Book Review – Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses Between the Wars by Sian Evans

There was a time when the aristocracy dominated the social landscape and set the tone for the rest of society to follow. However, while their grip on society was challenged by the new rich both in the UK and the US, between the wars their comings and goings and activities were still reported by the press and society hostesses just like their predecessors entertained on a lavish scale with their events graced by people who mattered.

Six of these interwar society hostesses are the subject of a book by Sian Evans: Nancy Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament; the Hon Mrs Ronald Greville (nee Margaret Anderson); Edith Lady Londonderry; Sibyl Lady Colefax; Maud (later Emerald) Lady Cunard and Mrs Laura Corrigan. The backgrounds of these women were as diverse as the people they entertained – three of the so-called Queen Bees were American while Sibyl Colefax came from a middle class background. Edith Londonderry on the other hand came from an aristocratic family while Margaret Greville was the illegitimate daughter of a brewing magnate turned Member of Parliament.

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The diversity of their backgrounds characterised the change happening in society where birth increasingly didn’t matter – Maud Cunard and Laura Corrigan came from working class stock while Nancy Astor and Sibyl Colefax were middle class and a huge question mark hovered over Margaret Greville’s parentage especially who her father really was. Each of these women managed to make their way through society through marriage, calculation and chutzpah. Having money helped too especially in the case of Mrs Greville and Mrs Corrigan whose funds came from the brewery and steel business respectively. And while their paths would have crossed, each of the hostesses had their own “crowd” with both Nancy Astor and Edith Londonderry entertaining politicians, while Margaret Greville courted royalty (she had selected the Duke of York to inherit her country estate Polesden Lacey), and Maud Cunard through her affair with the noted conductor Sir Thomas Beecham championed classical music particularly opera. Sibyl Colefax was drawn to writers and artists and Laura Corrigan preferred the Bright Young Things and ferocious social climbing.

Rather than give each woman her own chapter, Evans prefers to lump them as a group and while this is useful in order to have the narrative in chronological order, the number of names can be overwhelming and in the end it can be rather confusing as the narrative jumps from one Queen Bee to the next and back again. The main strength of the book is the interesting details and anecdotes such as for instance Nancy Astor’s legendary spats with Winston Churchill where on one occasion she told Churchill that if she was his wife, she would put poison on his coffee. To which the future prime minister retorted, “And if I was your husband, I would gladly drink it.”

That same bitchiness could be seen with Margaret Greville. On holiday in France, Greville and her “frenemy” Grace Vanderbilt suffered a car crash which injured the chauffeur and ended up stranded in the forest of Fontainebleau. While Greville thought that they should flag down the next passing driver in order to get the chauffeur to the nearest hospital, Vanderbilt wasn’t convinced: “But supposing we were to be taken for two cocottes?” Back came Greville’s crisp reply, “I think, my dear, that we may take that risk.”

There were also Laura Corrigan’s desperate attempts to ingratiate herself into society. Snubbed in the US for her plebeian origins, she headed to Britain where the millions she inherited from her late husband meant that she could entertain in a way that many in British society could no longer afford. While society eagerly flocked to her parties, behind her back they sniggered at her appearance (all flamboyant wigs and heavy make-up) and her lack of intellect, and there was a jibe going round society that on a quiet night all that could be heard was Mrs Corrigan climbing. However, Corrigan had nothing on Sibyl Colefax who was the inspiration for Mary Borden’s short story entitled “To Meet Jesus Christ”, about a hostess who invites the Son of God as the guest of honour to one of her dinner parties.  Just as with Corrigan, people enthusiastically accepted Colefax’s hospitality but some couldn’t resist playing practical jokes at her expense. One of them had someone invite Colefax to “meet the P of W”, who turned out to be the Provost of Worcester College rather than the Prince of Wales she was expecting.

Although filled with interesting detail and anecdotes, Queen Bees makes exaggerated claims about the women’s importance. While it’s true that their parties and events made it to the papers, today one is hard pressed to name who they were much less any of their achievements and contributions they made. Despite Astor and Londonderry’s work with the poor and the marginalised as well as Colefax’s success in her career and helping turn interior decorating into a respected profession, the snobbishness, vacuousness and desperation to keep the status quo exhibited by the Queen Bees makes a mockery of Evans’ claim that they had a “profound effect on British history” and helped bring about “social revolution”. It was nothing of the sort but unsurprisingly these women would have been labouring under the delusion that they had political influence and could bend the will of politicians and statesmen with champagne, cocktails and weekends in country estates.

And this delusion led these women to flirt with appeasement, Fascism and Nazism – Nancy Astor and her so-called “Cliveden Set” were pro-appeasement while Margaret Greville, Edith Londonderry and Emerald Cunard were enthusiastic admirers of Mussolini and Hitler; the former two lavishly entertained the German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop and members of the Nazi high command such as Hermann Goering. In return both Greville and Londonderry were invited to Germany and were Hitler’s guests of honour at various Nazi party events such as the infamous rallies at Nuremberg. Only Sibyl Colefax refused to jump on the bandwagon of toadying up to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Always more left leaning and progressive than her fellow Queen Bees, Colefax saw through the Nazi Party’s real motivations and actively refused to socialise with their representatives.

None of the women end up likeable or sympathetic save for Colefax  – mostly for her efforts to turn interior design into a proper profession and serving an example for upper class and upper middle class women that it was acceptable to work and have a career as well as her principled stand for what she believed in. In the end however, despite Evans’ claim, these women never did have a “profound effect on British history”, they were simply entertainment fodder for the masses and nothing else, and today are largely forgotten except as footnotes in the social history of the 1930s.

