Book Review: The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook by Annie Gray Part 2

For part two of this review, I decided to try some recipes to see if they worked. As mentioned earlier, the book is divided into two parts – recipes for upstairs and for downstairs. Both parts are further subdivided into breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Browsing through the cookbook, there were recipes I immediately thought would be good to try while others were quickly dismissed for reasons I will outline in my conclusion.

As someone who works full time, my main qualifications for a recipe is it should require minimal preparation and it should be quick to cook. Sure I’ll do something more complicated but that’s usually restricted during the days when I’m off and when I have more time.

But I digress. From the recipes I thought would be a good idea to try, I decided on two that I would review for this blog and both of them are versions of dishes that we (me and my husband) cook and eat on a regular basis.

KEDGEREE (P. 34)

Kedgeree is a dish that is Indian in origin; the original is called khichri which is a mix of rice and dhal. This later evolved into a dish that contained smoked fish and became a staple in upper class Victorian and Edwardian breakfast buffets. At present kedgeree makes a good brunch or dinner dish, there’s something comforting about curry flavoured rice with flakes of smoked fish served piping hot.

I’ve been cooking this for years and my go-to recipe is that from Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. What attracted me to try this version is to see if I can make it the same way the Victorians did. My first impression was this was more like fried rice since it called for cooked rice rather than raw. There was also white fish instead of smoked and I was dubious about the cream. Instead of curry powder, the recipe called for cayenne pepper.

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Gray mentioned in her blog that the original source of the recipe was from a long forgotten cookbook entitled The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie (1909). Having examined a copy in the British Library, Lady Clark had three versions of kedgeree and I can safely assume that what’s in the Downton Abbey cookbook is a combination of all three.

When I made this dish, I reduced all the quantities by half and much like Delia’s version, it was easy to prepare and cook. The cream I later learned stopped the rice from going dry and helped keep the grains separate while mixing everything together. In addition this is a good recipe with which to use leftover cooked rice. However my husband thought this version was bland and while the method certainly worked, I will definitely use smoked fish and curry powder next time.

 

PRAWN CURRY (P. 135)

The first curries were introduced into the UK during the 18th century but it was via post-World War 2 immigration from the Indian subcontinent that familiarised Britons to a wide variety of curry dishes such as Jalfrezi, Rogan Josh and Korma. Curries have become such an integral part of the contemporary British culinary landscape that “having a curry” from a local takeaway has become a regular treat for many households.

Like the Kedgeree above, this Prawn Curry recipe is easy to prepare and it makes use of ingredients that could be found in my cupboard or easy to obtain from the local supermarket – curry powder, coconut milk, spinach, onion, prawns, etc. This recipe is also versatile, as Gray writes in the introduction; other seafood such as fish could be used and I would recommend this good way to get children to eat vegetables as well as introduce them (or anyone who isn’t familiar with the dish) to food that has more complex flavours.

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This brings me to my problem with this recipe as like with the kedgeree, it was bland. Perhaps this is not the recipe’s fault as we’ve been accustomed to eating more authentic curry and this one seemed to be more of a poor copy of the real McCoy. However, my husband suggested adding salmon to the recipe and adjusting the quantities of the spices to see if it makes a difference.

 

CONCLUSION

Both these recipes are from the upstairs section of the cookbook and I have to say that this tome is not really one that can be used for everyday meals, perhaps more for special occasions or during the weekend when one has more time to shop and prepare for meals in advance. As the Kedgeree and Prawn Curry have shown, many of the dishes have not aged well as either they have fallen out of fashion or in the case of the curries; they have been supplanted by more authentic ones that can be recreated at home due to access to the ingredients that can easily be found in supermarkets.

Other recipes are simply too complicated and labour intensive especially with today’s more time poor lifestyle (and no servants) and the reality that many of us live in flats where the kitchen would barely cover half in a country house. In addition many of the ingredients such as quail are simply expensive or inaccessible if one doesn’t live near a local butcher (or even if they stock it).

On the positive side however, the recipes gives the reader a glimpse into what people ate during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and while French cuisine and influence reigned supreme, there was also the influence of the British Empire. The recipes crucially also work, as Gray writes in a clear and concise style which reminds me of Delia Smith hence making them easy to follow.

 

Book Review: The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook by Annie Gray (Part 1)

When I heard that there was going to be an “official” cookbook based on the ITV drama and subsequent film Downton Abbey, my first reaction was that this was going to be a merchandising gimmick, until it was announced that it would be written by Annie Gray, a food historian who has appeared on several documentaries and TV programmes such as the Great British Bake Off and Victorian Bakers, as well as being a consultant for English Heritage’s popular Victorian Way series on You Tube. She is also a researcher and author whose book The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria has been published to good reviews.

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The cookbook is described by the publishers as “showcase[ing] the cookery of the Crawley household – from upstairs dinner party centrepieces to downstairs puddings and pies – and bring an authentic slice of Downton Abbey to modern kitchens and Downton fans……[w]hether adapted from original recipes of the period, replicated as seen or alluded to on screen, or typical of the time, all the recipes reflect the influences found on the Downton Abbey tables. Food historian Annie Gray gives a warm and fascinating insight into the background of the dishes that were popular between 1912 and 1926, when Downton Abbey is set – a period of tremendous change and conflict, as well as culinary development.”

