The Muse: Diana Mitford and Paul César Helleu

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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

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A Dangerous Devotion: Venetia Montagu

The following is an edited extract from These Great Ladies (pub. The Mitford Society, £9.99)

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History remembers Venetia Stanley, later Montagu, as a temptress in the Cabinet of Herbert Henry Asquith (known as Henry), Britain’s wartime Prime Minister. From 1912 until 1915 she was, with the exception of his wife Margot, the only woman in England to know his political secrets, and this gave her unreserved power. As the best friend of Henry’s daughter, Violet, she was therefore a significant presence within the Asquith home, and in the platonic marriage of Henry and Margot.

In any era, especially one of political uncertainty and social upheaval, the friendship between the twenty-five-year-old Venetia and the sixty-year-old Prime Minister was a dangerous subject. Adding to this tangled web was Venetia’s closeness to Violet, which many thought verged on lesbianism. Their impassioned letters spoke of their longing to be with one another: ‘I can think of nothing but you at every instant’; ‘Don’t stop loving me’; ‘I do want you SO much’.

There was also the close bond between Violet and Henry, which ousted Margot at every given opportunity, and she had once bemoaned that, during her long marriage to Henry, they had only spent six weeks together. Violet was possessive of her father, and since the age of four she had slept in his bedroom after the death of her mother. Presumably, Violet condoned his interest in Venetia because it caused Margot considerable worry. And behind the scenes at Downing Street there was the topic of rivalry. This came not only from Margot, who felt threatened by Venetia and was jealous of her stepdaughter Violet, but from the unsettling knowledge that Henry’s private secretary, Edwin Montagu, was in love with Venetia, and another, Maurice Bonham Carter, with Violet.

As the most powerful man in Britain, with the exception of King George V, Henry wielded his authority. And, amid his diary being filled with government business and Cabinet meetings, he reserved each Friday for drives with Venetia. It was a bitter pill, not only for Margot, but for his closest advisers who oiled the wheels of his propaganda machine. While young men were being slaughtered on the battlefields of France, Henry was falling in love. This love affair had been simmering for years, ever since Venetia had met Violet during their debutante season. A frequent guest at the Asquiths home and having accompanied Violet on holidays with her father, Henry recalled with crystal clarity the moment his avuncular feelings turned to love. They had been sitting in the dining room, chatting and laughing, when ‘in a single instant, without premonition on my part or any challenge on hers, the scales dropped from my eyes: the familiar features and smile and gestures and words assumed an absolutely new perspective; what had been completely hidden from me was in a flash half-revealed’.

In Conspiracy of Secrets, a book written by Bobbie Neate, the author suspects that her stepfather was the product of Venetia and Henry’s affair. The theories, although at first glance appear outlandish, are backed up with various snippets of evidence. She wrote that Venetia had been confined to the family home and was said to be ill with jaundice, and that letters written by her during this time reveal that she was suffering from a lengthier illness. The author believed this to be pregnancy, and Venetia was therefore adhering to the appropriate confinement before and after the birth. Neate explained that the baby, her stepfather, was given to a foster family, arranged by Venetia’s parents, and that he was possibly the second child born to Venetia and Henry.

Those who knew Henry were aware that he often took an interest in Violet’s friends. A flunky was surprised when he found Henry playing musical chairs with Violet and a group of young girls, one being Venetia. He was known to correspond with them and to consider such young women as companions. Margot herself referred to it as his ‘little Harem’, and his contemporaries dismissed him as a ‘notorious groper’. Lady Diana Cooper, then Manners, was a member of his inner-circle, and even she suspected his feelings for Venetia ran deeper than friendship.

But Venetia was different from the other girls, and her appeal lay in the steadying effect which she had on him during the years of political unrest: Irish Home Rule, the Suffragette movement, the rise of the Labour Party, and the First World War. It was rumoured that, on the eve of Britain entering the war, Henry was not only on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but he was feeling suicidal. Apparently Venetia had lifted his spirits, encouraged his sobriety (political opponents nicknamed him ‘Squiffy’ because of his fondness for alcohol), and was a calming influence during those troubling times. And, unlike the gossiping Margot, she could keep a secret, even political ones. He was known to write to her during debates in the House of Commons and, on occasions, in Cabinet meetings. Amid his romantic prose, he offered her tidbits of his daily life: he spoke of a fretful king regarding the issue of Irish Home Rule; he wondered if he should create a new office for David Lloyd George; and he asked her opinion of a young Winston Churchill, an early boyfriend of Violet’s. All of which, he promised not to act until she had given him her response. Once he postponed a meeting with King George because a letter from Venetia had arrived, and his reading and responding to it took priority over the Crown.

It appeared Margot had suspected for several years, as far back as 1912, that Henry’s roving eye had been caught by Venetia. Tall, dark and handsome, and with ‘a gruff baritone voice’ – the description in which she had been described – Venetia had a masculine energy and a steely self-assurance that came with her background as the daughter of a rich baronet. As the youngest of seven children, she was spoiled, and her behaviour was established early on. A prankster, she was known for her outlandish displays in public, and on one occasion, during a christening, she spoke in a loud voice about ‘drowning the little gorilla’. Home was Alderley Park in Cheshire, with a menagerie of animals including a pet monkey which slept on top of the bookcases or pelmets and dropped on unsuspecting guests, and a bear cub who roamed around the grounds and pounded on doors. Her father, Edward Stanley, a Liberal politician was the heir to three baronies (Alderley, Sheffield, and Eddisbury), and she was a distant cousin of the Mitford girls who, a decade or so later, would run amok through high society. Above all else, she was single-minded and snapped her fingers at the morals of the day. She did not think a chaperone was necessary, she declined several marriage proposals, and, more importantly, she was not threatened by Margot.

If anything, Venetia emphasised the lack of poison in Margot’s venomous bite. Margot herself had confided to her stepson’s wife that Edward Stanley was not Venetia’s biological father and she had been the product of an affair between her mother and the 9th Earl of Carlisle. A jealous woman whose beauty had been obscured in her early twenties by a broken nose, she was reed thin with dark brown hair and was often painted with a crooked mouth, displaying her intolerance. She made enemies, and such feuds were usually the figment of her own imagination and meddling. Oscar Wilde’s former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote a poem in which he referred to her as ‘Merry Margot, bound with lesbian fillets’. And, during Venetia’s spell over Henry, Margot turned her frustration towards Clementine Hozier, for having, as she viewed it, stolen Winston Churchill from Violet.

Venetia herself was privy to Violet’s supposed heartbreak, and it was said that she had tried to commit suicide upon hearing the news of his engagement to Clementine. They were at Slains Castle, in Scotland, when Churchill had broken the news. Violet retaliated by running away, and it was announced she had gone missing along the rocky coastline. Venetia, sensing something was afoot (or having been a part of it), had burst into the drawing room to deliver the news that Violet was in danger. Henry was convinced she had fallen to her death, and Churchill himself considered calling off his engagement. For hours the servants and guests trekked along the rocks, carrying fire torches and calling out, ‘Violet, Violet.’ The press reported that she had slipped on the rocks and had hit her head, thus explaining her faux vanishing act. Margot held the view that Violet, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, had staged the incident, and she would refer to it as: ‘This unfortunate, foolish and most dangerous escapade.’