Book Review: The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau by Julie Ferry

The transatlantic marriage phenomenon – whereby cash strapped British aristocrats married the daughters of American nouveau riche families –  has been the subject of novels (The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin to name a few), period drama (Downton Abbey) as well as academic and popular studies from the likes of Maureen E. Montgomery and Charles Jennings. Studies on the British aristocracy from the likes of David Cannadine have also touched on this occurrence. The latest comes from journalist Julie Ferry with The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau.

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Subtitled “Husband Hunting during the Gilded Age”, Ferry examines the motivations and objectives of American heiresses and their families in crossing the Atlantic to find husbands. Her book focuses on the year 1895 which has been generally characterised as the apogee of the transatlantic marriage phenomenon. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s eventual marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough is the linchpin of this narrative and the main focus is on how this marriage came about. And a love match this wasn’t, it was arranged for all intents and purposes with a great deal of calculation, chutzpah, planning, even threats and bullying by Consuelo’s mother Alva Erskine Smith, herself from an old Southern family who lost their money in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Her marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt, a member of a wealthy family who made their fortune in the railways, bought her wealth but not the social acceptance that she also craved. The Vanderbilts were shunned by New York society for making their money in trade and in order to be accepted by the so-called “400,” Alva planned her assault on society carefully. She persuaded her husband to build Marble Hall, which was to be their summer home in Newport; threw lavish dinners and balls; was seen at the right parties and public spaces and carefully cultivated friends and allies who could help her conquer society and secure the approval of the ultimate arbiter of New York society – Mrs Astor. Despite her efforts, she knew that the best way to secure this entrée to society was through her daughter Consuelo making a socially advantageous match. And not just any husband but a titled one – preferably British – and not just titled but a duke.

Alva turned to two friends to make this dream come true – Mrs Arthur Paget and the Duchess of Manchester who happened to be Consuelo’s godmother. Born Minnie Stevens and Consuelo Yznaga respectively, both women were part of the first wave of American heiresses to marry into the British aristocracy and through their beauty, charm and novelty managed to gain acceptance into society through their friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. Being part of the Marlborough House set placed Minnie and Consuelo in a unique place. Ensconced firmly in the bosom of high society in Britain, they were in an ideal position to help Alva Vanderbilt and other pushy nouveaux riche mothers who were determined to marry off their daughters into the British aristocracy in the teeth of opposition from home grown heiresses and their match making mothers. The American heiresses and their mothers were advised on what to wear, where to rent a house for the season and how to navigate the complex etiquette and rules governing society. Minnie and Consuelo also hosted teas and dinners at their homes so that their fellow Americans could be introduced to eligible bachelors and their families.

Both women were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. It was seen as vulgar to exchange cash outright but gifts, generous discounts and settled bills certainly eased any financial difficulties that Minnie and Consuelo encountered. Helping broker these marriages allowed Minnie Paget and Consuelo Manchester to live and entertain in the lifestyle they were accustomed to and that was expected of the class they married into.

While the book isn’t exactly large, it’s packed with loads of details. Ferry charts the history behind the growth of society in America especially after the Civil War and how a system developed in order to regulate the flow of newcomers who wanted to break into established society. The rules were rigid and those who were unable to penetrate the likes of the New York Four Hundred headed to Europe where the cash-strapped aristocracy, despite prejudices against Americans, were prepared to welcome these interlopers because of the wealth they could bring to shore up their bankrupt and dilapidated estates.

Ferry also delved into newspapers and magazines of the period to demonstrate how these new rich arrivistes became the celebrities in their day. Their activities, homes, clothes, jewels and even their scandals were reported and commented upon: which horrified the old guard and traditional society who believed in thrift, modesty and propriety. Then as now, the papers were not averse to sensationalising stories, while some were embellished in order provide a talking point, other stories were outright lies and fabrication.

The result of these transatlantic marriages was mixed. While there were some who found love and happiness, others simply jogged on for the sake of family and duty. There were couples however who couldn’t simply maintain appearances and in the end decided on a separation or heaven forbid a divorce. The Marlboroughs were an example, after providing her husband with two sons to secure the family line, Consuelo and “Sunny” Marlborough began to lead increasingly separate lives and affairs on both sides led to a formal separation in 1906 and finally divorce in 1921. By the early 1900s, it was clear also that the novelty of marrying American heiresses was wearing off and even in America itself there had long been a backlash against their citizens marrying into the British aristocracy.

The book contains no new or ground breaking research but it makes a good introductory read to an era in history where the British aristocracy attempted to arrest their decline by looking across the ocean for that injection of cash while the American new rich were hungry for social validation. In the end, it proved to be a chimera – the decline of the aristocracy was irreversible while growing influence abroad would make Americans realise that they didn’t need coronets and titles to be accepted.

 

Book Review: The Long Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood

In The Pursuit of Power, Professor Sir Richard J. Evans noted that “British industrialists seemed to many to be to be too keen on ploughing their fortunes into becoming country landowners, rather than reinvesting them into productive technological innovation,” and this observation is noticeable in Adrian Tinniswood’s The Long Weekend which charts country house living between the wars. Although the First World War’s economic and social effects further accelerated the decline of the British aristocracy that began in the 1870s, Tinniswood’s latest tome demonstrates that the country house and the old ways of living were not yet in their death throes but still surviving: albeit on a form of artificial life support.

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It is true that the high taxes imposed following the war and the loss of a generation led to the selling off of huge tracts of land and sometimes entire estates. Houses were also sold and while some were converted to other uses such as for housing, offices, schools, museums, hospitals and even as monasteries and convents, others were demolished and only live on in old photographs and magazine features.  However despite the destruction of a large number of country homes and the dispersal of several estates, many of these homes and estates found new owners while some like the Duke of Portland were even able to expand their homes.