Encompassing dishes served upstairs and downstairs and interposed with historical background about food and how and what people ate during the time frame Downton Abbey is set, Gray writes in an accessible way. Her enthusiasm and love for food shines through and the cookbook is peppered with tips and interesting historical information about each recipe.

It’s a shame for me that the introduction is fairly brief and this brings me to my main issue with this book. Much like the TV series and film, the cookbook skims over historical context such as the reality of food shortages during the First World War that led to rationing and stringent penalties on waste, hoarding and profiteering. Other major changes especially after 1918 came when greenhouses and kitchen gardens became very expensive to maintain, not to mention that the problem of hiring, let alone retaining servants became even more acute. This is the reason why after WW1 growing one’s own food and making one’s own condiments were slowly becoming a thing of the past. It was cheaper to buy produce and groceries from shops and supermarkets and many of the shops used by Britons today, such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, the Co-Op and Asda, slowly became nationwide chains during the interwar period.

While there is an acknowledgement that the reduction of courses served in the 1920s had something to do with the view that having 10-12 courses was seen as “silly and wasteful” as well as the emerging trend of dieting and wanting to be slim, the reality is that the vast majority of households high and low could no longer afford the army of cooks and kitchen maids needed to create the elaborate feasts that were a hallmark of Victorian and Edwardian cooking.

The other problem I have is the enumeration of change when apart from cosmetic changes and mention of new gadgets, when we see nothing of the sort in the TV series or the film. The mention of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany was baffling but it wasn’t until 1929 when they really came to national prominence. During the time Downton Abbey was set they were nothing more than a minor political party on the fringes of German political life. Gray also indicates how the Crawleys have tried to embrace the change around them but a cursory look of the TV series and the film shows the family still living in denial and only making adjustments to their lifestyle half-heartedly even if it’s obvious that they needed to take drastic measures if they were serious about putting their financial house in order.

Now – I understand that this is meant to be a cookbook and not a tome on the history of British food during the early 20th century, but I believe that a giving a much more rounded picture of the era is possible than this book has managed. In the end however, while it is a laudable attempt to correct the misconceptions perpetuated by the likes of “unofficial” cookbooks and blogs, this effort is nothing more than pandering to the aspirations of Downton fans who like to fantasise themselves as Lady Mary or Cora wafting around in expensive gowns, living in a big house (that is an expensive white elephant in reality) and attended to by a platoon of servants who would cater to their every whim. There are other books out there that give you a better insight into food and recipes from 1912 to 1927 such as Clarissa Dickson Wright’s A History of English Food or Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire and if you want to read something more substantial from Gray herself, I would highly recommend The Greedy Queen, not only is it a biography of Queen Victoria told through the prism of food but also shows in a more in-depth way how the food culture of Britain changed during her long reign.

 

For Part 2, I will be putting two main dishes to the test and for part 3, my husband will be attempting to bake a cake from the cookbook.

Victoria’s Bicentenary – A Review of Victoria series 3 (ITV) and Lucy Worsley’s Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow

2019 marks the bicentenary of Victoria and Albert’s births. There have already been books published, conferences as well as documentaries that attempts to shed new light or even (disappointingly) rehash the same old myths and out-dated information on the royal couple’s life and crucially that of Victoria’s life and reign.

After a hiatus in 2018, ITV’s popular drama Victoria made a return this year and this time is set between 1848 and 1851. By the time series 3 opens, Victoria and Albert already have five children (Victoria, Albert Edward, Alice, Alfred and Helena) and she will go on give birth to two more (Louise and Arthur). Also, Albert by this time has, not without some difficulty, also established himself as the power behind the throne. While I have not had the time to do my customary fortnightly recaps, here are some of the thoughts I assembled while watching the programme:

(For more detailed recaps, please visit the Armchair Anglophile)

THE GOOD:

  1. The royal children especially Vicky and Bertie – while the programme took care to show the (still growing) family, the main focal point was Vicky (Princess Royal) and Bertie (Prince of Wales) who would have been eight and seven in 1848. The characterisations of the two oldest children are spot on, with Vicky showing the precociousness that would mark her as Albert’s favourite child. Bertie on the other hand while aware of his destiny isn’t happy; he tells anyone who is listening that he doesn’t want to be king and that Vicky being the eldest should be the sovereign.Bertie’s tantrums about not wanting to be king are the least of his parents’ worries. While the bright Vicky doesn’t need pushing and cajoling with her lessons and her ability to absorb and retain knowledge, Bertie’s progress is slow and wanting compared to his sister. In desperation, Victoria and Albert consult a phrenologist George Coombe who studies Bertie’s head and the verdict isn’t good, as Coombe delivered his verdict: “The feeble quality of the brain will render the Prince highly excitable… intellectual organs are only moderately well developed. The result will be strong self-will, at times obstinacy.” While phrenology is now dismissed as a pseudo-science, Coombe’s verdict in some aspects would be eerily accurate.

 

  1. The Great Exhibition – series 3 concluded with the events leading to the Great Exhibition in 1851 and the final scene where Victoria, Albert and the rest of the family arrive at the Crystal Palace to officially open the exhibition was well done. It was obvious that the production designers did their research and studied contemporary accounts and illustrations in order to recreate that event.