Although the feud was between Violet and Clementine, Margot’s feelings about the marriage gave Venetia, a cousin of Clementine’s, some clout. Margot dismissed Clementine as having no brains and accused her of being ‘mad’, no doubt this was a jibe at Clementine’s often precarious mental health. But Venetia argued that her cousin was sane to the point of dreariness. Regardless of their dim view of the new Mrs Churchill, Venetia was armed with the knowledge that Margot was emotionally unstable, and she knew of the chinks in her armor. The biggest insecurity in Margot’s life was the doctor’s orders that she must ‘close the bedroom door’ to Henry, indefinitely, due to having risked her life throughout her five pregnancies, in which only two children had lived. Hence Venetia’s presence, and her husband’s preoccupation with this young woman, meant more than an idle fancy.

There were striking similarities, not only in looks but in intellect, between Venetia and Margot which, undoubtedly, Henry found attractive. Margot came from the Anglo-Scottish Tennant family and, like Venetia and Violet, in her youth she had an inseparable companion in her sister, Laura. The two girls entered society together and had belonged to a set known as the Souls, a pre-war group of intellectuals whose main objective was to form a salon where they could meet without arguing about politics. The Souls abhorred hedonistic pursuits, such as violence, alcoholism and adultery, and they regarded the arts as, above all else, the most important thing in life. However when Laura married Alfred Lyttleton in 1885, Margot thought her life was over, and this was intensified by Laura’s death a year later following the birth of her only child. Margot never recovered from the death of her sister and closest friend, and as a result she began to suffer from chronic insomnia, which plagued her for the rest of her life. Venetia and Violet moved at the centre of the Coterie, a group of intellectuals who were the offspring of the Souls, but whose recreational habits were frowned upon. Nicknamed the ‘Corrupt Coterie’, they drank and smoked in an age when it was frowned upon for a woman to do either, and they took drugs which were easily obtainable through a chemist. Morphine and varieties of opiates were often the drug of choice, as was cocaine.

By 1915, Venetia had begun to receive two or three letters a day from Henry. Unfortunately her responses do not survive. Although the first political topic he had discussed with her was the economic budget, the correspondence began in earnest in August 1914 with France’s involvement in the war. Lord Kitchener had sent a telegram to Henry, containing military information, and Henry immediately enclosed it in his letter to Venetia. He spoke of inventing a code which they could use when corresponding by telegram, and he told her he wanted her to know what was happening across the Channel, before anyone else.
Undoubtedly this made Margot feel as though she was being usurped in her role as chief confidante to her husband. ‘My fondness for Venetia has never interfered and never could with our relationship,’ he wrote to Margot. Margot, however, was convinced Venetia was ‘teaching Henry to avoid telling [her] things’.

This loyalty and trust he felt for Venetia had been inspired by tragedy when, in 1909, Violet’s admirer, Archie Gordon, the son of Lord and Lady Aberdeen, had been injured in a motorcar accident. He had been hospitalised, after which he lived for twenty days, with Violet presiding at his bedside during his final hours. They announced their engagement, and Venetia was on hand for moral support. Violet recorded their last conversation in her diary, writing that Gordon said: ‘Venetia will nearly have to live with us, won’t she?’ And, then, he asked Venetia to kiss him.

During Henry’s dependency on Venetia, she was being pursued by another man. Edwin Montagu, Henry’s private secretary, had been in love with her since their first meeting in 1911 and had, on various occasions, proposed marriage. Despite her turning him down, he continued to accompany Henry, Violet and Venetia on their holidays, and on one particular trip they went to Scilly. They played hide and seek in the garden with Edwin, whom Violet thought was ‘the best person in the world to play it with’ and she wrote in her diary that he was ‘so frightened and so frightening’. Around this period, Henry and Violet visited Venetia’s family home, and the press failed to pin any significance to the visit, or to their friendship, and he was photographed with Venetia’s pet penguin. It was believed that Venetia’s mother was unhappy with the devotion the prime minister was showing to her daughter, and she encouraged Edwin’s pursuit.

In the years that Edwin had known Venetia, she did not hide the fact that she was stringing him along. This did little to quell his infatuation, and through time Venetia began to view him as a potential husband. This apparent change of heart occurred on her twenty-sixth birthday, which marked a watershed moment in her life. For, in those days, it would have been considered a comparatively late age for a woman to marry. She was reluctant to acknowledge her birthday, and wrote to Edwin that she hoped her future would be filled with ‘permanent fun’.

With his inheritance, Edwin could offer her all the ‘fun’ she desired, and it would grant her the freedom to continue her unconventional behaviour. And so, after years of refusing his proposals, she agreed to marry him. But she made it clear to Edwin that, not only did she find him unattractive, she did not love him and had apparently warned him that their marriage would be a celibate one. Edwin himself had agreed to such terms, perhaps he did not believe Venetia’s stipulations and imagined that, once they were married, he would take charge of their relationship. This was not to be, and from all accounts he was devoted to her, and she walked all over him.

The news of Venetia’s engagement was badly received by Henry. ‘This breaks my heart,’ he wrote in a letter on the day she had told him. She responded with only one word, which caused him further anguish, and he implored her to write to him. She did, and sent him a ‘most revealing and heart rendering letter’. It appeared they had a disagreement, recorded in their letters, for Henry declared her response as ‘terrible . . . No hell can be as bad’. Perhaps Venetia had suggested they refrain from writing to one another, owing to his feelings about the engagement, for he called their mutual silence ‘cruel and unnatural’. He was glad when they resumed their correspondence after ‘two most miserable days of my life’. Violet was equally disturbed by the news, and she wrote in her diary that the thought of Venetia marrying Edwin ‘filled [her] with horror”. She then listed the reasons for this ‘horror’ and spoke of his ‘physical repulsiveness . . . the thought of any erotic amenities with him is enough to freeze one’s blood’.

Despite Venetia’s mother thinking Edwin would serve as a welcomed distraction from Henry, she, along with her husband, were alarmed by their daughter’s conversion to Judaism. This undertaking was done on behalf of Venetia for materialistic gain, rather than religious reasons. Her late father-in-law had made stipulations in his will, stating that Edwin could only inherit his millions if he were to marry a bride of the Jewish faith. Marrying a Christian would have seen Venetia and Edwin living in reduced circumstances, and so it made sense to her, a shrewd character, to convert.

Henry voiced his disapproval, and he sent a poem to her in which he described her as a ‘Christian child’ who had been ‘too easily beguiled’ by the ‘silken tents of Shem’.¹⁹ The silken tent was a reference to the nickname Venetia and Henry had given Edwin’s lavish family home at 24 Queen Anne’s Gate in London. There were antisemitic undertones, too, as Jews were said to have descended from Shem. His openly expressing such views was deemed acceptable in not only that period but in his class. Venetia’s parents also held a similar disdain for Judaism. Marrying Edwin was one thing, but converting to his faith was another.

Prior to Venetia confirming her engagement to Edwin, Henry suspected something was afoot and he sensed her attention, when responding to his letters, was being spent elsewhere. He warned her not to fail him, for that would precipitate his complete collapse, not only emotionally but politically too. ‘Will you still be the same in 1915?’ he had asked. It is therefore poignant that her letter, containing the details of her engagement, arrived on the day he received the worst press of his political career. And then, feeling as though he had lost his element of stability, his thoughts turned to betrayal. Not only had Venetia betrayed him, but Edwin had too, for he had confided in him his love for Venetia. Henry wrote to Venetia’s sister, Sylvia: ‘I don’t believe there are two living people who each in their separable ways are more devoted to me than she and Montagu: it is the irony that they should deal a death-blow to me.’ Margot had also used Edwin as something of a confidante, years before, in the early days of Henry’s writing to Venetia. She expressed to him her opinion of Venetia, claiming she was a young woman with an immoral outlook, and she said: ‘How I loathe girls who can’t love but claim and collect like a cuckoo for their own vanity.’

