The Mitford Society Vol V

71reuaq2FUL

The Mitford Society is pleased to present its fifth annual, with contributions from Meems Ellenberg, Kathy Hillwig, Robert Morton, Gail Louw, Chiara Martinelli, William Cross, May Tatel-Scott, Ella Kay, Terence Towles Canote, Kim Place-Gateau, Meredith Whitford, and Lyndsy Spence. It has been released early this year to mark Decca’s 100th birthday! The table of contents includes:

A Mitford Mimicry: A Mitford Tease

Six Sonnets for Six Sisters

The Most Dangerous Moment of All: Decca Mitford and the Plot to Escape

The Loves of Jessica Mitford: Chapter Two

Decca Mitford: The Entrepreneurial Communist

A Sheepish Short Story

Bertie Mitford and the Birth of Modern Japan

Almost a Bohemian: Diana Mitford and the Bloomsbury Set

The Disappearing Act of Miss Muriel Perry

The Mitford Sisters: A One Woman Play

Pamela Mitford: The Country Girl

Nancy in Venice

Love Him, Loathe Him: Tom Mitford Revisited

Revisiting Chatsworth and House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth

Debo and The Whopper: The Devonshire Diadem

A Dangerous Devotion: Venetia Montagu and Henry Asquith

A Tale of Two Susans: Nancy and Decca

What Would Decca Do: A Muckraker’s Legacy

Murder in the Hons’ Cupboard: The Original Mitford Murder, and Then Some…

Available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

 

 

Advertisements

The Muse: Diana Mitford and Paul César Helleu

unnamed

Diana at Cecil Beaton’s ‘Opposites’ party. The Sketch, 1932

At the age of sixteen, Diana Mitford arrived in Paris under less than glamorous circumstances. Her father, David, had succeeded in selling the family’s home, Asthall Manor, and with the money garnered from its sale, he set about building a new family home, Swinbrook House. The final phase of building was yet to be completed, and the Mitford family, along with their pet gerbils, chose to economise by taking cheap lodgings at the Villa St Honoré d’Eylau. Caught between the world wars, Paris was bustling with excitement. The epitome of the roaring twenties, the jazz age brought rich American tourists and bohemian writers alike to sample the cosmopolitan delights the city had to offer. The reconstruction of the Boulevard Haussmann, damaged by bombs during the First World War, was underway, and Paris was once again a vibrant, metropolitan city not yet plunged into austerity by the Great Depression.

The topic of beauty would govern Diana’s Parisian experience. Whilst in Paris, her mother, Sydney, rekindled her friendship with the celebrated artist, Paul César Helleu who, in the years before her marriage, had immortalised her in a painting. Now this admiration transferred to Sydney’s children. Smitten by her offspring, his painter’s eye appreciated the fine colouring of their blonde hair and blue eyes, with the exception of Nancy, who possessed the dramatic colouring of black hair and green eyes. But it was Diana who charmed Helleu. She, in particular, he likened to a Greek goddess. Advancing in his sixth decade, he was considered an old man, but Helleu’s liberal outlook did not let something as trivial as their vast age difference prevent him from admiring Diana’s looks. ‘Tu es la femme la plus voluptuesse,’ he often praised her. From a cynical point of view it was hardly an appropriate adornment for Diana, who stood at the statuesque height of 5ft 10in, with a slim figure to match.

Caught in the limbo between childhood and adulthood, Diana overlooked Helleu’s compliments, and her attention was absorbed by his drawing room. She thought his collection of Louis XVI furniture, especially the chairs upholstered in white and grey silk, to be aesthetically pleasing. She was curious as to why Helleu hung empty eighteenth-century gilt wooden frames on his walls. His answer was far more peculiar than his action. He advised Diana that if one was not rich enough to possess the pictures one wished for, it was best to have empty frames and use one’s imagination. She was further elated when Helleu drew her into his confidence, telling her that he admired three things above all else: women, racehorses, and sailing boats.

Fearing that her impressionable daughter would fall victim to boredom, the opposite sex, or both, Sydney enrolled Diana in the Cours Fenelon, where she was to study art. After the lessons, Diana walked one-hundred-yards around the corner, to take afternoon tea with Nanny Blor and her siblings at the hotel. This ordinary advancement of walking home alone meant the world to Diana, as it was the first time she had been without a chaperone. This freedom was confined to Paris, as she learned when the family returned to England to spend the Christmas holidays in London.

In the new year of 1927, Diana prepared to return to Paris, this time without her parents and siblings. Travelling alone in those days was strictly forbidden for a young, unmarried girl of her social class. The idea of sending a member of staff, or worse still, paying for a chaperone to accompany Diana, troubled Sydney. Much to her relief, the journey coincided with Winston Churchill’s visit to meet Mussolini and he offered to drop Diana off in Paris on his way to Rome. Accompanying his father, Randolph was thrilled to see Diana again – in love with her during his childhood, he would continue to carry a torch for her long after she had broken his heart by marrying Bryan Guinness, and then Sir Oswald Mosley. But his hope of cutting a dashing figure was thwarted when he fell victim to seasickness, brought on by the rough Channel crossing. ‘Poor little boy!’ Churchill said when Diana told him of Randolph’s plight. Upon reaching the Gare du Nord, Diana spied two elderly sisters with whom Sydney had made boarding arrangements. She summarised her first impressions of the elderly sisters: ‘One of them is horrid and wears a wig, the other is downtrodden and nice’. Pressed for time before catching his connecting train to Rome, Churchill swiftly entrusted Diana into their care and the three left for her new dwellings at 135 Avenue Victor-Hugo.

The elderly sisters’ apartment was not luxurious in any sense of the word, and Diana was alarmed to discover the French taste, which she held in such high esteem, had been lost on her landladies. If the outside was grim, the inside was strictly primitive. She was allocated a bedroom in the basement, its window level with the pavement, with tightly clamped shutters that were to remain closed, should a pedestrian attempt to break in. The room was dark, and as Diana lay in bed she could hear the hustle and bustle of footsteps on the pavement and the revolting chorus of men clearing their throats and spitting. The Dickensian surroundings extended to basic hygiene. She was permitted to bathe twice a week in a miniscule tin tub, brought into her bedroom for the occasion, whereupon a maid filled it with a scalding kettle, counteracted by a jug of cold water. The balance was never quite right and the bath, to Diana’s dismay, was freezing. She wrote a long letter to Sydney, moaning of her discomforts and was sent enough money for an occasional bath at the Villa St Honore d’Eylau. The elderly ladies thought this extravagant and an insult to their hospitality. Owing to Diana’s displeasure with her living arrangements, a frosty relationship ensued.

