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.

 

 

 

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Come Dance with Me: When Britain fell in love with Ballroom Dancing

Long before Strictly Come Dancing debuted on British television in 2004 and reignited an interest in ballroom dancing, Britain had a period between the two world wars when the nation fell in love with dancing and it was the main competition to the cinema in terms of popularity as a form of leisure activity.

Dancing’s popularity was aided and abetted by a growing consumer culture that grew exponentially after the war, as well as foreign influences, particularly from America, that made their presence felt. This popularity also reflected changes in music tastes, the status of women, technology and many others. However this was also the time when there was anxiety over the growing “Americanisation” of British society and culture and for a minority of people who saw dancing as a contributor to the decline in moral standards. In this blog, we shall see how Britain put on their dancing shoes and took to dancing with a great enthusiasm that has not been seen since.

 

Dancing as a national pastime:

Prior to the end of the First World War, ballroom dancing as we know it today had its roots in the ballrooms of royalty and the aristocracy: where dancing was an important social lubricant and part of entertaining among the royals and the upper classes. Then and until the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, dancing was an integral part of the London Season and the ability to dance was seen as a useful social skill.

This all changed especially during the years of the Great War and after.  The horrors witnessed during the war and the changes that occurred as a result meant that people, especially the young, were keen to seize the moment and enjoy themselves. Popular entertainment became more widespread during this era and dancing particularly stepped out of the palaces and country homes to occupy “a pivotal place in the culture of the working- and lower-middle class communities in Britain.” Dancing’s popularity was only rivalled by the cinema and it’s easy to see why; it had universal appeal and something shared among generations as young people, their parents and grandparents danced. It was also social lubricant and an opportunity to meet other people. Crucially, it also provided an opportunity for social mobility and entrepreneurship as a whole new industry sprang up from dancing to provide employment for dance teachers, bands, singers, comperes, chefs, waiters and even builders, architects, interior decorators and engineers.

The “dance boom” was noticed as early as 1919 –  as The Sunday Sun observed: “There is a big boom in dancing. Ever since the silencing of the guns last November it has loomed large in the social life of the individual. Where it was once an art it has now become a craze…..if things go on as they are at present, it is safe to assume that dancing will shortly become an obsession with the majority of our younger citizens.” People danced at home, in dance halls and nightclubs and even between courses while dining in restaurants, and the popularity of dancing dominated the post-war scene. Loelia Ponsonby (later Duchess of Westminster), recalled “Supported by nothing more than tea or coffee (a glass of sherry would have turned it into an orgy) we fox-trotted tirelessly until it was time to dash home and change into evening dress for a real dance…dancing was more than a craze, it had become a sort of mystical religion.” If there was no formal afternoon dance available for Ponsonby and her friends they would meet at someone’s home and “we wound up the gramophone, put on a record and began practising new steps.”

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And this boom was encouraged and fuelled by the rise of dance halls across the country. Many were converted from existing facilities such as theatres, bath halls, assembly halls and even clubs but the rise of the purpose built palais de danse brought dancing to the masses: the French name signifying elegance and adding a veneer of glamour to the venue. They were purpose built for dancing and could also accommodate several bands, a café and restaurant that no other existing assembly hall could provide. They also became noted for their programmes which featured the latest dances, music and bands. The first of these palaise de danse was the Hammersmith Palace opened in 1919 by Howard Booker and Frank Mitchell, a Canadian and American respectively. It quickly became a success owing to the fact that its music was provided by touring bands (mostly from America) on a residency for a few months thereby keeping the acts fresh and novel. Its status as a place to be was cemented by the fact that the Prince of Wales and his younger brother the Duke of York became regulars. The formula became successful and by the mid-1920s, other palais de danse were opened in cities such as in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Smaller towns followed suit and just like the cinemas, these dance halls with their imposing facades and plush interiors were monuments to the inter-war years as James Nott wrote:

“The growth of purpose built dance halls providing first rate facilities at affordable prices, with proper organisation and orderly conduct, shifted the focus of dancing by the mid-1920s away from its former upper class strongholds in the West End of London towards an urban lower-middle- and working class patronage. The palais de danse were providing facilities that would, by the mid-1930s, make dancing a truly mass leisure pursuit. Regular, cheap and modern, dances at a palais de danse were ideal for those with lower incomes who were interested in the new dance steps and new dance music.” (p. 22)

The late 1920s to the early 1930s (despite a short slump in dancing’s popularity during the mid-1920s) led to the development of a dance hall industry with the establishment of both local and national chains. The most famous was the Mecca Group which started out as a catering firm called Mecca Café, which provided catering for the likes of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and other established venues. Mecca Café had its first forays into the dance hall business after acquiring a dance hall in Brighton which became a success. Its strategy was to buy halls that were faltering or losing money and turn them around. Mecca also pioneered business practices that were soon copied by other dance halls and chains due to the realisation that dancing alone did not attract customers – especially repeat ones. Infrastructure was deployed to ensure that facilities were comfortable, luxurious and state of the art; hence they were constantly updated and improved in order to keep up with trends and changes in technology such as lighting, acoustics and cooling systems.

