consumed by the breakup of his marriage. And his depressed demeanour, exasperated by the need to stay at his parents’ house in Hampstead, was proving to be a distraction to his writing. So, Diana offered him the solitude of Poole Place, the Guinness family’s seaside home in Climping, Sussex, as an ideal retreat to finish his novel.

Warned by Diana of its “ugliness”, Evelyn set forth to Poole Place in late autumn, undeterred by the freezing coastal winds and the noisy ferocity of the English Channel. Poole Place fascinated him, and he was equally intrigued by the work going on in the nearby fields, where Diana’s mother-in-law, Lady Evelyn, was constructing her vision of a Medieval house. She wanted gnarled trees for the newly built house to nestle in, and they were bought and transferred from afar, carefully replanted in the best soil, bound together in straightjackets of thick straw and tied down with great cables and pegs. The architect, Mr. Phillips, obeyed Lady Evelyn’s strict orders, and he imported squirrels and field mice to give the new trees a touch of authenticity. Eccentricity tickled Evelyn, and the sight of armies of men, lorries and cranes required for the trees was no exception.

When Diana and Bryan motored down to Poole Place to visit Evelyn, he insisted on being driven over to Bramber to see the museum curated by a “disgusting clergyman” who had killed and stuffed tiny animals, modelling them into a variety of bizarre poses, such as a kitten pushing a guinea pig in a pram. Always a lover of animals, it made Diana feel sick, but Evelyn seemed to enjoy the grotesque spectacle. Upon observing his taste for the macabre, she said, “There was sometimes menace in his brilliant eyes.”

The friendship with Diana was formed before Evelyn’s conversion to Catholicism, an act which baffled those closest to him. He must have spoken to Diana about his interest in religion, for she remarked to Lord Berners: “Evelyn prays for me.” The phrase struck a chord of ridiculousness, prompting Berners to scoff: “God doesn’t listen to Evelyn.” At this point in their friendship, Evelyn could see no fault in Diana, and if she was prone to a waspish remark, he did not take it to heart.

In the summer of 1929, Diana was expecting her first baby, and in the cheerful company of Evelyn and Nancy, the Guinnesses set forth to their flat in Paris, where Diana would begin her dreaded confinement. Although Evelyn confessed to feeling shattered by the unexpected ending of his relatively short marriage, Diana sensed that he showed no signs of heartbreak. He cavorted around the Rue de Poitiers in high spirits, enchanting her with witty stories and doing all he could to keep her entertained.

Inside the flat, Diana relaxed in the quiet splendour of watching Bryan, Evelyn and Nancy work on their manuscripts. Evelyn was struggling to meet his deadline for his travel book, Labels. Bryan was composing Singing Out of Tune, the plot inspired by the failed marriage of the Waughs. And Nancy worked on her first novel, Highland Fling. In her fifth month of pregnancy and overcome with fatigue, Diana spent most of her time in bed, reading their work and dispensing critique, whether it was required or not. When she felt lonely, Bryan, Evelyn and Nancy moved their writing stations into her bedroom. But it was hardly an ideal setting, as demonstrated by Bryan when he shook his pen so violently that the ink spattered the delicate silk curtains.

When Diana experienced a fleeting burst of energy, Evelyn was ready to fulfill his role of dutiful companion. They went for short walks, drives through the French countryside, and to the cinema. But behind Evelyn’s exuberance, he concealed a deepening love that had been growing since Diana fascinated him at the Tropical Party. Ever a trusting friend, Bryan did not think it strange when Evelyn adopted the odd practice of lying in bed next to Diana during her afternoon naps. And, Diana, on her behalf, thought his attentiveness was strictly platonic. She was touched when Evelyn worried about the birth of the baby – hers being the first pregnancy he had observed. “I don’t know what to say about the imminence of Baby G. Dear Diana it seems all wrong that you should ever have to be at all ill or have a pain.”