 

THE BAD/INDIFFERENT:

  1. Mrs Skerrett – the way her character has been written was pure soap and series 3 was no different especially with the way she was written out. The real Mrs Skerrett actually never married and lived to a ripe old age; apart from being Victoria’s chief dresser she was also in charge of the junior ones and was the principal liaison between the Queen and milliners, dressmakers and jewellers. Crucially she also liaised with artists such as Edwin Landseer and William Powell Frith with regards to commissions for paintings. Still Nell Hudson’s portrayal of the kindly and competent dresser was for me well done and kudos to the writer for making the relationship between Skerrett and Victoria at least believable.

 

  1. Sophie Duchess of Monmouth – series 3 saw the introduction of a new Mistress of the Robes for Victoria in the person of Sophie Duchess of Monmouth (Lily Travers). I find the introduction of a fictional lady-in-waiting baffling considering that in real life, Victoria had several interesting women who attended to her: most notably Charlotte Countess Canning, who was married to George Earl Canning who was governor-general (and later first viceroy) of India. Charlotte kept up a correspondence with the Queen even after leaving royal service to join her husband in his Indian posting, and her letters provided Victoria with information about India from a woman’s perspective; which would have been absent in official documents sent by the government in India. The fictional Duchess of Monmouth’s background however is interesting as she’s revealed to be the daughter of a man who made his wealth in trade and that the Duke of Monmouth married her in order to save his crumbling estate and precarious finances, thus demonstrating an early example of the old landed aristocracy in alliance with the new industrial elite. The marriage is unsurprisingly unhappy and the duke always finds an excuse to belittle his wife for her inferior social background; something that the Queen is happy to overlook (again showing her lack of social as well as racial prejudice). Credit also to Daisy Goodwin for not writing Sophie as the stereotypical nouveau riche vulgarian and instead portray her as someone who is doing her best and is a devoted mother. In an interesting twist, part of the Monmouths’ storyline could be seen as a foreshadowing of the real life Mordaunts whose divorce would embroil the future Edward VII in scandal.

 

THE UGLY:

  1. The ropey timeline – while I acknowledge that certain events have to be condensed for dramatic purposes, the timeline leaves a lot to be desired. The cholera epidemic is one example, while this series is set between 1848 and 1851, the “Great Stink,” as the epidemic would be known, did not occur until 1858 and led to the pioneering work of Dr John Snow, who established the cholera was a water borne disease – not airborne as has been previously believed. Another is that of Sir Joseph Bazalgette whose design of a new sewage system for London would ensure that there would be no future repeats of the Great Stink of 1858.

 

  1. Princess Feodora – while the Duchess of Kent was MIA in series 3, her place was taken over by Victoria’s half-sister Princess Feodora of Hohenloe-Langenburg (Kate Fleetwood) who is depicted in the programme as arriving in Britain in the wake of the Revolution of 1848. While it’s nice to see more of Victoria’s family, my main objection is the way Feodora has been written and portrayed – the jealous sister who is a mainstay in fairy tales and soap operas. She causes mischief at court, attempts to drive a wedge between Victoria and Albert and is bitter about what she sees as Victoria’s good fortune. The Feodora we see in Victoria is the latest in a line of pantomime villains after Conroy and the Duke of Cumberland in the first two series. The real Princess Feodora (1807-1872) was no such person; despite the 11 year age gap between them she and Victoria were close all their lives and the fact that they were only half-siblings never occurred to them. Victoria was devastated when Feodora left in 1828 to marry an impoverished German prince Ernst of Hohenloe-Langenburg. The two sisters corresponded avidly and Feodora proved to be a source of advice and solace for Victoria especially after Albert’s death in 1861. Victoria meanwhile would help support Feodora’s children, the most notable being Prince Victor of Hohenloe-Langenburg (1833-1891) who settled in Britain as a naval officer and a noted sculptor.

 

  1. Lord Palmerston – in series 3 is played by Laurence Fox who is too young to portray the wily Foreign Secretary, and I believe this was a failed attempt to recapture the buzz that surrounded Rufus Sewell’s portrayal of Lord Melbourne in the first two series. Lighting never strikes twice; while Sewell is a good actor who could convince viewers of Lord Melbourne as a younger, romantic figure, it doesn’t quite work with Fox whose portrayal of Palmerston sometimes descends into parody. Still Fox does make a passable effort of depicting the foreign secretary as an oily politician who happily styles himself as a man of the people and a champion of oppressed peoples abroad seeking freedom and liberalism while being an absentee landlord in Ireland and opposing further reforms at home. The real Palmerston has been described as a “Conservative at home and a Liberal abroad” but his tenure as Home Secretary and Prime Minister where he introduced further reforms to the Factory Act as well as changes to existing penal laws demonstrated that he could be radical as well by the standards of the time. However it is for his time as Foreign Secretary that he is best remembered, he famously declared that Britain had no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests, and his foreign policy was consistent with that maxim. His willingness to challenge even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert earned him their distrust but for his role in defending Britain’s interests abroad he received the affection and support of most of the press and public who called him “Pam”.

victoria_launch_07

Series 3 is pretty much consistent with what we’ve seen with Victoria – romance and soap opera mixed with history. Yet again there were also indifferent subplots that didn’t go anywhere and an upstairs-downstairs relationship which I think didn’t really add anything to the overall narrative. In the end, Victoria’s problem is that it’s not quite able to resolve what the drama wishes to focus on – history or romance. What we get is a muddled mix of both.

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Having written previously about life at court under the Georgians and Jane Austen, Lucy Worsley has now set her sights on Queen Victoria. Published last year with the paperback version released this year to coincide with the bicentenary, the question now is does Worsley have anything new to say about Britain’s second longest reigning monarch?

