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!)

 

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Society Star: The Life and Times of Lady Massereene

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Easter Monday marks the 102nd anniversary of Edward Carson’s visit to Antrim Castle – a minor but significant event which changed Irish politics forever. Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. III, this post looks at the life and times of the Scots-born and Irish peeress, Lady Massereene.

Before she became chatelaine of Antrim Castle at the age of 21, having married the 12th Viscount Massereene, Jean Barbara Ainsworth was a society star. Standing six-feet-tall with black hair and dark eyes, her exotic looks attracted attention from both sexes. Women admired her avant garde fashion sense – she was always something of a style icon – and her penchant for flamboyant clothes, during the Edwardian era, was displayed through backless dresses, bejewelled head-wear and a long string of pearls tied in a knot. Her clothing was daring, as was her behaviour, and men admired her willingness to speak her mind. After a summer of parties in the salons of Mayfair and hunt balls in stately homes, she met her future husband, Algernon William John Clotworthy Skeffington. They married in February 1905, and three months later Algernon succeeded his father as the 12th Viscount Massereene and 5th Viscount Ferrard.

It was a glamourous marriage, reported in the stylish magazines of the day, The Tatler, The Bystander and The Sketch. With her new husband, twelve years her senior and a war hero (Lord Massereene served with the 17th Lancers in the Boer War and was mentioned in Dispatches twice), Lady Massereene had become a celebrity. It was an age when the merits of stardom were weighed against one’s background and breeding, and regardless of her title, she was prime candidate during this new wave of modern media, much like today. She was born in Scotland in 1884, the eldest daughter of Sir John Stirling Ainsworth (he was given a peerage in 1917), a wealthy industrialist, banker, and Liberal politician. She had grown up accustomed to large houses with staff, fascinating house-guests from the political and industrial worlds, and the privileges her father’s money could afford her.

The political element would conjure up discord between father and daughter, for in 1910, Lord and Lady Massereene allayed themselves with Edward Carson to resist Home Rule. John Ainsworth was a Home Ruler, and he accused Lord Massereene of influencing his daughter. But nobody could tell her what to do, and she threw herself into the Unionist cause. The Massereene seat, Antrim Castle, a 17th century dwelling overlooking the parish of Antrim, became a refuge for Carson and his Antrim branch of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Massereenes land became a parade ground for the UVF, where, after militant marches and various displays of pageantry, Lady Massereene inspected the men. Afterwards she passed out cigarettes, known as ‘smokes’, and gave rousing speeches to the local supporters. The UVF was breaking the law by holding armed events, and Lady Massereene, a participant in their illegal activity, would soon suffer the consequences. A rumour spread through Antrim that Lord Massereene had been arrested and that Carson was at the castle. In a letter to her friend Edith, Lady Londonderry, she described how the rumour had provoked an ‘angry’ and ‘over-zealous’ crowd to follow the housekeeper who was manhandled in an attempt to retrieve information.

Far from defeated by the heightened tensions in the town, Lady Massereene founded a corps of nurses, named the Volunteer Aid Attachment Corps. The training consisted of five weeks with the Red Cross or St John Ambulance to ensure the women were equipped to care for volunteers if they went into battle. A dressing station was established in Randalstown, while Antrim Castle and the O’Neill seat, Shane’s Castle, were on standby to be transformed into clearing hospitals.

On Easter Monday of 1914, Carson returned to Antrim Castle during his task to review 2,800 volunteers from the three south Antrim battalions. A luncheon was given in his honour, and amongst the UVF hierarchy were a countess, a marquis, a duchess and various lords and ladies. A photograph exists of Lord and Lady Massereene standing on the steps of Antrim Castle with Carson and his cronies. Afterwards, Carson inspected the nursing corps, led by Lady Massereene on a swarm facing the castle and comprised of 80 members from Antrim, Randalstown, Lisburn, Glenavy and Crumlin. Prayers were followed by the formal dedication of the UVF’s colours, made by the Lord Bishop. Lady Massereene presented Carson with the King’s colour and the regimental colour of the battalion, a personal gift from her.

