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.

The Mitford Society’s Festive Reads, Part One

A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin


Lucia Berlin’s posthumous collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson with a foreword by Lydia Davis, compromises over forty of her best stories. Berlin’s writing was autobiographical, ranging from a childhood in Alaska and El Paso, Texas, to her teenage years in Chile, and her adult life in Mexico, New Mexico, New York City, California and Colorado. Her writing is set in those sprawling landscapes: darkened alleyways strewn with drunks and druggies; a debutante amongst the communists in Chile; backstreet clinics; downtrodden apartments; the drudgery of commuting to work and the weekly visits to mundane laundromats. She writes about her abusive childhood at the hands of her alcoholic mother and grandfather, addiction, relationships, poverty, unemployment, cultural and class differences – Berlin herself could walk through those walls, like a phantom in a way, and the tapestry of her own life was made up of many backgrounds, many subplots. Her work is not a misery memoir, but an insight into human nature.


First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill by Sonia Purnell


Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill brings to life the complex women whose identity has been overshadowed by her husband, Winston Churchill. Commenting that she would have pursued a career in politics had she been ‘born with trousers and not a petticoat’, it was her calming influence, ability to read people and determination that influenced Winston and encouraged him during the murkier times of his political career. Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill is a complex character study about a fascinating woman as equally interesting as her famous husband. Through her meticulous research and sympathetic prose, she brings the allusive woman to life as a dynamic figure at the forefront of twentieth-century politics.


On The Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life edited by Georgia de Chamberet


Lesley Blanch died aged 103 having gone from being a household name to a mysterious and neglected living legend. She was writing her memoirs before her death, beginning with her unconventional Edwardian childhood. Her goddaughter, Georgia de Chamberet, has now compiled that piece and many others – including pieces that were never published, some published only in French, various letters and Vogue articles to create On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life which captures the essence of a rich and rewarding life which spanned the 20th century.


Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester


Alison Jean Lester has created a character who is not only sure of herself; she is sophisticated, clever, and has no qualms about her position in life. Lillian is a mistress. What I loved about this book is that Lillian never plays the victim or bemoans her fate – unlike so many books where the aging mistress is on the brink of suicide and is filled with regret that she has been passed over for the wife. The narrative tells us everything we need to know about Lillian’s view of life, and, working backwards, we are informed of how she deals with the subject in question. This is a lovely tome to dip in and out of, and you don’t have to retrace your steps even if you finish mid-chapter. Imagine!


Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modelling Years by Astrid Franse and Michelle Morgan


This beautiful coffee table book tells the story of Marilyn Monroe’s modelling career at Hollywood’s famous Blue Book agency. Featuring unpublished photographs and drawing on newly discovered letters and documents it explores the rise of an ambitious young woman under the guidance of Emmeline Snively, head of the agency, who kept a record of her client during their professional relationship and beyond. This archive was purchased by Astrid Franse and along with Michelle Morgan’s narrative they have produced a unique book that is a tribute not only to Monroe, but to Miss Snively too. Lovingly executed with stunning photographs it is a must-have for fans!


Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street by Anne de Courcy


Anne de Courcy’s latest study is a shrewd biography about Margot Asquith, the wife of Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith. A member of the dazzling Tennant family, Margot was a society star who had the world at her feet. With her dark looks and acid tongue, she might have been the predecessor to Nancy Mitford – she famously told Jean Harlow, the scatterbrain movie star, that the ‘t’ in Margot was silent, as was the ‘t’ in Harlow. Clementine Churchill, as a young woman, was often on the receiving end of Margot’s insults, and she once (in)famously referred to Clemmie as ‘having the soul of a servant’. Filled with famous characters and witty prose, this biography moves at a cracking pace.