I’ve always admired Worsley more as a writer than as a TV presenter and having enjoyed her different take on Jane Austen’s life through the homes she lived in, and she employs almost the same tactic with her biography of Queen Victoria. Rather than to go through the whole gamut of Victoria’s life, Worsley takes twenty four significant events in Victoria’s life and there’s none of the predictable ones such as the birth of her children, the Great Exhibition, the years following Albert’s death or her relationship with her various prime ministers. Instead Victoria’s story starts with the double wedding of the Dukes of Clarence and Kent in 1818, then there are encounters with leading personalities of the era such as Florence Nightingale and the Maharajah Duleep Singh as well as her visit to Benjamin Disraeli at his home Hughenden Manor among others.

While Worsley had access to major archives especially the Royal Archives at Windsor where Queen Victoria’s diaries and letters are kept, she has also drawn heavily on recent works on Victoria with at least one or two of rather dubious nature. For instance Julia Baird is described as a historian but she’s not, a quick Google search would tell Worsley that Baird is a journalist whose biography Victoria the Queen is (in my opinion) not a very good one and doesn’t really add anything new to our knowledge or understanding of Victoria.

The book is a good read but I have a few concerns. First I found her chapters on Duleep Singh and the Munshi (Abdul Karim) to be highly simplistic; while I acknowledge that India and the raj might not be Worsley’s forte and beyond the scope of her tome, the section on Duleep Singh was truncated (or bitin, as I would muse in Filipino) while that on the Munshi was mostly a basic rehash of “white British racist, Indian victim” narrative when in reality it was far more complicated than that. Secondly, we don’t really have an explanation about Sir John Conroy, why was he so controlling? Did it ever cross his mind that perhaps being a benevolent father figure rather than a bully to the young Victoria might have brought him the recognition that he so desired? These are never answered much less raised and I seriously doubt we’ll ever know the answer.

On the positive side, Worsley brings out well parallelisms between Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent – both women lonely, in need of male company and frightfully insecure. Just as the Duchess had Conroy as her support, Victoria during her reign leaned heavily on a succession of men either as father figures (in the person of Lord Melbourne), as Gods who could do no wrong (Albert) or as confidants (Disraeli and John Brown). While this seems to make out Victoria as a weak person, Worsley argues that in many ways Victoria underestimated herself.

No more is this more apparent during her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. While this marriage has always been portrayed as one of domestic bliss and romance, in recent years, historians have attempted to reassess the couple’s relationship and unearth that it wasn’t all hearts and flowers. I’ve always long suspected and Worsley confirms that Victoria was always more in love with Albert than he with her. Despite their shared interests and Victoria’s obvious pride at Albert’s achievements, the marriage was also punctuated by blazing rows and a mass of seething resentments. All of these began early on when Albert chafed at not being allowed to share in Victoria’s duties and where he was not even allowed any say in the royal nursery. Victoria on the other hand resented the constant pregnancies and found motherhood especially when her children were babies distasteful.

One aspect of the marriage which Worsley brings up especially in the chapter on Osborne House was Albert’s desire for control and this Italianate house which he designed was his domain. If Victoria was ever aware of Albert’s controlling nature, she chose to overlook it and held him as the standard to which her children especially her sons should aspire. However, Albert was not always the superman his wife and history would look up to – during the Crimean War, Albert bombarded the government with numerous memorandums with suggestions as how to improve things which the government more or less ignored. Victoria roused herself to do what she can for the morale of the troops and encourage Florence Nightingale in her pioneering nursing work. She knitted comforts for the soldiers, wrote letters of condolence to the bereaved, inspected hospitals and gave her name to a medal that was to be awarded to all ranks for valour.

It was Victoria’s approach that worked and was much appreciated; her efforts during the Crimean War was one that her successors have continued to utilise ever since. It was a sign of Victoria’s “emotional intelligence” and to underscore that someone high up cared for the welfare of the ordinary soldier and person; not just as a matter of policy or popularity, but as a deep-felt and genuine emotional connection.

Victoria was a complex woman and while there are far more weightier tomes out there that delve into this monarch’s life in greater detail, even with these mere twenty-four events, Worsley has more or less succeeded in bringing this queen who gave her name to an era in all her contradictions in an accessible way.

Period Piece: the memoir of Gwen Raverat

Subtitled A Cambridge Childhood, Period Piece is the memoir of Gwen Raverat (1885-1957), an art critic wood engraver and book illustrator as well as one of the founder members of the Society of Wood Engravers. Despite coming from a family of considerable intellectual distinction (an ancestor was Josiah Wedgwood , her grandfather was Charles Darwin, and cousins included the poet Frances Cornford and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, while her father and Darwin uncles were Cambridge dons), Raverat never alludes to this distinction except in passing. Names are dropped unselfconsciously into the narrative with no further explanation apart from the fact that they are members of the cats’ cradle of relationships that made up the Darwin clan and their friends, such as the writer EM Forster and author and critic Sir Leslie Stephen. Papa might have been Sir George Darwin, Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy, astronomer and mathematician, but to Raverat he was the father she loved with his brown beard, short legs and cold feet. She portrays the many foibles of her family with the dispassionate yet loving eyes of a child but an adult’s knowledge and delight in their idiosyncrasies. They might be famous, distinguished and talented but they are above all her family, and she depicts them and their foibles with the formidable powers of observation that in adulthood made her an accomplished artist with a worldwide reputation.

