An Interview with Christopher Warwick

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My latest interview subject is royal biographer Christopher Warwick, who wrote my favourite book on Princess Margaret, A Life of Contrasts. I’ve recently become friendly with Chris who is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. His work, writing about the lives of the Royals, is an inspiration to me. Originally I wanted to ask him about Princess Margaret (a hero of mine) but instead the interview has taken a different direction and he explains the research and process of writing his latest biography, Ella, Princess, Saint & Martyr. 

Click here to visit Christopher’s author page.

Having read up on Ella, I am surprised at how her life parallels with that of her relation Princess Alice of Battenberg. What sparked your interest in Ella and what was the initial reaction of publishing houses when you presented your idea to them?

I had long been interested in the history of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra and their family, but was particularly interested in the last Empress’s sister, who I thought had a remarkable life. In fact, I think she is actually far more interesting than a great many of the Romanovs, including the last Tsar and Tsarina. So, I prepared a proposal for a biography – at that point there had been next to nothing worth talking about – which my agent submitted and two publishing houses immediately made offers. Ella Princess Saint & Martyr, as the book is called, was really my first historical biography and I have to admit it’s one of the books I’m most proud of. It took me 3 years to research and write and tells the genuinely fascinating story of the life – and brutal death – of Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna of Russia, who was a favourite granddaughter of Queen Victoria, the sister of Russia’s last Tsarina Alexandra, the aunt of Earl Mountbatten of Burma and the great-aunt of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Born into one of Germany’s less well off royal families, Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine, as she was formally known, within the family she was called Ella, was the daughter of Princess Alice of Great Britain and Grand Duke Ludwig IV.

As it unfolded, Ella’s life really did transcend every frontier, geographical, national and social, taking her from  relatively modest beginnings to the opulence of Russia’s Imperial House of Romanov, into which she married at the age of 19. Described as ‘the most beautiful princess in Europe’ and according to the French ambassador, ‘capable of  arousing profane passions’, Ella’s life took a profound and radically different direction after her husband, Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, the ruthless, authoritarian Governor of Moscow, had been blown up in February 1905. Hearing the explosion, by the way, Ella flew out of the house without  putting a coat on, and in the blood-soaked snow, clawed the pieces of Serge’s body together with her bare hands.  Raised a Lutheran, Ella had ultimately decided to convert to Russian Orthodoxy 7 years after her marriage and with Serge’s death recognized what was a very genuine vocation. Against very considerable opposition, she founded a nursing order of which she became the ordained abbess. It was known as the Order of Saints Martha and Mary and Ella, having sold her jewels and everything of value, established the convent, which also consisted of a hospital, a clinic, an orphanage, not far from the Kremlin in Moscow. As a nursing order, and Ella was very hands on, it not only addressed welfare issues, but took her personally into dangerous, mist-shrouded slums, such as the infamous Khitrovka Market, to help Moscow’s untouchables. Come the Revolution, Ella refused offers of escape and although there must have been times when she was very afraid, she was determined to carry on with her work at the convent as best she could. In the end, the Bolsheviks finally came for her. Taken first on a seemingly never ending rail journey to the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg, where her sister, her brother in law, Tsar Nicholas II, and their 5 children, were barbarically slaughtered, Ella and other Romanov relations were then removed to the town of Alapaevsk. It was from there, as their conditions in the school house where they were held captive, grew increasingly worse, that the Bolsheviks took Ella in the dead of night to the gaping mouth of a disused mine shaft. Savagely clubbed with rifle butts, she was thrown alive down into the mineshaft, which was about 18.5 metres deep, and there left to die an agonizing death. Three months later, however, when the bodies of Ella and those who shared the same fate, were retrieved from the mine shaft, it was discovered that her body, although discoloured and extensively bruised, showed little or no sign of decomposition which, for the Russian Orthodox Church was the first step on the path of her canonization. Today, she is revered as Saint Elisabeth Romanova.

Many years later, in 1949, her niece, Princess Alice of Battenberg, otherwise Princess Andrew of Greece, the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother, attempted to follow Ella’s example and set up an order, which she also called by the same name as Ella’s. Alice wore a nun’s habit, though as Prince Philip would say, it meant she didn’t have to worry about what to wear or have her hair done. Though I don’t doubt she was sincere, Alice was not a real nun (unlike Ella who was ordained) and her work was occupational not vocational. So, as Hugo Vickers put it in his excellent biography Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece, ‘Ultimately, a lack of religious commitment and devotion undermined Alice’s aspirations’. I also love the now famous comment made by Alice’s mother, the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, when she said, ‘What can you say about a nun who smokes and plays canasta?’.

How does it feel when you are writing about a subject you admire and then you get to know your subject in person (i.e. Princess Margaret). Does that influence the way in which you write the book?