A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing by Anna Thomasson


The unlikely friendship between Edith Olivier and Rex Whistler is the subject of Anna Thomasson’s hefty but engaging biography. Alone for the first time at the age of 51, Edith, a spinster whose life was dominated by her late clergyman father, seemed to have come to a dead-end. However, for Rex, then a 19-year-old art student, his life was just beginning. In the early 1920s they embarked on an alliance that would transform their lives. Edith was a bluestocking, revered for her intellect long before it was en vogue for women to be celebrated for their brains. Surrounded by clever people all her life, she discovered a new lease of life with Whistler, and her world opened up. She became a writer, and her home, Daye House, was a creative hub for the Bright Young Things. She counted Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman, Siegfried Sassoon and the Sitwells among her admirers. Thoroughly researched, with elegant prose and a glittering cast of characters, Thomasson’s account merges Edith Olivier’s Victorian sensibilities with the raucous Jazz Age, giving the reader the best of both worlds.


Circling the Sun by Paula McLain


From the author of the bestselling The Paris Wife, Paul McLain’s latest novel is written as historical fiction and set in colonial Kenya. Circling the Sun is a thrilling account of the life of the British-born aviator Beryl Markham, who was abandoned by her mother and raised by her father on a farm. An unconventional woman, she lived by her own rules and mingled with the Happy Valley set. With the notorious Idina Sackville making a cameo appearance – in a marble bathtub, no less – this will appeal to admirers of naughty aristos.


The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait


Written to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, this book, told as historical fiction, chronicles the girlhood of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the much-loved children’s classic. It centres around the family’s governess, Mary Prickett, who dislikes her charges, especially the precocious Alice. Mary’s world is turned upside down when she meets mathematician Charles Dodgson, and although she falls in love with him, his interest lies in the three Liddell girls. Obsessed with his ‘child friends’, and with Alice in particular, Dodgson’s favourite hobby is to photograph the children, often against the wishes of their mother. A rivalry develops between Alice and Mary for his affection. On an outing, he tells the children a tale, which Alice asks him to write down. The rest, as they say, is (literary) history. But the friendship ends abruptly when Dodgson’s letters to Alice are discovered, exposing his romantic love for the child, whom he hopes to marry one day. As Alice Liddell’s great-granddaughter, Vanessa Tait’s insider information and access to letters and diaries give the familiar back-story a new slant. Her captivating book conjures up the topsy-turvy world of Alice – the factual and the fictional girl. It is a story that is both enchanting and disturbing.


The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice


Set in 1950s England, a chance meeting between Penelope and Charlotte, two rock ’n’ roll-loving teenagers, rakes up the past and brings the present-day struggles of the grown-ups into focus. Penelope and her widowed mother, Talitha, live at Milton Magna, a crumbling mansion, which they neither like nor can afford. And Charlotte’s aunt, Clare, is writing her memoirs and reveals a secret link to Penelope’s family and the influence she had on Talitha. With a foreword by comedienne Miranda Hart, this 10th anniversary edition of Rice’s modern classic is a treat for fans of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Jane Howard. Stylishly written with a touch of whimsical charm.


The Mitford Society: Vol. III


The Mitford Society is pleased to present its third annual with contributions from Meems Ellenberg; Lyndsy Spence; Kathy Hillwig; Jeffrey Manley; Tessa Arlen; Kerin Freeman; Louisa Treger; Kim Place-Gateau; Virginie Pronovost; Leia Clancy; Robert Wainwright; Terence Towles Canote; Anna Thomasson; Sonia Purnell; Barbara Leaming. A must-have for any Mitford fan!