The building and acquisition of country houses during this period was spearheaded by the royal family and the new rich drawn from the banking and entrepreneurial class. After the First World War, King George V had broadened the pool by which his children could find suitable spouses: which meant that, unlike previous centuries, members of the aristocracy were no longer out of bounds as royal marriage partners. His only daughter Princess Mary married the heir to the earldom of Harewood in 1922 and through this marriage the Princess became chatelaine of Harewood House with its impressive Robert Adam and John Carr interiors and gardens landscaped by “Capability” Brown. The union between royalty and aristocracy was further cemented by the marriages of the Duke of York and Duke of Gloucester to Ladies Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott respectively, which led them to set up homes in the manner befitting their status as royal dukes and allow their wives to continue living the lifestyle they had been accustomed to. Meanwhile the Duke of Kent’s marriage a foreign royal, Princess Marina of Greece, led him to acquire Coppins in Buckinghamshire (left to him by his aunt Princess Victoria in her will) which served as an introduction to English country life for the Duchess who with her impecunious upbringing was more used to life in the city.

Their bachelor brother the Prince of Wales acquired his own country house, Fort Belvedere and lived a life that combined both the traditional and modern. While he indulged in traditional country pursuits such as hunting (which he gave up in the mid-1920s), shooting and gardening,  the way he entertained family and friends was a marked contrast to his parents and the older generation. For a start, the food he served his guests was inspired by his travels abroad particularly America. Cocktails and jazz music interposed with the usual games such as cards and charades was also much a staple of dinners and house parties given by the Prince. He and his guests also swam, played tennis and picnicked in the grounds. Informality and comfort were also watchwords at Fort Belvedere, where guests would help themselves during meals and furniture was arranged in such a way as to encourage free flowing conversation. All these were a far cry from the more staid dinners and house parties at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral.

As mentioned earlier despite the demolition of several country houses, the interwar years also saw the building of new country houses mostly for those who made their money in finance and trade such as the Sassoons and Courtaulds, as well as Americans such as William Randolph Hearst and Harry Gordon Selfridge. Other Americans were content to purchase demolished houses that were transported brick by brick to America, or fixtures that were incorporated into homes, office buildings and hotels. There is nothing new about the likes of the new rich such as Sir Philip Sassoon acquiring a country house as this was precisely one way by which nouveaux riche arrivistes could be accepted and in time join the aristocracy, but perhaps echoing Professor Evans’ quote that industrialists were more concerned about becoming aristocratic landowners than reinvesting their fortunes into industry was one of the reasons why eventually Britain fell behind further in industry and manufacturing.

These new country homes such as Eltham Palace and Port Lympne were built with the latest comforts: en suite bathrooms, electricity and heating. Two names recur time and again in this book – Sir Edwin Lutyens and Philip Tilden. Both were busy with designing or modernising houses ranging from the magnificent Castle Drogo for the entrepreneur Julius Drewe to Chartwell for Winston Churchill during the years between the wars. This was also the period when interior design was becoming a recognised profession and an acceptable career for aristocratic and upper middle class women who had fallen on hard times. A notable example was Sibyl Colefax who with her eye for design and colour as well as her social contacts became the interior decorator of choice for those in society building a new home or updating an old one.

Tinniswood is a master story teller with an eye for detail and he weaves both into his narrative. There is for instance an account of a day in the life of the future Edward VIII in residence at Fort Belvedere that put paid to King George V’s grumbling that his oldest son only wanted that “queer old place” for “those damned weekends”. Gardening, golf and quiet evenings doing needlework or playing the bagpipes are certainly a far cry from the Jazz Age stereotypes of dancing the Charleston while quaffing copious amounts of cocktails. There are also descriptions of the lifestyle of the likes of the Dukes of Westminster and Devonshire who still carried on as their predecessors had lived; the former especially with his various houses around Britain also had a hunting lodge in northern France and two yachts that could be described as “country houses at sea” with their panelled wood and Queen Anne furniture.

But Tinniswood is at his best when he writes about those who were the engine that kept the country house ticking – the servants. Although service became an even less attractive career after the First World War, the great houses such as those of the Astors at Cliveden still had a full retinue of servants that included a butler, housekeeper, lady’s maid, valet, cook, kitchen staff, maids, footmen and those who worked outdoors. The “servant problem” was more acutely felt among the poorer members of the aristocracy and middle class households but even grand households grappled with their own version thanks to to the high turnover of staff, especially among the junior ranks of maids, footmen and kitchen maids. Using Herbert Parker as a case study, Tinniswood charts the changing fortunes of someone who made his career in domestic service through the eleven households and various country houses Parker worked for and the author brings home the point that the high turnover of servants was down to factors such as desire for promotion, higher pay, ability to get on with the employer and colleagues as well as prestige.

Despite the anecdotes of house parties, shooting weekends and the progress of the likes of the Duke and Duchess of York or the Duke of Westminster, the reality was that they were clinging on to a way of life that was in its death throes and which would come to an end in 1939. The Long Weekend is a poignant look at country house life deftly mixed with the political, social, cultural and even artistic conditions of the interwar period in a way that Downton Abbey had the chance to show but consistently and inexplicably failed to present.

Book Review: The Housekeeper’s Tale by Tessa Boase

 

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There have been several books written about domestic service as whole and memoirs from cooks such as Margaret Powell (Below Stairs) and Mollie Moran (Aprons and Silver Spoons), lady’s maids such as Rosina Harrison (The Lady’s Maid) and a butler/valet such as Charles Smith (Fifty Years with Mountbatten) but the housekeeper remains an enigma. During the 19th century, the position of housekeeper was the highest that a working class woman could expect to achieve if she entered service and didn’t marry. Despite the housekeeper looming large in literature, film and television from the malevolent Mrs Danvers from Rebecca to the kindly Mrs Fairfax in Jane Eyre and the perceptive Mrs Hughes from Downton Abbey, the real life stories of housekeepers have remained more or less unexplored.