In London, the close relationship with Evelyn continued. Diana and Bryan treated him to a birthday luncheon at the Ritz, but as her pregnancy advanced, her social life wilted. With Bryan occupied with his career as a barrister, Diana and Evelyn grew closer, and he succeeded in gaining her undivided attention. It was an unusual set-up for its time, but Diana’s condition made it somewhat acceptable for them to spend so much time alone. Diana had a table installed in her bedroom, and she and Evelyn enjoyed private, though miniscule, supper parties. They went to luncheons at his parents’ house in Hampstead, and took silly little trips to the zoo. All too often, Diana grew bored with the confines of Buckingham Street and she called on Evelyn to accompany her on some “carriage exercise” in her chauffeur driven Daimler.

Some years later, Evelyn drew on this unique experience when he wrote Work Suspended. The narrator falls in love with Lucy, the pregnant wife of his friend, who spent her days “lying in bed in a chaos of newspapers, letters and manicure tools”. It was an age suited to parody, and his imagination smouldered with all sorts of silly manifestations. Still, Evelyn peddled on with his novel, naming it Vile Bodies – the title of which became synonymous with the inter-war foolishness of the Bright Young Things. He finished it in time to present the dedication to Diana and Bryan on Christmas morning: “To B.G and D.G” it read. In return, Diana and Bryan gave him a gold pocket watch.

The following month, Evelyn presented the Guinnesses with the complete manuscript of Vile Bodies, bound in leather with its title stamped in gold. But having discovered that his young friend was quite unlike the protagonist of his novel, he wrote to Diana: “I am now convinced that Vile Bodies is very vulgar and I am sorry for dedicating it to you but I will write many more exalted works and dedicate them to you.” The fictional portrayal of Diana played on his mind, and Evelyn wrote to their mutual friend, Dig Yorke: “She seems the one encouraging figure in this generation – particularly now she is pregnant – a great vat of potentiality like the vats I saw at their brewery.”

Inspired by his plans to stay in Dublin to complete his latest manuscript, a biography of Jonathan Swift (it was never written), Evelyn encouraged Diana to recuperate from the birth of her baby at Knockmaroon, the Guinness family’s country house on the outskirts of Dublin, where they “could have fun”.

On the 16th of March 1930, Jonathan Bryan Guinness was born. Evelyn was touched when Diana and Bryan agreed to his suggestion of Jonathan as a name, and he was further elated when Diana asked him to be godfather to her son. The other godfather, Diana’s cousin Randolph Churchill, became embroiled in a bitter feud with Evelyn – a feud which only ended when death separated the two men.

In early summer, London’s social events were in full swing, and with youthful gaiety, Diana launched herself back on the scene. Bryan had reservations about parties, balls, tea at the Ritz and endless trips to the theatre once again consuming their lives. Evelyn, too, disapproved of her eagerness to indulge in such frivolity, and it caused friction between the two. Like Bryan, he preferred to have Diana all to himself, to sit in a quiet corner where they could talk. But Diana, by her own admission, was “pleasure loving”. Evelyn’s jealously transferred on to Bryan, and he was not happy when Diana began passing over his luncheon invitations in favour of her husband, with whom she dined at the Savoy Grill during his afternoon break from his barrister duties at the Temple.

The former close friends were reunited on Diana’s twentieth birthday that June when Evelyn presented her with a charming Briggs umbrella. However, inspired by his feelings of resentfulness, he recorded in his diary that she broke the umbrella the following day – an untrue account; she cherished it for years until it was stolen. Two weeks later, at a supper party given at Buckingham Street, Evelyn continued with his unusual behaviour. He instigated a fight with Randolph Churchill in the servants’ hall, resulting in both men punching one another until the brawl was broken up. Diary entries written by Evelyn detail the breakdown of his friendship with Diana, and reveal the bitterness which blighted their meetings:

“D and I quarreled at luncheon.”
“D and I quarreled at dinner.”
“Quarreled with D again and left.”

Four days after recording the last event in his diary, Evelyn avoided Diana at Cecil Beaton’s cocktail party. It pained her when he did not lapse into their old, familiar rapport and he simply bid her goodnight and left. Diana must have featured heavily on his mind, for later that evening, Evelyn sent a letter to Buckingham Street. His bad behaviour, he wrote, was due to his unease with himself, and the parting words “don’t bother to answer” left Diana with little doubt as to how she should proceed. His petty behaviour enforced her firm belief that “in friendship there must be neither possessiveness nor jealousy. Either would wreck it”.