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Dance halls also used marketing and promotions to attract customers both new and repeat and yet again Mecca proved to be the pioneer through the use of press agencies (forerunner of today’s PR agencies) to promote dancing as well as the use of “stunts” to liven up evenings. Examples of these stunts included talent nights, themed nights and special prizes given to, for instance, the fiftieth or hundredth customer to pass through the door.  Dance halls like the cinema were relatively unscathed during the Great Depression as despite record numbers of unemployment, more people went to dance halls as they offered escapism and value for money. For a single admission price, one person could enjoy an evening with music, dancing, a variety of entertainment, amenities and dining; not to mention the chance to meet large numbers of members of the opposite sex.

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Dance styles and music – the emergence of a home grown style:

During the 19th century dances such as the quadrille and polka were very popular but the first dance style that shocked polite society was the waltz, mainly due to its hold and the use of the closed position (i.e couples dancing face to face rather than side by side). Because of that it was seen as shocking and immoral but it outlasted all other dances and its hold and closed position becoming the standard for other style of dances.

In the years before 1914, popular dances included the cakewalk, bunny hug, Turkey Trot, tango and the foxtrot: with the latter particularly proving to be more enduring as the new jazz sounds introduced after the war provided the perfect tempo for the dance. Just as in the past, dance fashions came and went only this time many of them proved to be a flash in the pan. Novelty, group and party dances such as the Black Bottom, the shimmy, jogtrot and the Lambeth Walk were introduced with varying degrees of success, the most successful being the Charleston which was introduced from America. Its frantic and high energy steps became popular especially with the young but not everyone was enamoured of this new style of dance. A newspaper likened the steps to “reminiscent only of negro orgies” and many of the old guard frowned upon this foreign import as “neurotic” and “rotten”.

These new dances, like the novelty of jazz with its syncopated rhythm and flexibility, undermined older notions of respectability and propriety when it came to dancing and music. Just as the waltz nearly a century before had been considered shocking, so did critics baulk at the high jinks of the Charleston or the sharp staccato movements of the tango. Given the foreign origins of these dances and jazz music, it was inevitable that the dances and the music accompanying them would be denounced and thought of as offending British sensibilities.

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There is nothing new about this. During the early 18th century, the introduction of opera onto the London stage was denounced as “foreign” as it was an alien concept, sung in a language no-one could understand by foreign singers and staged with over the top props and scenery. The plots of these Italian operas were also suspect as being “too Catholic”. Fast forward to the 20th century and it seemed that little had changed – only this time the target was America and not Italy. American music and dance were slowly trickling into the UK before the war but its proliferation and ubiquity began during the last two years of the First World War following the USA’s entry into the fray on the side of the Allied powers. After the war ended, this carried with the dance halls, nightclubs, hotels and restaurants providing a platform for American bands and their British imitators.

The influence of America on British popular culture proved to be a breeding ground for envy and resentment. Although Britain was on the winning side during the war, the initial optimism faded as soon as the reality of high unemployment, ailing heavy industry and manufacturing base and crushing national debt hit home. This was further compounded by the encroachment of American films and music into British popular culture, which fed into growing anxiety about foreign (read: American) influences diluting and debasing British culture and taste. As a result, in a response to a growing Americanisation an “English” style of dancing and “British” music were born by appropriating foreign styles and modifying or changing them to suit local tastes.

The birth of the “English” style of dance was seen as one way to tame and “clean” up dances considered to be too risqué and this was done through formalising the steps and technique by recognised professionals and dance organisations. The growth of the dance halls and popularisation of dancing had also led to the rise of dance teaching as a profession and the opening of schools. During this period, dance teaching became more formalised and codified by the establishment organisations such as the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) in 1904, with ballroom dancing included in 1924. There was also the National Association of Teachers of Dancing established in 1906, British Association of Teachers of Dancing (1892), the Allied Dancing Association (1921) and the International Dancing Masters Association (1930) as well as regional associations and those at the local level.

Underpinning these organisations and schools were the professional dance teachers with some becoming household names. One of the most notable was Victor Silvester (1900-1978) who started his dancing career as a paid “dancing partner” at the Empress Rooms after WW1. In 1922 he won the World Ballroom Championship with his partner Phyllis Clarke. Silvester soon opened his own dance school and became instrumental in helping codification of ballroom dancing with the ISTD. He published several books on ballroom dancing and his Modern Ballroom Dancing (1927) still remains in print to this day. In addition he was also a proponent of “strict tempo” when it came to dancing and set up an orchestra to provide just that. Other famous dance teachers included Santos Casani (1898-1983), who became known following a feature of him dancing the Charleston atop a taxi with his dance school, as well as instruction newsreels, articles and books.

Codifying dance steps took on different ways such as for instance taking steps from novelty dances like the Charleston and incorporating them into what became known as the Quickstep. Older dances such as the waltz were given fresh impetus, Silvester and Clarke simplified it by eliminating the more complicated variations and introduced the “natural turn” to make it “more graceful and easier to dance.” As a result of the efforts of the likes of Silvester and Casani the “English” style of dancing with its emphasis on restraint, elegance, style, deportment and equality became popular abroad and help set the standard for social dancing abroad.