Adopting an unorthodox view of marriage, Venetia suggested a prenuptial agreement to Edwin, and they both agreed that she could have affairs with others. He could too, but his love for Venetia prevented him from doing so in those early days, or at least from flaunting them so openly. Although, to a certain extent, she was granted freedom she was reluctant to continue with her plan to marry Edwin. Aside from his religion, his physical appearance came under scrutiny from her closest friends and she worried they would give her up in ‘disgust’. Her friends loyalty was important to Venetia, for her own family, especially her elderly father, had disapproved of her conversion to Judaism. To quote Venetia, her parents ‘boycotted’ both herself and Edwin.

Violet, too, refused to accept Venetia’s decision, and she accused Edwin of blackmailing Venetia into converting. She thought him manipulative, and instrumental in (potentially) ruining Venetia’s reputation, both socially and within her family circle. Edwin resented Violet’s words, and he forwarded her letter on to Venetia. But Venetia misread the criticism as concern for the step she was taking, and she thought Violet ultimately approved. Margot however, did approve of the marriage and she encouraged Violet to refrain from teasing Venetia. Her motives were clear: she was glad Venetia would have a distraction and would be too busy devoting herself to Edwin’s promising political career to give Henry much thought.

With Venetia’s brother’s encouragement, her parents began to come round to the idea of her marrying Edwin. Although they did not accept her decision to convert to Judaism, they realised that Venetia, now aged twenty-eight, and with no suitors other than a married prime minister forty years her senior, would finally settle down. But her extended family remained unconvinced and they accused Venetia of ‘turning Jewish for the sake of £8,000 a year’.

Before the wedding took place, and in the interim of Venetia’s official conversion, she accepted a voluntary nursing post at an army hospital in France, tending to the wounded and dying soldiers. It had been rumoured that, during Venetia’s short stint at a London hospital the year before, Henry did not bid farewell to his son who was leaving for the Front. He had more important matters to deal with: he had gone to the hospital to catch a glimpse of Venetia in her nurse’s uniform.

During her time at the French hospital, in 1915, her letters to Edwin lacked any mention of the conflict surrounding her, or of her feelings for him. Instead she wrote to complain about the ‘dreadful condition’ of her hands, caused by the ‘acids and disinfectants’, and of the pimples and freckles that had developed on her face. The hospital, she told Edwin, was crowded and dirty, and ‘the one real tragedy about the place’, she explained, was the inability to have a hot bath. ‘Isn’t that dreadfully squalid?’

Thinking she might change her mind about marrying him and of her impending conversion, Edwin implored her to confirm a date for her departure from France. But Venetia remained vague and explained that her hospital work was ‘too thrilling’ to leave. In the end, Edwin told her the two rabbis he had engaged for the conversion were leaving for the Front in July, and he encouraged her to submit her application for conversion before the twelfth. She agreed, and returned to London on the 10 July.

Venetia’s arrival in London was greeted with mixed feelings. Edwin was ecstatic, but Henry adopted a high-handed approach when writing to her. He ‘prayed with [his] whole soul’ for her happiness, and he admitted it would have been out of character for him to be disloyal to her. However in his letter he asked her not to respond and to not ‘wish me now to say more’. Then, after what he perceived to be Venetia’s desertion, he wrote to Diana Cooper to offer her the ‘vacancy’ as his mistress. Although fond of him, Diana had no interest in becoming the mistress of an ageing politician. She allied herself with Venetia and Edwin, and for years to come would receive the Montagus hospitality at their marital home.

The conversion was, as Venetia had warned Edwin, a farce. She went through the motions in order to save his family fortune and, as she had told him, to restore the relationship with his mother, whom she met for the first time on her wedding day. Religion, she explained, meant nothing to her, and she proclaimed to have none. When he requested their future children should be brought up Jewish, she called him a hypocrite, for Edwin himself did not practice his faith, and she said she would raise them without religion. ‘I go through the formula required,’ she wrote to him, ‘because you want it for your mother’s sake and because I think one is happier rich than poor.’ But there were other factors at play which threatened to undermine Venetia’s religious conversion. She complained that she could not study the book that ‘Old Joseph’, the rabbi, had given her because it was too boring. This caused Edwin considerable worry, but in the end she memorised enough of the text to pass the test and was therefore received into the Jewish faith.

Two days before the wedding, Venetia visited Henry in person, and it turned out to be their last meeting for some years. Afterwards, he wrote to her that he valued her companionship and that she had given him ‘unforgettable and undying memories’. She married Edwin in a traditional wedding ceremony, and absent among their small gathering of family and close friends were Henry and Violet, who chose not to attend. Instead, Henry sent Venetia two silver boxes with a brief note: ‘With all my love and more wishes than words can frame for your complete and unbroken happiness.’

In the years following Venetia’s desertion and marriage, Henry had begun to write his memoirs and, naturally, Venetia featured. He struggled with his portrait of her, aware that he could not speak frankly about the true nature of their relationship. Instead, he focused on her personality traits and of her much publicised conversion. He wrote that ‘she had no sense of sin; no penitential moods; no waves of remorse; no mystic reveries . . . ‘

Although in its day and with a degree of hindsight Venetia’s relationship with Henry has been analysed, her marriage to Edwin has also come under scrutiny in various publications. Some believed that the marriage was never consummated and that Edwin, a man torn apart by self-hatred and hypochondriac tendencies and who sensed he would die comparatively young, was satisfied with whatever crumbs Venetia offered him. Although intelligent and with a political mind, she found him a boring politician and took little interest in his work. He appeared to have had a mistress named Pearl, and by whom he had a child – ‘Pearl has just given me a little daughter and we are very happy about it’. Edwin’s admission, by letter, was written before Venetia gave birth to her own daughter, Judith. Despite the claims that Edwin was asexual and pined for Venetia, it seemed he had forged his own life in London and during his political tours of foreign countries.
Venetia, too, was conducting her own affairs, and a significant admirer was the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, whom she trusted with her investments and who offered her financial advice. They travelled around Europe, often accompanied by Beaverbrook’s close friend and employee, Viscount Castlerosse, and their mutual friend Diana Cooper. Although she would be replaced by Jean Norton as his chief mistress, the two would enjoy a lengthy friendship which outlasted their affair.

In 1923 Venetia gave birth to her first and only child, Judith Montagu. It was widely accepted that she was the daughter of William Ward, later the 3rd Earl of Dudley, and Venetia did not dispel such rumours. Judith, however, was brought up as the child of Edwin and he settled a trust fund for her. It was a timely gesture, for in 1924 he died at the age of forty-five from unknown causes, but it was believed to have been the result of blood poisoning. His death did not upset Venetia, and she settled into widowhood with a generous inheritance which granted her the freedom to live as before, and to travel extensively around postwar Europe. She entrusted her baby daughter into the care of nannies, and Judith herself claimed her mother treated her with an air of indifference. Regardless of Venetia’s parenting skills, she would ensure Judith was given a good education and was taught to be independent, as she valued those qualities above all else.