The Mitford Society Loves…

“Christmas cards are such a nightmare to me. I have dozens from totally unknown people, in some cases bearing photographs of their totally unknown faces. But I forget people very soon so this means nothing and I can see from their fervid messages that once we have been very intimate.” – Nancy Mitford

The traditions of the festive season did not charm Nancy. The exchanging of gifts was headache inducing, crossing the Channel to visit the loved ones – too grim to bear – and the custom of writing and receiving cards proved a burden for the French Lady Writer. Although she delighted in sending her godchildren presents of exotic things, such as gilded trinkets and fur mufflers, Nancy was not as gracious when she received a gift she disliked. Perhaps the best example springs from her childhood, when an unsuspecting Diana presented to her a small, neatly wrapped present. Nancy opened the present, and, without a sideways glance, she hurled it into the fire. ‘I appreciated her honestly,’ Diana remarked. The collection of books below should please even the grumpiest of recipients. What are we saying? Books please everyone!


Robert Wainwright’s elegant biography of Sheila Chisholm should charm those who revel in the era of the Mitfords and disgraced royals. Lovely to look at and heavily illustrated, this book – available in hardback (as pictured) or in paperback – would make the perfect gift.


If you enjoy gazing at beautiful things and wish to make an impression on the recipient then Claudia Renton’s dazzling biography of the Wyndham Girls – Mary, Madeleine and Pamela – is just the ticket.


This sophisticated detective novel centres around a glamorous actress-by-day/ spy-by-night working undercover in the Third Reich. The menacing plot features Hitler and Goebbels, and a cameo from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Unity and Diana flit in and out, giving the sinister undertones a touch of Mitford Tease.



Truly a presentation piece, this index of great women’s obituaries doubles as a motivational book when one is indulging in the non-U habit of feeling sorry for oneself. With an array of profiles, this book will certainly cross the murky divide of all personalities. It looks great on a bookshelf, too!

A memoir of the best kind, this zippy book is written in a friendly and engaging way. As the daughter of the Duke of Rutland and niece of Lady Diana Cooper, Lady Ursula’s memoir recalls an era that we can only dream of.


Because we seem to get a lot of books about women here at Mitford HQ it’s only fair that we select a biography with that of a male subject. Not only for Swinbrook Sewers, this lengthy study on Laurie Lee is a treasure trove of a biography.

Written as historical fiction, the plot revolves around the doomed love affair between Dorothy Richardson, member of the famed Bloomsbury set and contemporary of Virginia Woolf, and H.G. Wells. Stylishly written, this atmospheric book is a quick read.


Inspired by the Russian fairytale, The Snow Child is a modern fairytale for adults and cynics alike. Set in Alaska in the 1920s, the book paints a vivid portrait of the cruelties of nature, the isolation in winter and the heartache of a childless couple. A cozy, winter read.


This lovely set of Margaret Kennedy books have been re-issued by Vintage Books. As witty as a Nancy Mitford novel, this trio was deemed quite naughty in their day. Devilishly witty, Kennedy’s efforts remain as fresh and funny today as they were over eighty years ago.


Thinking ahead, there is nothing like buying the first novel of the New Year. Tessa Arlen’s debut novel (Jan. 2015) combines the things that we Mitties love: mystery, scandal, wit and a spectacular stately home. The prose at times is pure Mitfordesque, and having read a preview copy, The Mitford Society is proud to endorse Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman.

Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon and the Dress of Emotion: Guest blog by Tessa Arlen

Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon and the Dress of Emotion


Tessa Arlen



Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon is infamously known for the scandal surrounding her escape from the Titanic in an almost empty lifeboat with her husband Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon and her secretary. The three of them were among twelve people in a lifeboat that could have packed in at least forty. Criticism after the disaster suggested that Sir Cosmo boarded the emergency boat ignoring the chivalrous ‘women and children first’ code. Worse still the Duff-Gordon’s life boat failed to return, after the Titanic sank, to rescue those still struggling in the water. But what made matters more complicated was that Sir Cosmo had generously offered the crew in his life boat compensation, a gift of five pounds apiece, to replace the kit they had lost when the boat sank. After a protracted court-room session the British Board of Trade’s inquiry into the disaster accepted Sir Cosmo’s denial that he had offered a bribe, as there was no evidence to the contrary, but Duff-Gordon never quite recovered from the scandal.