There were no women in local government and Lady Massereene was a rare female voice in public life. Her views on women’s role in society were made clear when, opening a Bazaar in Dunadry in aid of Muckamore New Schools, she referred to the topical Suffragette movement. The school’s colours of green, blue and orange, were Suffragette colours, and she joked that if any such ladies were presented they should not begin ‘operations by destroying the new schools’, before adding: ‘I believe in the higher education of women – the reason was that education makes them much better wives and mothers. The future of the empire depended to a very large extent, if not altogether, upon the mental training of mothers, and the way in which they brought up their children.’ The speech was an example of her chameleon-like tendencies to appeal to whichever crowd she was addressing.

The arrival of WWI in 1914 saw Lady Massereene move out of her husband’s shadow and into a role that was entirely her own. Lord Massereene went to the front with the North Irish Horse, and there had been scenes of enthusiasm from the locals as he went to Antrim railway station on the 8 August for France. Accompanied by Lady Massereene and their daughter, Diana, born in 1909, the Massereene Brass and Reed Band played a number of patriotic tunes on the platform as the train departed.

This was the era in which Lady Massereene’s charity work came to the forefront, and divided locals seemed to forget about her allegiance with Carson. At home, she joined a distress committee aimed at helping dependants of soldiers and sailors who had gone to war. In October 1914, Lady Massereene’s second child, a son and heir was born while Lord Massereene was in France. A month after the birth of her son, Lady Massereene hosted a successful fancy dress ball at the Protestant Hall. The fundraiser was for an ambulance, which she planned to send out to the front. Her war work continued in London, where she had been made Commandant of Women’s League’s Canteens, and dressed in her usual flamboyant style, a group of soldiers mistook her for a streetwalker and asked if she had had much luck at Piccadilly the night before. With her usual good humour, she laughed it off and relayed the anecdote for years to come. She trained as a nurse and volunteered at London hospitals, tending to the wounded. By chance, Lady Massereene along with other aristocratic nurses appeared as themselves, albeit in uniform, in the 1918 Hollywood silent film, The Great Love, starring Lilian Gish.

Lady Massereene’s postwar life saw her re-emerge on the social scene, and Sir John Lavery painted her portrait, a macabre study in black that, in hindsight, foretold the tragedies that were to come. On 28 October 1922, Antrim castle held a grand ball, after which a fire broke out. Guests tried to extinguish the fire, to no avail, and locals rallied to the castle, concentrating their efforts on rescuing the servants whose quarters were fifty-feet above the ground. Lady Massereene fled to the nursery to rescue her children, and trapped on a stairwell engulfed by smoke, she warned them they might not live. They watched as their cat caught on fire and perished before their eyes. Eventually, Lt Col Stewart Richardson, a war veteran who was staying at the castle, saved the lives of Lady Massereene and her children by tying sheets together and lowering them down from the roof of the chapel.

In 1923, a claim was made, and eventually rejected, for £90,000 for malicious damage. Damning evidence was presented before the court in Belfast, including a paraffin barrel that was full before the fire and now found to be empty. The windows of the basement were also discovered to be forced open, thus allowing the flames to spread more quickly. Anonymous letters, too, were touched upon (she showed her husband but not the police) in which Lady Massereene was warned she would soon ‘meet her maker’. Such letters were sent in retaliation to Lady Massereene’s pro-Unionist speeches in which she said: ‘Let’s arm ourselves that Ulster will never surrender an inch of her soil or title of right to the insidious bloody foe.’ The Massereenes believed the fire was started intentionally as the castle did not burn down as a result of a single fire. The water supply in the cisterns had been tampered with and several items that had been saved from the fire were found to be covered in mineral oil. During the investigation, Lady Massereene was questioned about the repairs that had been carried out on the fireplaces. She replied that, owing to a dream she had had ten years previously that a fire had broken out in her boudoir, she made a conscious effort to have the grate in her bedroom replaced.