After the death of Edwin, Venetia and Henry resumed their friendship. Although it was not as intimate as before, he visited her at her country home, Breccles, and made the acquaintance of Judith. Judith recalled the tears on Henry’s face as he said, ‘This, then is the child.’ It was an emotional visit for both Venetia and Henry; he was in ill-health and had suffered the loss of movement in one leg, and upon arriving at Breccles he could not exit the car without assistance. Although he knew his days were numbered, he did not disclose his illness in great detail to Venetia, and she sensed he was fading away. He died three months after their final meeting. ‘It was most good of you to take me in,’ he had written in his last letter to her. His death closed a chapter in her life, though in those days it was a select group of friends who knew the true nature of their relationship. And Venetia herself, as daring as she could be, did not kiss and tell. Refusing to be bound by her gender and class, she continued to live with the freedom she had always known.

Until her death from cancer in 1948, Venetia travelled around the world in her own private aeroplane, smoked, drank, gambled, and pursued various love affairs. Beaverbrook remained her ardent admirer long into their old age, and she always retained a fondness for him. But it was Henry Asquith who had captured her heart.

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Lady Blanche Hozier by Sonia Purnell

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When I visited Lord Stanley of Alderley to research my book on Clementine Churchill, it was fun to look through his extensive album of family photographs. Almost everyone of the past few generations of this illustrious family was present; but there was one noticeable gap. Above the hand-written name of Lady Blanche Hozier, the space for the photograph was empty, although no-one seemed to know why.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Lady Blanche – with her beautiful blonde hair and seraphic face – was widely considered within the family of her time to be ‘mad’. She had, after all, broken so many of the rigid Victorian conventions that had defined her early life and overshadowed even her later years. Her natural rebelliousness may have made her a popular ‘aunt Natty’ to the young Mitford sisters (who were awestruck by her elegant defiance), but it barred her from many a smart London salon and even many of her own family gatherings.

She was born the eldest daughter of the 10th Earl of Airlie and grew up in a romantically haunted castle in the Scottish Highlands. It was Lady Blanche’s mother (also known as Blanche) who was a member of the Stanley tribe of assertive and erudite English matriarchs, and who was the dominant force in the household.

The Stanleys’ radical Liberal views did not exactly chime, however, with Lady Blanche’s unconventional approach to such issues as marital fidelity (of which she was not in favour), extravagant spending (which she adored) or the need for female education (deemed only partly necessary).

A sort of Victorian wild-child who threatened to become a major embarrassment, Lady Blanche was hastily married off by her parents at the age of 25 to Colonel Henry Hozier. Alas, Henry had neither the fortune she was hoping for nor much in the way of warm feelings towards her. Serially unfaithful, he declared he was not interested in having children and left Lady Blanche largely to her own devices while he pursued a slightly rackety career at Lloyd’s of London.

Bored, sexy and lonely she soon sought comfort – and the prospect of children – in the arms of other men. One of her most attentive lovers, it would seem, was the 1st Baron Redesdale, Bertie Mitford, and later to become, of course, the grandfather of the Mitford sisters. He was handsome, kind and in possession of those dazzling Mitford eyes. He was also married to Lady Blanche’s sister Lady Clementine, with whom he already had several children.

We should perhaps pay tribute to Lady Clementine for sharing her husband in this way with her sister. For he is almost certainly the father of at least Lady Blanche’s first two children. Lady Blanche liked to circulate conflicting rumours on the paternity of her brood – perhaps in part to protect the reputation and pride of her own sister. But it is noticeable how her second daughter – born in haste on the drawing room floor in 1885 – also had dazzling sapphire-blue eyes and a similar profile to Bertie’s. Named Clementine – perhaps in honour of the forbearance of her aunt – she went on to marry Winston Churchill. No doubt he came to realise that Bertie was probably not only the young Clementine’s uncle by marriage, but her father too. After all, it was Bertie who was sitting next to Lady Blanche in the front row at Winston and Clementine’s wedding. Clementine junior was therefore probably related to Nancy, Pamela, Unity, Jessica and Diana Mitford in more ways than one.

Lady Blanche went on to have four children in total – Kitty, Clementine and the twins Nellie and Bill. It is highly unlikely that any was Hozier’s, as he himself quickly realised. Lady Blanche’s frantic love-life was spectacularly well-known, complete with lurid tales of fights between jealous rivals. The numbers were equally astonishing, as she was widely reputed to keep up to ten lovers on the go at once. Her unstuffy attitude to life was clearly quite a draw, and even at her worst moments she was inevitably stylishly if unconventionally dressed.

Divorce soon followed – as did exclusion from the sort of upper-class circles in which she would normally have been expected to move. It was not so much the bed-hopping that counted against her, as the brazen way in which she conducted it. Respectable upper-class ladies of the time made sure they provided their husband with an heir, before discreetly taking on one lover at a time. Lady Blanche did neither.

Hozier, a cold and splenetic man now with a sense of grievance, refused to pay alimony and Lady Blanche was reduced to living on family handouts and the odd bit of cash from writing cookery articles for the press. She was quickly reduced to moving from one set of cheap lodgings to another to stay one step ahead of her creditors. And yet despite this itinerant life with her brood, she made each temporary home a haven of simple, good taste – complete with billowing white curtains and spotless white sofas – all on a budget. Her food was also famously good – even if sometimes she was too distracted or even hard-up to put it on the table for her own children.

She nevertheless still evidently feared the retribution of her ex-husband, and was concerned that Henry might try to take one of her children to live with him. To this effect, she once packed up overnight in their rooms in the Channel town of Seaford and fled to France with her children the very next morning. Lady Blanche settled her young family in Dieppe, where she proceeded to lose what money she had at the casino and forced her elder daughters to ask for credit to buy food in the shops. She also took up with the artist Walter Sickert – recently implausibly named as the possible real identity of Jack the Ripper. Sickert, an ill-tempered man, was also carrying on with a Mme Villain, the queen of the Dieppe fishmarket and mother of several children looking uncannily like Sickert. To her children’s horror, Lady Blanche would engage in jealous exchanges with Mme Villain in the street. These altercations – and her insistence on wearing her hair in a plait down her back rather than in the traditional bun – were mystifying for the local French who expected something rather different from a titled English milady.

This sojourn in France came to an abrupt end around a year after the death of Lady Blanche’s favourite and eldest daughter, Kitty. Lady Blanche never even tried to disguise her feelings for this puckish and pretty girl over the then shy and more nervous Clementine. Kitty even advised her younger sibling to try to ignore her mother’s hurtful neglect as ‘she can’t help it’. Kitty developed typhus, probably from drinking contaminated water, and died just short of her 17th birthday. Lady Blanche never recovered from the tragedy, and merely withdrew further from Clementine, whom she deemed too judgmental and reserved for her tastes.

The family returned to England, where Lady Blanche set up home in Berkhamsted, just outside London, to take advantage of the local schools. She was intent on launching Clementine into the sort of smart society from which she was now excluded and thought her daughter needed more polish. That also meant, in Lady Blanche’s view, making sure that her daughter did not destroy her marriage prospects by learning such unladylike subjects as maths. She believed young women should be intelligent and educated, but only in languages such as French and German and other appropriate humanities subjects rather than ‘unseemly’ sums.

Over time, Lady Blanche became more irascible and dictatorial; disappointment in her own life only added to her increasingly tetchy demeanour. Even when Clementine was a young woman, her mother would think nothing of boxing her ears when displeased and seemed to have little affection for her daughter – although she was very much in favour of her new husband, Winton Churchill. Lady Blanche’s increasing drinking only served to widen the distance between the two women – and to cause concern with the younger Nellie and Bill. Lady Blanche eventually went back to settle in Dieppe once more, throwing away what money she had in the casino there. She may well have made the move precisely because casinos were still illegal in Britain.