Lady Duff-Gordon, however, was made of far sterner stuff. Unlike her husband she did not retire crushed by public opinion from society. She displayed the same strength of purpose and entrepreneurial focus that had made her the most successful English dress designer of the early 1900s and the owner of Maison Lucile, an internationally famous brand of its day in London, Paris and New York.

Left a near-penniless single mother and divorcée by the collapse of her first marriage, Lucile Wallace began her fashion career cutting out dresses on the floor of her dining room. Using her few connections in society she began to build a list of clientele that represented the rich and titled wives of the aristocracy. The super-rich wives of the arriviste flocked to her not only for her dresses but her instruction on how to walk, dress, act and speak as if they had been born to the privileged life their husbands’ had acquired.  She dressed society’s matrons, their daughters and their husband’s courtesans. Her versatility was boundless: she designed seductive tea-gowns, dainty little dresses for debutantes and sophisticated models that looked like the last word in wickedness. In later life she said she believed her success was due to her instinctive ability to design a gown to suit the personality of its wearer.

These were the days of the great courtesans for whom men ruined themselves, the days when a man would order a thousand guinea sable coat as a peace offering to his mistress after a slight quarrel. Married women discretely entertained their lovers during the fashionable hours of cinq a sept, dressed in Lucile’s soft filmy, flowing tea gowns, with no corsetry to impede the business of undressing. Neither was the heavy, cumbersome underclothing of the Victorian era suitable under the softer lines of the new century.  Lady Duff-Gordon’s line of lingère even though hardly skimpy by today’s standards was lighter, and delicately made of sheer silk and lace. Not all husbands were enthralled by the prospects of their wives in such minimal undergarments; the stuffier ones were appalled. Some even insisted their wives return such immoral undergarments to Maison Lucile; horrified that their wives might do more than just catch cold without the protection of layers of heavy cotton.

Maison Lucile’s fitting rooms in Hanover Square were part of a luxurious private house furnished in classic style where Lucile’s clients could relax in elegant rooms carefully strewn with lovely accessories to complement the clothes she had made for them. The lingère boudoir had an ornate gilt bed, once owned by Marie Antoinette, to give the right atmosphere for choosing pretty underclothes and diaphanous sleepwear.

And it was from these pleasant afternoons among her friends trying on her delicious creations that the idea for the fashion show was born. For Lucile’s was the first house in London or Europe to use a live mannequin in a fashion parade; Lady Duff-Gordon invented the catwalk. Most of her mannequins were young respectable working girls, each picked for her startling good looks. Lucile taught her girls to walk with unhurried grace and languid poise; she rehearsed them until they were perfect. Then she designed gowns for them, gowns that complemented their individual physical characteristics as well as their personalities.

Once she had created her season’s collection, she went about setting the right scene for her fashion parade. The lighting was romantic, but clear enough to be able to see the clothing her girls modelled; each one the epitome of voluptuous glamor, demure grace, or languid beauty, as they posed on a miniature stage with misty olive chiffon curtains. She created what she called ‘gowns of emotion’ and gave each a luscious and evocative name: “When Passion’s Thrall is Over,” “Red Mouth of a Venomous Flower,” “The Sighing Sound of Lips Unsatisfied.” Women’s haute couture had never been so seductive.

And when all was ready, Lady Duff-Gordon sent out pretty invitation cards, keeping the illusion that she was inviting friends to a party at Hanover Square house. Within six months of starting her fashion parades she doubled her clientele, and nearly trebled her revenue.

This remarkably temperamental and dynamic woman thrived at a time when it was unacceptable for the upper classes to earn an income from trade, unthinkable for a lady to make her own living. In 1900 she married Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, baronet, landowner and sportsman. Whether it mattered to the new Lady Duff-Gordon or not, it was out of the question that she be presented at court, because despite her marriage, she was a working woman.  But a very successful one: she opened salons in New York and Paris; took business away from the top fashion houses in Paris; designed theatrical costumes for the stars of the day; wrote a fashion column, and became confidante to society’s elite on both sides of the Atlantic.