George Darwin by Gwen Raverat

Raverat’s mother was Maud du Puy, from Philadelphia. American, but not one of the Buccaneers, Maud came to Britain in 1883 to spend the summer in Cambridge with relatives. Judging by the letters quoted in the prelude chapter, some of Gwen’s acute eye for detail must have come from her mother, who seems thoroughly to have enjoyed what Raverat calls an Utopia of tea-parties, dinner-parties, boat-races, lawn tennis, antique shops, new bonnets, charming young men, delicious food and perfect servants. Maud and George Darwin married in 1884 in Philadelphia, and in 1885 they bought Newnham Grange in Cambridge, which became the family home described in chapter 2. They had four children, and Gwen was the eldest.

Maud Darwin

What Raverat calls her mother’s ‘sturdy American belief in independence’ seems to have allowed her children to have led a more freewheeling and existence than was generally employed by children of their class and era: although as she points out our liberty was only relative; we were only just a little more free than some of our contemporaries.

The figure of her Charles Darwin looms large over Raverat’s book. To her and her family he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas… of course it was very much to our credit, really, to have owned such a grandfather, but one mustn’t be proud, or show off about it. Her five Darwin uncles and her father seem to have been, despite their intellectual eminence, a group of ineffectual hypochondriacs who never emerged from the shadow of their father, and despite her affection for them Raverat seems to have regarded them with tolerant scorn.

 

“My grandfather said once: ‘I have five sons, and I have never had to worry about any one of them.’ Well, that is not quite right. One ought to have to worry sometimes about young people, because they ought to be growing out in new ways and experimenting for themselves. But my grandfather was so tolerant of their separate individualities, so broad-minded, that there was no need for his sons to break away from him; and they lived all their lives in his shadow.”

 

A review of the memoir describes Period Piece as like gorging in a literary sweetshop. Every aspect of Raverat’s late Victorian childhood has a fondant, fairy-tale texture, dusted with a sheen of sugary nostalgia. Raverat remembers the Cambridge of her childhood as a lucent world of tea-parties, lawn-tennis, new bonnets and remarkable young men. Life skips along with little vexation, though Raverat admits it might seem too perfect to be true: “There must have been some difficulties, even in those days,” she reflects. “Indeed, all the right sleeves of my mother’s dresses would keep getting too tight, from the constant tennis.” It then goes on to say that Raverat’s discreet cynicism is the worm at the heart of her paradise. Her unerring humour brings an adult perspective to bear on her childhood experience; throughout the book she mocks the things she celebrates.

Gwen aged 12

I wouldn’t altogether agree about the sweetness and sugary nostalgia, but I’d certainly agree about the cynicism, and I wonder if that was there at the time or comes from hindsight. Raverat clearly recalled her childhood and her relatives (especially her mother), with a great deal of affection, but the clarity of her observation is unsparing – while she describes a privileged, enjoyable and in many ways indulged upper middle class existence, she is also aware of the attendant squalor – the River Cam flowed past her childhood home, clogged with the town’s sewage – and the stifling proprieties and expectations, even of children. In the chapter “Ghosts and Horrors” she describes the other side of Cambridge and her personal discomforts – nightmares, children being beaten, being frightened by the lame crossing sweeper with a mutilated face, and seeing a drunken woman being carried in the street by some undergraduates. That, and her description when she is a student at the Slade of hearing a man beat his wife are a much darker undercurrent to the book than some of the publicity comments would have readers believe, and there’s a slowly dawning awakening that the word she and her family inhabit is a much more complex and darker one than she had realised. On the very last page Raverat says oh dear, oh dear, how horrid it was being young. That, of course, is hindsight. She seems to have very much enjoyed her childhood, and reading her vividly drawn and in many ways charming account, you can’t blame her. Every page has a quotable and wonderfully described anecdote or story, whether she is describing her mother’s child-raising theories, Victorian courtship, women’s clothes, being a child chaperone, their dancing classes or childish escapades on the Cam, where they regularly fell in.

Raverat self portrait

Raverat wrote the memoir in her sixties after the death of her mother, when she cleared out the old family house and came across letters written by her parents during their courtship: and carried on reading until she came to her own birth. She had stumbled across the source material for the first chapter of Period Piece, which she described to her editor

 

I have long been playing with the idea of writing a sort of autobiography as a peg to hang illustrations on; and I am now taking the liberty of sending you a scrap out of it (not the beginning nor yet the end) to see if you would think it would do to publish some day, with lots of pictures. I simply hate writing, and I can’t be bothered to write it, unless it’s good enough to publish. I am afraid that what I have written may be too flippant and rather odious, and I would like to know what some outside Literary Person feels about it. The idea of the book is not a continuous autobiography, but a series of separate chapters called Sport, Religion, Art, Relations, etc. etc….

 

The book itself she describes as a circular one, it does not begin at the beginning nor go on to the end; it is all going on at the same time, sticking out like the spokes of a wheel from a hub, which is me. So it does not matter which chapter is read first or last. It is not a sentimental memoir, because Raverat was not a sentimental woman; the woman who drew a sketch of her husband while he was dying, euthanised him when his suffering with disseminated sclerosis became too much for him to endure, and committed suicide after being confined to a wheelchair by a stroke with the words “This seems the simplest plan for everyone,” could never be described as sentimental. It is however warm, humorous, affectionate and shrewd and well worth reading. It is also beautifully illustrated by the author.