It was there that she died, lonely and impoverished, in March 1925. Clementine was by her side as she endured her final illness, but they were never entirely reconciled. Clementine felt her childhood had been largely loveless and had left her with profound insecurities. Churchill, however, had a higher regard for a woman whose pride, tenacity and sense of style had never faltered. On the occasion of Lady Blanche’s death, he wrote that he was ‘glad & proud to think her blood flows in the veins of our children’.

Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol III

Sonia Purnell is the author of First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill (Aurum Press). She is an author, journalist and broadcaster known for her investigative skills and lively writing style. She also writes for a variety of newspapers and is a regular broadcaster in Britain and abroad. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.

The Mitford Society’s Festive Reads, Part One

A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

Something Higher Than A Friend

Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. III

Diana was 14-years-old when she first met James Lees-Milne, known to his friends as ‘Jim’. He had come down to Asthall Manor, the family home in Oxfordshire that was said to be haunted by a poltergeist, with Tom Mitford in the summer of 1924.

Both Diana and Jim were intrigued by one another, and he was bewitched by her beauty as he silently observed her sitting next to Tom as he played the piano. Diana, too, thought Jim the cleverest person she had met. She was impressed by his loathing of games and his preference for sitting indoors, listening to classical music and conversing about art and literature. Tom appeared to share an easy-going, brotherly type of affection with Jim, but their schoolboy camaraderie concealed a discreet affair that had taken place at Eton. The close bond between Diana and Tom reminded Jim of his loneliness and lack of familial ties – he despised his father, saw little of his mother, and had nothing in common with his siblings. Adding to his misery, all through his childhood and early adolescent years, Jim wished he were a girl. Society’s expectations placed on Jim as a boy, and his countrified father’s disapproval, conspired to make him ‘feel desperately ashamed’ of his wish. Adding to Jim’s feelings of shame was the guilt of his affair with Tom, and he desired to replace him with Diana, a socially acceptable catalyst for romance.

After Jim departed Asthall, he immediately wrote Diana a letter, asking her: ‘May I treat you as a much cherished sister to whom I can say everything? You don’t realise how essential they are to boys. Why are you so amazingly sympathique as well as charming?’ Diana, who was surrounded by six sisters and an all-female staff, was unsure how to respond to such flattery. She acted with indifference, which could have been mistaken as modesty – an appealing attribute in one so beautiful.

Jim returned to Asthall, and he, Tom and Diana became a peculiar trio. When the other Mitford children were outside riding and hunting, they spent their days indoors, lapping up joyous hours in the library where Jim expressed his devotion by teaching Diana to read the classics. They read poetry and fantasised about going to live in Greece, where they ‘would scorn material things and live on a handful of grapes by the sea’. Around this period, Jim had appointed himself as Diana’s faithful correspondent and the letters exchanged during this precarious time provide an insight into her outlook. As her intellect developed, she felt comfortable to confide her innermost thoughts to Jim. She told him: ‘There will never be another Shelley. I wish I had been alive then to marry him. He was more beautiful physically and mentally than an angel.’ And her philosophy on life was extremely modern for a sheltered teenager in the 1920s: ‘Why on earth should two souls (I wish there was a better word, I think SPIRIT is better). Why on earth should two spirits who are in love a bit have to marry … and renounce all other men and women?’ Monogamy, to Diana, was ‘SUPREMELY foolish’, but she was quick to acknowledge that speaking of ‘free love is almost a sin’. However, to dispel any hint of romance, she quickly informed Jim of his platonic place in her life: ‘I sometimes feel that I love you too much, but you are my spiritual brother.’

In 1926, Diana left for Paris to spend a year studying art at the Cours Fénelon, and during this period her letters to Jim became few and far between. She had fallen in love with the city, and had formed a circle of admirers who were a world away from Jim and his shy advances disguised by the written word. The ageing artist Paul César Helleu feted Diana, and this form of flattery coming from an adult turned her head more than Jim’s romantic prose.

After Diana’s departure for Paris, Jim had become morbidly obsessed with a recent divorcee, Joanie, the daughter of his mother’s cousin. Jim sent her love poetry – the typical gesture he would use time and time again with those he admired – and Joanie responded by driving down to Eton to take him to tea. In the New Year of 1926, they eventually began an affair, resulting in Joanie becoming pregnant. However, there is no certainty that Jim fathered the child, for she had so many casual affairs. The baby was stillborn, and Jim was haunted by guilt, stemming from his view that he had caused a human life, conceived in sin, to perish. Deeply disturbed by the incident, Jim fled England for Grenoble, where he studied a university course in French. His thoughts turned to Diana and the memories he held from their happier days in the library at Asthall Manor. The notion of being in love with an unworldly teenager was less troublesome than his love affair with the older Joanie, whose life came to a tragic end when she drowned herself at Monte Carlo.

Overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia, Jim wrote to Diana, in which he played to her frivolous vanity by addressing her as ‘Mona’ (after the Mona Lisa). Her letter, after a spell of silence, ‘dropped here today like the gentle dew from heaven. I cannot express my delight but imagine it as being intense … How I would adore to have a picture of you by M. Helleu’. He implored Diana to send him a memento; a snapshot of her Parisian self so he could see for himself if she had retained her Raphael face. ‘You can’t imagine what a joy it is to me the thought of having your face with me.’ Diana had become accustomed to receiving compliments on her beauty, rather than her brains, and the tokens dispelled in his letters were not a rarity. Jim confessed: ‘One can never love a friend too much,’ though by now he thought of Diana as something ‘higher than a friend’.

As for Diana, she was secretly pleased with Jim’s infatuation and had begun to recognise her power over the opposite sex, using it to exploit those who cared about her. Her letters adopted a priggish tone, boasting of her liaisons with French boys, after which, she warned Jim: ‘Don’t feel jealous’. It thrilled her to evoke feelings of jealousy, to torment the poor love-sick Jim, and she made it clear that she only confided in him because he was ‘so far from England’s green and pleasant land, where scandal travels fast’.

The hedonistic atmosphere was not to last and Diana suffered a bitter blow when Helleu died, suddenly, of peritonitis. The man she worshipped, and who for 3 months had worshipped her, was dead. She turned to Jim for comfort. ‘I shall never see him again …’ her letter ached with melancholy ‘… never hear his voice saying, “Sweetheart, comme tu es belle.”’ In another letter, she confessed: ‘Nobody will admire me again as he did.’ Jim might have disagreed, but he refrained from telling her otherwise, and wrote only to comfort her.

When Diana returned to England for the Easter holidays she was disheartened by the family’s new home, Swinbrook House – a grey, rectangular building designed by her father and decorated in mock rustic charm. Perhaps longing for a sense of familiarity, she wrote to Jim. ‘I have grown a little older, and more intense in my passions of love, sorrow and worship of beauty. To look at, I am the same. Pray for me, to your gods whatever they are. I am very unhappy.’ But, somewhere beneath her morbid facade, Diana was still a romantic at heart.