Despite the discomfort, Diana found the location useful with its close proximity to the Cours Fenelon, her violin lessons near the Lycee Janson, and Helleu’s apartment. She walked to all three places without a chaperone and the freedom was intoxicating. Emboldened by this freedom, she took the first step towards adulthood and cut her waist length hair into a shingled bob – a popular trend in the late 1920s. Her father affirmed to the Edwardian ideal of how women should look, preferring them with long hair and their faces free of make-up. Given this stance, she would have hesitated to cut off her hair had she remained at home. When Nancy first cut her hair, David recoiled in horror, proclaiming that no self-respecting man would want to marry her. Sydney sided with David, and she commented, ‘No one would look at you twice now.’ Having learned of Diana’s rebellion, David teased that her new look was ‘a symbol of decadent immorality’.

It had been almost a month since Helleu last set eyes on Diana, and her short hair, he opined, was ghastly, but it did little to diminish her looks. When she was not taking lessons, Helleu escorted Diana around Le Louvre and the Palace of Versailles, giving her impromptu lessons on paintings, fine art and sculpture. After their day-long excursions, he treated Diana to luncheon where she ordered Sole Dieppoise and Sancerre. Although infatuated by her appearance, his behaviour was always proper. Seizing this moment of high spirits, he asked her to sit for a portrait. There was no question of what her answer would be, for Diana it was the ultimate compliment. ‘I pose for endless pictures,’ Diana confided in a letter to her friend and admirer, James Lees-Milne, and Helleu’s flattering comments, she claimed, ‘never become boring because they are always unexpected.’ Helleu sketched and painted Diana several times, and his most favourable piece was a dry-point etching of her head in profile view. The strong lines detailed her ethereal beauty; an attractive jawline, emphasised by her shingled hair, cut as short as a boy’s at the back with the sides reaching her ears, formed into soft waves. The sketch was reproduced in the popular magazine, L’Illustration, and the prolific recognition turned Diana into a minor celebrity at the Cours Fenelon. The excitement was short-lived and the elderly sisters hastened to plant a dart; ‘Helleu?’ they hissed at the modern-looking girl sitting before them. ‘It is not Helleu to me at all. Frankly I think it is very pre-war.’

Helleu’s flattery was never ending and, blinded by Diana’s beauty, he expected his peers to share his enthusiasm. He brought Diana to visit his friend, the sculptor Troubetzkoy, who at the time was working on a head of Venizelos, the Greek politician. ‘Bonjour, monsieur, la voici la Grèce!’ Helleu jubilantly cried as he pointed to Diana, who stood before the sculptor in her plain clothing and her face devoid of make-up. Venizelos, engrossed in his work, cast a lacklustre eye over Diana, before turning away, barely acknowledging her. She felt a fool and thought her exuberant friend had gone too far. To the sculptor and politician (and many of the grown-ups around her) she was merely going through what the French called ‘l’âge ingrat’ – the awkward age.

Sensing that her husband’s young friend was pining for familiar home comforts, Madame Helleu provided Diana with an inviting atmosphere away from the Avenue Victor-Hugo. After lessons, she would drop in for tea and often stayed to supper, indulging in Madame Helleu’s heavenly cuisine of roast veal, boeuf en gelee, iles flottantes and rich black chocolate cake. Helleu loved to see Diana eat and he would happily exclaim: ‘Mais prenez, prenez donc!’ The Helleus’ daughter, Paulette, although several years older than Diana, became a critical friend. Paulette found fault with Diana’s clumsy home-made clothing and her lack of make-up, still strictly forbidden. She might have attacked Diana’s weak spots, but she could not deny her beauty, and that sparked an unspoken rivalry between the artist’s daughter and his adolescent muse.

Although flattered by Helleu’s treatment, Diana was becoming accustomed to receiving compliments on her beauty rather than her brains. In a letter to James Lees-Milne, she asked him ‘not to feel jealous’ about her flirting with French boys. Having gained his confidence, she confessed that she only confided in him because he was ‘so far from England’s green and pleasant land, where scandal travels fast’. During this time she had become an expert in deceiving the elderly ladies, and although she was permitted to venture out without a chaperone during the daytime, she was forbidden to do so in the evenings. She cared little for their rules and she feigned invitations to sit for Helleu, or cited extra music lessons with her violin instructor. Once out of their supervision, Diana met the young man in question. She juggled several suitors, always escaping with them to the darkness of the cinema, then the height of sophistication for a teenager. She spoke confidently of a trip in a taxi around the Bois de Boulogne with a boy named Charlie (Charles de Breuil), a fairly rich count, extraordinarily handsome, but very vain. Before Diana had encountered Charlie, she enjoyed a flirtation with a young suitor named Bill Astor, heir to Viscount Astor and his immense fortune. Diana said little of her experiences with Bill, except that she had only flirted with Charlie because French flirting interested her and because it made her think of Bill. At a loss for words, Jim praised her mental fidelity towards the unsuspecting admirer.

Diana dutifully penned chatty letters to her mother, but Sydney was too preoccupied with the preparations for Nancy and Pamela’s parties – they had already come out as débutantes but had failed to become engaged – to give much thought to her younger daughter’s daily life. A dull round of lessons, she imagined. Only Diana and her diary knew the truth. Neither Sydney nor David relished the idea of entertaining and they made a dreary saga of the details, writing to Diana, ‘The dance is turning into an immense bore …’ Sydney sent her a parcel containing a pair of ‘evening knickers’ and a dark blue silk dress with white polka dots. Diana was delighted with the underwear, a sophisticated treat having only just shed the fleece-lined liberty bodice her nanny forced the children to wear. The euphoria dimmed when she tried on the silk dress, only to discover it was too big. The whirlwind of Diana’s social life did not interfere with her schooling and her end of term report, that March, spoke glowingly of her ‘parfait’ conduct, describing her as ‘excellente élève dont nous garderons le meilleur souvenir.’

The glittering atmosphere was not to last. At the end of March, Helleu fell gravely ill and his unexpected death from peritonitis was a bitter blow to Diana’s self-esteem. The man she worshipped and who, for three months, had worshipped her, was dead. ‘I shall never see him again …’ her letter to James Lees-Milne ached with melancholy ‘… never hear his voice saying, “Sweetheart, comme tu es belle”’. Shortly before Helleu’s death, Diana had called at his flat, hoping to visit her ailing friend. Paulette answered the door. ‘May I see him?’ she desperately asked. ‘Of course not.’ Paulette brusquely turned her away. His death was to have a lasting effect on her. ‘Nobody will admire me again as he did,’ she said at the time.

Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford is published by The History Press. The above was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV

Only The Sister: Angela du Maurier

3910664

Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV

When one thinks of groups of sisters throughout history, it is often their social lives that come under scrutiny, and then their literary output. It is as though they were half expected to write a novel or a volume of memoirs to compensate for their celebrity status, whether they were talented or not. Fortunately it was the former with the du Mauriers, and both Angela and Daphne (though to a larger extent) would write books. As with Nancy Mitford’s novels, predominantly The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, the du Mauriers books were largely inspired by not only their childhood and events in their lives, but of the landscape in which they lived and had visited.

Like the Mitfords, Angela (1904), Daphne (1907), and Jeanne (1911) had an unusual childhood not in the depths of the countryside but largely spent at Cannon Hall, in Hampstead, where fascinating guests filled the home, and their father Gerald dominated the girls, for better or worse. Except for a few terms at Miss Tulloch’s school, their education was confined to a governess as Gerald did not wish for his daughters to be exposed to the wicked world. The Mitfords would also be kept at home, but for different reasons: their father did not want them to develop thick calves from playing hockey. However, unlike the Mitfords, the du Maurier girls were exposed to the arts on the domestic front and there was nothing unseemly about a trip to the theatre, or harbouring an ambition to go on the stage. Whereas Farve went up to London once a year to see a play, taking his daughters with him, and often critiquing it on the journey home – ‘That foolish boy, Romeo…. and that damned nurse, bloody bitch. She was probably an RC!’ Gerald du Maurier was an actor-theatre manager, and he also had a brand of cigarettes named after himself. Their aunt Sylvia Llewelyn Davies was the mother of the five boys who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and this fed the girls’ imagination. They identified themselves as a tribe, in the vein of Barrie’s Lost Boys, and Daphne and Jeanne thought of themselves as boys, whereas Angela was happy to be a girl, even if she did think herself unattractive. And, as with the Mitfords, theirs was a feral upbringing of secret societies, schoolroom antics and silly nicknames. Angela, the eldest, was Piffy; Daphne, the middle girl, was Bing; and Jeanne, the youngest was Bird. Their mother, Muriel, was a vague presence in their lives; a former actress, she was beautiful and aloof, and did not pander to her children except when critiquing them. The same was true for the Mitfords, as their mother, as well as their beloved nanny, often told the six beauties that nobody was looking at them (especially Diana, the most beautiful). Muriel was often exasperated by her daughters’ appearance, especially Angela’s heavy build and lack of fashion sense – she was once mistaken for the nanny when she accompanied her sisters to a birthday party.

Angela’s innocence lasted all of her life, and she believed in the mythical figure of Father Christmas long into adolescence. Unlike the Mitfords who were quite cynical as children and when they were taken to see Peter Pan they would yell ‘No!’ when the cast called out, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’ Angela herself did believe in fairies and, after a well-meaning servant placed ‘fairy circles’ in the garden to enchant the children, it was her younger sister Daphne who discredited the stunt and said there was no such thing. Angela however dissolved into tears and accused her of speaking ill of the fairies. She was the only one out of her sisters who believed in the afterlife and often spoke of being reunited with spirits on a supernatural realm. Daphne, as imaginative as she was, scoffed at her ideas. Despite her inability to keep up with the quick wit of her family, her childhood home represented security and a barrier against growing up. Something the Mitfords could not relate to, for each girl, with the exception of Pamela and Debo, was aching to break free. ‘The finish of security. Doubt lies ahead. Adieu les jours heureux,’ Angela wrote in her diary. In a way, she would always retain a childlike enthusiasm, and throughout her life, as in the nursery, she was seldom without an idol to worship.

The ‘business of growing older’, as she referred to it, represented more than double figures to Angela, and she was apprehensive about swapping her childhood clothes for a grown-up trousseau; ‘one was a fish out of water, too young to listen to sophisticated conversation, at the same time not wishing to play cricket on the lawn with younger sisters and their friends’. She was sent to finishing school in Paris but she was stifled by homesickness and it was to be a miserable experience. Like Pamela Mitford, Angela was the scapegoat for her sisters teasing and the other girls’ antics, and she had no ambition to be a bright star on the horizon. Her spirits were momentarily lifted when her parents and sisters arrived to take her on holiday to the south of France and then on to Algiers. Daphne thought it a great adventure and was spellbound by the architecture, Jeanne was too young to appreciate it, and Angela, having read The Garden of Allah, was determined to fall in love. The object of her affection was Roland Pertwee, a married man whose wife had left him, and he took up with Angela and Daphne, acting as a tour guide and chaperone. But Angela’s idea of a chaste romance fizzled out when Pertwee decided she was an unsophisticated schoolgirl and, after accompanying her to Paris, he dropped her at her finishing school and vanished.

When Angela returned home she became interested in politics, having met Peter Macdonald, an MP for the Isle of Wight, and she became a Young Conservative. Throwing herself into the political campaign, she travelled to darkest Southwark but was appalled at the poverty she was subjected to, and she began to question her Tory ideals. Many doors were slammed in her face. A man shouted that he ‘voted for Labour and always would’, Angela’s only response was to sigh and say, ‘Yes, so should I.’ Thereupon, she became a converted socialist and argued with Macdonald, with whom she thought she was in love despite the fact he was married. She proposed a deal to him: if the Tories won all would be well with them, and if Labour won they would go their separate ways. This was reminiscent of Unity and Decca Mitford, albeit through a sisterly bond, they agreed to disagree when it came to politics, but each one agreed to shoot the other if they had to for the sake of their ideological cause. To Angela’s dismay Labour won the 1929 General Election and Macdonald was no longer the focus of her thoughts, but it marked a watershed in her romantic life. Around this period she began to branch out from her family, as painful as it was, and to visit friends at their country houses. On such a visit to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s home, where a group of young people were staying, Angela, who was aged nineteen, was kissed by Lord Dunglass. It had taken place in her bedroom, and she was convinced she would become pregnant. Harbouring this secret, she wrote to her aunt who reassured her that she could not.

Although she held a romantic ideal of love and dreamt of having children, she was appalled by sex – this was prompted by an acquaintance telling her about reproduction and she felt sickened by the biological facts at play. ‘My father would never do such a thing,’ she said. Then, when she absorbed the information told to her, she felt ‘betrayed’ by her parents ‘because the truth was so HORRIBLE that they couldn’t bear to tell it to me’. When her mother found out she ‘harangued’ her for having learned the truth and said she could never trust her daughter again. Adding to this wretchedness, when she was twelve-years-old and walking in the woods, a German soldier whom she saw was wounded and went to help him had exposed himself to her. After this, she felt confused and distressed, and ashamed of what had happened but she knew she must keep it a secret. By her own admission it had stunted her social development.

