A Fly in the Ointment: A Mitford Tease

Words by Lyndsy Spence & Meems Ellenberg

(Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol III)

The echoing footsteps of Mabel along the long, narrow hallway of Rutland Gate caught Farve’s attention. The sound of his Puccini aria spinning on the gramophone did nothing to dispel an impending sense of doom. As he watered his window box of fascinators – the seedlings he had scattered the year before – he made a mental note to check on Mr Dyer tending to the boiler in the basement. Being a fellow who was susceptible to the supernatural he pondered if Dyer, who lived a subterranean existence below the seven floors, was dead. It was a distinct possibility. Before leaving the library he locked his cold cup of coffee in the safe, lest some money’s orphan should remove his suckments.
Farve passed Mabel, who held in her hand a lilac-coloured envelope. ‘So gauche, so noveau-riche,’ Muv had groaned when these bizarre envelopes had first started to appear on the tray of post. They were always addressed to Miss Nancy. ‘What a stench!’ Muv had choked, reacting to the overwhelming scent of tuberose. She knew with certainty, as she knew most things from her days on the high seas, that tuberose was responsible for many a debaucherous deed. ‘Another one?’ Farve approached Mabel, he was looking especially exotic in his paisley print dressing gown, sipping tea from a thermos and puffing on a gasper. He took the letter and examined it. A scattering of letters rudely cut from a magazine were glued to the lilac page. ‘You are a charlaten and I hate you,’ it read, though charlatan was spelled incorrectly. Having read only one book in his life, Farve failed to notice. ‘I am a Mitford and I despise you,’ the venom dripped off the page, or was it runny glue? ‘You are ALL I despise,’ it added once more in case the message wasn’t clear.
‘Who do you suppose it is?’ Mabel asked. ‘Not Jicksy, I should hope.’

Entering the drawing room, Farve asked the girls to gather around the fire. It was serious, Debo concluded, for they were allowed to abandon the jars of dripping jam on the sideboard and crumbs remained on the good table cloth.
‘Such a bother,’ Muv bemoaned. ‘I should sooner send the table cloth up to Edinburgh than have beastly Harrods charge me a king’s ransom.’
No one remarked save Mabel, who may have been heard to mutter, ‘Penny pinching peeress.’
Nancy, taking a break from her preparing an article for The Lady magazine, slithered into the room. ‘I say,’ she rubbed the ink stains on her hands, ‘I wish Snell would up my pay. This cheap ink is too too sick-making.’

Nobody spoke, presumably nobody cared. Nancy’s constant complaints were what were too, too sick making, thought Decca, although her pique may have been due to another all-nighter reading Dorothy L. Sayers. So much bickering ensued about who said what to the Londoner’s Log about Diana’s impending nuptials to Bryan Guinness, Pam’s broken engagements and Nancy’s fledgling literary career, that Farve had to bellow for silence. But, having to have the last word, Unity sneezed. ‘Hatschie, Geräusch beim Niesen,’ she said.
Delphine Ale-Stout, the letter was signed. Nancy and Diana wracked their brains but failed to place the name. ‘Watney’s Red Barrel,’ Pam piped up and everybody laughed. She liked three-worded names: Purple-Sprouting-Broccoli, in particular.
‘Perhaps we met her on the cultural cruise?’ Debo suggested.
Unity and Decca wondered if Delphine Ale-Stout was a white slaver. ‘It certainly sounds a white slaver name,’ Decca mused.
‘Sie sicherlich,’ Unity agreed, something she seldom did.
‘In English!’ Muv exploded in a rare bout of bad temper. ‘In English,’ she said once more, repeating that, along with the King’s English, she supported the Church of England, voted Conservative and believed in the afterlife – ‘I should like to see Cecily,’ she mused. ‘And Uncle Clem.’ She spoke of the afterlife as though it were a meeting of the hounds, and certainly very English.
Ever since Nancy had started working for The Lady, Delphine Ale-Stout began to send her poison-pen letters. It all began rather incoherently, a jumble of letters and initials. ‘HstCE,’ one said in reference to that flippant tart Hamish St. Clair Erskine. ‘NFM,’ Nancy Freeman-Mitford retaliated. Though, as Blor pointed out, it could very well mean something else. ‘Errr,’ she scolded, ‘no one will want to be your friend if that’s how you talk.’ retaliated. Though, as Blor pointed out, it could very well mean something else. ‘Errr,’ she scolded, ‘no one will want to be your friend if that’s how you talk.’
Then the letters spiralled out of control. Threatening words slipped through, warning that Delphine and her followers would kill her. Nancy vaguely remembered that one had the name of a colonial drink. ‘It puts heaven in a rage,’ Diana sighed.