Jim’s letters from that time, although an escape from the dullness of everyday life, drew her attention to his love for her. In a sophisticated manner, she declared: ‘Sex is after all so unimportant in life. Beauty and art are what matter. Older people do not see my point of view.’ Diana failed to elaborate on the ‘older people’, surely a jibe at Jim, who was 2 years her senior. She did not, however, discourage the correspondence. In a similar light as Helleu, Jim praised her looks. ‘I have got dark skin and light hair and eyes which is an unattractive paradox,’ she dismissed his compliment. In the same sentence, Diana asked if he had seen the various beauties: Mary Thynne, Lettice Lygon and Georgie Curzon, to name a few. Jim’s passion could not be quelled, and Diana accepted his gifts of books, though she often critiqued his poetry when he sent it.

Finally, Jim was reunited with Diana in person. The sight of her in the flesh stunned him at first. She was no longer the sweet natured 14-year-old girl he had mentored in the library at Asthall. The long hair, which he had admired and likened to Botticelli’s Seaborne Venus, had been cut short. Although not outwardly fashionable, she began to alter her looks to appear more grown-up in her appearance. This adult version of Diana inspired the same feelings of passion he had felt for Joanie, who wore chic clothes and Parisian scent.

Hoping to instigate a romance with Diana, though from afar, Jim impulsively sent her a poem. Diana’s response was not what he had anticipated, and with a critical eye she advised him: ‘Read Alice Meynell’s short essay on false impressionism called The Point of Honour. This is not meant to be rude …’ Adopting an intellectual tone, she confidently told him: ‘Byron was a selfish, beautiful genius and not really more selfish than many men and most artists. As to Augusta, she was of the same temperament as I am, and just about as silly.’

Diana’s letters to Jim fizzled out, and tormented by her lack of communication, he turned his attention to Diana’s cousin and friend, Diana Churchill, whom he had met that summer. The other Diana, ‘like a fairy’ with her puny frame, pale complexion and red hair, was a haphazard substitute for his original love interest. In September, Diana invited him to the Churchill family home, Chartwell, and he readily accepted once he learned that Diana Mitford would also be staying with her brother, Tom. Unlike at Asthall and Swinbrook, where Jim could escape with Diana and Tom, the ‘brats’ (a Churchillian term of endearment) congregated in the drawing room and at the dining table. They listened to Winston Churchill’s monologue on the Battle of Jutland as he shifted decanters and wine glasses, in place of the ships, around the table, furiously puffing on his cigar to represent the gun smoke. With Churchill’s attention fixed on the children, his boisterous son Randolph seized an opportunity to flatter Diana, with whom he was madly in love. ‘Papa,’ he mischievously asked his father, ‘guess who is older, our Diana or Diana M?’
‘Our Diana,’ came the reply from Churchill, spoiling Randolph’s plan.
‘Oh, Papa, nobody else thinks so but you!’
During the stay, Diana was surrounded by her two most ardent admirers and Jim noticed that she outwardly relished being in Randolph’s company, despite her frequent protests about his immature behaviour. Jim could only look on, his hopes and feelings deflated.

In the new year of 1928, Jim returned to Swinbrook to stay for the weekend. Diana hoped to corner him for a congenial chat about literature, but the pleasant visit took a turn for the worse when, over dinner, Nancy praised an anti-German film she had watched at the cinema. Still harbouring a strong dislike for Germans, their father, Lord Redesdale, made his usual offensive remark: ‘The only good German is a dead German.’
Leaping to the defence of the film and of the German people, Jim said: ‘Anyhow, talking of atrocities, the worst in the whole war were committed by the Australians.’
‘Be quiet and don’t talk about what you don’t understand. Young swine!’ Lord Redesdale exploded.
Mortified by her father’s outburst, Diana broke the heavy silence when she haughtily announced: ‘I wish people needn’t be so rude to their guests!’
Flexing his authority as master of the household, Lord Redesdale ordered Jim from Swinbrook. Frogmarched to the front door, he was thrown outside where it was teeming with rain. After several failed attempts to start up his motorcycle, he sneaked back into the house and crept up to bed.
Awaking at 6 o’clock the next morning, Jim bumped into Lord Redesdale, stalking the hallway, as he did every morning, wearing his paisley print robe and drinking tea from a thermos. Anticipating another scene, Jim was pleasantly surprised when Lord Redesdale appeared to have forgotten the offensive exchange and greeted him warmly.

The turbulent visit settled into a bittersweet memory for Jim and, although he did not know it at the time, it would be his last visit with Diana at Swinbrook. He rightly sensed that Diana’s mind was focused on finding a suitable husband to rescue her from the great boredom of family life. With his ‘impecunious and melancholic’ nature, Jim knew he was not an ideal candidate, and long after he had departed from her life, Diana remained ‘the unattainable object of his desire’.

In 1928, Diana met and became engaged to Bryan Guinness. Jim received the news of Diana’s engagement with little enthusiasm. It came like a ‘cruel blow’ which greatly upset him. Diana attempted to console him with a short, but sweet, letter: ‘I know you will like him [Bryan] because he is too angelic and not rough and loathes shooting and loves travelling and all the things I love.’ She was preoccupied with a glamorous, materialistic world, and given Bryan’s wealth, it served to make Jim feel worthless. ‘When we are married and live in London, you must often come and see us,’ she gently coaxed him. He sent Diana a wedding present of books, and apart from her customary thank you note, he did not set eyes on her for the next 25 years.

Quotations from the letters between Diana Mitford and James Lees-Milne were taken from James Lees-Milne: The Life by Michael Bloch (John Murray, 2009) and reprinted with permission in Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford (The History Press, 2015).

Out of Bounds: The Education of Giles Romilly and Esmond Romilly

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Much has been written about Esmond Romilly, husband of Decca Mitford, in books about the Mitford girls. A lot of it is hearsay, or formed from the unfavourable opinions of his sisters-in-law, and disapproving parents-in-law (Farve referred to him as ‘the BOY Romilly’). So, it is a treat that, for the first time in decades since it was released in 1934 and subsequently went out of print, Esmond’s voice can be heard. Co-authored with his older, equally brilliant, brother, Giles Romilly, the book was written following Esmond’s spell in a remand home. Rebellious and opinionated, the left-wing brothers shocked their Tory family (they were nephews-by-marriage of Winston Churchill) with their Communist views. Published when Esmond was sixteen and Giles eighteen, it is a memoir of their education, peppered with anecdotes about their eccentric home-life. Although it is a quick read, it is fascinating insight to young aristocrats who kicked against the establishment. This re-issued version of Out of Bounds by Umbria Press includes an introduction by Giles’s son, Edmund Romilly.

For more information on Esmond Romilly visit Meredith Whitford’s guest blog by clicking here.

First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill

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Without Churchill’s inspiring leadership Britain could not have survived its darkest hour and repelled the Nazi menace. Without his wife Clementine, however, he might never have become Prime Minister. By his own admission, the Second World War would have been ‘impossible without her’.

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. As the biography attests (something that is, perhaps, white-washed in history books), he wasn’t always well liked or respected.

Chronicling Clementines life from her eccentric and often impoverished childhood, born to a feckless father and reckless mother, Purnell brings to life the everyday occurrences of her mother Lady Blanche Hozier, namely her affair with a Dieppe fishmonger and how she, the fishmonger and his wife would argue at the fish-stall, causing a scene on the street. Her mother’s gambling and drinking cast a dark shadow over Clementine’s life, and the death of her beautiful sister, Kitty, the eldest of Blanche’s children, marked her for life. She was obsessed with order, everything had to be just so, and if it wasn’t, she became irritated. This obsession with neatness would mark her all her life. Also touched upon was her inferiority complex, beginning in childhood, and how she would have to teach French and take in sewing for pin money. Her rival, Margot Asquith, said she had ‘the soul of a servant’. Adding to this misery, her paternity was questioned, and she herself was never certain who her father was. The Mitford girls’ grandfather, Bertie Redesdale, was said to have been her real father, and Bay Middleton was also a strong contender. Regardless of the adulterous world of the upper-classes, Clementine was the target of gossip and snobbery, and among her contemporaries she was known as ‘the Hozier’. She never got over the shame she felt as a young girl.