Furthermore, Gerald had always confided his infidelities to Angela and Daphne, telling them of the young actresses whom he was stringing along, and he invited them to mock the women’s naivety, thus dividing their loyalties to their mother who knew nothing of these chats. This added to Angela’s mistrust of men, and the view that all men, once they had caught a young woman, would move on to someone else. Yet, despite their talk of his affairs, and the girls’ referring to the young women as ‘the stable’ (as in fillies vying to win a race), Gerald was pathologically jealous of his daughters’ coming into contact with young men, especially Angela who was not as loyal to him as Daphne. She recalled him watching from an upstairs window as she returned from a party, and cross examining her whenever she walked through the door. He wanted to know if anyone had kissed her, or had made a pass, or indeed if she found a young man attractive. And he warned that she would ‘lose her bloom’ if she had done so, for a man’s attention would somehow tarnish her looks and everyone would know she had been corrupted. Soon after her coming out in society, he began to call her a whore, and when she complained of pains in her stomach he accused her of being pregnant – it turned out to be appendicitis. The Mitfords father, too, could be frightening when his daughters sought love matches with men he disapproved of, and during their youth he was forever calling their male friends ‘sewers’ and threatening to horsewhip them but he did not cross the threshold of causing psychological harm.

As a debutante she attended dances in London and found a friend in a young Cecil Beaton who, despite his waspish nature, was charmed by her wholesomeness. It was the Jazz Age, and the young ladies of her generation were dressed in the height of 1920s fashion, but Angela was to suffer in the stays from her childhood corsets and flouncy dresses. She failed to become engaged, or to even find a suitor, but she developed a crush on Gwen Farrar, an actress on the West End stage who was notorious for her lesbian pursuits. Her parents, regardless of their theatrical backgrounds, did not approve of the friendship with Gwen, and they put a stop to it. Angela was heartbroken, and in many ways she shared a childish vision of romance with Nancy Mitford, her contemporary. Nancy herself pined for an unsuitable man who was not only gay but treated her badly, and yet she loved him and thought they would marry. This innocence has been attributed to the sheltered upbringing of girls of their generation. Daphne, although younger, believed life as well as love was ‘no fun unless there’s a spark of danger in it’. I think Diana and Decca Mitford certainly agreed with her sentiment.

In an attempt to distract Angela from the business of politics and her ‘unsuitable’ friendship with Gwen Farrar, Gerald suggested she play Wendy Darling in the annual Christmas and New Year performance of Peter Pan at the Adelphi theatre. Nancy would also experience a helping hand on the career ladder when she was given a job at her grandfather’s magazine, The Lady. Angela was undaunted by the task ahead, and although she was an untrained actress the play was so familiar to her that she was word perfect. Gladys Cooper was cast as Peter, and the social world of the theatre appeared to be the tonic she needed. There were rehearsals every day, and parties every night, and Angela was once again in love, this time with Ian Hunter who had been cast as Mr Darling. But the director’s vision of the play did not match Angela’s childhood memories of the story and she clashed with him. After weeks of preparation, she felt nervous and uncertain of herself in the part, and her lisp was intensified and she spoke quickly and forgot her lines. The nepotism on Gerald’s behalf in casting his daughter ahead of classical actresses proved disastrous when, on opening night, she struggled with her wire and flew into the orchestra pit. She was battered and bruised, and embarrassed by the spectacle but, regardless of her personal feelings, she carried on with the show. Although she would never make it as an actress, Angela had somewhat fallen prey to theatrical types and she was conned by a photographer in to posing nude. She was ashamed and upset by the results of her modelling.

As was her wont, Angela retreated back to the family home and into her childhood world. At the age of almost thirty she appeared content to stay at home and write in her diary, and she lived off her yearly allowance of £150. It was the era of the celebrity debutante and her fellow debs, who were now young wives and prominent London hostesses, were serving as muses for painters and photographers alike. Nancy Mitford, too, had succumbed to the alter and married an entirely unsuitable man, but at least she had finally married. Angela had no such luck, or interest. But she played the part of a jolly upper-class girl and Cecil Beaton asked Angela and Daphne to sit for him, and he photographed their blonde heads peering out from behind wineglasses. The surreal composition, though artificial to the untrained and perhaps modern eye, was thought of by Angela as the most flattering portrait ever taken of her.

It would be wrong to portray Angela as a loner, for she had a collection of close female friends whose company she sought. There was a ‘romantic adventure’ with her best friend, Angela Shaw, and her Pekinese, Wendy. They motored in Angela’s MG Midget on their way to the west coast of Scotland and the Isles of Mull and Skye, but this was cut short by a collision in Yorkshire. The car, hurled into a ditch, was so badly damaged it was possible the women and dog survived because of its open top and they were thrown clear. Angela suffered a head injury and was badly concussed, and the rescuers at first thought she was dead. Her first words, when she came to, was to ask about Wendy. Shaw, though conscious, and in agony from a smashed collarbone, resented Angela’s concern for the dog. They were taken to Ripon Cottage Hospital, where they convalesced in a children’s ward, and Wendy was placed in a cot by Angela’s bed. Shaw, high on morphine, cried out that she was at the ‘end of her tether’.

Perhaps a bitter blow to Angela’s confidence was the progression of Daphne. Like Nancy Mitford, her younger sister Diana had triumphed in many areas where she herself had not. Angela was not a natural writer, but she showed a creative flare, and she wrote her first novel A Little Less, which was rejected by publishers. Around this time, Daphne’s debut novel, The Loving Spirit, was published and her great literary career began. With the publication of Daphne’s fourth novel, Jamaica Inn, Angela’s second attempt at fiction, The Perplexed Heart, was accepted by publishers hoping to cash in on the du Maurier name. Eventually her first attempt was published a decade after it was written and it provoked parental outrage when they discovered its theme of a young woman’s love for another. How could sheltered Angela have known of such things? her parents wondered. The publishers’ rejection letters matched the sentiments of the du Mauriers: the lesbian theme was ‘too unpleasant’. And on the romance front Daphne had excelled where Angela did not. She married Sir Frederick Arthur Montague Browning, known as Tommy, and would have three children. Likewise Jeanne became a talented painter, and as with Angela, she did not marry but lived for the rest of her life with a woman. Pamela Mitford would do the same, leading to speculation as to the nature of the relationship with such companions. As with Pamela and her volatile marriage to Derek Jackson, an alpha male, Angela and Jeanne’s difficult dynamic with their father had disillusioned them towards the male sex. Angela’s case was far more complex, she was neither of her parents’ favourite – Daphne was her father’s golden child, and Jeanne, the easy-going baby of the family, was her mother’s pet – and so she was constantly searching for affection and a place to belong.