Nancy was most vexed. Delphine Ale-Stout, a puzzle. Delphine Ale-Stout, a cipher. Delphine Ale-Stout, a rival writer. Delphine Ale-Stout, only a name in a sea of articles, never a fot. Delphine Ale-Stout: perhaps she did not have a photography face? Pathos personified. ‘She eeees,’ Nancy murmured.

‘Oh blissipots!’ Debo bubbled. Nancy’s problems had been nothing to her as she had been invited by Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie to go shooting. Cousin Clementine wrote to say that Diana was welcome at Chartwell. Uncle Wolf wired an invitation to Fraulein Unity, but Muv said nein to ‘going abroad with a stranger’. Decca, darling little D, was already packing for a weekend with the Paget twins. And, Pam, where was Pam? Surely she couldn’t…Nancy snatched the letter. ‘Charlaten,’ her triangular green eyes honed in on the misspelling. Hmmm, poor Pam, she thought, always the thesaurus, never the dictionary.
‘Here I am,’ Pam breezed into the room in slow motion, her presence was as long and lingering as her vowels. ‘I was just across town selling eggs to the Bed of Nails. Say!’ she whipped two newspapers out of her basket, ‘your tiff with Delphine Ale-Stout has made the front pages. Looook!’
It was too sensational, too good to be true. ‘Disney with knobs on!’ Nancy squealed.
Blor, thinking a horrible accident had occurred, rushed into the drawing room. ‘So sorry,’ she gasped. ‘I thought Miss Decca was on the roof again.’
‘Look, Naunce,’ Pam scanned the article. ‘It says here that Delphine Ale-Stout has many occupations. She’s a philanthropist. Haberdasher. And sometime chanteuse.’
‘So non-U,’ Nancy remarked.
Blor sniffed meaningfully.

The crossing to Dieppe was choppy. Decca opened her picnic hamper and noted Muv had packed a whole meal loaf and Pam had boiled up a dozen new potatoes – a fitting luncheon for a farmer in a brown suit. The Paget twins agreed to meet her at the port, and together they would enjoy a motoring holiday around the Channel coast.
In the car, the twins rapidly spoke about a tour of Austria, and Decca listened intently to their itinerary. They would be staying with an elderly aunt, they said. ‘A good alibi if one wanted to forge a naughty letter,’ they added.
‘I couldn’t run away,’ Decca’s eyes widened at the thought. ‘I haven’t lodged my Christmas money for one thing. Besides, Cousin Winston would send a tanker to find me.’
‘The mountains,’ advised the Paget twins. ‘No water to sail a tanker on in the mountains.’
They were brick girls, those Paget twins.

The following week another letter arrived for Nancy from Delphine Ale-Stout. This time she slipped up and included Lady as a prefix. Muv retrieved her well-thumbed copy of the Peerage and scanned through the double-barrel names and the list of those tradesmen who had risen a rank or two. ‘Really,’ she was aghast; ‘the peerage resembles a shopping-list these days.’ There was no Delphine Ale-Stout, no Ale, no Stout…
Farve agreed, commenting that the peerage’s pandering to household brands was lower than the belly of a snake. ‘What next?’ he harrumphed. ‘Women in the House of Lords?’
‘I don’t see why not,’ Pam looked up from polishing the silver. ‘After all, you worked for a lady’s magazine.’ He scowled in reply and reminded himself that Pam’s turn in Rat Week was long overdue.
‘Settle down,’ Muv scolded. ‘After luncheon I shall read Tess of the d’Urbervilles aloud. Or would you prefer White Fang?’
They returned to the sick-making business of Delphine Ale-Stout. She had written a strongly worded, though incoherent, letter to rogue newspapers that dared to paint her as a villain. ‘I committed no crime,’ one of the more intelligible sentences read. She accused the newspapers of rewriting history and claimed that nobody would have heard of Miss Nancy Freeman-Mitford had she not put her on the radar.
Nancy shrieked whether in joy or consternation, was unclear.
Farve’s mind scrambled to his latest list of suspects. The Wid was swiftly added to it and, recalling the sight of a discarded handkerchief in a hedge, he also included the Duchess of Marlborough. He also remembered that sewer with the comb in his breast-pocket. The list was growing.
But there was a twist at the end of this letter. Delphine Ale-Stout demanded a sum of money.
‘Blackmail is such an unfortunate word,’ said Muv.
Nancy could bear the riddle no longer. Delphine Ale-Stout demanded £50. She was explicit in her instructions. £50 in a lilac envelope (enclosed) should be left under an empty milk bottle at the Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street.
‘The Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street?’ repeated Farve. ‘I shall escort you.’