Tessa Boase attempts to redress this omission with her first book The Housekeeper’s Tale which charts the history of the housekeeper from the early 19th century until the present. Eschewing a conventional chronological narrative, she tells their stories by using case studies to chart the changes in the role of the housekeeper and the diversity of the role from managing a grand household, to having to cope with a major war and to becoming virtually a maid of all works as service as an industry declined – down to the present where the two way radio has replaced the chatelaine as the housekeeper’s main helper.

Boase’s narrative spans nearly 150 years of history from the Great Reform Act in 1832 until 1971 when service was already a relic of an earlier era. She charts the rise and fall of the housekeeper through Dorothy Doar of Trentham Hall, Sarah Wells of Uppark down to Ellen Penketh of Erddig then Hannah Mackenzie of Wrest Park and finally Grace Higgens of Charleston. All these five women were silent witnesses to history and how it impacted their own lives and the houses and families they worked for.

As the five case stories point out, the role of a housekeeper was one of great power and responsibility. She was responsible for hiring and sacking of housemaids as well as seeing to their welfare. In addition she was in charge of the linen cupboard and the supplies, being the public face of the house for tourists when the family were away and in charge of the household budget: and was the mistress’s right hand woman when it came to planning of dinners, balls, house parties and the overall running of the house. In today’s terms, a housekeeper was equal to a line manager, event planner, visitor services supervisor, finance officer and human resources director all rolled into one.

However to be a housekeeper was also to be in a vulnerable position. The power and responsibility that she had been entrusted with could be used against her especially when it came to money, and overseeing the household could leave her open to charges of theft and abuse. Additionally, the position could also be a lonely one – too lowly for upstairs but too senior for downstairs, impossible to fraternise with anyone and personality clashes with her employers and/or colleagues could make her work difficult. In the end, the housekeeper was solely reliant on her employer’s goodwill and if she was sacked the housekeeper would be left with no home and crucially no reference that would enable her to land another position.

And contrary to what fiction and period drama especially would have led us to believe, the housekeeper’s work was hard. She might not be doing the cleaning and scrubbing herself but having to delegate, to set the budget, to balance the books and ensure that the household was running smoothly rested on her shoulders. A mistress’ reputation rested on the quality of her entertaining and the overall appearance of the house – in short, she had to be seen to be “presenting magnificence” in order to entertain and impress so the housekeeper’s role was very crucial here and as Boase demonstrates in her prologue which chronicles the recruitment process undertaken to select a new housekeeper for Hatfield House in 1890, it could be a laborious one. Given who the employer was – the third Marquess of Salisbury,three times Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary –  it was a daunting task as the Salisburys (as befitting their rank and status) entertained frequently and were also away from Hatfield for long periods of time. Hence they needed a housekeeper who was effective, efficient and trustworthy.

Out of Boase’s five case studies, only one had more or less a happy ending and that was Grace Higgens who for nearly four decades was housekeeper for Duncan and Vanessa Bell. Despite the sometimes difficult relationship with the Bells (especially Vanessa), Grace was seen as a highly valued member of the Bell household and while Vanessa was unhappy that Grace married and started a family, the Higgenses became part of the household. When she finally retired after decades of service, Grace and her husband Walter were able to live comfortably in a house purchased with proceeds from the sale of an earlier house and a modest dabbling on the stock market, savings and cash presents from her employer. Centrally heated and containing the latest home appliances as well as with a kitchen fitted with the latest gadgets and adorned with paintings that were presented to her as gifts from Vanessa and other artists from the Bloomsbury Group, it was a far cry from the conditions Grace was born into and later had to work in. No way would she retire into an old cottage with an unreliable Aga and no central heating.

Others were not so fortunate. Dorothy Doar and Ellen Penketh left their positions under a cloud with both women accused of theft. In Doar’s case her second pregnancy was the catalyst for the accusations of theft that led her to being sacked while Penketh had to undergo a public humiliation when she was taken to court by her employer, Mrs Simon Yorke. Hannah Mackenzie on the other hand lost her position a year into the First World War when it was decided that Wrest Park, which had been converted into a military hospital, then had to be run on a more businesslike way. There could have been another reason for her dismissal but Mackenzie was able to find better employment in America as housekeeper to a scion of the wealthy Vanderbilt family.

Then there was Sarah Wells, mother of the novelist H.G Wells who was housekeeper to Fanny Fetherstonhaugh, a woman who by her sister’s marriage to a local landowner was able to rise from her humble origins to being a chatelaine of a country estate. The fact that both women knew each other when Fanny Fetherstonhaugh was still Fanny Bullock was not lost on Wells and as Boase writes, eventually this friendship counted for nothing when after years of loyal service both as lady’s maid and housekeeper, Sarah Wells was sacked without much of a kind word much less a pension.

The Housekeeper’s Tale manages to deftly weave social, political, economic and demographic history through these five women aided by meticulous research and delving into long forgotten primary source material. It succeeds in putting the housekeeper back into the main narrative and adds their voice alongside that of the cooks, lady’s maids and butlers on what it was really like to be in service.

Note: This is a review of the paperback edition which was published in 2015.

 

Books to ease your Downton Abbey withdrawals (Part 2 – Fiction & Academic)

For part 1 – see here

FICTION:

Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man

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The first in a trilogy, like The Shooting Party this is England before the Great War, but instead of the landed classes Sassoon writes an autobiographical portrait of English country life as it was for the minor gentry. Mellow, nostalgic and in the words of a contemporary review, bathed in a golden atmosphere of orchards, horse tack, linseed oil and leather bound, unopened books. Nostalgia at its finest.

 

Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

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The second part of the trilogy and a fictionalised story of Sassoon’s experiences on the Western Front that drove him to express his opposition to the war. Like Brittain, deeply personal and moving (but a great deal shorter).