Marriage seemed to give Clementine the stability she craved as a child, and having thwarted at least two engagements, she fell in love with Winston, an insecure young man who shared her complexities. She believed he came first, second and third in her life, and demanding so much of her attention, she was happy to leave her children in the care of staff to bolster his ego. The strained relationships with her children, especially as they aged, are touched upon, and stormy encounters with staff are revealed. Although Clementine was praised as having the ‘common touch’, she demanded complete loyalty (she disliked finding and training new staff) and certain standards were to be maintained.

Exploring Winston’s political career, with Clementine at the helm, we learn of a headstrong woman who pushed her husband to excel. On the arm of Winston, especially during wartime, she was instantly recognisable and famous in own right, but her work for the Home Front and the Red Cross (not to mention numerous charity appeals) gave her a singular purpose away from her husband. Even then, at that time, she was overshadowed by him. This battle of the sexes is apparent throughout the book, with Purnell exploring Clementine’s forward-thinking views and her sympathy for the Suffrage movement, even if Winston did not share her views. She knew she was as intelligent as any man in his Cabinet.

Mary Soames, Clementine’s youngest daughter, wrote candidly of her mother’s battle with depression in an age when little was understood about it. Purnell reveals Clementine’s hysterical outbursts, her emotional instability and, at times, her frequent rages toward Winston and her staff. And her physical health, too, was not strong. This, combined with Winston’s experience with the ‘Black Dog’ (as he called his depression), often makes for volatile passages in the book. As well as her health plaguing her, she constantly worried about money and their future together, and after he died, as a widow. I don’t think Clementine ever experienced the stability of a permanent home or being comfortably well-off. Winston’s love of gambling and extravagance contrasted with her frugality, something she was mocked for. As an old lady, she sold her paintings to fund her living expenses, but was embarrassed when pensioners began to send her tea bags because they thought she was ready for the poor house. I enjoyed the tidbits about this so-called gilded life, born into the aristocracy, and yet they were in dire straits. The concluding pages are quite touching as they detail her life without Winston and how she formed relationships with her children, and experienced the sorrow of outliving three of them – Marigold died in infancy, Diana committed suicide and Randolph died of a heart-attack.

Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill is a complex character study about a fascinating character 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.

Lady Ursula d’Abo

Lady Ursula d'Abo photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1939

Lady Ursula d’Abo photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1939

Born into an aristocratic family in 1916, Lady Ursula d’Abo (née Manners) was interrelated with some of the most powerful and interesting figures of the 20th century. She counted the famous beauty and hostess Lady Diana Cooper as her paternal aunt, and among those famous aunts were Laura and Margot Tennant, part of the Victorian intellectual group known as “The Souls”. Indeed, her mother was Kathleen Tennant, descended from the extraordinarily rich Scots family who had made their fortune in bleach, and she counted the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith as an uncle-by-marriage. There were fascinating cousins, too, including childhood summers spent with Anne Charteris, the future wife of Ian Fleming – creator of James Bond. Lady Ursula’s father, the Marquess of Granby, was the second-born son of the 8th Duke of Rutland, who upon the untimely death of his eldest brother at the age of nine (he twisted a gut from turning a somersault), became his father’s heir.

It was a magical childhood, with visits to Belvoir Castle – “my playground and fiefdom” – the Rutland seat, where the vast army of servants extended to liveried footmen and the Pig Man. Although Nanny and the nursery were the centre of Lady Ursula and her siblings lives, she and her younger sister, Lady Isabel, were allowed to ride with the famous Belvoir hunt. The Master of Hounds, terrified that the two children would get squashed in the gates, would hold up the two hundred horses so the girls could pass through first. Occasionally the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, would join the hunt and he and Lady Ursula would gallop the twelve miles from Belvoir Castle to Melton Mowbray. But, following his abdication, Lady Ursula’s father (by then the Duke of Rutland), refused to have him in the house; he was shocked at his betrayal of the country. Furthermore, he and his wife’s loyalties lay with their friends the Duke and Duchess of York, who ascended the throne as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

A clever and sophisticated child, Lady Ursula counted the artist Rex Whistler – “an attractive man with an original sense of humour” – as a pen-pal. Befriending him before his fame, he sent her illustrated letters when she was at school in Italy. She also helped her father, who had inherited the Dukedom in 1925, with the restoration of Haddon Hall, the Derbyshire home of the Rutlands dating from 1066. From her childhood home, The Wood House, north of Rowsley village, Nanny drove the children in a tub cart pulled by a pony for picnics at Haddon whilst it was being restored. As her siblings played, Lady Ursula and her father worked together on the mullion windows in the Long Gallery; the small panes were a diamond pattern of greenish glass which caught the light as they were set askew. And, while restoring the chapel at Haddon, Lady Ursula discovered some medieval frescoes which had been whitewashed over in the Reformation. A remarkable find for anyone, most especially an eight-year-old child. It should also be mentioned that Lady Ursula – in spite of being a girl with three brothers – was her father’s favourite. When she was sick, it was not Nanny who sat by her bedside, but her father who would bring his child a jug of champagne and say: “Cheer up, you will be all right in the morning.”

Away from the countryside there were swimming and dancing lessons in London, and having been inspired by the ballet, Lady Ursula dreamed of becoming a famous ballerina. She took lessons with the great Russian ballerina, Tamara Karasvina, who praised her for having “a great aptitude”. However, Lady Ursula could not pursue her training as her parents did not approve of a stage career.

The path in which Lady Ursula’s life should progress was made clear, when, at the age of seventeen, the Duke and Duchess of Rutland hosted a “coming out” ball with two hundred guests at Belvoir Castle for her and Lady Isabel. Their matching white tulle dresses were from Worth in Paris, though they proved a disappointment with the girls who longed to appear grown up. In spite of the dresses not living up to expectation, Lady Ursula realised that her coming out ball would launch her into a glamorous, grown-up world. “Suddenly…I was expected to be a young lady with great social graces, and dressed immaculately in the most beautiful clothes.” The freedom “felt exhilarating” after being chaperoned for years. However, to Lady Isabel it was not enough and she eloped with Loel Guinness, an heir to the banking branch of the Irish dynasty. Sailing for over four months on Guinness’s yacht to Palm Springs and New York City, the couple’s honeymoon was so long that it wasn’t insured by Lloyd’s. Although dismayed at her sister missing out on the social season, Lady Ursula went along to the parties and “had five years of growing up in the most enjoyable way”.

Change was in the air, and a great event in history was about to draw Lady Ursula to the forefront of British society. The coronation of King George VI, following the abdication of his brother King Edward VII, brought a sense of optimism and pageantry to the people who feared Adolf Hitler and the threat of another world war. As her ancestors had done before her, Lady Ursula and her family took part in the coronation. Her father carried the orb in the procession into Westminster Abbey, her mother was a canopy-bearer to the Queen, and her two younger brothers were Page of Honour to the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Ancaster, the Lord Great Chamberlain. Lady Ursula was one of six maids of honour who carried the Queen’s ermine-trimmed velvet train. Dressed identically, the six girls wore matching tiaras and white satin, puff sleeved Norman Hartnell gowns with a motif of corn embroidered down the front.