Nancy and Pamela went along with Farve to the Army and Navy stores on Victoria Street. As Pam had errands to run on behalf of Muv, she left Nancy in a Lyon’s teashop and told her to pay attention to the comings and goings at the stores. The morning rush was too divine and Nancy whipped out her pen and notepaper and began taking notes on the conversations on mantelpieces and settees ringing in her ears. She thought of constructing an article for The Lady, or perhaps a future book. Farve contented himself with reviewing the new shipment of entrenching tools.

Meanwhile in Dieppe, Decca had bumped into old Aunt Natty, otherwise known as Blanche Hozier, Farve’s aunt. She was in high spirits, having come into an unexpected windfall of money. ‘You must come to the casino,’ she told Decca and the Paget twins. They agreed, whereupon they were introduced to Natty’s admirer, the local and much-married fishmonger.
‘How lucky to see you,’ Natty said as she rolled the dice. ‘We’ve just returned from our little benjo.’ Pulling pound notes out of her handbag she ordered the fishmonger to place more bets.
‘Where did you get all that money?’ Decca enquired. The Paget twins were competing against one another at the billiards table.
‘I pawned my Kodak,’ said Natty.
‘There must be fifty pounds in there, Decca began to count the pound notes.
‘Don’t count, darling,’ Natty snatched the money. ‘Arithmetic is so unseemly for girls.’

‘Oh look,’ Muv drawled. ‘Decca’s written to say she bumped into Aunt Natty in Dieppe. ‘She said Natty treated her and the Paget twins to a honnish evening in the casino where they went back to her house and gambled fifty pounds playing Snakes and Ladders.’
‘Who won?’ asked Nancy.
‘Oh,’ Muv rolled her eyes. ‘She did not say.’
‘Fifty pounds!’ exclaimed Pam.
‘Such a waste of money. Of course one can’t help it if one’s rich but….’
‘Don’t you see!’ interrupted Pam. ‘Don’t you get it? Delphine Ale-Stout wanted fifty pounds. Naunce, you were at the teashop, tell them what you saw…’
‘Well I…’ Nancy thought for a moment. She decided to embellish the truth. ‘I saw a very tall lady, very well-dressed with a Scottish terrier. She wore a cape over her nightgown, much to my everlasting embarrassment, you must understand.’
‘Yes, and?’ they shouted at once.
‘Well that’s all I saw,’ she shrugged. ‘So sorry.’
‘Natty,’ bellowed Farve.
‘Natty,’ whispered Muv.
‘Telephone Cousin Winston,’ he ordered his wife. ‘We must send a tanker at once!’