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Along with the development of an “English” style of dancing was the rise of the “British” style of dance music. British music as opposed to American was much more structured and less open to improvisation; it was also seen as “sweet” – more elegant and sentimental as opposed to the “hot” American beats with its syncopated notes. Also, British dance music also drew inspiration from the music hall with its emphasis on humour which was seen as an important ingredient in the British national character.

Radio and the nascent recording industry also helped popularised dance music. British radio was the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) which under its first director general, John Reith took the view that the BBC’s output had to be impartial and that the BBC had the duty to educate, inform and entertain. With Reith’s high handed views however, entertaining would come a distant third to education and information. It would popularise jazz and dance music but only on its own terms and it did through the promotion of bands and performers they deemed acceptable and respectable while avoiding those that did not conform to the standards set by the Corporation. Among the latter was singing in the American style (called “crooning”) which the BBC banned in 1929 – “On no account will singing be allowed in the broadcast,” as the memo read, but eventually the BBC had to reconsider its ban owing to the popularity of singers such as Al Bowlly.

There were limits to Americanisation and it was not all encompassing; while British audiences patronised Hollywood films and looked to Hollywood stars for glamour and inspiration when it came to music, the public at large seemed to prefer home grown artists and music if record sales and public appearances were anything to go by. A prime example was the band leader Jack Hylton (1892-1965) and his Orchestra, as James Nott observed:

“[Hylton’s] popularity was enormous. In 1929, for example, Hylton played over 700 performances in365 days, travelled over 63,000 miles on tour, and his records – calculated on a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week basis – sold at a rate of over seven a minute. Between 1921 and 1939 he recorded over 1,700 sides, and from 1923 to 1933 he sold nearly seven million records.”

 

The success of the likes of Victor Silvester and Jack Hylton demonstrate that as much as the British public did embrace foreign influences when it came to popular culture, home grown talent and music could hold their own against their foreign counterparts and even outsell them. The public had a way of showing their appreciation of certain dances and types of music and it was through voting with their feet and wallets.

 

Dancing and its discontents:

As mentioned earlier, the growing anxieties over the changes in British society after the war manifested themselves not only with grumblings over foreign influences on popular culture and taste but also with what was perceived as the decline in standards and morality. Dancing became a lightning rod for what was seen as what was wrong with post-war society. After the First World War there were debates about gender, the role of women, morality, and the growing influence of America. Negative opinions were held by a minority, however they were a vocal minority – usually members of the clergy, politicians and writers – and their expressed views became news used to sell papers and generate discussion.

The social side of dancing did not escape the notice of critics. It was an activity that could be enjoyed by everyone and seen as a way of meeting other people particularly those of the opposite gender. As such, it was seen as a way to mark key stages in a person’s life and to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood (the concept of “teenager” and “teen” did not emerge until the late 1950s) and as Nott observed “allowed young people their first taste of independence, where they could learn to socialise with their peer group and be introduced to the codes of behaviour expected of their sex. Dancing also gave young people familiarity with the opposite sex, offering a controlled environment in which to observe and interact with them. Indeed, it was at dances that most young people had their first experience of finding ‘dates’ and ‘dating’. In addition, dances often introduced young people to the ‘adult’ pleasures of drinking and smoking.”

Apart from the social side, there was also emphasis on the individual benefits of dancing. Victor Silvester in his book Modern Ballroom Dancing noted that dancing contributed to a person’s health but also gave them confidence through the acquisition of a skill as well as better posture and deportment.

Silvester could have been thinking about women especially, as dancing and dance halls played a significant role in the further emancipation of women. As a result of the war, women gained greater freedoms and entered the workplace in droves despite the move after 1918 to relegate them back to children, church and kitchen. Not only were they granted the vote but also had a freer and wider role in leisure activities. The new dance styles reflected a “thawing of relationships between the sexes and this was well represented in the new styles of dancing.”

If the men had their pubs, clubs and sports teams, the women had the department stores, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and the dance hall. Increasingly, dancing was also more of a female activity especially during the early evenings and weekends – while the men were at the pub or away at football matches, the dance hall became a female only space and a sort of a social club for women where they would practise dancing with each other (with one assuming the lead role of the ‘man’) as well as chat and gossip with each other. With greater disposable incomes, the post war woman was an attractive demographic to the dance hall industry. Dance halls were welcoming to women regardless of whether they came alone or in groups, with security and safety taken seriously by management. Much like the cinemas, the interiors of dance halls were female friendly with fresh flowers, crisp linen, state of the art lavatories and painted scenes giving the place an atmosphere of sophistication and luxury.

Dancing also provided a platform where women could establish careers as dancers, teachers, musicians, singers and even band leaders. One notable example was Josephine Bradley (1893-1985) who won the World Ballroom Dance championship in 1924 and later opened her own dance school. She also worked with Silvester in codifying ballroom dancing and from the 1930s onwards also had her own dance band whose records sold well.

With dancing providing an avenue for the young and women for self-expression, development of skill and self-confidence, it’s not surprising that dancing and dance hall became the favoured target of critics, who saw them as a byword for immorality, with the most strident criticism reserved for several types of dances deemed to be sinful and vulgar. Despite these criticisms however, dancing’s popularity continued on even into the Second World War then experiencing a sharp decline in the 1950s with changing tastes and demographic patterns: and while there has been a small resurgence due in part to the programme Strictly Come Dancing, dancing has never reached the dizzying heights of its popularity between the two world wars.