Thirty-six years later, a month before his death on the 10th of April 1966, Evelyn offered Diana some closure when he wrote to her, shouldering the blame for the ending of their friendship. He broke it off out of “pure jealousy”, provoked by an infatuation with her. She had shown him kindness and empathy during a turbulent time in his life, and this inspired him to see Diana in a romantic light. She had become the “unobtainable object” of his desires, and even though a sexual relationship was off limits, he wanted her all to himself as an “especial confidante and comrade”. That, as Evelyn told her, was “the sad and sordid truth”. Except for his letter, they never spoke again.

Abridged extract from Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, The Thirties Socialite. Originally printed in The Mitford Society: Vol. II.

Nancy Mitford – Hijacked By Familial Notoriety: Guest Blog by Helen Halton

Times journalist Ben MacIntyre once described the Mitford sisters as “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess, and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry-connoisseur” [1]. Of these, Unity “the Hitler-lover”, Jessica “the Communist”, and Diana “the Fascist” have garnered most of the world’s attention (Pamela, the “unobtrusive poultry-connoisseur” lived a calm, serene, and happy rural life – so ordinary in comparison to the lives of her sisters that her obituary writer struggled to find much to say about her – even noting at the start that she was “the least known of the Mitford sisters” [2]). Nancy “the Novelist” has been primarily of interest for what her works have revealed about the lives of her politically split sisters. However, Nancy is well worth some study in her own right.

Bright Young Person

Nancy, in her day, was a Bright Young Thing. These were a group of aristocratic socialites and intellectuals which tore a swathe through 1920s London. The Wall Street Journal has described them as “The British milieu of society scions flinging themselves into the nonstop pursuit of fun”. They did so in a flamboyantly bohemian fashion – so much so that their influence lives on today. Not only did they inspire aspect of bohemian, ‘hipster’, and ‘glitterati’ culture, they were also arguably the first to glamorize the use of illegal drugs. Addiction to opiates in particular only began to be considered a serious problem in the medical community in the 1920s, and tenuous efforts to control them more tightly only really began to be effective in the thirties. This newly illicit status of drugs once considered the preserve of those ill, weak of character, or ‘delicate’ rendered opiates and other drugs highly appealing to the Bright Young People, who had a distinct rebellious streak. It is arguably their prolific and much-flaunted use of drugs which rendered such substances popular amongst those who wanted to seem ‘cool’ (for, although the term did not exist at the time, the Bright Young People were undoubtedly as ‘cool’ as they came). Not knowing what they did, the Bright Young People helped to turn drugs into the appealingly rebellious and ‘cool’ choice which they are today – for which many people working in drug rehabilitation centres would undoubtedly curse Nancy and her compatriots almost as heartily as many curse Unity for her adoration of Hitler.

[NB: The Mitford Society would like to stress that Nancy Mitford did not take drugs. The above statement is the opinion of Helen Halton.]

Unlucky In Love

Nancy, however, knew none of this. While her sisters flung themselves into politics and poultry, she flung herself into partying. According to the biographer of her contemporary, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy declared that during those years “we hardly saw the light of day, except at dawn”. Her father aggressively disapproved of her male friends – largely, it seems, because they tended towards the aesthetic type, whom her father viewed as effeminate. In a move which seemed almost calculated to enrage her father, Nancy fell in love with the most outrageously effeminate member of the group – Hamish St Clair Erskine. Described as “a bright apparition who once upon a time swept past them like a kingfisher”, Hamish was undoubtedly tremendously charismatic, but there was not a great deal more to him than that – “his only enduring gift was his charm” [3] Unfortunately for Nancy, he was also homosexual. They enjoyed a scandalous affair but, given that it was felt 100% more on her part than on his, it was sporadic, and ended badly. Nancy’s love life would, sadly for her, follow a similar pattern throughout her life. To the horror of her friends, she ultimately married Peter Rodd – a somewhat irresponsible and amoral man whom Evelyn Waugh would later satirize as the unscrupulous bore Basil Seal in Black Mischief. The marriage was appalling. When pregnant with her one and only child, she prayed for a girl, for she could not bear to bring another Peter Rodd into the world. She miscarried the child, and the marriage failed utterly.

