The Girl Who Became Muv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Churchill & The Mitfords: An Excerpt by Thomas Maier

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WHEN LIONS ROAR: The Churchills and the Kennedys by author Thomas Maier makes several references to the Mitfords in recounting the history between these two famous political dynasties. Here is a short excerpt:

By 1938, Winston Churchill realized that Hitler’s charismatic brand of evil had infected not only naïve Americans like Charles Lindbergh but also many Britons, including some in his own family.

During this time, Winston implored his daughter Sarah Churchill to visit Paris instead of Munich because, as she later recalled, he worried that his impressionable daughter “might be swept up in the enthusiasm of Fascism, which is what happened to my cousin, Unity Mitford”.

Unity was one of the well-known Mitfords (cousins on Clementine Churchill’s side of the family), who frequently visited Chartwell in the 1920s. While growing up, Randolph felt “very much in love” with Diana Mitford, another of six remarkable sisters in the family. He also counted their brother, Tom Mitford, as his “greatest friend”, one who became part of Randolph’s crowd of friends at Oxford.

The Mitford girls tended toward the radical end of politics, either communism or right-wing fascist causes, and generally disapproved of Winston’s brand of Tory politics. By the mid-1930s, the pro-Nazi sentiments of Unity Mitford, the fourth-oldest of the six sisters, particularly rankled Winston. During a trip to Germany, Unity became obsessed with Adolf Hitler, and the German leader used his bizarre relationship with this mixed-up young woman for his own twisted purposes.

After the Nazis invaded Austria in March 1938, Unity told Winston how “everyone looked happy & full of hope for the future” in that conquered nation. This misguided relative, blind to the hateful frenzy of the Nazi movement, appalled Winston. “A large majority of the people of Austria loathes the idea of coming under Nazi rule,” he corrected her. “It was because Herr Hitler feared the free expression of opinion that we are compelled to witness the present dastardly outrage.”

The Kennedys became aware of Unity’s dalliance with Hitler primarily through the friendship of Kick and her older brothers with the youngest Mitford sister, Deborah. (However, “Debo”, as her friends called her, didn’t share the extreme politics of her older sister.) During a tour of Germany in August 1939, Joe Kennedy Jr. bumped into Unity in Munich. “Unity Mitford is one of the most unusual women I have ever met,” he wrote back to his father. “She is the most fervent Nazi imaginable and is probably in love with Hitler.”

Eventually, despondent over her beloved Führer, Unity shot herself in the head, a botched suicide attempt that left her impaired for years until she died of infection. But in September 1938, when most British officials wanted to avoid conflict with Germany at almost any cost, Winston believed Unity Mitford was just a more virulent example of the growing number willing to appease Hitler. That same month, Churchill condemned Chamberlain for agreeing with Hitler to a peace pact at Munich, calling it a “disaster of the first magnitude”. The agreement soon opened the door for the Nazis to run roughshod over Czechoslovakia, and left them hungering for more lands to conquer. “We have sustained a defeat without a war,” Churchill thundered in Parliament, “the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road.”

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With The Unseen

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Happy Halloween from The Mitford Society…

An Extract from The Mitford Society Vol. II

The supernatural was a fashionable topic of conversation in postwar society, with sophisticated hostesses sampling tarot cards, Ouija boards and table-tipping to provide an unforgettable party-trick. But, among those who dabbled in the unseen for paltry motives, there were serious followers of the occult. Violet Tweedale, the upper-class author, poet and spiritualist, chronicled her psychic experiences in her memoir Ghosts I Have Seen. She also belonged to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organisation devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activities during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Violet Tweedale

Violet Tweedale

One of the most enthusiastic followers of Tweedale’s work was Jean Skeffington (née Ainsworth), the 12th Viscountess Massereene. Residing in her husband’s family seat, Antrim Castle in Northern Ireland, Lady Massereene thrived on the castle’s ghostly reputation and reported sightings of a servant girl – known by locals as “The White Lady” – and a phantom carriage which was said to recreate its calamitous drive down the estate’s lime tree avenue where it met a watery fate at the bottom of a long canal. A harmless fascination, but in the god-fearing market town of Antrim, her Ladyship’s interests were brushed off as eccentric. However, it was in London that Lady Massereene fully embraced her belief in the supernatural, prompting gossip columnists to refer to her as “one of Mayfair’s most renowned ghost experts”. Statements such as “This summer I vow to go to forty seances” were viewed as beyond the pale to those in possession of a level head. Her husband, the Viscount Massereene, expressed little tolerance to his wife’s eccentricities, and she challenged his patience – not to mention her reputation – when she summoned the police to Antrim Castle to report a missing tiara. The tiara in question, she told them, was lying on the bed of the Six Mile river. How did she know, her husband and the police, questioned. The response was a simple one: she had dreamt it.