 

Further Reading and viewing:

James Walvin. Leisure and Society 1830-1950 (London, 1978)

James Nott. Going to the Palais: A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918-1960 (Oxford, 2015)

Stephen G. Jones. Workers at Play (London, 1986)

Victor Silvester. Modern Ballroom Dancing (London, 1927)

Martin Pugh. We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2009)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

James Nott. ‘Contesting Popular Dancing and Dance Music in Britain during the 1920s’, Cultural and Social History, Vol. 10, No. 3 (2013), pp. 439-456

Len Goodman’s Dance Band Days (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 23 December 2013

Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet: The British Ballroom Story (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 27 December 2012

Dancing Cheek to Cheek: An Intimate History of Dance presented by Len Goodman and Lucy Worsley (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 17 November 2014

http://www.jackhylton.com/

http://tintrunk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/santos-casani-forgotten-dance-master.html

Revisiting Chatsworth and House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth

I first came across Chatsworth House while reading David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and when I moved to the UK to do a postgraduate degree at the University of Manchester, one of the things on my list was to visit Chatsworth – which I finally did in 2006. I enjoyed my day trip so much that I resolved to return which I did in May this year, nearly 11 years after my first visit.

Known as the “Palace in the Peak” owing to its location and grandeur, Chatsworth House has been lived in by members of the Cavendish family since the sixteenth century. The present house stands on an earlier structure built by the formidable Elizabeth Hardwick (also known as “Bess of Hardwick”) and her second husband Sir William Cavendish and since then it has been the home of the Earls – later Dukes – of Devonshire and their family. Nothing much is left of the original Elizabethan structure and what took its place can be considered as one of the finest Baroque buildings in the country today. As the present Duke and Duchess wrote in their introduction to the visitor’s guidebook, “Chatsworth was built to welcome guests and to be seen” and the house has been open to visitors since the 1600s, welcoming visitors from all over Britain and then from all over the world. One noted visitor was a certain Jane Austen whose visit to Chatsworth would help inspire her best known novel – Pride and Prejudice.

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There is so much to see and do at Chatsworth that one day is not enough. There are 30 rooms on  the visitor route alone, each of them showcasing stupendous interiors, furniture and objects as well as a collection of art ranging from Old Masters to family portraits done by some of the biggest names in British art and modern and contemporary art collected by both the 11th and 12th dukes. And what has made this year’s visit even more memorable is a special exhibition that has been described as the “most ambitious to date.”

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth, created and curated by the Countess of Burlington together with Vogue Editor Hamish Bowles looks at the history of the Cavendish family through the prism of fashion, with the exhibition spread throughout the visitor route of the house. Alongside actual clothes worn by various members of the family; there are accessories, jewellery, paintings, photographs, drawings and archival material. Various rooms feature clothes that would have been appropriate for their surroundings; for instance the chapel displays wedding gowns worn by Cavendish brides especially during the last 40 years, as well as christening dresses while the dining room features formal gowns and dresses that have been worn to balls and parties by various members of the family.

There is the wide diversity of fashion on display showing members of the family as trend setters – there is an emphasis on Georgiana wife of the 5th duke who during her lifetime was dubbed the “Empress of Fashion” and whose clothes and hairstyle were eagerly scrutinised and copied by other women. As a political hostess, she used her clothes to make a statement: most notably when she was campaigning for Charles James Fox where she was depicted in caricatures wearing a riding habit with a hat trimmed with blue and buff feathers shaped like a fox’s tail. The message was very clear and her riding habit with its masculine cut  can be taken as an attempt to play her part in what was essentially a male sphere.

Several family members were also known for their personal style; Deborah wife to the 11th duke was both at ease with simple practical clothes and grand ball gowns particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when her husband was Lord Mayor of Buxton and a government minister.  She was particularly fond of brooches and had a good collection most of them in the shape of insects which she would pin several on a jacket in one go. Andrew on the other hand, kept up with his ancestors’ frugal ways by insisting that his jackets be patched up and shoes be re-heeled and re-soled until they could no longer be worn. Also known for his sense of humour, he had a collection of several navy blue jumpers embroidered with colourful slogans such as “Never Marry A Mitford”, “Bollocks!”, “After All We’ve Been Through” and “Far Better Not”.

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Other members of the family developed a reputation for being badly dressed, for instance the 10th duke was described by his one of his daughters-in-law as someone who “wore paper collars, did not possess an overcoat and would stand, oblivious of the weather, in the freezing wind on Chesterfield station in a threadbare London suit” while his cigarettes which he kept in his pockets resulted into blackened holes in his suits “which he would never dream of replacing.” It is no wonder that he was often mistaken as a tramp or a dustman by people who asked him for directions.

Another category of the exhibition features clothes from two members of the family who have worked in the fashion industry, first as models and presently as designers and buyers respectively. Two of the most striking clothes from this selection have been worn by Stella Tennant, the first being a “black wool, bias cut, polo neck dress” designed by Alexander McQueen and worn by Tennant to a British Vogue fashion editorial in 1993; and the other was a gown by John Galliano for Christian Dior created in 1998 and exhibited next to a portrait of Duchess Georgiana by Maria Cosway, showing how much Galliano during his tenure as head designer for Dior was very much influenced by eighteenth century fashions.