There are as many disadvantages as advantages in writing about somebody you get to know. For example, as her authorized biographer, I wrote two separate biographies of Princess Margaret. It was never my intention to write two, but that’s how it worked out, even though almost 20 years separated one from the other, and I have no doubt the second book was the better of the two. Certainly working on the first,  I felt I was writing with one hand tied behind my back. With the second, I felt a lot freer, but as a biographer of a living person, one inevitably gets to know things that it simply would not be appropriate or wise to include. Writing about Sir Peter Ustinov, was a very different experience. In his co-operation, he was terrifically helpful, but right from the start he said there was no obligation for him to see in advance what I had written.  There came a point, however, when I said to him that I was concerned that there appeared to be no skeletons in his cupboard. His reply was typically Ustinovian: ‘It’s not the skeletons I’m worried about Chris. I can’t remember where I left the cupboard.’

But the truth of the matter is that, as a biographer, no matter how hard you work or how much research you undertake,  you can only work with the material you have amassed.

What is the natural progression of your research when you are writing about a subject?
A timeline is essential; start to finish. The skeleton laid out in front of you, to which the flesh is added. I love research. It’s a bit like being a detective. And there is nothing better, dare I even mention it, than working from primary sources.

Who would be your dream subject to write about?

Good question. Not one I can answer especially well, because in the same way that most writers say their best book is their always next, so I tend to think that whatever I’m currently working on is the ‘dream’ subject. It might not be, but you have to think that way … ermm, don’t you?

I know you mentioned your wish to write about Deborah Kerr, on that note, has your idea ever been rejected by your agent or mainstream publisher but you’ve gone on to write the book anyway?

I would have loved to have written a biography of Deborah Kerr, but for one or two very important reasons, it wasn’t going to happen – and I am not into writing books that are just scissors and paste jobs. As a writer who has to live on what he earns, I have never written a book as a labour of love, which is what you’d have to do – foolishly perhaps – if a proposal is rejected by an agent or publisher.

What are your thoughts on the trend for digital publishing? Do you feel the industry is suffering because of this quick turnover for writing and producing E novels?

Digital publishing is here to stay and it has its place. Book publishing has never been tougher than it is now and it’s obviously due in large measure to the comparative ease of digital publishing, of self-publishing, online publishing and the myriad options open today.

What inspired you to become a biographer rather than a fictional writer?

I seem to belong more naturally to non fiction/biography. Would I like to write fiction? Yes, I would. Maybe I’ll write a novel one day. I once worked as PA to a distinguished author and biographer who, at the age of 70, rang me and said, ‘Chris, I’m going to write my first novel.’ It was the first of 8, most of which were adapted as television series. So, I guess there’s time for me yet.

Can you list some of your favourite writers?

Yes, some are with us and some are not. Let’s start with three of the latter … Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, followed by Colum McCann, Alan Bennett, Edna O’Brien, Salley Vickers, Toni Morrison and … the aspiring literary star … Lyndsy Spence.

Are you currently working on a project?

There always seem to be a lot of possibles, don’t there? So, one or two possible book ideas in mind, together with a couple of other projects. As I’ve also been doing a lot of broadcast stuff lately, which I love, I’m keen to do even more. I’m a bit of a performer 🙂

And last but not least, who is your favourite Mitford girl?

Without a moment’s hesitation, Deborah Devonshire. I also love her as a writer – even though she claims never to have read a book in her life! Can it be true?

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An Interview with Victor Olliver

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I’ve conducted an interview with The Mitford Society’s friend and fellow writer Victor Olliver. Victor is The Lady magazine’s resident “star gazer” and first rate astrologer. His forthcoming book Lifesurfing: Your Horoscope Forecast Guide 2014 will be released 13 July.  Victor answers questions on astrology, the ghostly going’s on at The Lady and, of course, the Mitfords!

Can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming book and when it will be available?
My e-book is called Lifesurfing: Your Horoscope Forecast Guide 2014 and it’s out 13 July 2013. More details here. My permanent fiancée Molly Parkin’s writing the foreword – she’s Aquarius and most of her key friends are Gemini, she tells me (and I’m Gemini). The Guide is a bit like an upmarket consultation-cum-soap opera with your personal astrologer, all for £2.99, in a monthly format. Each star-sign has certain identified big themes for the year and each is offered guidance on the best and worst times to do certain things, such as seeking a new job or suppressing one’s hormones.
Ronnie and Nancy Reagan swore by their astrologers – and they did rather well, didn’t they. The Guide also contains astrology profiles of Molly P, Hillary Clinton (the next US president?) and two other global movers and shakers.