This was not the first time Lady Massereene relied on or spoke openly about her dreams. A decade before, her tiara was stolen from the castle and she ordered the police to comb the banks of the Six Mile river, having dreamt it was discarded there. She was, in fact, the victim of a network of jewel thieves who were eventually caught in London and arrested. She harboured a deep interest in the paranormal and was renowned in London as a ghost expert. A good friend of the society spiritualist Violet Tweedale, Lady Massereene related her paranormal experiences in Tweedale’s book, Ghosts I Have Seen. She also spoke openly to various London newspapers about her psychic abilities and affiliation with the spirit world.

In 1930, Lady Massereene suffered a bitter blow when her eldest child and only daughter, Diana Skeffington died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, after contracting typhoid at a wedding in Scotland. Lord and Lady Massereene never recovered from their daughter’s death, and having once spoke enthusiastically about rebuilding a country house on the site of the castle, Lord Massereene lost interest. They went their separate ways though never divorced, with Lord Massereene residing in apartments at Clotworthy House and Lady Massereene living in London, where in place of her once grand house parties she hosted seances. Many believed her obsession with the supernatural was a source of comfort to her after Diana’s death.

Lady Massereene’s final years were plagued by illness, although she never believed she was seriously ill. After collapsing in Hyde Park, she went up to Knock House, her Scottish residence in Mull, where her condition deteriorated. Five week later, in the winter of 1937, she died at the age of 54. Having championed the existence of ghosts, many of whom she called friends, one assumes, and hopes, Lady Massereene languishes in that spiritual realm.

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The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

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Of all the Mitford eccentricities, it is Unity’s obsession with Adolf Hitler that lingers longest in the national consciousness. Even now, the story of the young British aristocrat who followed Hitler to Germany and eventually attempted death rather than leave him, is the most memorable of all the sisters’ stories. So it’s interesting to note that Unity caused just as much amazement among the men in Hitler’s circle as she did among any of her compatriots.

The arrival of Unity, and later Diana, in Nazi Germany provoked deep suspicion among the men at the top of Hitler’s hierarchy. Himmler, Goebbels and Goering all failed to understand why the Führer was so taken with these two upper-class English girls, and they suspected that their Führer’s judgment was fatally swayed by them.

When I was writing The Winter Garden, the second of my novels featuring Clara Vine, an Anglo-German actress in pre-war Berlin, I was keen to explore the way in which the Mitfords managed to discomfort those at the very top of the regime. The novel is set in 1937, a time when Hitler still held out the possibility that some Grand Alliance between Great Britain and Germany could be formed that would allow him to proceed with extending the German Lebensrum eastwards. In the Autumn of that year the recently abdicated Duke of Windsor and his new wife Wallis Simpson chose Nazi Germany, of all places, for their honeymoon – a choice which left the British government fit to be tied. British Embassy officials in Berlin were instructed that they were not to offer the ex-King anything at all “not even a cocktail sausage”, but the Nazis stepped in to fill the gap, rolling out the red carpet at Friedrichstrasse station and providing the Duke with a packed schedule of opera evenings, factory visits and other PR opportunities for the Third Reich. The fact that Unity and Diana should be in Germany around the same time as the royal couple made it the perfect backdrop for the novel’s spy mission and murder.

Of all the Nazi ministers, it was Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, who was closest to Diana and Unity, largely through the friendship between his wife Magda and Diana. The Goebbels had even lent Diana Mitford and Sir Oswald Mosley the use of their Berlin home for their wedding in 1936, with the reception held at the family’s country villa in Schwanenwerder, a short drive away through the Grunewald, where the newly-weds were presented with the complete works of Goethe, and the Goebbels children attended carrying posies of flowers. The following year, in 1937, Diana made another visit to Germany, soliciting funds for a Fascist radio station to be set up in Heligoland, and in between watching Mickey Mouse with the Führer at the Reich Chancellery, she again met up with the Goebbels.