She was on her way to her salon in New York when the Titanic collided with an iceberg sending over 1,500 souls to the bottom of the sea. But she survived and continued to create exquisite clothing, her salons flourished and her business grew.  The beginning of the Great War in 1914 put a temporary halt to the extravagance of haute couture and when the war ended the new fashions were a far cry from Lucile’s wafty, delicate dresses and her popularity as a designer diminished.


Tessa Arlen is the author of DEATH OF A DISHONORABLE GENTLEMAN A story of revenge, blackmail and betrayal to be released in January 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.Click here to visit Tessa’s blog Redoubtable Edwardians and here to visit her official facebook page.

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



An interview with Tessa Arlen


Gladys Marchioness of Ripon

I could not resist asking Tessa Arlen for an interview, partly because I’m always very nosy about what fellow authors are up to, and partly because I always feel inspired after I read their journey to publication. Although Tessa’s own life, as she kindly told it to me, reads like one of Nancy’s postwar novels, I am most intrigued by her debut novel, The Countess and Mrs Jackson, the first in the series which is set for publication in January 2015.

How long have you been writing for and what inspired you to write The Countess and Mrs. Jackson?

I have been writing in some form or another for most of my life: unpublished short stories, lengthy letters to my family when I first moved to America thirty years ago. When our children grew up and went about their own lives, I decided to write a full length novel. I never imagined when I set out to do this that it would be published.

I was inspired to write a historical novel because it was the only subject in school, apart from English Literature that held any genuine interest. I was a terrible student; a real day-dreamer! My parents lived abroad and I was sent home to school in England when I was ten. The contrast between my boarding school at the top of a windy hill in the Chilterns with its drafty dormitories and frightful food was a stark one to my earlier life in the lush, easy-going tropics. I was in such culture shock I just disappeared into my own world. I was rescued from complete academic disaster by my history teacher, Lady Elfreda Neale. She was a strange old lady: tall, rather stooped with straight, iron-gray hair. She spoke in such a low tone we had to lean forward to hear her. But my goodness she made history come alive! She was very fond of telling us that history was simply “very old gossip.” I have been a fascinated amateur historian ever since.

The years before the Great War have always been intriguing, so it was easy to choose this era for my book. It was a colossal time of change politically and socially in Britain. Life for the privileged few was idyllic thanks to their money and the rigidity of the class system.  But a long agricultural depression was beginning to take its toll on the landed gentry, and there was a strong Liberal government hell-bent on much needed social reform and looking to tax the landowners to fund them. An arms race with Germany; strikes, strong trade unions and socialism; the loss of the power of veto in the House of Lords and a women’s movement that had turned decidedly nasty were events that heralded a new century in England. I thought all this wonderful conflict would make a good back drop to my story.

It was important to me to write a story featuring two women, who struggle with issues in context with their time in history. My two protagonists come from opposite ends of the class system and work together to discover the identity of a murderer, each motivated by different reasons, and who build a sort of friendship in the process.

Was your manuscript accepted on the first attempt, and if not, how many times were you rejected before receiving an offer?

Yes, it was! I have a wonderful agent, she submitted to nine publishers and we had two offers within five weeks. Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press bought The Countess and Mrs. Jackson and the next book in the series. But I had my share of rejects; finding an agent took me well over a year. I submitted to a hundred and twenty four agents and tons of rejects later, eight asked for the full manuscript, and two of them offered to represent me. This was a huge turning point, it did so much for my confidence to have someone as professional and well respected in the industry as Kevan actually want to work with me.

What is your writing routine and do you religiously stick to it?

I do have a routine but I don’t force the issue, otherwise I would get neurotic about it.  We live on an island in the Puget Sound and our winter days are short and it rains a lot, so I write full-time pretty intensively from October through to April. I have a large garden and in the summer months I have to split my time between writing and gardening so I spend less time on writing.