As this blog focuses on a particular time frame which spans the years 1870 to 1939, my main interests in the exhibition fell into the third category. These are the clothes associated with the public role of a Duke or Duchess of Devonshire. The centrepiece in the Painted Hall is the embroidered robe worn by both Duchess Evelyn and her daughter-in-law Duchess Mary in their capacity as Mistress of the Robes to the 1911, 1937 and 1953 coronations. Ever thrifty and resourceful, both duchesses had the robe patched up and repaired in 1937 and 1953, the former by recycling ermine from old clothes dating from the Edwardian period. However, the presence of two duchesses in 1953 presented a problem – Duchess Mary would wear the robe used by her mother-in-law but what of Duchess Deborah? In 1953, Britain was exhausted by the Second World War and punitive taxes and death duties meant that the Cavendish family wasn’t immune to the economies being made in order to meet these financial obligations. Ordering a new robe was out of the question but help came from an unlikely source – while rifling through old uniforms and livery that had been kept in storage, Deborah and her mother-in-law found a peeress’ robe that had been made and worn for the coronation of William IV in 1831. Owing to its out of date style which did not conform to the prescription laid out for the robes to be worn by each grade in the peerage, royal permission had to be sought and granted for the robes to be worn. This robe is also on display in the Painted Hall.

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The Grotto contains uniforms worn by successive dukes, with the main focus being on the full court dress worn by the 9th duke and the robes of the Order of the Garter worn by successive dukes, the most recent being the 11th duke after being awarded with England’s highest order of chivalry in 1996. Next door along the chapel corridor are accessories, ephemera and photographs used as a time line to chronicle the life and times of the Cavendish family from Bess of Hardwick to the present. Of particular interest to me were Duchess Louise’s embroidered evening bag, a badge bearing Queen Mary’s portrait that denoted Duchess Evelyn’s position as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes and the frame of the Garter Star belonging to the 8th duke where the stones had been taken to make a diamond tiara for his wife. Again the accessories and ephemera tell us something of the person who owned and has worn them: from the gold locket containing her husband’s photograph that belonged to Kathleen Marchioness of Hartington to the chatelaine that was in Duchess Georgiana’s possession and a pair of slippers embroidered with the image of Elvis Presley that was one of the Duchess Deborah’s treasured objects.

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My favourite however has to be the dresses on display worn for the 1897 Devonshire House Ball especially Duchess Louise’s costume as Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Made by the House of Worth, the gold, ivory and emerald green gauze and velvet gown is a wonder even after 120 years and it was wonderful to see the fine detail and colour of the gown considering I have only seen it previously in black and white photographs.

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After going round the exhibition twice, it was time to go for a stroll round the gardens. It had just rained so everything looked even more lush and green. Chatsworth’s gardens like the house are also world renowned and reflects the changing times and fashion with regards to garden designs. Whilst parts of the Baroque gardens survive, much of it today is based on the more naturalistic designs by William Kent and Lancelot “Capability” Brown during the 18th century and Joseph Paxton during the 19th. Since the 1950s when the 11th duke and duchess took up residence at Chatsworth, more improvements and work has gone into the garden and the modern sculpture dotted around were an excellent focal and talking point. The fountains of course are a sight to behold especially with the famous cascade and the Emperor fountain.

Before I knew it, it was nearly time to close and there wasn’t much time to explore the rest of the gardens. A return visit in the near future is certainly on the cards but hopefully I won’t have to wait for another eleven years.

 

When visited: 19 May 2017

Photos taken by blogger

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth is on until 22 October 2017 and is included in the admission ticket to the house. For more information, please go to https://www.chatsworth.org/events/house-style/

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.

 

The History of the Mailrail

Deep under the streets of London and its snarl of urban traffic is a virtually unknown railway that for 75 years was an artery in Britain’s postal network. Seventy feet below ground, the Post Office railway (more commonly known as the Mail Rail), carried post from Paddington to London sorting offices from 1923 until it was finally abandoned in 2003 due to changing technology. In its heyday, the two-foot, narrow-gauge driverless railway called from Paddington to Mount Pleasant and eight stations along the way, in 26 minutes. The driverless, electric trains trains operated for 22 hours a day every weekday, with the other two hours used for maintenance work on 23 miles of lines, carried 30,000 items a day and ran every five minutes in peak times. The Post Office railway was a unique solution to the problem of transporting mail across an increasingly congested city and was designed solely to move letters and parcels.

Post Office Map

The idea of transporting mail in tubes began many years before the Post Office Railway was even thought of way back in 1853 the first ever mail tube went in to service. Although it was only 225 yards long and only 1.5 inches in diameter and used the equivalent of a giant vacuum cleaner to power the system it did prove very successful. Over the next few years various forms of this system were built and tested, even to the point of carrying passengers.

The Post Office set up a team to look at the possibilities of building a larger system between two of their buildings that was abandoned as too expensive. In 1859 the Pneumatic Dispatch Company was formed and built a tube to carry mail but despite digging several lines they were unsuccessful in persuading the Post Office to use them and the company closed in 1874. In 1899 the London Dispatch Company was formed to rescue some of the abandoned lines but this also proved too costly and that company too was wound up.