In the end, Joseph Goebbels decided that the Mosleys were a busted flush, and should receive no more Third Reich funding. Yet for the Nazis, Diana and Unity remained an enigma. Were the British ruling-classes really like that, or were the Mitfords eccentric one-offs? Although Magda Goebbels, Joseph’s unhappy wife, was friendly with Diana, Goebbels himself was far less seduced. In his diaries of the time he questions whether the Mitfords truly “spring from the soul of the British people”. It mattered, because if the sisters could be considered true representatives of the English ruling-class, then it meant that Hitler’s dreams of an alliance with Great Britain might be fulfilled. In The Winter Garden there is a scene in which Clara Vine, who as well as an actress is a British agent, is quizzed by Goebbels about the precise nature of the Mitfords. Clara fills him in on some of Unity’s eccentricities, including the fact that she was given to greeting English shopkeepers with the Nazi salute, that she had brought her pet snake to Germany with her, and that a live rat sometimes travelled in her handbag. The bourgeois Goebbels was, in fiction as well as in reality, predictably appalled.

Himmler, the pathological head of the Gestapo, did not concern himself so much with social nuances. As far as he was concerned a woman like Unity was a security risk, and he had her tailed by an SS agent who would follow her round, disguised as a photographer. Even when Unity wrote a piece for a National Socialist newspaper about why she was learning to shoot so that she could kill Jews, Himmler still had his suspicions. Unity’s home-made storm-trooper outfit also failed to sway him.

The feelings of the other Nazi power couple, the Goerings, were equally cool. Unity had eyes only for Hitler so Hermann Goering took little interest. Emmy Goering, a former actress, would refer to Unity as “Mitfahrt” meaning the travelling companion, and made cruel jokes about her ankles.

Perhaps one reason we are so interested in the story of the pro-Hitler Mitfords is because they are rare English examples of a phenomenon that was all too well-known in Germany – the fascination with the Führer. It was a fascination that afflicted women in particular. Each year Hitler received many thousands of fan letters and daily offers from women to bear his children. Every birthday and Christmas an avalanche of cakes as well as embroidered cushions, gloves, and other clothes were sent in. In more eye-catching evidence of devotion, there were incidences when women waiting for Hitler’s car to approach would tear open their blouses to bear their breasts as he passed. Others threw themselves at his car, attempting to do themselves some injury in the hope that the Führer himself would emerge to comfort them.

Hitler, in turn, did not underestimate the importance of women to maintaining the Nazi state. He said: “In my Germany, the mother is the most important citizen.” And he recognized that it was women, not men, who were central in passing on the ideology of the Third Reich to their children. Thus, women attending the National Socialist Bride Schools, which feature in The Winter Garden, were taught a special prayer to say to their future children, in which the words “Our Führer” replaced “Our Father”. They were also instructed to tell fairy stories with the correct, Nazi ideology, which was all about racial consciousness. In the National Socialist Cinderella, for example, the Prince rejects the Ugly Sisters not on aesthetic grounds, but because they are Slavs.

Ultimately, Goebbels’ question about the Mitford sisters – do they spring from the soul of the British people? – was an acute one. Not because they typified the views of the ruling class, but because despite their political differences Unity, Diana, and the others did embody a profoundly British quality. The ability to hold polarized beliefs, while retaining an underlying affection for each other. To thumb their noses at convention. To see each other’s point of view, even while despising it. In their eccentricity, imagination, humour and originality they epitomized Englishness. Goebbels should have paid more attention.

The Winter Garden is published by Simon & Schuster.