Later that evening, Decca was back at Rutland Gate. The Paget twins caught a lift on the tanker and stopped off at Peter Jones to spend their Snakes and Ladders winnings. ‘Five hours was all it took,’ she chirped. Muv was most impressed at the efficiency. Pam said Dieppe was so close it was just like home. Nancy scoffed and said Paris was the place to be. Within the hour, Debo returned, covered in pheasant feathers and pigeons blood and weeping about a gruesome tale called The Little Houseless Match. Unity was upstairs, or so it was assumed by the goose-stepping thuds coming through the ceiling and the repeated playing of ‘Horst Wessel Leid’ on the gramophone.
‘So tell me everything, from the start,’ Muv ordered.
Decca said that Aunt Natty was her charming self and, after suggesting they go back to her house with the fishmonger, and having been hosed down at the front door, they all sat down to a thrilling game of Snakes and Ladders.
‘Not Racing Demon?’ Debo asked.
‘No,’ Decca stated. ‘Oh, before I forget,’ she reached into her pocket. ‘Natty said to give you this.’
Narrowing her green eyes to slits, Nancy accepted the odoriferous lilac coloured envelope. ‘Dare I open it?’ She looked at Muv and Farve. Before awaiting their answer she tore into the envelope and realised there was fifty pounds inside.
‘She is a good woman,’ Muv said.
‘Such a clever cove,’ Farve agreed.
Like rich people, Muv told the children, some people could not help being naughty. Diana and Decca readily agreed and nodded in unison.
‘Well, let’s say we forget the whole ghastly business of Delphine Ale-Stout,’ Nancy tossed the letter onto the fire.
‘Whatever do you mean?’ Decca jumped to her feet. ‘Natty isn’t Delphine Ale-Stout. She simply had no note-paper and the Paget twins came to the rescue.’ With great difficulty she retrieved the half-singed letter from the fire. ‘Money for an old war debt, love Natty,’ she read aloud.
Blor sniffed. ‘The Paget twins, eh?’
Five minutes later there was a knock on the door and Mabel entered, bearing another letter from Delphine Ale-Stout. It was an odd letter, quite rambling in its tone. ‘Dearest Nancy Freeman-Mitford. I don’t know who you are. I have never heard of you. I was impersonated by an old governess wishing to seek revenge and destroy my reputation. Please don’t write back. I have blacklisted you.’
Nancy did not throw the letter onto the fire or tear it up. She added it to her pile of correspondence. ‘One day I shall publish a book of letters, you’ll see,’ she told her disbelieving family.
They all laughed and forgot about the non-U escapade that was Miss Delphine Ale-Stout.
‘One last thing,’ Muv interrupted the jovial scene. ‘What else did Natty say?’
‘Oh,’ Decca beamed, ‘she promised to introduce me to her grandson, Esmond Romilly.’
There were floods. Absolute floods.

(Apologies for WordPress’s lack of formatting. It is too, too sickmaking!)



Everyone Brave is Forgiven


We live you see, and even a mule like me must learn. I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season. – Mary North

Many of my book reviews end up in The Lady (click here if you care to know what I’ve been reading) but some also appear on The Mitford Society. I try to keep the genres relevant to what we Mitties might enjoy, and so I decided to share Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave with you.

Based on a true story, Chris Cleave’s plot was inspired by his grandparents love affair during the Blitz. Mary North, a reluctant debutante who dreams of becoming a spy, resolves to stay in London and teach at an inner-city school. Although many of the children have been evacuated, some have been returned because the countryside ‘doesn’t want them’, or because they are not white and, or, British. What good is it to teach a child to count, Mary wonders, ‘if you do not show him that he counts for something?’

Meanwhile, Tom Shaw decides to give the war a miss, until his flatmate Alistair enlists, and the conflict can no longer be avoided. In love with Mary, Tom finds that he would do anything for her, but when she meets Alistair it is love at first sight.

Set to the backdrop of war torn London and the Siege of Malta, the lives of Mary, Tom and Alistair – entangled in lies, violence, passion and friendship – will never be the same again.

A lot of reviews have compared Everyone Brave is Forgiven with Atonement (the best bits, they said) and I can see the strong parallels between Mary and Celia, and how their characters evolve. Like Atonement, it is character driven and a slow read, especially in the beginning as the story and its protagonists negotiate their way in a dangerous, new world, and lose their innocence in the interim. Aside from the racial views of the day – the alienation, the ignorance – Mary must also learn to adapt to the class divide as she ventures from the comfort zone of her upbringing. So, there are a lot of elements at play, both at the centre of the plot and as subplots, weaving several golden threads through the story.

It is evident that the story is a personal one for Chris Cleave, and I think that is apparent within the text – he has crafted strong and sympathetic characters, beautiful prose, and an engaging plot.