However, in the early 1900s the Post Office soon realised the need of some type of system to transport mail between the major central London sorting offices that was not dependent on negotiating increasingly crowded city streets – this was a time when there were several mail deliveries a day and post needed to be moved speedily. In 1908 a team of Post Office engineers visited the Chicago Freight subway system and a similar system in Berlin, Germany. Eventually in 1911 a governmental committee found that as London traffic would never allow for speeds of greater than 6mph, and recommended the construction of an electric railway with driverless trains that could travel at 40mph under the city. After much debate in Parliament the Post Office (London) Railway Bill 1913 received Royal Assent and the contract to build the tunnels was won by John Mowlem and Company.

February 1915 was the start of the construction of the tunnels from a series of shafts dug at points along the route of the line. Most of the line was constructed through the London clay using the Greathead shield system for tunnelling, with a small amount of hand-mining for connecting the tunnels at the stations. Essentially an updated version of an earlier system devised by Marc Isambard Brunel and named after its inventor James Henry Greathead,  it consisted of a sturdy metal tube which allowed workers to burrow at a far deeper level, pushing through London’s clay at an average of 10ft a day and installing the tunnel lining behind them as they went. The shield served as a temporary support structure while the tunnels were being excavated. Before the shield was used the loss of life and the risk of collapse were much higher.

Thanks to the outbreak of World War 1, work on the railways electrical systems was suspended, but work on the tunnels was allowed to continue until completion. During 1917, due to the shortage of labour and materials, Mowlem had to suspend work on the stations. During the later years of the war the tunnels were used to house some of London’s art collections from the Tate Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum and the Wallace Collection.

Mail Rail Tunnels

It was not until June 1924 that track laying re-started. 1925 saw the installation of the electrical equipment, lifts, conveyors and mail chutes. Progress was slowed, this time by the General Strike, and the electrical installation took a lot longer than expected, leading to exchanges in Parliament in March 1925 and March 1926:

17 March 1925 – Mr S Broad asked the Postmaster-General what is the present position of the work in connection with the Post Office tube railway and when it may be expected to be in full working order; what was the original estimated cost; how much has been expended to date; how much more he estimates will be required for completion; and whether he will urge this work forward with all possible speed, in view of the relief it is hoped will be afforded to London road traffic problems by its operation?

Sir W Mitchell-Thomson – The permanent way is practically completed, and contracts have been placed for the electrical equipment and rolling stock. It is anticipated that the railway will be ready for operation in the latter part of 1926. The sum provided under the Post Office (London)Railway Act 1913 was £1,100,000. The sum expended to date is £1,266,450, and it is estimated that about £310,000 will be required to complete the undertaking. Everything possible will be done to ensure that the railway is brought into operation at the earliest possible date.

23 March 1926 Mr Broad asked the Postmaster-General the present position of the Post Office (London) Tube Railway, when it is expected that it will be available for full service, what was the original estimated cost, and what has been the total cost to date?

Viscount Wolmer – The permanent way has been completed; the bulk of the electrical plant has been manufactured, and its installation is proceeding rapidly. It is anticipated that the railway will be available for traffic in the autumn. The sum provided under the Post Office (London)Railway Act 1913 was £1,100,000; the sum expended to date is £1,411,000.

It was not until February 1927 that the first section, between Paddington and West Central District Office, was available for training. By June 1927 the cost of the railway had risen to £ 1,550,000** and Postmaster-General Sir W Michell Thomson was confidently predicting an opening in three months from that date. October 1927 saw the finishing touches put to the railway, and the line was available for use for the Christmas parcel post. February 1928 saw the first letter post on the system. At one point, there were around 220 workers on the Mail Rail, but by April 2003, when Royal Mail announced its closure, that staff was much reduced to cater for just three stations and the cost of keeping the train going had become more expensive than using road transport.

Train 1935

Mount Pleasant sorting office

Note:

Part of the original Mail Rail is due to re-open in July 2017. Visitors will have an immersive experience -the can take the train journey and explore the railway through 3D interpretation and audio-visual presentations. And there will also be an exhibition space in the former maintenance workshop in the railway.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.railtechnologymagazine.com/Rail-Industry-Focus-/mail-rail-past-present-and-future

 

http://www.mailrail.co.uk/construction.html

 

https://postalmuseum.org/discover/explore-online/postal-history/mail-rail/

 

http://www.londonreconnections.com/2013/reopening-londons-mail-rail/

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1925/mar/17/tube-railway#S5CV0181P0_19250317_CWA_62

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1926/mar/23/london-tube-railway#S5CV0193P0_19260323_HOC_230

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1927/jun/24/post-office-london-railway#S5CV0207P0_19270624_CWA_10

 

** about £ 86,000,000 today

Film Review – Viceroy’s House: Photocopying Downton Abbey

Bloggers’ Note: Although this film falls beyond our time frame, we felt this warranted a review as the Mountbattens were regular fixtures in British newspapers from their wedding in 1922 until their deaths in 1960 and 1979 respectively.