How do you overcome writers block?

It helps if I plot out my storyline very thoroughly before hand. Then I write minutely detailed descriptions of my characters so that I am really familiar with them. I do the same thing with the time I’m writing about and the place. When these elements are squared away that’s when I start to write.  As the story unfolds on paper other ideas just sort of crop up as I go along, and the story takes over and almost writes itself. I keep going until I have a first draft. Only then do I start my re-writes and revisions, never during.

Who are your literary heroes?

In my early twenties I read all of P.G. Wodehouse’s books one year and absolutely adored the inimitable Jeeves, with his deferential respect as he wields the upper-hand. I love the way he punishes Bertie when he gets out of line and wears the wrong color socks, or a cummerbund with his white tie and tails! Bertie is a delight, he is such an affable twit, but I absolutely respect and admire Jeeves.

E. F. Benson’s Lucia stories. I know so many Lucias! I love all her pretensions and her wonderful ‘friendship’ with Georgie and how ruthless she is about running Riseholme. I adore her morceau of Beethoven and her conversazione larded with cunning little Italian phrases. There is something so admirable about women who relentlessly go for what they want, and incidentally make so much happen for everyone else.  They aren’t awfully comfy to be with, but they are compelling.

Patrick O’Brien’s Captain Jack Aubrey.  I wish I knew Jack Aubrey. Apart from his tendency to philander and his lengthy periods of time at sea, I would like my daughters to marry someone with his qualities. He genuinely likes women and he has a lovely, self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s compassionate and courageous leader, self-aware and completely without guile; so honestly at ease with himself. Not without his frailties though, his life always falls apart when he is on dry land – so perhaps not son-in-law material!

One of my most favorite characters in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is the Mole. I admire his loyalty, his steadfast kindness and his courage to chuck aside his dull underground life for adventure in a wider world.  He wants to make everything work for all the best reasons, which makes him an exceptional and good friend. He also has great humility and in his humble way he is immensely valiant. I wish there were more Moleys in the world.

What attracted you to the Mitfords?

I fell in love with Nancy right off the bat when I read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate in my twenties. They remain at the top of my re-read list, together with Jane Austen and Watership Down. If I feel low these are the books I reach for. I love Nancy’s deft, wicked wit and appreciate her insightful, unsentimental view of life.

I didn’t know about the other sisters for years. My parents had a house near Bolton Abbey, and it was my mother who filled me in on the Mitford family, as they were a far closer to her generation than mine.  She was very impressed by Debo’s entrepreneurial skills and told me that she had rescued Chatsworth and the Cavendish family from financial ruin with her clever plan to restore Chatsworth to its original glory, so that it could be on the ‘stately home round.’  In a less enthusiastic vein she told me Sir Oswald Mosely was married to Diana. Mosely and Diana, in her opinion, were a real no-no. She was a teenager during the war and her parents were appalled by the Blackshirts!  However, I admire Diana’s loyalty to her husband who sounds quite awful.

So far as Unity is concerned, I read a fascinating book about her by David Pryce-Jones. Part of me was astonished that anyone could be so stupid to be so wrapped up in someone as frightful as Hitler. I delved a bit deeper into the Mitford sisters and their strange rather isolated upbringing and their deeply eccentric parents; today they would be considered neglectful. I realized what a heartbreaking story Unity’s was. I felt she never fit into her family and she was very much at odds with herself. I think the Hitler business was her desperately trying to find herself, and because she was so naïve she didn’t quite see what she had got herself into. I think her’s is such a cautionary tale; we are often capable of such thoughtless actions when we are young and sometimes pay a terrible price.

Who is your favourite Mitford and why?