The Girl Who Became Muv

Born in 1880, Sydney’s childhood was, as her daughters were apt to say, pathos personified. Her mother, Jessica, died after an ill-advised medical abortion, and at the age of eight, Sydney was left in the care of her eccentric father, Thomas Gibson Bowles, known as Tap. A keen sailor, Tap kept his two daughters with him whilst his two sons attended school. There was an eight-month voyage to the Middle East on his 150-ton sailing schooner Nereid, where the motherless children weathered terrifying storms and were left to their own devices after their governess, Rita Shell, known as Tello, became incapacitated with seasickness. On their homeward journey, the schooner was almost wrecked in a hurricane off the coast of Syria when, against the advice of the port authorities in Alexandria, Tap set sail after he learned Tello was having an affair with a young naval officer. Returning to England in time for the election campaigns, Tap, a Conservative back-bench MP, bought a second yacht, the Hoyden, and made it his temporary home and campaign headquarters. During the parliamentary recess, the children joined their father for a sailing holiday to France. Aside from their sailing trips, Tap took his children on holidays to a rented house on Deeside, where he set up a Turkish bath in an empty dog kennel.

Tello did not accompany the children on their latter voyages, and for some years she disappeared from their lives. One day, Sydney spied Tello, accompanied by four young boys, walking down Sloane Street. It occurred to her that the eldest boy was the product of the affair in Alexandria, and she learned the other three were Tap’s children. He had set her up in a house and made her editor of The Lady, the magazine Tap bought after the death of his wife. Sydney wondered why Tap never married Tello, and concluded it must have been because the eldest boy was not his.

Tap’s unique ideas on parenting were the norm for Sydney and her siblings. The nursery rules would influence the way she raised her own seven children; they were to adhere to a strict mosaic diet, they were not to be forced to eat anything they disliked, windows were to be left open six inches all year round, and after their bath they were to be rinsed with clean water. He did not believe in spoiling the children and they were not given Christmas or birthday presents; he reminded them that he ‘housed, fed, watered, clothed and educated them and that was enough’. Unlike men of his generation, he was an attentive father, and when in London, he and Sydney rode everyday in Rotten Row. He sent the girls to skating lessons at the Prince’s Club, the ice-rink at Montpelier Square, where Sydney fell in love with her instructor, Henning Grenander, a Swedish champion figure-skater. ‘I would do almost anything he asked me,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘I would let him call me Sydney, I would even let him kiss me….’

At the age of fourteen, Tap appointed Sydney as housekeeper of his London townhouse at 25 Lowndes Square, whereupon she developed a lifelong mistrust of male servants; she found them drunken and unreliable. The butlers and footmen were amused by this tall, angular young girl dressed in a thick serge sailor suit. The sailor suit was worn everyday, and Tap thought it appropriate for all occasions, until a lady friend suggested he should buy his eighteen-year-old daughter some decent clothes befitting her age and her social standing.

In 1894, still aged fourteen, Sydney accompanied her father to visit his good friend, Lord Redesdale, Algernon Bertram ‘Bertie’ Mitford, at his country house, Batsford. It was at Batsford that she first met Lord Redesdale’s son, David Freeman-Mitford, who, at the age of seventeen, was classically handsome with bright blue eyes, blonde hair and a tanned complexion. Dressed smartly in an old brown velveteen keeper’s jacket, he stood in the vast library with his back to the fire, and one foot casually resting on the fender. At that moment, Sydney wrote in an unpublished memoir, she lost her heart.

The infatuation with David was short-lived, for he went off to Ceylon hoping to earn a fortune as a tea-planter. Sydney herself was busy growing up, and four years later she came out as a debutante. Highly intelligent and possessing domestic capabilities, rare for a woman of her standing, there was talk of sending her to Girton, the women’s college at Cambridge. However, for an unknown reason, the idea was not pursued. There were romantic relationships too, the first ending in tragedy when the young man was killed in the Boer War.

David’s tea-planting adventure was unsuccessful, and having spent less than four years in India, he returned home and enlisted in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers to fight in the Boer War. In 1902, he was badly injured in his chest and lost a lung. Nursed for four days in a field hospital, he dictated a love letter, to be given to Sydney in the event of his death. When it was evident he would live, he was carried back to camp in a bullock cart, his wound swarming with maggots.