As she grew older, Angela’s debilitating homesickness left her and she travelled around continental Europe, staying in luxurious hotels. It has also been said that Gerald’s death in 1934, although a great loss for Daphne, had liberated Angela from his put-downs and teasing. She would live with her mother until Muriel’s death in 1957, and be a constant presence in Daphne’s life. The sisters, including Jeanne, might not have been as candid with one another, as say the Mitfords, but they were prolific letter writers. In her later years her common sense and strength of character made Angela the sister they could all rely on. She would outlive both Daphne and Jeanne, dying at the age of ninety-eight in 2002. The landscape of the places she visited, most especially western Ireland, had become embedded in her imagination and in her work. She continued to write, whether her novels were well received or not, and in her lifetime she published eleven works of fiction and two autobiographies. Friends warned her to censor her life, thinking she was (surprisingly) too advanced for the modern reader. She heeded their warning, and censor it she did though it was far from dull. Having plucked up the courage to live the life she dreamed of in the nursery, Angela would never entirely shed the insecurities of her youth, but she bravely took the reigns of her destiny. Her best-known book, an autobiography, was inspired by those who diminished her work in favour of Daphne’s. Its title, Only the Sister, verifies just that. But she was so much more…

41iwc2altbl

Available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Beaten by Beaton: Doris Delevingne and Her Love Affair With Cecil Beaton

41keljbpdnl

The year was 1932 and the name Doris Delevingne, or rather, the title of Lady Castlerosse, was synonymous with scandal and debauchery. She had outgrown her marriage to Viscount Castlerosse, the portly gossip writer for the Sunday Express and Lord Beaverbrook’s employee and stooge. Having married in 1928, before the Roaring Twenties ended not with a whimper but a bang, due to the Wall Street Crash and economical depression which followed, the warring Castlerosses were yet to divorce. Although Castlerosse had tried, Doris could not play by the rules, and so their divorce case would drag on for a decade. A powerful but penniless man, the journalistic viscount had all of London on his side, and Doris was something of an outcast. But she had one ally, in the form of Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, the eccentric 14th Baron Berners, who was seventeen years her senior. His estate, Faringdon House, in the market town of Oxfordshire, was a haven for social pariahs. With the tension mounting between herself and Castlerosse, Doris came to look on Faringdon as a second home. Also residing there was Gerald’s long-term lover and heir, Robert Heber-Percy, known as ‘Mad Boy’, who was thirty years his junior. Not in the least effeminate or camp, Doris thought Mad Boy was entirely heterosexual and, when they were formally introduced, she asked with total sincerity whether or not they had slept together, as she could not seem to remember.

Carrying a torch for Doris, Gerald was ready to leap to her defence when others spoke badly of her latest hijinks. Taking her place on the sofa and with Gerald behind the piano, it was the custom routine for Doris to say, ‘Let’s dish the dirt!’ and he would listen to her tales of rascality. After exchanging society gossip, she spoke of her dwindling finances and he offered his financial support. Acknowledging his kindness, she kissed him on the lips and said: ‘Dear Gerald, anything you could do wouldn’t last me two days’. More than a friend, she would serve as a muse and he would include Doris in his farcical novel, The Girls of Radcliff Hall, which included characters inspired by Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel and Peter Watson. She was the only female to feature in the story and, ironically, her character was a male. She was the dancing master, Mr Vivian Dorrick, an oversexed gentleman who was ‘no novice in the art of lovemaking…his personality was veiled, to a certain extent, in mystery’. Gerald wrote the novel while staying at his Roman villa with Diana Mitford, and it was privately published for his friends. Doris laughed at the portrayal, but Beaton did not, and he attempted to and succeeded in destroying almost every copy.

It was at Faringdon where Cecil Beaton had first met Doris, who arrived in her chauffeur driven Phantom Rolls Royce with several trunks bearing a viscountess’s coronet. She carried with her a heavy box containing the precious Cartier jewels she had collected from her various rich lovers over the years. With his spectacular eye for detail, Beaton noticed Doris’s slender legs and he admired her ‘Giselle-like ankles’; her exquisite clothes – suits and dresses – were from Worth and Reville, and she continued to shun skirts in favour of tailored shorts – a daring choice – to display her best features. A Bright Young Thing, Beaton moved at the centre of this set, photographing mischievous young aristocrats, and as the 1930s advanced his status was further elevated when he photographed Queen Elizabeth. But Beaton did not confine his lens to the Court; he worked for Vogue, photographing models, film stars and New York socialites, which ultimately boosted his standing across the Atlantic. The professional merits were many, but his love life stalled. Peter Watson, a wealthy young man who, along with Cyril Connolly, would later co-found the literary magazine Horizon, was the subject of his infatuation. However Watson was not attainable to Beaton, for he was in love with Oliver Messel. And, moving on from Messel, he attached himself to Mad Boy. In an attempt to avert Beaton’s passion, Watson dismissively told him: ‘I’d be delighted if you had an affair.’ Beaton took this advice but, surprisingly, it was not another young man to whom he diverted his attention.

In August, Doris travelled to Venice where she stayed for a fortnight at the Villa Foscari, known as ‘La Malcontenta’, its name derived from the spouse of one of the Foscaris who was imprisoned in the house because she would not fulfill her conjugal duty. The villa was owned by the Baroness d’Erlanger, whose guests for the fortnight included Sir Oswald Mosley, who had since founded the British Union of Fascists, and his wife, Cimmie; Emerald Cunard and her lover, Sir Thomas Beecham; Lady Diana and Duff Cooper; Randolph Churchill; Brendan Bracken; and Tilly Losch, who was estranged from her husband, Edward James. It was a louche circle of wealthy revellers who were interconnected by society marriages and, more than anything, illicit love affairs. Diana and Bryan Guinness joined this set on the Lido, verifying the truth behind the rumours sweeping through high society that she was having an affair with Mosley. There, Watson’s suggestion of an affair came to fruition when Beaton looked to Doris with the hope of making him jealous. But it was not Beaton who made the first move. And, perhaps, owing to his homosexuality he never would have approached Doris in the first place. She took the initiative and, planning her seduction of Beaton, she scattered tuberose – ‘the most carnal of scents’ – on his bed. Beaton adored attention, and he responded to the flattery she paid him. Doris herself refused to believe his sexual orientation would pose a problem, and she told him: ‘There’s no such thing as an impotent man, just an incompetent woman.’ To ease Beaton’s reluctance in going to bed with her, she assured him he ‘wouldn’t have to do a thing’, and she advised him to ‘think of your sister’s wedding’.