 

L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between

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A apparent pastoral idyll hiding betrayal, love, deceit and desire and a young boy’s awakening to the realisation of how adults can use each other and even children to get what they want if they want it badly enough. Like so many of our choices, set just before World War One in the hot summer of 1900 and portraying a way of life that was within a decade to disappear for ever.

 

Isabel Colegate – The Shooting Party

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A short but flawless novel that is a snapshot of the Edwardian upper classes at play on the brink of war – confident, certain of their place in the world and the superiority of their class and country but with the first hairline cracks of uncertainty starting to appear.

 

C.S. Forester – The General

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Writing these comments it’s very noticeable that for our choices war or the imminence of war is a theme, and of course that’s inevitable if you are exploring the era when Downton is set – Julian Fellowes must be the only writer I’ve come across who writes about this period and apart from one series manages to pretty much ignore the very large historical fact of World War One and its effects on people decades after it ended. This is a superb novel about a decent, brave and wholly unimaginative man who is far from evil or wicked yet sends men to appalling slaughter. CS Forester has long been one of my favourite writers and he had a fascination for flawed, awkward people: and while the author recognises his hero’s flaws and failings are inevitable because of his lack of imagination, he also does him justice as a human being. One of the must reads on this list.

 

J.L Carr – A Month in the Country

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A damaged survivor of the Great War recalls the summer of 1920 he spent in Yorkshire: how the village and its people were a place of refuge, healing, love and friendship, and a precious memory he has carried with him for years. Lyrical and beautifully written.

 

Winifred Holtby – South Riding

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Set slightly later than Downton Abbey, this is a novel about the lives, loves and politics of  a town in 1930s Yorkshire – blighted by the war and coming to terms with significant social change.

 

Vita Sackville-West – The Edwardians

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A thinly disguised account of Knole and members of the Sackville-West family, this novel published in 1930 explores dual themes such as tradition and change, duty and pleasure. While this can be seen as a critique of the emptiness and vacuity of the aristocracy and their way of life it also represents a labour of love for Vita in her description of Knole, its history and the symbiotic relationship of the house with everyone who depends on it for a living.

 

P.G. Wodehouse – Blandings novels

No mention of the post WW1 era would be complete without a mention of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings novels. Set at an indeterminate period between 1918 and 1939, they evoke a golden age of the middle and upper classes wholly unthreatened by punitive increases in taxation, social unrest, Bolshevism, socialism or any of the concerns of real life in the 20s and 30s. Like Downton Abbey they exist in an idealised bubble where the aristocracy are supreme  and everyone except his family defers to the earl while having their own (not necessarily flattering) opinions about him. Unlike Downton Abbey however they evoke the period with tiny but deft touches, are superbly written and very funny.

 

 

ACADEMIC:

 

David Cannadine – The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

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Before the 1870s, the British aristocracy was at the height of its power but in less than a decade later their long descent into impotence and irrelevance had begun. Cannadine’s magisterial study charts their decline and fall aided and abetted by a combination of new challenges from other socio-economic groups for long marginalised and were now challenging and battling the aristocracy for power and control, punitive taxation, and from industry and cheap imports from abroad. The First World War and its aftermath led to a huge blow from which the aristocracy has never recovered since. Highly recommended.

 

Diane Urquhart – The Ladies of Londonderry: Women and Political Patronage

Aristocratic women like their middle and working class counterparts might not have legal and political rights but they could make a difference through their charity work; patronage of the arts, sciences, religion and education and  entertaining. Using the Marchionesses of Londonderry as a case study, Urquhart examines how their work and efforts particularly in the field of charity, the war effort and political entertaining have had mixed results but all the time wholly consistent with the aristocratic notion of public service and duty.

 

Maureen E. Montgomery -‘Gilded Prostitution’: Status, Money and transatlantic marriages, 1870-1914

It wasn’t only in Britain where transatlantic marriages between the aristocracy and American heiresses were unpopular but also in America where following a backlash, they were increasingly being seen as unpatriotic, a betrayal of the American Dream and the ideals of the Founding Fathers. At the risk of sounding like Samuel Huntington here, this was a “clash of civilisations” where the values of the New World in which egalitarianism and merit reigned supreme were being challenged by the desire for status and social acceptance.

 

Jose Harris – Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914

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Charting changes in British society in the forty odd years before WW1 around themes such as demography, family and household, property, work, religion, society and state; Harris presents a succinct and well-argued view that the notion of public virtue is what kept Britain relatively stable despite its own social and economic problems and how social policy was increasingly becoming the concern of the state thereby laying the foundations of the welfare state that came into being following the Second World War.

 

Dominic Lieven – The Aristocracy in Europe 1815-1914

A comparative study of the British, German and Russian aristocracies, Lieven charts how they met the challenges facing their class and their countries and deduces some common threads that were the factors for the decline and fall of the British, German and Russian aristocracies namely the rise of the middle class, industrialisation and professionalism in the military, civil service and the government.

 

Andrew Adonis – Making Aristocracy Work: The Peerage and the Political System in Britain, 1884-1914

While Cannadine’s study looks at a broader picture of the decline and fall of the aristocracy, Adonis’ work focus more on the aristocracy from a purely political aspect and argues that not only was their power steadily eroded by the growing number of middle and working class MPs but crucially the clash over the budgets in 1909 and 1910 paved the way for the Parliament Act on 1911 which signalled the end of the House of Lords’ power of veto and a blow from which they have never recovered.

 

Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds) Currents of Radicalism: Popular radicalism, organised labour and party politics in Britain, 1850-1914

These collection of essays charts the rise of radicalism and the labour movement becoming a political force in Britain challenging both the aristocracy and the middle classes but at the same time working with these groups to ensure that grievances against pay, working conditions and being denied the vote were taken seriously and acted upon.