Well it has to be Nancy because she makes me laugh so much. I have just finished re-reading The Blessing and it is as fresh and funny as it was when I first read it.  I love Don’t Tell Alfred, because it rather reminds me of my own childhood and how difficult it was for my parents when my sister and I joined them abroad for school vacations at whatever Embassy or High Commission they were with at the time. They were such fuddy duddies and we were such products of our generation; looking back I feel quite sorry for them.

Who is your least favourite Mitford and why?

I have never felt especially drawn to Decca.  Not because of her politics, but in my view there is something rather cold and sarcastic about her. She lost so much in her life: her young husband Esmond, their baby and her son with Treuhaft and maybe this is the way she dealt with grief.

And last but not least: if you could swap lives with anyone in history (it can include a fictional character) who would it be?

Well I would say Clementine Napier, Countess of Montfort because she conforms to my ideal: a woman of her time unhampered by our contemporary sensibilities, but hugely aware, vigorous and imaginative! But that would be a cheat

I am attracted to lots of historical figures, and then shy away from swapping because some of them were either desperately unhappy or died rather horribly or too young!  So given this considerable reservation, I’m going to plump for Constance Gladys Robinson, Marchioness of Ripon, a British patron of the arts who was at the height of her fame and power at the time of my book The Countess and Mrs. Jackson.

Lady Ripon was a close friend of Oscar Wilde, who dedicated his play A Woman of No Importance to her, which just goes to show what bright spark she was in the first place. Other celebrated friends included the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, whose success in London was largely due to Lady Ripon’s support.

Lady Ripon was six feet tall and considered to be a stunner; she was so beautiful that according to the writer E.F. Benson even the most glamorous in her company looked like ‘they needed a touch of the sponge and the duster.’

Her first marriage had been rather horrid; her husband the Earl of Lonsdale had died of a heart attack while busily engaged in enjoying his own private brothel (point proved about never swapping lives with someone else!) She next married the exceedingly rich Marquess of Ripon and was lucky enough to live in the incomparable Studley Royal, a perfect Palladian jewel of a house surrounded by beautiful gardens and with the exquisite ruins of Fountains Abbey in its grounds. But Lady Ripon was a sophisticated individual and preferred not to isolate herself in North Yorkshire, and set up house at Coombe Court in Kingston so she could be on hand for her pet project the Royal Opera House.

It was Lady Ripon who was entirely responsible for making a night at the opera a desirable occasion at this time. She rescued the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden from financial ruin and was undoubtedly responsible for Nellie Melba’s success as its star performer. But it was the Ballet Russe, invited by Lady Ripon to London in the summer of 1911 to perform in front of the new king and queen on the evening before George V’s coronation, which swept society off its feet. Lady Ripon organized a truly gala event. None of the illustrious company gathered together at the Royal Opera House that evening were quite prepared for the spectacle that was the Russian Ballet and Vaslav Nijinsky. Thousands of roses decorated the tiers of the boxes in which they sat dazzled by the sets and costumes, and then Nijinsky leapt onto the stage, wearing only a tight, skin-colored silk tricot onto which were sewn hundreds of pink and red silk petals for his performance of Spectre de la Rose.  But it was the dancing that enthralled. The following day it was reported in the Times: ‘Nijinsky seems to be positively lighter than air, for his leaps have no sense of effort and you are inclined to doubt if he really touches the stage between them.’ To attain this astonishing leap, Nijinsky told Lady Ripon, he made the air his medium ‘It is very simple, I just jump and stop in the air for a moment.’

Her introduction of the Ballet Russe started a new fashion of Bakst inspired vibrant colors, and it became awfully chic to lounge around in scarlet and pink chiffon Turkish trousers in a boudoir made over to look like an Ottoman seraglio. The ballet was a triumph and returned to London for years.

I chose Gladys Marchioness of Ripon because she was clever, witty, resourceful and beautiful with a flair for organizing spectacular events, as well as an exceptionally astute business woman. She was also tall, which is something I have yearned for all my life.

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