The affair was not confined to Venice, and when they returned to London, Doris and Beaton often stayed at Faringdon. Guests, eager to judge if the affair had been farce, crept to the lovers’ bedroom door and were further astonished when they overheard Beaton squealing: ‘Oh goody, goody, goody!’ The droll antics continued when Beaton threw a party, and the guests were ordered to dress as their opposite. For this, Doris came as a nun. There was also a circus-themed party which Doris and Beaton attended with Lady Diana and Duff Cooper, Chips Channon, Nancy Mitford, and Daphne Weymouth. Doris – along with Nancy, Daphne and Beaton – dressed as an eighteenth-century equestrian, and Beaton chased her with a whip. They were photographed for Tatler, and Doris commented: ‘We all look very drunk, I think.’

However, when she joined Beaton at Ashcombe, his Georgian manor house in Wiltshire which he had taken a fifteen year lease on in 1930, the reception was not as welcoming as it had been at Faringdon. She was shunned by Beaton’s friend, the ageing writer Edith Olivier, who was enraged by this ‘common little demi-mondaine’ attaching herself to him. Edith recalled how she and Lady Ottoline Morrell were invited to lunch by Beaton, who claimed he was ‘alone with Gerald’. When they arrived they found him sitting in the courtyard, with Gerald painting a portrait of Doris, who was sitting on a mattress, her legs on show in a pair of shorts. This confirmed to Edith that the rumours she had heard were true. ‘It is a liaison between the two. “We” always includes her. It makes me feel I can never go there again,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘Why should one put oneself out for her?’ Lady Ottoline acidly noted that Mrs Keppel, at least, was ‘on the grand scale – a king’s mistress’. Doris, Edith bemoaned, ‘is nothing but a woman with a physical attraction which she exploits in a mercenary way’.

Doris defended her affair with Beaton, though she did not admit to the financial awards in which she hoped he would lavish her with – his salary from Condé Nast alone was $12,000 per annum. She was far more forthright in her confession: she claimed she was sleeping with Beaton for his own benefit. In an age when homosexuality was illegal, Doris maintained that she was merely trying to cure him of his sexual persuasion. But, in truth, this ran deeper than money; she had developed a deep and complex passion for him, and in turn he repeatedly warned her that he was ‘terribly homosexualist’. In his diary, Beaton wrote: ‘Peter loves people that are not in love with him and I in my turn am now worshipped and adored by Doritizins [his pet name for Doris] for whom I hold no emotion whatsoever. It seems so terribly unfair that there cannot be a great straightening out and saving of waste.’ In person, however, he played along with her, ‘if only to soothe the ache produced by years of rejection’ by Peter Watson. He went to bed with her ‘in desperation’, and he chastised himself when he realised he ‘could be so celestial with the bedfellow I love’. Although Watson had encouraged Beaton to have an affair, he did not imagine that it would have been with Doris, whom he loathed. It backfired on Beaton, and Peter, ‘so incensed’ by his ‘relationship with Doritizins,’ became ‘so bitter’ and refused to see him.

News of Doris and Beaton’s affair reached Castlerosse, and adopting the view of their contemporaries, he thought it a joke. On one of his outings to a London restaurant, Castlerosse spied his wife dining with Beaton and, turning to his companion, he quipped: ‘I never knew Doris was a lesbian.’ This extramarital affair did little to stir him, and he added Beaton’s name to his growing list of evidence for his much sought-after divorce. In March 1933, a deed of separation was entered into between Doris and Castlerosse, with no financial clauses. They had, for some time, maintained separate abodes, and the legal confirmation of their status was of little consequence to either of them. A month prior, a man had arrived to subpoena Beaton, who had been listed as evidence in their divorce petition. But, he was in New York and thus narrowly avoided being drawn into the lengthy saga.

With Beaton in New York, Doris was momentarily reunited with her old flame, Sir Alfred Beit, but she was more than he could handle and he broke off the affair. He was looking for the stability of marriage and someone with whom he could share his passion for art and philanthropy, and although Doris was in the process of divorcing Castlerosse, she was not the type of wife he sought. He would later marry Clementine Freeman-Mitford, a first cousin of the Mitford girls. To escape Doris, he fled to South Africa ‘to cool down’, for it was only with a great distance between them that he felt safe from her preying clutches. Diana Vreeland, who ran a lingerie shop near Berkeley Square, was friendly with both Doris and Beaton, and she repeated the familiar bon mot that circulated London society at the time: ‘Beaten by Beaton and bitten by Beit.’

Beaton returned from America, and they restored their old routine of lunching at the Ritz Hotel. On one occasion, he and Doris dined with Elsie Mendl and her companion, Johnnie McMullin, the social columnist and fashion editor of Vogue. During their luncheon, Elsie exclaimed, ‘I love whores!’ Doris responded by yelling, ‘What about homosexuality?’ The question was a veiled jibe at Beaton, whose diary she had read. She was still reeling from the shock of learning about his love for Peter Watson. However, aside from the confession in his diary, Beaton harboured another secret which he kept from Doris. He had met a rich American, William Odom, and he invited Beaton on a European tour, all expenses paid. This balancing act of a faux romance with Doris and attaching himself to Odom for self-gain was an ‘exciting game’ to him, and he admitted: ‘I am always fond of anyone who is fond of me.’ Gradually, as she realised the true nature of Beaton’s feelings, Doris detached herself from him. Though, she continued to enjoy his company and appeared good natured about his departure with Odom. She joined Beaton in Paris, where he had callously abandoned his American admirer on the grounds that he was not cultured enough for his cultivated tastes. They went to the ballet with Daisy Fellowes, who was working for the French Harper’s Bazaar in her short-lived position as editor of the magazine. And they mingled with the artist Pavel Tchelitchew, famous in Paris but relatively unknown in London, the poet Edith Sitwell, and the photographer Horst P. Horst, whom Beaton viewed as a rival.

With Doris’s arrival, Beaton declared he had become the ‘envy of the city’; her appearance marked a ‘great sex interlude’ in which he became ‘a peacock and felt so self-assured and even beautiful’. The revelation of Beaton’s diary and, now, the belief that she had become a pawn in his game for self-promotion, conspired to upset Doris. He felt sad that she had suffered for his vanity, but he was not sorry because ‘being the loved one does me good morally’. Doris returned to London and Watson arrived in Paris, and she found herself usurped by the object of Beaton’s affection. But Watson did not reciprocate his feelings, and Beaton wept ‘in a taxi’ and ‘in the bright sunlight of the Ritz bar’.