Having lost a boyfriend in the war, Sydney was sympathetic to David, whom she had sporadic contact with throughout the years. After he was invalided home, their meetings became more frequent, and David fell in love with her. However, Sydney was involved with another young man, Edward ‘Jimmy’ Meade, whose proposal she almost accepted, but the relationship ended in 1903 when she discovered he was a womaniser.

There were whispers in society that Sydney accepted David’s proposal on the rebound from Jimmy Meade. They were married in 1904, ten years after Sydney first saw him at Batsford. And, as they say, the rest is history…




Lifesurfing: Your Horoscope Forecast Guide 2015 by Victor Olliver

ImageGuest Blog by Victor Olliver, The Lady’s resident stargazer

It’s with great joy that I bring Lifesurfing: Your Horoscope Forecast Guide 2015 to your attention — star sign monthly forecasts for intelligent working people who probably do things they shouldn’t, but what the hell.

This edition also features six Astro-Ray features which delve into the gooey innards of certain notable individuals – I do hope you have a strong stomach. There’s my analysis of Julie Burchill, a Cancerian yet a great carnivore in the jungle of hackery – why would this be? What does her horoscope tell us about this monstrous pussy who seems not very crabby? You don’t get just astrology. I tell what happened when Burchill summoned me to her hotel table in Brighton – the gifts, the emails, the snarling – I don’t get into the drugs on this occasion, but I do talk about her vicar. See, astrology can be fun. It’s not all about planets loitering about in the skies.

The Pope is Astro-X Rayed as is the sublime writer Duncan Fallowell, Molly Parkin and (oh!) Brad and Angelina – what a golden couple they are: wealthy, gorgeous, rich, fecund, popular – don’t you want to throttle ’em? My analysis may please the envious for in the many homes of Brangelina, the walls tremble with screaming and roaring. The final X-Ray-name-drops outrageously – Bowie, Madonna, Jagger, Kate Bush et al – in a piece about inscrutables. You won’t have read anything quite like it before.

Of course the most important subject is YOU. I have mapped out a course for each sign with cues to capitalise on life’s transient opportunities.

Lifesurfing is in two formats; eBook at £3.67 click here  and paperback at £8.35 click here

And here’s a special offer exclusive to Mitties! Buy a copy in either format and I shall supply you with a brief intro horoscope character analysis of no less than 300 words delivered by email. Offer ends July 31, 2014. In order to do the analysis I will need full birth details including location and clock-time if possible. Email me Volliver5@aol.com. I shall not ask for proof of purchases – but I shall pray for your soul if you deceive me!

Surf this brief life, poppets!

Mrs Hemingway

In the dazzling summer of 1926, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley travel from their home in Paris to a villa in the south of France. They swim, play bridge and drink gin. But wherever they go they are accompanied by the glamorous and irrepressible Fife. Fife is Hadley’s best friend. She is also Ernest’s lover.

Hadley is the first Mrs. Hemingway, but neither she nor Fife will be the last. Over the ensuing decades, Ernest’s literary career will blaze a trail, but his marriages will be ignited by passion and deceit. Four extraordinary women will learn what it means to love the most famous writer of his generation, and each will be forced to ask herself how far she will go to remain his wife…

Luminous and intoxicating, Mrs. Hemingway portrays real lives with rare intimacy and plumbs the depths of the human heart.


Lately I’ve been enjoying this trend for historical fiction which has always existed in the publishing world but now it seems to have taken a different direction in which the author writes about a fictional character at the centre of factual events, or places them amongst factual people but this time Naomi Wood has written a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s tangled love life. Mrs Hemingway, the clue is in the title, is told from Ernest’s wife, Hadley’s point of view.

Narrated by Hadley, the prose is written in a brief, blunt style which mirror’s her thoughts. The chapter headings are also styled after their location and the date. It reads very much like a report or a treatment for a movie or documentary as opposed, to say, a flowing account of Hadley and Ernest’s life together. Hadley is very much an outsider looking in, even though as Ernest’s wife, she is supposed to be at the centre of things. This style has allowed Wood to radiate Hadley’s paranoia and frustration through the text and the reader feels as stifled and as out of place as she does. I felt as though I was keeping one eye on Hadley….the narrator….and one eye on Ernest and Fife, dreading what was going to happen next.