Jane Thynne was born in Venezuela in 1961 and grew up with her parents and two brothers in London. After school in Hampton, she spent a year working at the Old Vic Theatre before reading English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She joined the BBC as a production trainee, but after a few years succumbed to a hankering for Fleet Street and moved to The Sunday Times. Jane spent many cheerful years at The Daily Telegraph as media correspondent, but her single most exciting moment in that time was getting a publishing contract for her first novel. Her novels have been translated into French, German and Italian. Black Roses will be published in France by J.C Lattes in 2014 and the second in the Clara Vine series, The Winter Garden, in 2015. The third in the Clara Vine series, A War Of Flowers, was published in the UK by Simon & Schuster in November 2014. It will be published in the US and Canada by Random House in 2015.

As well as writing books, Jane is a freelance journalist, writing regularly for numerous British magazines and newspapers, and also appears as a broadcaster on Radio 4.

She is married to the writer Philip Kerr and they live with their three children in London.

Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. II

Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society

Happy Australia Day to Our Mitties Down Under!

Below is an extract from The Mitford Society Vol. II.

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In a distant corner of the Empire, in the “Land of the Wattle and the Gum”, Sheila Chisholm, a sensitive and imaginative girl with large hazel eyes and a pale, heart-shaped face would take London society by storm. But that would have to wait for two decades; in the meantime she was busy growing up on Wollogoron, the family’s sheep farm where she was enthralled and horrified by the birth of lambs and the bloody reality of the slaughter-house. It was this combination of her tomboy spirit and the conflict of longing to belong in a male-dominated world that would leave its mark on her life.

To display her bravery, Sheila downed an entire bottle of Worcestershire sauce and then challenged her two brothers to do the same. She was a reckless horsewoman, riding her black mare Mariana with deliberate abandon, and laughing at the grooms who warned her she would “break her bloody neck”. Their prediction almost came true when she was thrown and nearly killed after a motor-car – a rare sight on country roads – spooked the horse. “It did not teach me a lesson,” Sheila recalled. “Nothing ever does.” A favourite expression was, “I will put you on your mettle,” which roughly translated meant, “I double dare you.” The dares were, at times dangerous, particularly at Bondi Beach where, along with her best-friend, she enjoyed body surfing and swimming out further than the restricted line. This cavalier attitude lasted until one day, while defying the rules, the water turned crimson when a nearby swimmer lost his leg to a shark. As Sheila put it: “This episode dampened our enthusiasm for showing off.”

Sheila received a private education at Kambala Anglican School for Girls in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. It was one of the first private schools for girls established in Sydney as debate raged about the ability of young women to handle a male education curriculum. But there was nothing in Sheila’s future that suggested she would put her scholarly training into practice. Her mother, Margaret, warned her that a life of marriage and children beckoned – “Chase and chaste,” she told her.

Before this milestone could be achieved, Sheila’s parents agreed to send her off to Paris and Munich to be “finished”. They even spoke of the possibility of being presented as a debutante at Buckingham Palace. It became clear to Sheila that the sort of marriage her mother spoke of would be one that required social mobility. This outlook had been inspired by Margaret’s visit to a famous Chinese astrologer who predicted that Sheila’s stars belonged in the northern hemisphere. Her father declared it “hokum”, and from there-on-in, they referred to their daughter as “the child of fate”.

This fate had gotten off to an uncertain start when, in the summer of 1914, having spent too much time in Paris, Sheila and Margaret missed all three of the presentations at Court. Undeterred, Margaret rented a flat at St. James’s Court, and a whirl of garden parties and summer balls ensued. There was another opportunity to be presented at Buckingham Palace, but in a crowd of famous society hostesses and young aristocrats, it was difficult for Sheila to stand out.