When they returned to England, Beaton continued to string Doris along. His brother, Reggie, died on 18 October after he was hit by a tube train at Piccadilly Circus underground station. The driver told the inquest that Reggie had held out his hands in front of him and dived under the approaching train. It was believed to be suicide. Beaton heard the news after he had dropped Doris home from a dinner party given by Sybil Colefax for the American socialite, Mona Harrison Williams. His friends were sympathetic, though Beaton remained oddly unmoved by the death. Doris invited him to dinner at Ciros, but he felt it was too soon to be seen socially after Reggie’s demise.

The affair with Beaton fizzled out when he abandoned Doris after realising Peter Watson was not jealous and had become friends with her. They both formed a close bond after Beaton had ‘shoved them away’, though Watson did not shirk from firing the occasional acid remark in her direction. As Doris had displayed with her attachment to Beaton, she did not believe a person’s sexuality stood in the way of romantic love, regardless if they were compatible or not. She had no scruples when it came to sex, for she used it as a ploy to get what she wanted. It was, to her, a means of survival and a way to fund a lifestyle that had become such a way of life that she saw no alternative. To live within her means was foreign to her, and without her materialistic things she felt lost and without a purpose. So, when Castlerosse commented, ‘I never knew Doris was a lesbian,’ he was honest in his observation. However, as time would tell, there was more than a fragment of truth in his statement.

The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne is published by The History Press. Click here to pre-order a copy. This edited extract was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV.

Further Reading

Cecil Beaton: The Authorized Biography by Hugo Vickers

The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff

Castlerosse by Leonard Mosley

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

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!)

 

The Mitford Society’s Festive Reads, Part One

A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

22929586

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

 

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

25536928

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

 

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

23620455

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

 

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester

25806102

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

 

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

51kyH7Mx6bL

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

 

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

22911001

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

 

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

24325319

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

 

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

18759942

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

 

The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

25706787

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

 

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

81zQSo9cZ8L

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

 

The Mitford Society: Vol. III

51Be3wrADwL

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

Mrs Guinness & Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh had made up his mind to dislike Diana Guinness, the third-born and most beautiful of the six Mitford girls. As the young wife of the brewing scion Bryan Guinness, Diana had already established herself as a dazzling society hostess. She was the epitome of what Evelyn (at that time) despised: rich, frivolous and, as he privately imagined, not very bright.

During Evelyn’s years of friendship with Nancy Mitford, Diana had become a phantom presence in his life. He had read about her antics in popular magazines of the day: Tatler, Bystander and The Sketch, and he did not fail to recognise that her celebrity was in ascent – a dizzying element for a girl who had spent her childhood as the scapegoat for Nancy’s teases and vitriolic putdowns. Evelyn himself was plotting his own coup-de-main in the form of a novel that would parody Diana and her disciples.

Knowing of Evelyn’s desire to witness this set first hand, Nancy invited him and his wife, Evelyn Gardner (they went by the monickers of He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn), to Diana’s tropical party on board the Friendship, a riverboat permanently moored at Charing Cross Pier. Out of place in the gaiety of the Friendship, Evelyn observed the misbehaving guests dressed in Zulu costumes and in sarongs, as ordinary commuters scurried along the embankment to catch the last train home. From this first evening with Diana, Evelyn felt he had gained substantial material for his novel. But, most importantly, he had achieved his ambition of catching snippets of how the Bright Young Things spoke – “too, too divine”, “utterly sick-making”, etcetera. The bonus, of which, was hearing Diana’s “Mitford Voice” in person with its swooping intonations, the shrillness of her laughter and the private language she and Nancy indulged in. To Evelyn’s astonishment – and his horror – he found himself captivated by her.

If, at the age of nineteen, Diana was prone to immaturity her generosity more than made up for this juvenile streak. Since the abandonment of She-Evelyn two days after the celebrated Tropical Party, Evelyn was consumed by the breakup of his marriage. And his depressed demeanour, exasperated by the need to stay at his parents’ house in Hampstead, was proving to be a distraction to his writing. So, Diana offered him the solitude of Poole Place, the Guinness family’s seaside home in Climping, Sussex, as an ideal retreat to finish his novel.

Warned by Diana of its “ugliness”, Evelyn set forth to Poole Place in late autumn, undeterred by the freezing coastal winds and the noisy ferocity of the English Channel. Poole Place fascinated him, and he was equally intrigued by the work going on in the nearby fields, where Diana’s mother-in-law, Lady Evelyn, was constructing her vision of a Medieval house. She wanted gnarled trees for the newly built house to nestle in, and they were bought and transferred from afar, carefully replanted in the best soil, bound together in straightjackets of thick straw and tied down with great cables and pegs. The architect, Mr. Phillips, obeyed Lady Evelyn’s strict orders, and he imported squirrels and field mice to give the new trees a touch of authenticity. Eccentricity tickled Evelyn, and the sight of armies of men, lorries and cranes required for the trees was no exception.

When Diana and Bryan motored down to Poole Place to visit Evelyn, he insisted on being driven over to Bramber to see the museum curated by a “disgusting clergyman” who had killed and stuffed tiny animals, modelling them into a variety of bizarre poses, such as a kitten pushing a guinea pig in a pram. Always a lover of animals, it made Diana feel sick, but Evelyn seemed to enjoy the grotesque spectacle. Upon observing his taste for the macabre, she said, “There was sometimes menace in his brilliant eyes.”

The friendship with Diana was formed before Evelyn’s conversion to Catholicism, an act which baffled those closest to him. He must have spoken to Diana about his interest in religion, for she remarked to Lord Berners: “Evelyn prays for me.” The phrase struck a chord of ridiculousness, prompting Berners to scoff: “God doesn’t listen to Evelyn.” At this point in their friendship, Evelyn could see no fault in Diana, and if she was prone to a waspish remark, he did not take it to heart.

In the summer of 1929, Diana was expecting her first baby, and in the cheerful company of Evelyn and Nancy, the Guinnesses set forth to their flat in Paris, where Diana would begin her dreaded confinement. Although Evelyn confessed to feeling shattered by the unexpected ending of his relatively short marriage, Diana sensed that he showed no signs of heartbreak. He cavorted around the Rue de Poitiers in high spirits, enchanting her with witty stories and doing all he could to keep her entertained.