As we know, the Mitfords grandfather, Tap Bowles, founded The Lady magazine and their father, Lord Redesdale, worked there. Nancy also wrote articles in the 1920s for the magazine. Do you think there is much of a Mitford influence centred around the magazine today?
In a literal sense, I think yes. Ben Budworth, who runs The Lady now, is the great grandson of Bowles – and he was the maternal grandfather of the Mitford sisters. The dowager Duchess of Devonshire (Debo) is of course cousin to Julia Budworth (one of The Lady’s co-owners), granddaughter of Bowles.  And we know that the two women were of similar mind on at least one of the perceived outrages of Rachel Johnson’s brief but memorable recent editorship. So in an indirect way the Mitford-ish flavour is still there – even if times have required editorial adaptation.

Since you also write under the name Madame Arcati I must ask you this: Do you sense any ghostly goings on at The Lady
Madame Arcati insists on answering this question – she cannot be thwarted and must be channelled:
“Thank you – Lindsy you’re called? A time-consuming name – is there a vowel missing? I always have to spell out ‘Arcati’ or else my mail order supplies of botanical elixirs from the Isle of Wight are addressed to Mme R. Catty. Life is difficult enough.
The Lady’s home in Bedford Street does indeed crawl with ethereal loiterers – and I wish to put on record that these sad souls may not be former employees of the magazine.
“Rachel Johnson tells in her splendid A Diary of The Lady book that staff whispered about a ghost in the ‘Fred West basement’ where the archive is homed. And Ben Budworth tells a tale of mystery that might have excited the cast and crew of TV’s ghost-hunting show Most Haunted. Unfortunately, it’s a rather tasteless story and must be redacted for decency’s sake – it features the ladies’ loo, a revolting object upon the floor and a denial of responsibility by one of the former editors. I can say nothing more save that it fell to Mr Budworth to clean up. His skills would not have been wasted in the employ of a noble family blessed with many free-range puppies, had fate not handed him The Lady.
“One can only conclude that if the culprit was a poltergeist it was exceedingly common.”
Madame Arcati has now left us. I hope that answers it.

Do you ever meet somebody and judging by their character assume they are a certain sign only to discover they are, in fact, another?
All the time – that’s because astrologers can’t tell your sign simply by looking at you. A few months ago I met a famous iconic designer I assumed was a Scorpio because of her intensity and shyness, but she turned out to be Sagittarius – usually a very jovial sign. Many people cloak their real natures till they know you: astrologers look for the rising sign (not the star sign) in a horoscope to help describe this mask or persona. The Queen is Taurus, which in itself might suggest a love of pleasure; but her rising sign is in Capricorn, a sober and serious sign. No one can deny that HMQ comes across as serious, responsible, even stern at times. But behind closed doors, and among friends, she knows how to enjoy herself.

Which sign is your favourite and why?
What a question! All 12 signs are my children, each fascinating. A great many of my friends are Aquarian – I don’t seek them out: we find each other across crowded rooms or in stuck lifts. Aquarius people are open, free-flowing, big-headed, rather sexy. They instinctively understand one’s need not to be stifled. I had no idea Molly Parkin was Aquarius before Madame Arcati encountered her (another story). I tend to develop childish crushes on Aquarians (and Pisceans).

Without looking this up–what sign would you guess each of the Mitford girls to be?
No wise astrologer would guess; what hostages to fortune that would give. Even so, astrologers can’t tell star-sign just by looking.
However what’s interesting about the three Mitford horoscopes I have seen (Jessica [Virgo], Nancy [Sagittarius] and Diana [Gemini]) is that all three have Uranus at powerful angular points in their charts. Uranus is the planet of independence, rule-breaking, pioneering or transgressive ideas. If I didn’t know who these people were I’d expect them to break or challenge convention in some way. I have not seen charts for Debo or Unity.

Who is your favourite Mitford girl and why?

All are intriguing in different ways. Unity [Leo] was the first Mitford I ever read about and I find her bafflingly absurd. I know Diana [Gemini] exerted quite a magic over many British writers and journalists; completely lost on me, I fear.
I suppose Jessica (or Decca) appeals to me the most. She rebelled rather completely against her privileged background – even sending-up Nancy’s U/Non-U stuff. I love her book The American Way of Death and the fact she stayed true to her disgust at funeral parlour opportunism.  I believe she had a nice cheap cremation. Today, she might have written about Wonga and other grasping money-lenders in our austerity panto. Though she was a Virgo, I think we may have got on.

And last but not least can you tell us a bit about yourself…
I was trained to be a barrister but insufficiently impressed by the corrupt old swine who run the Inns of Court. So I entered journalism, won two magazine awards over the years, but slowly realised that my heart is not sufficiently whorish to bend to the careerist strictures of editors and media proprietors. Much of what passes for journalism is either propaganda or press release. Astrology was my godsend. I live by the sea. My least favourite interview was Dame Elizabeth Taylor [Pisces]. A frightful woman.