Jacques Raverat

Book Review – The Husband Hunters by Anne de Courcy

In 1883, Alva Vanderbilt, tired of the snubs from New York society, carefully planned a ball that would finally throw open the doors of the “400” to her and her husband William Kissam Vanderbilt. She decided on a costume ball, a type of event that had not been held for years, and her guest of honour would be her dear friend, Consuelo Drogo Montagu Viscountess Mandeville and future Duchess of Manchester. The viscountess was born Consuelo Yznaga, and Alva had known her since they were children growing up in the South during the heady days before the Civil War would shatter the world they knew.

For weeks people talked about nothing but the ball and it emerged that the doyenne of New York society Mrs William Backhouse (Caroline) Astor was not invited. The reason for this is because the two women had not been formally introduced and etiquette dictated that the more senior woman would call on her junior counterpart first then a reciprocal call would follow. After learning that her granddaughter was eager to be invited and had been hard at work on her dancing lessons, Mrs Astor made the first move followed by Mrs Vanderbilt and sure enough, an invitation to the ball appeared.

The farce above demonstrated how far the likes of Alva Vanderbilt were prepared to go to break into society, and having Mrs Astor call on her was a social triumph. But for the ambitious Alva, that wasn’t enough. She also began grooming her daughter Consuelo for a grand match: and that meant following in the footsteps of her godmother Lady Mandeville who finally became Duchess of Manchester in 1890.

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Alva’s machinations are one of the many case studies chronicled by Anne de Courcy in her latest book, The Husband Hunters. Subtitled Social Climbing in London and New York, not only does it deal with the well-trodden path of analysing and chronicling the numerous American heiresses who traded dollars for a title and status, but also how their parents – especially the mothers – made it their life’s mission to break into the upper echelons of American and above all New York society.

By the 1870s America was experiencing an economic boom made possible by the end of the Civil War, industrialisation and population movement to the west in search of better work prospects especially in farming, mining, herding and railways among others. Many people rose from grinding poverty to wealth beyond their wildest dreams and soon began to acquire the trappings of wealth – mansions, yachts, trips abroad, jewellery, clothes, works of art and ostentatious entertaining. It was the period of the Gilded Age where luxury, vulgarity and ostentation were watchwords.

The old rich in places such as Boston, Philadelphia and especially New York City looked on these nouveau riche arrivistes in horror. To the old guard, wealth was not to be flaunted and should be balanced by good works and serving as a pillar to the community, but these newbies believed that social acceptance could be bought if the price was right, and de Courcy describes how this was all done.

New York society was especially difficult to penetrate and even more so under Caroline Astor, its self-styled doyenne. She was aided by Ward McAllister, a journalist who became her confidant and assisted her with planning her parties and balls. Through his journalism, he penned articles advising on behaviour, etiquette, dress and deportment but today he is best remembered for coining the myth of the “400” as a reference to the number of people who could fit into Mrs Astor’s famous ballroom and which became a byword for exclusivity. It became the goal for many a pushy social climber to break into its ranks because to be invited by Mrs Astor signalled social acceptance.

One roundabout way to secure that all important invitation was to marry off a daughter to an impoverished European aristocrat. The British were preferred –  not only because of a common language but also due to the exclusivity of British titles. Thanks to primogeniture the pool of titled men (both for the peerage and baronetage) was smaller than their continental counterparts and to aristocrats in need of money the nouveau was less important than the riche. And this is precisely what happened: from the 1870s to 1910, a large percentage of the peerage married American heiresses and not even Mrs Astor would dream of snubbing a titled aristocrat and his American heiress wife.

De Courcy makes a convincing case for the appeal of the American heiress to cash-poor peers. Not only were they treated equally under American inheritance laws but they were perceived as lacking the airs and graces that were the hallmark of aristocratic society. Thanks to their father’s money, they had the best money could buy in terms of clothes, jewels and experience. Many of them were also well educated and well-travelled thus being more sophisticated, confident and more at ease in conversing with people. Others had quirks and traits that allowed them to break down social barriers such as Consuelo Duchess of Manchester who could play the banjo which enlivened many a house party or dinner.

However not all American heiresses were beautiful or sophisticated or intelligent. Looking at some of the photographs in the book, it is hard to believe that they would have turned heads by virtue of their looks. In the end, one can argue (and de Courcy does not shy away from saying) that money was the main deciding factor for these matches. If the heiress was intelligent, beautiful and talented it was seen as a bonus and an asset but these marriages were a straightforward exchange of status and cash. Happiness and compatibility were also not major concerns and unsurprisingly a lot of these transatlantic marriages were unhappy, with some ending in divorce.

While the travails and tribulations of the American heiress turned British aristocrat has been well trodden, De Courcy also trains her eye on their mothers. American society was matriarchal, the men might have made the fortunes that raised the family’s economic status but it was the women who used the money in order to cement the social standing that they believed should go hand in hand with their newfound wealth. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” springs to mind as the women vied with each other to build bigger houses; acquire jewellery, works of art and paintings; wear the latest fashions and throw the most lavish balls of the season. The men were pretty much reduced to being human cash machines and had virtually no say when it came to family matters even with their daughters’ futures. It’s not surprising that many of these millionaires resorted to escaping from their own marriages metaphorically and literally.