With 2017 marking the 70th anniversary of Indian independence (and the creation of Pakistan as well), the release of Viceroy’s House is perfectly timed, a narration of the road to Indian independence and the birth of two nations. Directed by Gurinder Chadha( best known for Bend it like Beckham), she has partly drawn from her family history for this film. But most of the action is set in the magnificent Edwin Lutyens-designed viceregal palace (now the residence of the President of India) with its massive rooms and grounds which in the words of Edwina Mountbatten in the film, “makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow.”

There’s a mention of her grandmother’s experience of being displaced as the boundaries between the two new nations were drawn so it makes me wish that she had brought her grandmother’s story to the big screen as a representative of what happened to millions of families. Instead what we get is a potted history lesson mixed with an upstairs-downstairs narrative that’s pretty much lifted from Downton Abbey. I will go further by saying that Viceroy’s House is a direct photocopy of Downton Abbey.

Viceroy's House poster

The year is 1947 and Britain exhausted by the Second World War is preparing to transfer power in India for 1948. Overseeing this is the new viceroy; Louis (“Dickie”) Viscount Mountbatten of Burma (Hugh Bonneville) accompanied by his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and their younger daughter Pamela (Lily Travers). At the same time, former policeman Jeet Kumar (Manish Dyal) arrives at the palatial viceregal palace to begin his new job as a valet to the new viceroy where he encounters a secretary, Aalia Noor, (Huma Qureshi), who he recognises as the daughter of one of the political prisoners he helped guard. Predictably the two fall in love but Aalia is already promised to another man and as her father reminds her, to marry him is honouring her dying mother’s wish.

Meanwhile Mountbatten is faced with a dilemma, should India remain as one nation or two with India as a Hindu majority (together with the Sikhs) state and Pakistan which would be a Muslim majority country? While he tries to reach a settlement between Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), violence flares across India and in the end, its accepted that partition and bringing the date forward for independence will help ease the violence. A senior judge, Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow) is brought into India to determine the borders between the two countries. With a very limited timeframe to do his job, and with the added disadvantage of never having been to India before, Sir Cyril struggles, especially as there are areas where the split between the two faiths is even. He confides this to General Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon), and he is shown a plan from 1945 that already showed the borders between India and Pakistan. When Mountbatten learns about this, he is shocked to learn that Churchill had authorised this to safeguard supplies of oil and to create a buffer against the Soviets.

Despite this, partition goes ahead and as a result, two nations are born while there is a massive movement of peoples between the two new countries. And what of Jeet and Aalia? Well, there is a sort of happy if slightly implausible ending in the manner of all soap operas. Actually, if I’m going to be honest, it was a jaw-dropping “wait, what? You are using THIS as a dramatic device??” moment, but possibly that’s just me.

As mentioned earlier, watching Viceroy’s House led to me to the conclusion it was a photocopy of Downton Abbey not only with the opening sequence and the upstairs downstairs drama but even with the casting of Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten. This must have been the worst piece of casting since Dick van Dyke as Bert in Mary Poppins or Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October; Bonneville with his beefy frame is nothing like the lean Mountbatten. Neither does he have the real Mountbatten’s clipped tones, effortless charm and breezy self-assurance. Instead what we see is a man out of his depth, weak and hesitant – much like his Downton Abbey character Lord Grantham. The director doesn’t help this obvious miscasting by ending the film with newsreels of the real life Mountbatten as Viceroy – the contrast is glaring.

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Viceroy's House 3

If Bonneville reprises Robert then Gillian Anderson is Cora (and interestingly was reportedly offered the role before Elizabeth McGovern). She’s convincing as Edwina Mountbatten but her attempts at affecting a cut glass accent sometimes descend into parody. In addition she’s not really given much to do apart from constantly remind her husband of why they’re in India (hello, he’s the last Viceroy entrusted with the task of giving India its independence, I think he might know already), and act as a human United Nations statistics booklet (“Darling do you know that 92 per cent of the population are illiterate?”) in a script that very often recalls Downton Abbey at its expositional finest. And for a film that focuses a lot on real life characters, there is little done to flesh them out as people – who they really are and how their behaviours could have help affect the course of history. Nothing is made of the Mountbattens’ married life especially as they had been living virtually separate lives since the beginning of their marriage or the purported affair between Edwina and Nehru. Even Jinnah’s illness was not mentioned much less alluded to. There’s very little depth of character and sometimes it feels like the script is a taken from school textbook about independence – kept to the basics and shorn of the complexities. A feeling not helped by the almost insultingly brief running time – 106 minutes to explain a process that cost a couple of million lives. (Perhaps that should be “attempt to explain independence.”)

Ironically it’s the servants who are given the better storylines and scenes. They operate as a huge and well-organised team to serve the Mountbattens and while they are doing that they listen to the radio, read the papers and catch snippets of meetings. While they discuss and argue, the cracks between Muslim and Hindu start to show, especially when they have to decide what country they are going to go to after independence. A striking example was the two chefs and the look of anguish on the head chef’s face when he hears his deputy had chosen to become Pakistani is a microcosm of how politics has infiltrated a workplace where people have worked alongside together for years if not decades and have now been torn apart. Gradually we see the cracks widen between Hindu, Sikh and Moslem and degenerate into physical violence in an echo of what is happening outside the residence’s gates. There are also very poignant human touches that bring home the innumerable tiny human tragedies – Jeet’s colleague comes back from their village, where he has found their families dead or missing, but carrying a baby girl, the sole survivor of a massacre. A Hindu woman has picked up a Moslem girl who has escaped the killing of everyone on her train and wants to adopt her, and gets very angry with the official insistence that this is a queue for Hindus, the badly injured girl must go elsewhere. Little touches of humanity in the face of overwhelming disaster.