This will appeal to fans of Z: A Novel which really started this mainstream trend for historical fiction. Many books have followed such as The May Bride and The Winter Garden, incidentally they are new releases. Look out for my review of The May Bride in this week’s issue of The Lady. Mrs. Hemingway does not feel as fluid as Z: A Novel, but it’s a great read nonetheless.

Diamonds & Dust: An interview with Carol Hedges


Hello Mitties and welcome to the first author interview of 2014! Crooked Cat Publishers sent me a review copy of Diamonds & Dust (thanks Steph!) and I have to say it’s a gem of a book. I love smallish, compact paperbacks and on the offset this does not disappoint. I’ve actually written a review of this book for The Lady so I don’t want to spoil it for those who are yet to read it. I highly recommend the book, and if you like the Victorian era and/or whodunnits then this is the book for you! Keep reading for my interview with Carol…

First of all congratulations on being nominated for The Walter Scott Prize!
CH: Thank you Lyndsy, and thank you for asking me to share some of my writing experiences with you and the Mitford Society

Can you tell The Mitford Society why you chose to write historical fiction and what attracted you to the Victorian era in which Diamonds & Dust is set?
CH: I’ve always loved reading about the past – it was a toss-up whether I would apply for a degree in History or English (English won). The Victorian era fascinates me because it was when so much that we take for granted: trains, sanitation, anaesthetics, tinned food, bicycles, women’s employment had their origins. Also, it was when the novel, as we know it today really took off as a genre.

Given that the book is a mystery (I won’t spoil the ending for other readers) can you tell The Mitford Society how you dreamed up the plot and how you crafted the story to give that element of surprise?
CH: As you know, if you’ve read it, there are multiple plots! I found that it took a lot of thinking out in my head and structuring on the screen to work them all through and make sure they came together in the end. I started with the ‘Diamond’ plot ( a homage to ‘The Moonstone’ by Wilkie Collins, of course) ; the rest of the sub-plots just spun out of that. I use an episodic structure, rather than set chapters, which gives the book its pacy, exciting feel.

In terms of historical context the book is spot on. How much research did you do beforehand?
CH: Lots. Lots and lots. I re-read practically the entire Dickens canon. Plus Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Bronte, Mrs Gaskell, Conan Doyle … you name a Victorian writer, they were on my TBR pile. I also visited London and took pictures of the locations I wanted to use. It’s amazing how much of the original city remains. And I had the entire Victorian history section of 3 local libraries on semi-permanent loan for the two years it took to complete the first draft.

This question might apply to some of us writers who are trying to make the transition to another genre…I am wondering how you found going from writing teen fiction to historical fiction for adults. i.e. Were you talked out of it because you already had an established market? Or has it encouraged you to write more historical fiction?
CH: I have written several historical novels for children and teenagers (Jigsaw Pieces, Ring of Silver, Red Velvet) , so moving to adult fiction was not as big a leap as that. The main thing was recognising that adults inhabit a different world and react differently to situations. I don’t think I shall now return to writing children’s fiction, having enjoyed crafting Diamonds & Dust so much.

What can we expect from you in the future?
CH: I am writing the follow-up to Diamonds & Dust . Same detectives, a few characters that readers will recognize, and a whole lot of new ones!  After that … who knows?

About the Author

Carol Hedges is the successful British author of 11 books for teenagers and young adults and one for adults. Her writing has received much critical acclaim and her novel Jigsaw (now Jigsaw Pieces, an ebook) was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal.

Carol was born in Hertfordshire and after university, where she gained a degree in English and Archaeology, she trained as a librarian, working for Camden for many years. Carol still lives and writes in Hertfordshire. She is a well-known local activist and green campaigner and the owner of a 1988 customized pink 2CV.

Diamonds & Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery is currently up for the CWA Historical Daggers Award and is also entered for the Walter Scott Prize

Click here to visit Carol’s Blog

Twitter: @carolJhedges

An Interview with Christopher Warwick

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?

An Interview with Victor Olliver


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.