The fierce competition and relentless ambition became too much but as the 1890s rolled along, the criticism became much more strident and as the United States became embroiled in an economic recession, the conspicuous consumption of these Gilded Age personalities left a bitter taste in the mouth. By the beginning of the twentieth century there was a backlash against these transatlantic marriages and as America increasingly began to play a role in international affairs, more and more people began to realise that they didn’t need aristocratic marriages for social validation.

De Courcy charts the rise and fall of the transatlantic marriage and social climbing phenomenon in thorough detail. In the end while the money the American heiresses brought into their marriages did save many a crumbling estate and some were the mothers to figures who made an impact in our history, in the long run their presence did not arrest the decline and fall of the British aristocracy. Instead they served as sticking plasters, delaying the inevitable but nonetheless nothing more than a short-lived social phenomenon.

Book Review: Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014 not only resulted into a deluge of books, films, articles, blogs, exhibitions and documentaries about the events leading to the war but also a reappraisal and revisiting of Queen Victoria’s role as the “Grandmother of Europe.” Eight of her nine children married into the various royal houses of Europe and this complicated network of family ties was intertwined with international affairs, which in some way were one of the causes that led to the Great War.

This network of family ties was part and parcel Prince Albert’s vision of Europe as a family of nations unified by peace and liberalism and held together by Britain and a unified and liberal Germany. This idea was not new however as Victoria and Albert’s Uncle Leopold (later King of the Belgians) always nurtured a dream of having a Coburg on every throne in Europe – a dream which Albert carried on by marrying off his oldest daughter Vicky to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia. Through Vicky and Fritz, Albert hoped that Prussia and later Germany could be transformed into a liberal state, made in the image of Britain. However this plan unravelled quickly with the early death of Frederick after a brief reign as Kaiser and never came to fruition.

Queen Victoria and grandchildren

Queen Victoria viewed every pronouncement and scheme from her beloved Albert as akin to holy writ and as Deborah Cadbury shows in her recent work, her matchmaking would not only apply to her children but also extended to her grandchildren. Amidst the backdrop of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881 and its aftermath, Cadbury charts the Queen’s machinations as she tried to prop up Albert’s vision through her grandchildren.

These machinations often did not go according to plan as the Queen was frustrated in her attempts to block the marriages of her Hessian grandchildren Ella and Alix  into the Russian imperial family. Victoria was a passionate Russophobe, her view of Russia partly coloured by the two countries’ disagreements over the Ottoman Empire and the on going “Great Game” over Central Asia and India. She also viewed the country as unsafe and admitted to feeling her blood feeling cold over the idea of “gentle, simple Alicky” as tsarina.

Another one of Victoria’s schemes that failed was marrying off one of her grandsons, Prince Eddy the Duke of Clarence. First on the list was his first cousin Alix of Hesse but she refused him, then Eddy himself fell in love with Helene of Orleans, who despite being Catholic was willing to convert to the Anglican faith to marry him. Despite the Queen’s support and her father’s eagerness to see his daughter as a potential queen consort, Pope Leo XIII threw a spanner into the works of the proposed marriage by refusing the princess a dispensation to convert to Anglicanism. Undeterred, Queen Victoria proposed as fiancée May of Teck, a distant relation with a flawed pedigree, but unfortunately it was not going to be third time lucky for Eddy as not long after the engagement, he caught influenza and died. After a suitable period of mourning, May was then engaged to Eddy’s younger brother George, who was also nursing a broken heart after the Duchess of Edinburgh put a stop to any moves to marry off her daughter Marie to the smitten George. Instead “Missy” was married off by her mother to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania.

Bubbling under the surface of these entanglements was the constant threat of assassination attempts and violence from revolutionary and anarchist groups. Ella’s gilded bubble was shattered when her husband Sergei was assassinated in 1905, while another of Victoria’s granddaughters, Ena of Battenberg survived one as she and her new husband King Alfonso XIII of Spain were in their carriage following their wedding in 1906. These incidents among others were a harbinger of what was to come especially in the wake of the First World War: but Queen Victoria and her son and successor King Edward VII clung naively to Albert’s vision and maintained that peace could be achieved through strengthening the family bonds between the various monarchies of Europe.

Cadbury writes in a brisk and conversational style that is readable and she has helpfully drawn up a handy dramatis personae at the beginning to help the reader through the myriad of names and nicknames that are scattered throughout the narrative. While the popular press then and hagiographers write about these royal marriages as love matches, Cadbury disagrees and presents the reality behind these marriages. The story of Nicholas II and Alexandra (Alix)’s marriage is one of love and tragedy but Cadbury does not ignore the fact that despite their personal happiness both were temperamentally unsuited to the roles they had been destined to fulfill. If Nicholas was not suited to be the autocrat like his father, Alexandra despite her royal blood and impeccable family connections was not the right consort for Nicholas. Her unwillingness to follow well-meaning advice from family and friends not to mention her defence of autocracy with the same zeal that led her to wholeheartedly embrace the Russian Orthodox faith had disastrous consequences for her family and her adopted country.

The same is true with George V and Mary and I wish that the author had explored more of their married life, as there were already signs from the engagement that the marriage was not one of love as presented to the public but more of duty. One can only speculate what the former May of Teck thought and felt as she was shut out of even something as mundane as decorating her own home and her individuality all her life repressed and subordinate to George’s will and limitations. One of her earliest biographers perceptively noted that for May there was no higher calling than to be royal and perhaps that overrode any other considerations for her.