Afterwards, Lady Ursula joined the royal party on the balcony of Buckingham Palace where she stood next to the Dowager Queen Mary and behind the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. At the end of “that magical day”, she was sent home from the palace in a taxi, still feeling quite overwhelmed by all that had happened. But it was not the end of the excitement as Lady Ursula was to discover. A certain Mr. Laurence McKinney from Albany, New York wrote a poem to The Knickerbocker Press, imploring: “In many of the pictures of the Coronation there is shown at the back of the royal party a statuesque brunette with a widow’s peak. Who is she?” The attention, she freely admitted, “produced a lot of jealously amongst my peers”.

There were duties beyond the coronation, and along with her mother, aunt Lady Diana Cooper and uncle Duff Cooper, and Winston and Clementine Churchill, Lady Ursula accompanied the new King and Queen on their first official visit to Paris. Being the youngest in the Royal party, Churchill nicknamed her “the cygnet”.

Though as much as Lady Ursula had become a society star, her father reminded her that she should set her sights on a good marriage. She recalled: “I had no money of my own and was brought up to be subservient to the male species.” Although she proved her mettle during WWII when she became a voluntary Red Cross Nurse, and then managing two thousand women in a munitions factory, Lady Ursula did indeed fulfill her father’s wish for her to marry.

In 1943, Lady Ursula married Anthony Marreco, a man she barely knew and who threatened to commit suicide if she refused to do so. The swiftness in which a wedding was organised prompted the minister to place a chair for her to sit on at the altar as he assumed she was pregnant. This, she admitted, had infuriated her. Ill-suited and separated by war, the couple divorced in 1948. She married for a second time to Erland d’Abo with whom she had three children. The marriage lasted until his death.

Lady Ursula has experienced a life of many high and lows set to the backdrop of a gilded age, the like of which we will never see again. All of this has been recorded in her charming memoir, The Girl with the Widow’s Peak.

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.”

Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan

Viscountess Castlerosse

You may think it fun to make love. But if you had to make love to dirty old men as I do, you would think again

 

The most notorious courtesan of 1930s society, Doris Delevingne boasted that she had reached the height of her profession. Indeed, by the mid ‘thirties, she had risen from humble beginnings in a small terrace house in Beckenham where she lived with her tradesman father, to a swanky address in Mayfair. Advancing on her foundation of beauty, brains and a fancy surname (she fibbed she was descended from a noble Belgian family), Doris set herself up as a one-woman-business, with nothing to trade except her body, and her sparkling wit should her admirer care for conversation. ‘An Englishwoman’s bed is her castle,’ she quipped, quite proud of her achievements. To some it was shameful; but to Doris it was a small price to pay for Rolls Royces, designer shoes, Parisian clothes and baubles from Cartier. She even shortened her name to Delavigne, fearing the original spelling might be too complicated to spell on a cheque. Where most women modestly dismissed their beauty, Doris knew she was beautiful and demanded that her fabulous legs should have a new pair of silk stockings every day, imported from Paris and costing a guinea a pair. She also had a fondness for Italian shoes, buying as many as 250 pairs on a single shopping trip. Anything Doris wanted, she got. Wives of powerful men, and mothers of heirs and spares feared their sons passing Doris’s infamous door on Deanery Street, for they knew one encounter with Doris and they would soon be contributing to her lavish lifestyle. Echoing their qualms, and summing up her scandalous reputation, a society matron snapped: ‘She should write a book and call it around the world in 80 beds.’

 

Early in her pursuit of riches, Doris met the theatrical actress Gertrude Lawrence who had become the mistress of a Household Cavalry Officer. Becoming flatmates, it soon became clear that both women were intent on climbing to the top. ‘I’m going to be the most celebrated actress in London,’ Gertie announced. ‘And I’m going to marry a Lord,’ Doris replied. An early conquest appeared in the form of Tom Mitford, but this was short-lived and he was not as rich as she had imagined. She soon turned her sights on Cambridge-educated Laddie Sanford, an American multimillionaire known for winning the 1923 Grand National. Setting up home in Park Lane, Doris joined him and found a love-rival in Edwina, Lady Mountbatten. Swiftly moving on from losing her horseman, she snared Sir Edward MacKay Edgar, twenty-five years her senior with enough money and arrogance to buy anything that took his fancy, first a title, and then Doris. But such passing flirtations didn’t last long, and she met the man who would become her husband.

 

Valentine Castlerosse was working in London as a gossip columnist, but it was his extra-curricular activities that appealed to Doris. He was an heir to an Irish earldom, and he was fat, nasty and broke; though she cared little for his financial status, for she herself had become rich from the money she hoarded off her rich admirers, she set her sights on his title and his castle in County Kerry. The title Lady Castlerosse, she decided, would bring her the type of social acceptance she craved. Quite tellingly, they married in secret, for Castlerosse was too afraid to tell his parents that his wife was a butter importer’s daughter from Beckenham. Still, marriage meant nothing to Doris and she peddled on with her seduction of rich men – her husband, after all, needed the money. Winston Churchill was her latest conquest, and so smitten by her charms he painted her portrait three times. His son, Randolph, too fell under her spell and they began an affair. ‘I hear you’re living with my wife,’ Castlerosse bellowed down the telephone not long after they were married. ‘Yes, I am,’ answered the younger Churchill, ‘which is more than you have the courtesy to do.’ Courtesy did not come into the equation; the couple had tried to live together but to disastrous results. They would kick and punch one another in private, and she would bite and thrash him about in public. Before long, Doris tired of her husband and threw him out of the marital home. Embittered by her rejection, and behaviour, he stood guard across the road, watching well-heeled gentlemen enter and exit the house, often giving them a swat with his blackthorn cane.

 

When Castlerosse finally plucked up the courage to divorce Doris, he chose to name not one of her many dalliances as co-respondent, but one of the best-known homosexuals of London society, Robert Herbert Percy. But this unusual piece of evidence was not entirely unfounded. Percy had been advised to visit Doris as an attempt to cure him of his homosexuality, and up to the impossible task, she produced a female prostitute and ordered the unsuspecting Percy to cane the terrified wench. Too shy, or perhaps too polite to accept the challenge, Doris gruffly picked up the cane and barked, ‘Here, let me show you how.’ Such antics might have amused her, but it appalled even the closest of her friends. The writer Edith Oliver dismissed her as ‘a common little demi-mondaine…why should one put oneself out for her?’ The high-jinxes were no longer funny; no longer the topic of a risque anecdote. This outsider had outstayed her welcome in Mayfair.

 

Moving to New York City, Doris lived a semi-gilded existence amongst America’s elite, but at the age of forty she was no longer the high-spirited society girl and her ways and means of getting men into bed for money had become sordid. Two years later, in 1942, Churchill summoned her back to Britain, where she took a suite at the Dorchester. Encountering the old Duke of Marlborough one evening in the hotel’s dining room, she was unnerved by his snide comment about people deserting their country in wartime. The acid remark shook her to the core, for she had gotten into trouble with the police for flogging diamonds in New York – a crime during wartime – to fund her homeward trip. She retired to her bedroom and fixed herself a drink, laced with a fatal dose of sleeping pills.