 

Bloggers’ Recommendations:

A.L. Carr                         A Month in the Country

Isobel Colegate            The Shooting Party

Vera Brittain                Testament of Youth

David Cannadine        The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

C.S. Forester                 The General

Catherine Bailey         Black Diamonds

 

Books to ease your Downton Abbey withdrawals (Part 1 – Non fiction)

Downton Abbey has come to an end both in the UK and the US but if you are interested in the era the programme is set (as we are) then these books hopefully will give you a greater insight into this period and what life was like in Britain in the late 19th to the early 20th century. Ignore all other lists; this is the one you need.

PART 1: NON-FICTION

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan – The Glitter and the Gold

the glttier and the gold

Published in 1953 when Consuelo was already in her seventies this autobiography dwells on her childhood, her unhappy marriage to and divorce from the 9th Duke of Marlborough to her work with the poor and support for women’s suffrage and finally her second marriage to French aviator Jacques Balsan. Of particular interest here is Consuelo’s account of life as a duchess and chatelaine of Blenheim Palace which depicts a way of life in its Indian summer before its eventual demise during the First World War.

 

Anne de Courcy – Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry, The Viceroy’s Daughters, 1939: The Last Season, Margot at War: Love and Betrayal at Downing Street 1912-1916

The-Viceroy-s-Daughters     margot at war

This quartet of books from Anne de Courcy explores the lives of Edith Londonderry, the daughters of Lord Curzon and Margot Asquith where she weaves their lives amidst the social and political realities of the times they live in where their privileged lives were simply a façade for the growing impotence of the class they belong to and which all would come to an end with Armageddon in 1939.

 

Catherine Bailey – Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty, The Secret Rooms

black diamonds     the secret rooms

Catherine Bailey’s well researched books on the Fitzwilliam family and the 9th Duke of Rutland has all the ingredients that make Downton Abbey pale in comparison. From missing documents to forbidden love to betrayal to subterfuge to mysterious births and deaths; the stories of the Fitzwilliams and the 9th Duke do lend credence to the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction

 

Mary Lovell – The Mitford Girls

mitford girls

The death of Deborah Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2014 marked the end of an era and Mary Lovell’s biography of the famous and infamous six Mitford sisters provides a snapshot of what it was like for an aristocratic family to be a casualty of the prolonged agricultural slump that has decimated the fortunes of many in the aristocracy. The sisters’ close relationship with one another make good reading – how it was tested time and again and in some cases unable to withstand the changing political and economic conditions that engulfed their class.

 

Loelia Duchess of Westminster – Grace and Favour

Mabell Countess of Airlie – Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie

Lady Cynthia Asquith – Remember and Be Glad, Haply I May Remember

What was it like to be an upper class woman where you had to be strictly chaperoned until you were married? Where your education was haphazard and anything that was deemed to be unladylike was actively discouraged? Where discussion of awkward and difficult subjects was avoided? Let Loelia Westminster, Mabell Airlie and Cynthia Asquith be your guides through a vanished world where strict morality, a sense of propriety prevailed and the shenanigans of a Lady Mary, Lady Edith or Lady Rose would have been commented upon and not tolerated.

 

Mollie Moran – Aprons and Silver Spoons

Flo Wadlow – Over a Hot Stove

Rosina Harrison – The Lady’s Maid

moran memoirsReaders might wonder why we do not have Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs but we believe that her account is only one side of the story and it’s easy to forget that she did not work for the aristocracy or even the untitled gentry. For those of you who are wondering how a real life Mrs Patmore or Miss O’Brien might have coped and what life could have been like in an aristocratic household then the reminiscences of Mollie Moran, Flo Wadlow and Rosina Harrison will present another side of the story overlooked by Margaret Powell.

 

Frances Osborne – The Bolter

bolter

This could be subtitled The Marriages of Idina Sackville, a woman who could “whistle a chap off a branch” and frequently did. From scandalising Edwardian London to organising wife swapping parties in Kenya, this is a highly entertaining account of an earl’s daughter who pushed the boundaries of behaviour to extremes. Fascinating and repelling at the same time.

 

Vera Brittain – Testament of Youth

testament of youth

One of the best memoirs of World War One – poignant, at times agonising and at all times deeply personal, although for me it sags after the end of the war when Brittain talks at great lengths about her political and social justice ambitions and interests. One comment that was made when this came out is that it’s written as if Brittain was the only woman to lose a fiancé during the war, and she’s certainly self-absorbed throughout, but a worthwhile read as a contemporary account of Britain from peace to war and back again.

 

Phyllida Barstow – The English Country House Party

A description of the golden age of the English country house party from the death of Prince Albert in 1861 to the outbreak of war in 1914. An intimate and entertaining account of a vanished world and a vanished class that uses diaries, fiction and personal memoirs to convey a world that was not just about enjoyment but served serious social and political purposes.

 

Gail McColl and Carol Wallace – To Marry an English Lord

marry an english lord

One of the inspirations for Downton Abbey was the career of the Buccaneers – young American heiresses who came to Britain with the intention of marrying into the peerage. 1895 was the peak year for this social phenomenon, and eventually more than 100 heiresses exchanged their fortunes for British titles. Why they came, what they found, how they were supposed to behave, what it was like to be a peeress and what happened when – as often was the case – these marriages foundered are all entertainingly catalogued, with plenty of contemporary drawings and photographs.

 

Jerry White – Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War

zeppelin nights

London in 1914 was the chief city of the British Empire and with the declaration of war became, in the words of one review, one of the greatest killing machines in human history…the war changes London for ever…yet despite daily casualty lists, food shortages and enemy bombings, Londoners are determined to get on with their lives… patriots and pacifists, clergymen and thieves, bluestockings and prostitutes…a struggling yet flourishing city. It’s four years in the city’s long history told by focusing on the daily lives of Londoners, whether they were rich or poor, high or low.