Apart from the narration, this book’s other main strength is with regards to pointing out strongly Queen Victoria’s weakness – her naïve view that foreign policy issues could be solved between families, not really realising that growing movements of nationalism, national identity and national interest were stronger than family ties. This was something her two successors – Edward VII to a lesser extent and George V to a greater extent understood, this played a part with the establishment of the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia in 1907 and later withdrawing the offer of asylum to Nicholas II and his family in 1918.

In the end, as Cadbury shrewdly observed, royal cousinhood would prove to be powerless against the tide of change and in the end also sowed its own seeds of destruction. After the First World War, the political power of monarchy was all but destroyed and never again would “equal” royal marriages be encouraged and viewed as tools of political alliances. A popular saying goes that “blood is thicker than water” but as this tome demonstrates, blood ties would be meaningless against a cataclysmic world war.

 

 

A Country House Christmas: Remembrance of Christmases Past

Originally titled Treasure on Earth and published in 1952, this small book was written by Phyllis Elinor Sanderman (born the Hon Phyllis Legh) and is a thinly disguised account of the Christmases that she experienced at Lyme Park, the Legh family residence in Cheshire. It’s a charming and affectionate look at Christmases past and would not look out of place as a Downton Abbey Christmas special with the big house being readied for Christmas, as well as the rituals and traditions that underpin Christmas at Lyme. The narrative is written in the third person, and while a few names have been changed Lyme is renamed Vyne Park while the author’s parents the 2nd Baron and Baroness Newton are Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne, but it’s easy to pick up that the author is describing her parents and home.

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However while what we see in Downton Abbey’s celebration of Christmas is pretty much a pastiche, A Country House Christmas while short delves into detail about how Christmas was celebrated in a house like Lyme Park before World War I. There are the family theatricals, the visiting relatives, the exchange and giving of presents: not just between the family but the annual distribution of beef to the tenants and presents for their children presided over by Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne. Phyllis’s anticipation of the big day jumps off the pages of the book as does her passion for the house and its history and contents. There are more than enough descriptions of the house which despite the absence of any photographs allow the reader to imagine Vyne Park and its inhabitants, upstairs and down.

Apart from the description of the house and the rituals associated with the festive season there are affectionate portraits and characters sketches of the servants: Truelove the butler, Fraulein Thur the governess, Perez the chef and Mrs Campbell the housekeeper. These sketches are woven into the descriptions of the preparations for Christmas and the acknowledgement that the servants are the engine that keep the house running. Prominent among the servants of course is Truelove – defined by Phyllis as “unquestionably the ‘Eminence Grise,’ the power behind the throne, holding the reins of government; with the ear of the queen, the confidence and (albeit reluctant) admiration of the reigning monarch, and with both titular rulers dependent on him and knowing it.” There is also a description of the wider community outside the confines of the house and the relationship between the Vaynes and the estate as demonstrated by Sanderman’s description of the present giving to the children of tenants presided over by Lady Vayne:

“When the children of the estate employees came up on Boxing Day to have tea and receive their presents, it was he [Truelove] who acted as master of ceremonies. After tea in the servants’ hall, it for the occasion with Chinese lanterns, they would troops upstairs in the Long Gallery, where the tree in all its glory for the second day in succession provided, except for the blazing fire, the only light in the room…..Then when everyone had walked around the tree and admired it thoroughly, Truelove would read out from a list, not the children’s names but their parents’ names and their respective ages – a nice distinction.

‘Jim Bowden’s little girl aged six years’ – and a small girl in her best frock and button boots would clatter across the shiny boards to where Lady Vayne stood beside the tree, received her gift with a bobbed curtsey and clatter back again……the same ceremony again, till from the youngest to the eldest they had all their presents. Then Truelove would make a speech.

It was the same every year – ‘I’m sure we’re all very grateful to Her Ladyship for providing this beautiful tree and presents. When I was a boy and Christmas came round I was pleased if I got a monkey on a stick. But of course times have changed. Now I want you all to give three hearty cheers,’ etc.

There was always the loyal response. Then the gallery would resound to the blowing of tin trumpets and whistles, the clicking of pistols and popping of crackers, and the broad North Country accents of excited young voices.”

The narrative is set in 1906, five years before the passage of the Parliament Act and eight years before the outbreak of the First World War; both of which would deal a death blow to the power and prestige of the aristocracy. Superficially, this account can be seen as a paean to aristocratic life with its unchanging routines, deferential servants and tenants, dressing up for dinner and the entertaining demanded of a house like Vyne but it goes deeper than that, as there is also the self-awareness that this aristocratic world and lifestyle could vanish.

And vanish it does. The narrative fast forwards to and ends in 1946, when as an adult Phyllis returns to Vyne again as the house has been given to the nation because the Vaynes, harassed as they are by rationing and rising taxes, can no longer afford to keep the house as it was during that Indian summer before 1914. One would have thought that Sanderman would be nostalgic for the “good old days” but clearly she isn’t as she writes in the introduction to the 1981 reprint of her book:

“The hard fact must be accepted that houses such as Lyme are now anachronisms, no longer able to fulfil their original function, namely that of dwelling-houses for the leisure class. They must either fall into decay or be turned into institutions – hospitals or schools – or become museum pieces, visited and enjoyed by the public at large.”

I would highly recommend this book, not just as a charming story of Christmases past but also a more thorough look at how the festive season was celebrated in a country house in a way that period drama such as Downton Abbey have never quite managed to capture.