The declaration of war blighted any hopes for a successful season, and with both of her brothers headed for Cairo, Sheila and her mother made the decision to go there, too. Sheila volunteered as a Red Cross nurse, and she found herself as one of the few women among thousands of men, which included aristocrats. Away from her training, there were cruises on the Nile, night-time drives to see the Sphinx by moonlight, and she rode Arab stallions out to the desert to watch the sunset, or at dawn to watch the sunrise. This air of normality gave an illusion of false security, and lively bars and restaurants provided a distraction to the sprawling hospital campus that Cairo had become. It was in a Cairo hospital where Sheila met her future husband, Francis Edward Scudamore St. Clair Erskine, Lord Loughborough, known as “Loughie”. She summed him up on their second encounter:

“Loughie came to tea the next day. He was tall and slim, with thick brown hair and hazel eyes. He was witty and most attractive. I soon began enjoying his company. We read the Brownings. He pursued me relentlessly and I was flattered by his attention. He told me that he had fallen in love with me at first sight. He constantly said: “I love you and you are going to marry me, you will like England and all my friends will adore you.

Admitting he was “wild”, Loughie assured Sheila that with her love “I will be different. I could do great things”. She believed him and was fascinated by him, and seeing how happy they were she thought it must be love. Against her parents disapproval – they feared Loughie’s wayward reputation to be true – Sheila agreed to marry him, telling her mother that she could not “wait six months, wait a year, wait while he goes back and probably gets killed”. And, winning the argument by assuring Margaret her future husband was “sweet” and “fond of animals”, the two were married in Cairo on the 27th of December 1915.

The marriage between a Lord and an Australian girl was a break from the norm of titled men marrying musical-hall charmers and American heiresses. An Australian newspaper noted: “Now it appears they are marrying on the keep-it-in-the-Empire principle.” The happiness was short-lived when, on the morning after the wedding, Loughie attended a race meeting and lost a month’s pay as well as the cheques given by guests as wedding presents. Like his father, the Earl of Rosslyn, he was hopelessly weak-willed, a gambler and an alcoholic. He became immortalised as “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”. Sheila’s new father-in-law told her: “My son has no idea of money, as you will no doubt realise only too soon, if you have not already done so. Has he told you how often I have paid for his debts?” She smiled and said nothing. “Head high,” she told herself. “Walk very tall.” They returned to England to wait out the war.

England was a strange place for Sheila. She found the rigid customs of the country-house cold and uninviting. The guests intimidated her, especially when at dinner Lord Birkenhead asked how many children she had. “None,” Sheila replied.
“You should be ashamed of yourself; a young, strong, healthy, beautiful woman like you. How long have you been married?”
“Four months.”
“Oh…er…I’m sorry. Well, when you do have a child take my tip and have a twilight sleep.”
In time, Sheila bore Loughie two sons – an heir and a spare – and having given up on trying to reform his wastrel ways, she sought solace in a glittering social life.

When Sheila befriended Freda Dudley Ward, mistress of Edward the Prince of Wales, she was introduced to the inner-circle of Royalty, and the upper-echelon of high society. She was paired off with Prince Albert (later King George VI), known to friends as “Bertie”, and the foursome nicknamed themselves “The Four Dos”. Sheila and Bertie’s clandestine affair reached the attention of King George V, and he ordered his son to end it at once. Bertie obliged and was rewarded the Dukedom of York and a plump fiancée in the shape of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

The 1920s barged in, ushering out the sleepy social niceties of Edwardian England. The heartbreak of war and the tragic loss of young men was masked by a new era of decadence. It was an exciting time to be young, beautiful and titled, and Sheila was no exception. Turning her attention to the popular celebrities of the day, Sheila began an affair with the most famous film star in the world, Rudolph Valentino. In London to promote his latest picture, The Eagle, crowds of women flocked to him wherever he went, but it was Sheila’s nonchalance that attracted him. She paraded Valentino around high society, giving dinner parties in his honour and introducing him to London’s nightlife. And, when he returned to Hollywood she followed him. Valentino gave Sheila his lucky gold bracelet, which she wore on her upper-arm, and when he died aged thirty-one in 1926, she believed it was because she had taken his luck.