 

Juliet Nicholson – The Great Silence: 1918-1920, Life in the Shadow of the Great War

great silence

A book about the two years from the end of the Great War to the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, and a solid and often moving account of the devastation effects of war and grief on the British of all classes and as the title implies, stoically endured in a silence that had come to an awareness that after four years of war reality was too much for words to describe. Like water moving under ice, Nicholson shows that despite everything people survived and coped and tentatively at last began to hope for happiness again.

 

Virginia Nicholson – Singled Out

singled out

This is an exploration of the lives of a generation of women who were deprived of marriage and motherhood by the carnage of war and the lives they made for themselves as they challenged convention, coped with adversity and in the process proved to themselves and others that men, marriage and babies were not the only future for women.

 

Elisabeth Kehoe – Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters

fortunes daughters

The most famous of the Buccaneers could arguably be Jennie Jerome but her two sisters Leonie and Clara also married into the British aristocracy and gentry. Elisabeth Kehoe’s fascinating biography chronicles the social ambitions of their mother and how through her sheer force of will and the sisters’ beauty and charm they married into the aristocracy in the process establishing themselves into society and becoming confidantes to politicians, royals and other prominent people of their day.

 

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart – Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in the Gilded Age

A dual biography of Consuelo Vanderbilt and her mother Alva, Stuart charts the events that shaped Alva’s social climbing ambitions and how Consuelo was instrumental to that plan. What is fascinating is how both women turned to good causes as society lost it allure and their marriages floundered under stress and strain – with their work for the poor, sick and women’s rights. And it is through public service and their respective second marriages that both mother and daughter find fulfilment and happiness.

 

Pamela Horn – Country House Society, Life in a Victorian Household, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant, Life in the Victorian Country House, Ladies of the Manor, Life Below Stairs: the real lives of servants the Edwardian era to 1939, Women in the 1920s, High Society: The English Social Elite 1880-1914

Pamela Horn was a lecturer on social history at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) and is an acknowledged expert on British society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her books all draw from various primary sources such as letters, diary entries, newspaper and magazine articles and census reports to flesh out how men and women both high and low really lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

Robert Wainwright – Sheila: The Australian Ingénue who Bewitched British Society

sheila

Once the novelty of marrying American heiresses wore off, British aristocrats began to look more into the daughters of home grown industrialists and those from the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) for potential brides seeing them as preferable to Americans. Among these women from the Dominions who took British society by storm was Sheila Chisholm an Australian who married the heir to the earldom of Rosslyn and attracted a string of admirers among them the future George VI who fell passionately in love with her. Wainwright deftly places Sheila at the heart of a society outwardly moving on from the First World War but still reeling from its effects under the surface only to meet its demise during the Second World War.

 

Martin Pugh – We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars

Martin Pugh suggests in the title that it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Britain during the years following the First World War. While the interwar years was a period of strikes, economic decline and growing impotence on the global stage it was also an era of the rise of consumer society, greater choice, improvements in science and technology and greater democratisation of society.

 

The Duchess of Devonshire – Chatsworth: The House

Like her sisters Nancy, Diana and Jessica; Deborah also developed a career in writing on the side and this excellent coffee table book charts the history of Chatsworth House and the previous dukes and duchesses who have made it their home. It also serves as a guided tour of one of Britain’s leading visitor attractions and bringing to life how the house has adapted to the changing times and changing needs of those who live and work under its roof.

 

Lucy Lethbridge – Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th century Britain

Jeremy Musson – Up and Down Stairs

servants  up and downstairs

Tracing the rise, apogee and eventual decline of domestic service, both Lethbridge and Musson makes an excellent stab at portraying domestic service in all its diversity and complexity and that it wasn’t all black and white when it came to servants and employers but it was in varying shades of grey.

 

Mark Girouard – Life in the English Country House

An architectural historian, Giorouard traces the development of the country house over the last 500 years in respond to changing times, fashions, needs and attitudes.

 

Anita Leslie – Edwardians in Love

Contrary to what has been claimed by the Downton PR machine, the people of the past are not empathically like us. As LP Hartley wrote in The Go-Between, “the past is a different country, they do things differently there.” Leslie, a cousin of Winston Churchill describes in great detail the loves and passions of the Edwardian upper classes, the rules they had to strictly adhere to and their views on love, relationships, marriage and adultery which by the standards of today can be seen as hypocritical and even unpalatable.

 

Tessa Boase – The Housekeeper’s Tale

housekeepers tale

Charting the history of the housekeeper from the 19th century to the present by using case studies, Tessa Boase depicts that there is more to the housekeeper than Mrs Hughes. While the position comes with power and responsibility, it is also fraught with hidden danger where one false move and the housekeeper finds herself with no job, no place to stay and no reference. Oftentimes a footnote in history, Boase places the housekeeper central stage and traces the changes in domestic service through their eyes.

 

Roy Hattersley – The Edwardians

Andrew Marr – The Making of Modern Britain

edwardians  modern britain

The Edwardian era is oftentimes seen as a period of the Belle Epoque of balls, dances and dinners where men in white tie and tails mingled with women in sumptuous evening gowns and jewels. But underneath the glitter and glamour was a society on a cusp of change where royalty and aristocracy were being supplanted by the middle class while march of science and technology was rendering the old ways of doing things obsolete and a whole group of people both men and women were no longer content to be simply seen as subjects but were flexing their muscles and demanding to be heard and to be taken seriously by the powers that be. Both are a must read as an overview of British history from 1901 to 1939.

 

Jeremy Paxman – Great Britain’s Great War

Kate Adie – Fighting the Home Front

Terry Charman – The First World War on the Home Front

great war

One of the wasted potentials of Downton Abbey was to explore the First World War in any meaningful way and as befitting the first mechanised and total war in history how it even pervaded the home front. Paxman, Adie and Charman explore the effects of the war in Britain, how everyone rich and poor, high and low were affected and a hundred years later still resonate in the British psyche.