A Mixed Legacy

Nancy is best known today as a writer, and as an exemplar of manners and etiquette. The latter she came upon quite by accident, after making a chance remark about the ease with which one can distinguish the upper classes from all others by minor vocal tics. As for the former – while her novels acquired moderate success, they never quite achieved the popularity which they may well deserve. Nancy was undoubtedly a very clever woman, a formidable force, and a good writer on her own account, but her status as a Mitford sister both enhanced and hijacked her literary career. While people eagerly bought her anti-fascist offerings, they did so largely in order to lap up salacious details about the fictionalized lives of Unity and Diana, meaning that Nancy’s novels never got the critical reading they deserved. Perhaps, now that the Mitford notoriety is dying down a little, it is time to take Nancy’s books down from the shelves and cast a critical eye over them once more…

[1] Lydia Smith, “Deborah Mitford Dies: How Hitler and Stalin Tore England’s Grandest Family Apart”, International Business Times, September 2014

[2] Emma Tennant, “Obituary: Pamela Jackson”, The Independent, April 1994

[3] Hugo Vickers, “The fine art of doing nothing”, The Independent, March 1994

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

Our forthcoming annual

The Mitford Society’s annual has been a whirlwind of preparation but in the space of a month all of the submissions are in! I can tell you now that you’re in for a treat, the annual is a combination of academic essays, fun reviews, personal stories, photographs, a re-cap of Mitfords Eve at Sutton House and of course, the Mitford murder mystery which opens the book. I wanted to channel something quite unique, though paying homage to Nancy Mitford’s The Water Beetle and A talent to Annoy, and also The Pursuit of Laughter, though with less restraint than Diana’s critical essays. It has turned from a magazine sized vision into a full scale book! I have included the table of contents below, I hope you all approve!

Murder in the Hons Cupboard:- Meredith Whitford & Lyndsy Spence

Stranger than dreams and far more disordered:- An extract from The Fertile Fact

 The Most Charming Duchess:- Charles Twigger

 Pamela’s Irish Castle:- Stephen Kennedy

 Living in a Mitford House:- Debbie Catling

 Nancy’s True Love: Versailles:- Rebecca McWattie

 Nancy in Versailles:- Chiara Martinelli

 Esmond Romilly:-Meredith Mitford

 Diana Mosley :- David Platzer

 Understanding Unity:- Meems Ellenberg

 To the editor of the Daily Mail, a mock letter from Unity Mitford: – Emma Reilly

 Muv’s American Adventure:- Lyndsy Spence

 A Honnish Reunion:- Lyndsy Spence

 Stargazing with the Mitfords:- Astrology Charts by Victor Olliver

 From Countryside to Couture:- Natalie Tilbury

 The Mitford Sisters & The Turbulent Thirties:- by Lyndsy Spence, printed in Vintage Life magazine.

 The Photography Face:-Lyndsy Spence

 Laying the Foundations of The Mitford Industry:– David Ronneburg

 The Mitford Industry: An editor’s point of view:- An interview with Mark Beynon by Lyndsy Spence

 Re-issuing Nancy Mitford:- Emma Howard Capuchin Classics, Series Editor

 In Search of Nancy:- Barbara Cooke

 Evelyn Waugh & The Mitfords:- Jeffrey Manley of the Evelyn Waugh Society

 The American Way of Death & Pop Culture:- Terence Towles Canote

 The Pursuit of Love: The perils of a would-be film:- Lyndsy Spence

 Moths to the Flame: The Mitfords of Mull:- An extract of a play by Willie Orr

 Mitfords Eve:– A Mitford themed event hosted by The Amy Grimehouse in association with The National Trust & the BFI.

 The Mitfords & Modern Writers. Blog interviews with:

 – Meredith Whitford

– Deanna Raybourn

– Tessa Arlen

– Judith Kinghorn

 Extraorder Extras: Those Honnish by association:

 – Joan Wyndham

– Diana Skeffington

– Mariga Guinness

 Mitford sketches commissioned for The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life:- Tessa Simpson