For the last two years of their marriage, Sheila and Loughie had been estranged. After initiating divorce proceedings in 1926, she suddenly had a change of heart, and remembering how Loughie had made her laugh, she considered calling it off. The Earl of Rosslyn, anxious for the couple to remain married (if in name only), hurried to the court to order the judge to stop their appeal. Worried about this unexpected intervention, Sheila’s solicitor advised her to play the part of “the pathetic, ill-treated little wife”. She borrowed her nursery-maid’s grey coat, skirt and felt hat, and she wore no makeup. Satisfied with the outcome, she remarked: “I certainly looked pathetic.” When it came to swearing on the Bible, Sheila removed a glove and was alarmed to notice she had forgotten to remove her red nail polish. All was well, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the men in the courtroom appeared not to notice her manicured nails.

Before their estrangement, Sheila had tried to help Loughie overcome his demons. They moved to Australia in 1923, but things did not improve. “I had persuaded my husband to have a cure for drink, which he did, but when he came out of the home he was not better at all. Life for me was intolerable. Finally I asked the trustees and his father to meet, and they agreed that it was intolerable and that I should have a house for myself and the children…I have not lived with my husband as his wife since January 1924.” And reflecting on how their marriage soured after the first few months, Sheila confessed: “My husband drank and gambled and got into terrible trouble. He was horrid and abusive to me and drank terribly. It seemed to get worse each year.”

The hearing lasted twenty minutes, and a few weeks later a decree nisi was granted. “I was free – what a strange feeling. I decided that never, never again would I marry anyone, and hummed to myself ‘Wedding Bells are all Bunk’.”

Wedding bells chimed twice more for Sheila. She went on to marry the baronet Sir John “Buffles” Milbanke, known as “the boxing baronet” from whom she was widowed in 1947. Having run a successful travel business in Fortnum & Mason, she remained single until 1954. At the age of fifty-nine she married the exiled Prince Dmitri Alexandrovich of Russia. Their marriage lasted until Sheila’s death in 1969.

Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

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An Extract from The Mitford Society Vol. II

Friday 28th of November 2014 would have been Nancy Mitford’s one-hundred-and-tenth birthday. She has been enchanting the world for more than a century. While she might have described her early childhood as being “shrouded in a thick mist”, thanks to her own pen it has been immortalised and is now kept in libraries.

Almost no one nice, tastes allowing, does not carry at least one Mitford novel on the most well worn shelf of their bookcase. My thesis on Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies was inspired by forms of autobiography in Nancy Mitford’s two most famous novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). As such, I spent a blissful summer reading every word she had published, in preparation. In doing so, it quickly became apparent that this was preparation for not just a long essay – what now seems a pointless piece of prose – but preparation for just getting on with things. For the novels are learning manuscripts, too. Within the novels come portions of life advice, dressed up to amuse. A Talent to Annoy, the Charlotte Mosley-edited collection of Nancy’s journalism, is a most appropriately chosen title, for at all times, she is provoking a reaction.

The modern age thoroughly ill prepares one for many events, yet lessons for life are found most riotously in Nancy’s novels. Her world, viewed with a piercing stare, might be ridiculous but it is elegant. The now-famous closing line of The Pursuit of Love says it all. The narrator, Fanny, is describing her cousin Linda to her mother, The Bolter. Fabrice, Fanny explains, was “the great love of her life, you know”. (Nancy attaches the crucial “you know” to remind us of that quality self-assurance that runs in the Mitford veins.) The Bolter: “Oh, dulling,” said my mother sadly. “One always thinks that. Every, every time.” In one fell swoop, Nancy eliminates love-affairs from the equation. Perspective shines through. It is an oft-quoted passage, and is, I hope, used by best friends and mothers in times of need. It never dates.

The writer Andrew O’Hagan identifies Nancy’s style as belonging to the “posh aesthetic”. The novels are consciously privileged – it is unmistakable. This quality, O’Hagan claims, “Appeals to readers who want life’s profundities to scatter on the wind like handfuls of confetti.”