 

For part 2 – see here

Book Review: Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand

The release of the film Suffragette late in 2015 brought the spotlight back on the efforts of several British women during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for women to have the same voting rights as men. Leaving aside the various shortcomings of the film, its biggest limitations were its inability to tackle all aspects of the movement or even subject it to in-depth analysis. For that, we will have to turn to other means such as books, articles, biographies, etc to obtain a more rounded picture of the struggles women faced in order to obtain the right to vote.

One of these is Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by BBC journalist Anita Anand: an admirable attempt to bring to the forefront a life that has been pushed to the shadows and more or less forgotten. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was born and lived in a time when the British Empire was at its height and lived to see it gradually dismantled. Her eventful life also saw her caught up with the winds of change that were to sweep Britain during the twentieth century and as the book’s title suggest, she would play her part in helping bring about some of these changes.

sophia by anita anand cover-xlarge

Born in 1876 to the exiled Maharajah Duleep Singh and his half German and half Abyssinian wife Maharani Bamba, she was christened Sophia Alexandrovna: the second name being the Maharajah’s way of honouring Queen Victoria, who agreed to become the girl’s godmother. While she and her siblings were raised in the conventional upper class way, their foreign name and skin colour would always mark them out as being different, yet their royal connections and their friendships with leading members of the aristocracy meant that the family was at the heart of the Establishment.

Anand goes back to the history of how Punjab was formally annexed into the British Empire to explain how the Maharajah came to settle in Britain, marry, raise a family and live the life of a British aristocrat. A son of Ranjit Singh, the “Lion of the Punjab”, Duleep was installed as maharajah as an infant after two half-brothers and their sons met their ends in highly suspicious circumstances brought about by infighting among Ranjit Singh’s family. This power vacuum was seized upon by the British East India Company who finally invaded the Punjab and by now, eleven years old, the Maharajah Duleep signed away his kingdom and his fortune (including the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond) in exchange for a pension from the British government. Under the care of a well-respected British doctor in India, John Spencer Login and his wife, Duleep converted to Christianity, began to receive an education befitting an English gentleman and at the age of 15, left India for Britain to finally meet Queen Victoria. From the moment he arrived in Britain, Duleep was well received at Court and became an intimate of the Royal Family which led to the doors of aristocratic homes being open to him as well.

Provided with money from the government and with a wide circle of friends, Duleep married and established himself as a squire with a country estate in Suffolk, Elveden and a house in London where his wife gave birth and raised their six children. However by the time Sophia was a child, the cracks in this family idyll began to show as the Maharajah, testing the limits to what the British government had provided for him, began to plan regaining his kingdom, then abandoning his wife and family for another woman only to die in poverty but reconciled with Queen Victoria.

In part two we get to know more about Sophia as she grew up: as befitting an upper class girl and a goddaughter to Queen Victoria, Sophia and her sisters were presented at Court and subsequently enjoyed the life of a typical upper class woman. She was given a grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace; went to parties, balls and other social events and became well known for her fashion sense, her passion for cycling and being a dog breeder. It was only during a trip to India with her older sister Bamba that her political sensibilities were awakened.

Bamba,_Catherine_and_Sophia  1910-Sophia-Suffragette-Duleep-Singh-fixed

Although she was a supporter of Indian independence, it was her backing for the suffragette movement that became the main driving force in Sophia’s life. She donated money to the cause, attended meetings, handed out leaflets, took part in marches and even refused to take part in the 1911 Census where she defaced her form with the note: “No vote, no census. As women do not count, they refuse to be counted, and I have a conscientious objection to filling in this form.” While many of her fellow suffragettes suffered from heavy handedness from the police and force feeding in prison, Sophia much to her chagrin was untouched. Clearly, her royal and aristocratic connections were a huge factor and the authorities, mindful of her support for Indian nationalism, were wary of turning her into a martyr.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Sophia turned to nursing and raising funds for the war effort and although she was unable to speak Hindustani, her presence was a source of comfort for Indian soldiers and officers who were being treated and convalescing in British hospitals. The years following the war saw Sophia living in more reduced circumstances and devoting her time to helping raise the child of her chauffeur and housekeeper as well as taking in evacuees during the Second World War where she treated them as her own. It is a testament to bond that she formed with these children that they have retained affectionate memories of her.

On the whole, Sophia stands out for Anand’s journalistic eye for detail where she evokes the history of the Duleep Singh family and bringing out Sophia’s personality and that of her siblings (all of who were larger than life in their own ways). In addition, Anand should also be commended for her efforts in adding to our knowledge of the suffragette movement through the eyes of Sophia Duleep Singh.

There are weaknesses however that appear most notably for instance what I see is the exaggeration of Sophia’s progressive credentials. We do not know what were her views on the role of religion and caste with regards to India’s problems, and for someone who was active in the fight for the women’s right to vote, what were her views on the deplorable state of Indian women then? In addition there is also the tendency to downplay that she was a more of a figurehead in the suffragette movement and in the end the suffragettes’ tactics did little to advance the cause of the women’s right to vote. Lastly was the presence of the wrong use of titles such as Lady Lytton instead of Lady Constance and Lord John French instead of Lord French which I put down to sloppy editing and proofreading but which mars an otherwise interesting read.

In the end, Sophia’s story is a timely reminder for women never to take their lives and rights for granted. As she told her goddaughter Drovna Oxley, “You are never, ever not to vote. You must promise me. When you are allowed to vote you are never, ever to fail to do so. You don’t realise how far we’ve come. Promise me.” As Mrs Oxley tells Anand, she has kept her promise ever since she reached voting age and to me, that is Sophia’s greatest legacy.

Blogger’s note:

This is a review of the paperback version of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary published in 2015 by Bloomsbury Press.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophia_Duleep_Singh