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.

 

 

Advertisements

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.

71P2oY39fhL

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.

 

 

 

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.

Queen Bees cover

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.

Transatlantic Marriage book

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.

51c1bpu8mfl

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

 

3d_book

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

sassoon 1

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

sassoon 2

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

gobetween

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

shooting party

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

the general

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

month_carr

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

south riding

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

edwardians 2

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

cannadine

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

harris

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