Viscountess Massereene

Viscountess Massereene

As much as Violet Tweedale and Lady Massereene spoke of their beliefs in the supernatural with genuine sincerity, there were false mediums springing up all over London as a response to the bereft individuals grieving their loved-ones lost to WWI. They say there is a market for everything, and this certainly rings true in the form of the medium William Hope and his invention of spirit photography. Taking a photograph of a client, he used glass plates and double exposure to make it look as though their dead loved-one was watching over them. Clever for its day, spirit photography serves as an example of the mass commercialism – or accessible commodity – that spiritualism had become.

Spiritual photography: a ghostly apparition appears in a photograph of Rev. Charles and Mrs. Tweedale

Spiritual photography: a ghostly apparition appears in a photograph of Rev. Charles and Mrs. Tweedale

Away from London, in the sleepy Cotswolds village of Oxfordshire, the Mitfords were experiencing their own ghostly experience. Asthall Manor, the family’s gabled Jacobean home built around 1620 was said to be haunted by a poltergeist so active that it tore off a maid’s bedclothes. In the daytime hours, cutlery flew across the scullery, china cups and saucers were hurled from their shelves, water-taps turned on by themselves and windows flew open despite their being locked. When night fell, footsteps could be heard on the paving stones outside, and on close inspection nobody could be seen. Could this have been the workings of the children’s overactive imaginations? Perhaps. The nursery windows overlooked the old graveyard of wool merchants’ graves, and although the children were forbidden to watch the funerals, they always did. Once, Decca and Debo fell into a newly dug grave, and Nancy warned them it meant “bad luck forever”.

 

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Asthall Manor

Farve, Pamela and Diana – the two of his seven children who felt the uneasy presence of the specter – witnessed the phenomena first-hand. They ignored the eerie happenings, pushing it to the back of their minds and refraining from speaking openly about it, lest they conjure it up. Pamela, though, was more than curious to see if the poltergeist did exist, and she told Diana: “We want to do some table turning one night but we are so afraid that Farve might find us at it. That would be awful of course.”

 

Debo carried the tale of the poltergeist with her throughout adulthood. A non-believer in such things, she flippantly dismissed it as “one of those nuisances that accompany teenage girls”, and was happy to be the instigator of ghostly pranks. Knowing of the ghost stories surrounding old, stately homes, she summoned her own make-shift ghoul to terrify some American guests who were staying at Lismore Castle. Mr. Twigg (sec. of the hunt) dressed up in a sheet, a night-cap, chains and carried a lantern. She fixed fishing-wire to the chandelier in the dining room and it shook and rattled, and then Mr. Twigg appeared through the windows. One American woman nearly fainted; she screamed and demanded to leave at once, to go anywhere, even to a hotel. “She was really horror-struck,” Debo recalled. “The joke nearly went too far.” Too far indeed, but Debo was one of the few in her family who did not believe in such things.

 

Superstitions, too, governed Farve’s life to an extent that he would write the name of an enemy on a piece of paper, sometimes slotting it into a matchbox (a makeshift coffin?) and putting it away in a drawer. He believed the person who had vexed him would die within a year. Given that he often carried out this ritual on his many sons-in-law – Sir Oswald Mosley, Peter Rodd and Esmond Romilly, in particular – it is clear that his theory did not work. However, the very mention of “the drawer” was enough to send a chill through the room.

 

After ten years of living at Asthall Manor, the house was promptly put on the market. The family vacated the haunted house for temporary lodgings in Paris. Although financial difficulties inspired his decision to sell the house, the family believe the poltergeist played a significant part. For a sensible, philistine man like Farve, the very mention of a ghost turned his blood cold. Could there have been more than a hint of idle gossip in the existence of the poltergeist? His offspring seemed to think so.

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The Mitford Society’s annual is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as Barnes & Noble

“What to read if you want a taste of a glamorous life…”

I’m absolutely thrilled with the response to my book The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life. The most important thing, to me, is that most readers see it as a massive Mitford tease! Here is a lovely review which I happened to stumble upon from Optima Magazine:

Before the wannabes of Made in Chelsea, before Paris Hilton and Jackie O, there were the Mitford sisters. To this day their names are synonymous with the word socialite; women who lived wild, rebellious and often shocking lives. Dubbed Bright Young Things by the tabloids in the 1920s, they were the subject of endless gossip.

Nancy, the eldest, was a novelist, the author of Love in a Cold Climate. Although her personal life was complex – her first husband was an unrepentant philanderer – her scandals were nothing compared to those of her sisters. Diana married British fascist Oswald Mosley and even after a spell in prison remained loyal to Adolf Hitler, while Unity developed a close friendship with the Nazi leader and attempted suicide days after war broke out. Meanwhile Jessica eloped during the Spanish Civil War and became a passionate communist.

Leaving aside their questionable views, there is no denying that the Mitfords were the toasts of the social scene. In this book (a fun alternative to Pippa’s party tips), Lyndsy Spence, who runs the online community The Mitford Society, offers ‘a Mitford A-Z for modern life’. These really were women who knew how to be talked about.