Inside the flat, Diana relaxed in the quiet splendour of watching Bryan, Evelyn and Nancy work on their manuscripts. Evelyn was struggling to meet his deadline for his travel book, Labels. Bryan was composing Singing Out of Tune, the plot inspired by the failed marriage of the Waughs. And Nancy worked on her first novel, Highland Fling. In her fifth month of pregnancy and overcome with fatigue, Diana spent most of her time in bed, reading their work and dispensing critique, whether it was required or not. When she felt lonely, Bryan, Evelyn and Nancy moved their writing stations into her bedroom. But it was hardly an ideal setting, as demonstrated by Bryan when he shook his pen so violently that the ink spattered the delicate silk curtains.

When Diana experienced a fleeting burst of energy, Evelyn was ready to fulfill his role of dutiful companion. They went for short walks, drives through the French countryside, and to the cinema. But behind Evelyn’s exuberance, he concealed a deepening love that had been growing since Diana fascinated him at the Tropical Party. Ever a trusting friend, Bryan did not think it strange when Evelyn adopted the odd practice of lying in bed next to Diana during her afternoon naps. And, Diana, on her behalf, thought his attentiveness was strictly platonic. She was touched when Evelyn worried about the birth of the baby – hers being the first pregnancy he had observed. “I don’t know what to say about the imminence of Baby G. Dear Diana it seems all wrong that you should ever have to be at all ill or have a pain.”

In London, the close relationship with Evelyn continued. Diana and Bryan treated him to a birthday luncheon at the Ritz, but as her pregnancy advanced, her social life wilted. With Bryan occupied with his career as a barrister, Diana and Evelyn grew closer, and he succeeded in gaining her undivided attention. It was an unusual set-up for its time, but Diana’s condition made it somewhat acceptable for them to spend so much time alone. Diana had a table installed in her bedroom, and she and Evelyn enjoyed private, though miniscule, supper parties. They went to luncheons at his parents’ house in Hampstead, and took silly little trips to the zoo. All too often, Diana grew bored with the confines of Buckingham Street and she called on Evelyn to accompany her on some “carriage exercise” in her chauffeur driven Daimler.

Some years later, Evelyn drew on this unique experience when he wrote Work Suspended. The narrator falls in love with Lucy, the pregnant wife of his friend, who spent her days “lying in bed in a chaos of newspapers, letters and manicure tools”. It was an age suited to parody, and his imagination smouldered with all sorts of silly manifestations. Still, Evelyn peddled on with his novel, naming it Vile Bodies – the title of which became synonymous with the inter-war foolishness of the Bright Young Things. He finished it in time to present the dedication to Diana and Bryan on Christmas morning: “To B.G and D.G” it read. In return, Diana and Bryan gave him a gold pocket watch.

The following month, Evelyn presented the Guinnesses with the complete manuscript of Vile Bodies, bound in leather with its title stamped in gold. But having discovered that his young friend was quite unlike the protagonist of his novel, he wrote to Diana: “I am now convinced that Vile Bodies is very vulgar and I am sorry for dedicating it to you but I will write many more exalted works and dedicate them to you.” The fictional portrayal of Diana played on his mind, and Evelyn wrote to their mutual friend, Dig Yorke: “She seems the one encouraging figure in this generation – particularly now she is pregnant – a great vat of potentiality like the vats I saw at their brewery.”

Inspired by his plans to stay in Dublin to complete his latest manuscript, a biography of Jonathan Swift (it was never written), Evelyn encouraged Diana to recuperate from the birth of her baby at Knockmaroon, the Guinness family’s country house on the outskirts of Dublin, where they “could have fun”.

On the 16th of March 1930, Jonathan Bryan Guinness was born. Evelyn was touched when Diana and Bryan agreed to his suggestion of Jonathan as a name, and he was further elated when Diana asked him to be godfather to her son. The other godfather, Diana’s cousin Randolph Churchill, became embroiled in a bitter feud with Evelyn – a feud which only ended when death separated the two men.

In early summer, London’s social events were in full swing, and with youthful gaiety, Diana launched herself back on the scene. Bryan had reservations about parties, balls, tea at the Ritz and endless trips to the theatre once again consuming their lives. Evelyn, too, disapproved of her eagerness to indulge in such frivolity, and it caused friction between the two. Like Bryan, he preferred to have Diana all to himself, to sit in a quiet corner where they could talk. But Diana, by her own admission, was “pleasure loving”. Evelyn’s jealously transferred on to Bryan, and he was not happy when Diana began passing over his luncheon invitations in favour of her husband, with whom she dined at the Savoy Grill during his afternoon break from his barrister duties at the Temple.

The former close friends were reunited on Diana’s twentieth birthday that June when Evelyn presented her with a charming Briggs umbrella. However, inspired by his feelings of resentfulness, he recorded in his diary that she broke the umbrella the following day – an untrue account; she cherished it for years until it was stolen. Two weeks later, at a supper party given at Buckingham Street, Evelyn continued with his unusual behaviour. He instigated a fight with Randolph Churchill in the servants’ hall, resulting in both men punching one another until the brawl was broken up. Diary entries written by Evelyn detail the breakdown of his friendship with Diana, and reveal the bitterness which blighted their meetings:

“D and I quarreled at luncheon.”
“D and I quarreled at dinner.”
“Quarreled with D again and left.”

Four days after recording the last event in his diary, Evelyn avoided Diana at Cecil Beaton’s cocktail party. It pained her when he did not lapse into their old, familiar rapport and he simply bid her goodnight and left. Diana must have featured heavily on his mind, for later that evening, Evelyn sent a letter to Buckingham Street. His bad behaviour, he wrote, was due to his unease with himself, and the parting words “don’t bother to answer” left Diana with little doubt as to how she should proceed. His petty behaviour enforced her firm belief that “in friendship there must be neither possessiveness nor jealousy. Either would wreck it”.

Thirty-six years later, a month before his death on the 10th of April 1966, Evelyn offered Diana some closure when he wrote to her, shouldering the blame for the ending of their friendship. He broke it off out of “pure jealousy”, provoked by an infatuation with her. She had shown him kindness and empathy during a turbulent time in his life, and this inspired him to see Diana in a romantic light. She had become the “unobtainable object” of his desires, and even though a sexual relationship was off limits, he wanted her all to himself as an “especial confidante and comrade”. That, as Evelyn told her, was “the sad and sordid truth”. Except for his letter, they never spoke again.

Abridged extract from Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, The Thirties Socialite. Originally printed in 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.

7662f685d9204d98feed1c3451d74a22
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

Mitford_060208113709037_wideweb__300x444

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.