When I visited Lord Stanley of Alderley to research my book on Clementine Churchill, it was fun to look through his extensive album of family photographs. Almost everyone of the past few generations of this illustrious family was present; but there was one noticeable gap. Above the hand-written name of Lady Blanche Hozier, the space for the photograph was empty, although no-one seemed to know why.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Lady Blanche – with her beautiful blonde hair and seraphic face – was widely considered within the family of her time to be ‘mad’. She had, after all, broken so many of the rigid Victorian conventions that had defined her early life and overshadowed even her later years. Her natural rebelliousness may have made her a popular ‘aunt Natty’ to the young Mitford sisters (who were awestruck by her elegant defiance), but it barred her from many a smart London salon and even many of her own family gatherings.
She was born the eldest daughter of the 10th Earl of Airlie and grew up in a romantically haunted castle in the Scottish Highlands. It was Lady Blanche’s mother (also known as Blanche) who was a member of the Stanley tribe of assertive and erudite English matriarchs, and who was the dominant force in the household.
The Stanleys’ radical Liberal views did not exactly chime, however, with Lady Blanche’s unconventional approach to such issues as marital fidelity (of which she was not in favour), extravagant spending (which she adored) or the need for female education (deemed only partly necessary).
A sort of Victorian wild-child who threatened to become a major embarrassment, Lady Blanche was hastily married off by her parents at the age of 25 to Colonel Henry Hozier. Alas, Henry had neither the fortune she was hoping for nor much in the way of warm feelings towards her. Serially unfaithful, he declared he was not interested in having children and left Lady Blanche largely to her own devices while he pursued a slightly rackety career at Lloyd’s of London.
Bored, sexy and lonely she soon sought comfort – and the prospect of children – in the arms of other men. One of her most attentive lovers, it would seem, was the 1st Baron Redesdale, Bertie Mitford, and later to become, of course, the grandfather of the Mitford sisters. He was handsome, kind and in possession of those dazzling Mitford eyes. He was also married to Lady Blanche’s sister Lady Clementine, with whom he already had several children.
We should perhaps pay tribute to Lady Clementine for sharing her husband in this way with her sister. For he is almost certainly the father of at least Lady Blanche’s first two children. Lady Blanche liked to circulate conflicting rumours on the paternity of her brood – perhaps in part to protect the reputation and pride of her own sister. But it is noticeable how her second daughter – born in haste on the drawing room floor in 1885 – also had dazzling sapphire-blue eyes and a similar profile to Bertie’s. Named Clementine – perhaps in honour of the forbearance of her aunt – she went on to marry Winston Churchill. No doubt he came to realise that Bertie was probably not only the young Clementine’s uncle by marriage, but her father too. After all, it was Bertie who was sitting next to Lady Blanche in the front row at Winston and Clementine’s wedding. Clementine junior was therefore probably related to Nancy, Pamela, Unity, Jessica and Diana Mitford in more ways than one.
Lady Blanche went on to have four children in total – Kitty, Clementine and the twins Nellie and Bill. It is highly unlikely that any was Hozier’s, as he himself quickly realised. Lady Blanche’s frantic love-life was spectacularly well-known, complete with lurid tales of fights between jealous rivals. The numbers were equally astonishing, as she was widely reputed to keep up to ten lovers on the go at once. Her unstuffy attitude to life was clearly quite a draw, and even at her worst moments she was inevitably stylishly if unconventionally dressed.
Divorce soon followed – as did exclusion from the sort of upper-class circles in which she would normally have been expected to move. It was not so much the bed-hopping that counted against her, as the brazen way in which she conducted it. Respectable upper-class ladies of the time made sure they provided their husband with an heir, before discreetly taking on one lover at a time. Lady Blanche did neither.
Hozier, a cold and splenetic man now with a sense of grievance, refused to pay alimony and Lady Blanche was reduced to living on family handouts and the odd bit of cash from writing cookery articles for the press. She was quickly reduced to moving from one set of cheap lodgings to another to stay one step ahead of her creditors. And yet despite this itinerant life with her brood, she made each temporary home a haven of simple, good taste – complete with billowing white curtains and spotless white sofas – all on a budget. Her food was also famously good – even if sometimes she was too distracted or even hard-up to put it on the table for her own children.
She nevertheless still evidently feared the retribution of her ex-husband, and was concerned that Henry might try to take one of her children to live with him. To this effect, she once packed up overnight in their rooms in the Channel town of Seaford and fled to France with her children the very next morning. Lady Blanche settled her young family in Dieppe, where she proceeded to lose what money she had at the casino and forced her elder daughters to ask for credit to buy food in the shops. She also took up with the artist Walter Sickert – recently implausibly named as the possible real identity of Jack the Ripper. Sickert, an ill-tempered man, was also carrying on with a Mme Villain, the queen of the Dieppe fishmarket and mother of several children looking uncannily like Sickert. To her children’s horror, Lady Blanche would engage in jealous exchanges with Mme Villain in the street. These altercations – and her insistence on wearing her hair in a plait down her back rather than in the traditional bun – were mystifying for the local French who expected something rather different from a titled English milady.
This sojourn in France came to an abrupt end around a year after the death of Lady Blanche’s favourite and eldest daughter, Kitty. Lady Blanche never even tried to disguise her feelings for this puckish and pretty girl over the then shy and more nervous Clementine. Kitty even advised her younger sibling to try to ignore her mother’s hurtful neglect as ‘she can’t help it’. Kitty developed typhus, probably from drinking contaminated water, and died just short of her 17th birthday. Lady Blanche never recovered from the tragedy, and merely withdrew further from Clementine, whom she deemed too judgmental and reserved for her tastes.
The family returned to England, where Lady Blanche set up home in Berkhamsted, just outside London, to take advantage of the local schools. She was intent on launching Clementine into the sort of smart society from which she was now excluded and thought her daughter needed more polish. That also meant, in Lady Blanche’s view, making sure that her daughter did not destroy her marriage prospects by learning such unladylike subjects as maths. She believed young women should be intelligent and educated, but only in languages such as French and German and other appropriate humanities subjects rather than ‘unseemly’ sums.
Over time, Lady Blanche became more irascible and dictatorial; disappointment in her own life only added to her increasingly tetchy demeanour. Even when Clementine was a young woman, her mother would think nothing of boxing her ears when displeased and seemed to have little affection for her daughter – although she was very much in favour of her new husband, Winton Churchill. Lady Blanche’s increasing drinking only served to widen the distance between the two women – and to cause concern with the younger Nellie and Bill. Lady Blanche eventually went back to settle in Dieppe once more, throwing away what money she had in the casino there. She may well have made the move precisely because casinos were still illegal in Britain.
It was there that she died, lonely and impoverished, in March 1925. Clementine was by her side as she endured her final illness, but they were never entirely reconciled. Clementine felt her childhood had been largely loveless and had left her with profound insecurities. Churchill, however, had a higher regard for a woman whose pride, tenacity and sense of style had never faltered. On the occasion of Lady Blanche’s death, he wrote that he was ‘glad & proud to think her blood flows in the veins of our children’.
Sonia Purnell is the author of First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill (Aurum Press). She is an author, journalist and broadcaster known for her investigative skills and lively writing style. She also writes for a variety of newspapers and is a regular broadcaster in Britain and abroad. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.