While Jeet and Aalia’s love story is pretty much standard soap opera fare, individually both characters have potential and yet are undeveloped. Jeet himself has an interesting background – a policeman who spent most of his career arresting and guarding pro-independence activists but whose father was killed by the British: but that’s never explored, and neither is the reason why he has given up his job as a policeman to be a viceregal servant in the dying weeks of the Raj. And what about Aalia? We don’t know much about what she thinks and feels as an individual: the tension between her clearly Westernised education and outlook as opposed to the traditional family demands being made on her is clear but ignored. What’s also omitted is the upper staff who are mainly British save for the major domo who is clearly Indian but is very Westernised, what’s going to happen to them? The major domo has a close working relationship with his immediate superior, the comptroller of the household (who is British) and yet what will happen to both men is a mystery, when actually that would have made a better storyline than what we’ve seen on screen.

Viceroy’s House major weakness however (and again this is where the similarity to Downton Abbey is in the distortion and trivialising of great events) is how the film glosses over Mountbatten’s incompetence and the intransigence of the Indian side. Instead blame is placed on Winston Churchill despite the fact that in 1947 he had been out of power for two years and was in no position to influence events (in fact he did vote in favour of the Indian Independence Bill and urged his party to do the same). This weakness is made worse by historical inaccuracies such as the view that Indians were not ready to govern themselves when in reality they were already native Indians serving as mayors and councillors as elected by their fellow Indians and by the 1930s the Indians were already outnumbering the British in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). The constant bleating about “divide and rule” was also grating and conveniently forgets that “divide and rule” tactics were already used in India long before the British came.

The dialogue is heavily expositional and the narrative is simplistic, it’s all “Oh Jinnah wants Pakistan, what shall we do?” “Look, here’s a plan all handily drawn up in 1945 by Churchill with the borders neatly drawn in but don’t tell Mountbatten. That’ll sort it.” Independence and partition is wrapped up in about 10 minutes with contemporary newreels of massacres, long trails of miserable refugees and the Mountbattens and Nehru looking anguished over what has been unleashed.

The plus side is the visuals. If there’s one thing that this film does really well, it’s capturing the vibrant real-life locations of both the Viceroy of India’s residence and the streets of India. Filmed entirely on location, the grandeur of the main stage is fantastic to look at, whilst the costume design ranges from Mountbatten’s decorated military attire to the colourful uniforms and dress of the Indian servants.

Unfortunately for the success of the film I left the cinema feeling manipulated and that an agenda was at play. The film ends with the information that the director’s family fled the partition, that on the way her grandmother’s baby died of starvation and it was after nearly two years in a refugee camp that her grandparents were re-united. I’m not in the slightest downplaying this dreadful human tragedy, but it was one of millions, and it’s being used to peddle an essentially very selective view of the history that comes from two books – Freedom at Midnight, whose authors had access to the Mountbatten archives and the man himself and veers close to hagiography at some points  and The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by a former Indian diplomat, Narendra Singh Sarila, who was a junior member of Mountbatten’s staff and who maintains that Churchill was the culprit for the bloodshed of partition.

As Ian Jack points out in a scathing Guardian review, historians have given this short shrift, but the power of film is such that there are going to be millions who take away from this the message that Mountbatten and Nehru were guiltless and that Churchill and Jinnah were the evil geniuses of partition. As Jack points out

Chadha denied the charge of anti-Muslim prejudice – persuasively, I think – but to my mind she and her fellow writers on the film, her American husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, and the English screenwriter Moira Buffini, have committed just as great a sin, which is to take a breathtaking liberty with the historical record.

As he goes on to say The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office. Even so, it will attract a far larger audience than any book on partition, and for many people it will be their only understanding of the subject. As with “fake news”, so with “fake history”. Detecting it needs curiosity – critical rather than passive consumption – otherwise it never gets found out.

And that’s the danger of this film, because film is a much more powerful medium than the written word and misrepresentation can be taken away as gospel truth (as demonstrated by more than enough viewers who think that Downton Abbey accurately represents early 20th century Britain). If people want to learn more about independence and partition, Viceroy’s House isn’t the film I would recommend. Viewers are advised to purchase, rent or borrow DVDs of Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (1982) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984), a 14 part drama produced by ITV. Both explore the complexities of Indian society and politics in the dying days of the Raj and the road to independence in a sensitive and historically accurate way that Viceroy’s House has failed to do.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.forgotten-raj.org/doc/viceroy.htm

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4302730/Viceroy-s-House-whitewashes-Lord-Mountbatten.html

Andrew Roberts. Eminent Churchillians (London, 1994)

Alex von Tunzelmann. Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (London, 2008)

Stanley Wolpert. Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny (Oxford, 1996)