To-be readers in bookshops – that is, those that have not been kindly gifted a Mitford novel by a discerning friend or relative – might baulk at the prospect of one of Nancy’s novels. A series of books that consciously prod the upper echelons of society? In this climate? No thank you. Looking past this, the joy of the novels is found in the blinding, piercing satire – in the mocking of her sisters, friends and extended family.

As with all things literary, context will prevail. The “posh aesthetic” has a lot to answer for. O’Hagan claims that for Nancy “everyone is impersonatable”, which they are. She makes it her business to mortify her sisters in Wigs on the Green, satirizing without limit Diana’s second husband Sir Oswald Mosley. In June 1935, writing to Diana, she puts up a defence: “it would be absurd to suppose that anyone who was intellectually or emotionally convinced of the truths of Fascism could be influenced against the movement by such a book.”

Nancy Mitford’s prose was built to surpass the world’s hideous nature with comic tolerance. Her teasing forms alliances that lessen the pain and suffering, from which she was not exempt. To shriek – as the Mitford girls did – was to usurp sadness. It is “so much more stylish to laugh at death,” Andrew O’Hagan claims, encapsulating the appeal. Nancy’s protagonist Linda Radlett in The Pursuit of Love dies on the penultimate page of the book. It is dealt with economically, and moved on from. “It killed her” is sufficient. A parallel is found in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, published in 1930. Simon Balcairn, gossip columnist and wet-blanket aristo, commits suicide. Waugh writes matter-of-factly of this event: “but soon he fell into a coma and presently died”. The next paragraph notes a family resemblance in death, before the chapter ends. In the next, a new gossip columnist is appointed. Life goes on.

In 1932, aged twenty-eight, Nancy sat down to pen her second novel, Christmas Pudding. Wise beyond her years, on life, love and its necessary accoutrements, she presents her thesis on the world’s woes. Imagine, if you will, this read in her voice:

“The trouble is that people seem to expect happiness in life. I can’t imagine why; but they do. They are unhappy before they marry, and they imagine to themselves that the reason of their unhappiness will be removed when they are married. When it isn’t they blame the other person, which is clearly absurd. I believe that is what generally starts the trouble.”

The solution to this goes unmentioned, but we mustn’t be ungrateful. Nancy Mitford’s talents were not limited to the telling of dangerously close-to-home truths. Too often one searches in vain for just the right way of putting it, and more often than not it is found inside a Nancy novel. She nails emotion through her own experience, limited though some may claim it was. She had when writing, no qualifications – no literary agenda. She just wrote.

“She was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, but it is only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him.’

It is only right to thank the eldest Mitford sister, Nancy, born 24th of November 1904, for all that she has given to bookshelves worldwide.

Oh, and happy birthday.

Nancy Mitford, 24th November 1904 – 30th June 1973

Eleanor Doughty is a freelance writer whose work can be found most often in the Daily Telegraph. She has been described as “an absolute scream” but admits this might be open to interpretation.

The Mitford Society Annual

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One month ago I decided to put this annual together. I’m amazed at the amount of people who have contributed pieces all with a common theme: Mitfordiana. As I discovered, getting the contributions was the easy part! Editing and formatting…what a nightmare. It took about 4 days, a few hours per day (often until 4am in the morning) to format this but I think it looks rather well! The dimensions of the book are quite large, 8.5×11 and it is 160 pages…all with content, none of those deceiving blank pages at the front and back! The cost of producing such an annual was never far from my mind, I initially wanted to keep the book around the size of The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life but unfortunately that made it a print run of over 300 pages…and with each page the cost was greater. Those who have used CreateSpace will be aware of the pricing sanctions etc. I want to be upfront and let you know that on each book I will earn about £1.09 royalty which is going towards producing an official website for The Mitford Society. I want to create an online record for archives etc because, as you will know if you subscribe to the mailing list, I have quite a lot of treasures which Facebook does little justice to. So there we have it! This is the pilot annual and it has been a learning curve. Now I must dash back to my secret project which has a 6 month deadline. I can’t wait to share the news with you all!

Click here for the annual.