ON THE SHELF: THE MITFORDS – LETTERS BETWEEN SIX SISTERS

Originally published in June 2016

I had bought this large (800+ pp) volume at Hatchard’s on my trip to London in 2014 and had first tried to read it when it finally arrived in a Royal Mail bag, along with several other books I’d purchased.  I made it through the first chapter before realizing that I was thoroughly lost – who in the world is Honks? Which sister was called Woman? And who is The French Lady, as there were two sisters who lived in France? At that time, I had scant knowledge of the biographies and inner workings of the Mitford Sisters. Thus, I’ve spent the past year attempting to rectify that deficit, not simply in order to be able to read this book, but because the Mitford sisters, their circle of family and friends, the times they lived through and much else about them is fascinating.

 

The Mitford sisters (clockwise from top left): Unity; Jessica; Diana; Nancy; Deborah; Pamela

Below are the thumbnail biographies for each sister, and their brother, from the Mitford Family entry in Wikipedia:

  1. Nancy Mitford (28 November 1904 – 30 June 1973). Married Peter Rodd and had a longstanding relationship with French politician and statesman Gaston Palewski. She lived in France much of her adult life. A writer of many novels, including her most popular (and somewhat autobiographical), The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Also a noted biographer of historical figures, including the Sun King.
  2. Pamela Mitford (25 November 1907 – 12 April 1994). Known as “Woman.” Married and divorced the millionaire physicist Derek JacksonJohn Betjeman, who for a time was in love with her, referred to her as the “Rural Mitford”. After her divorce, she spent the remainder of her life as the companion of Giuditta Tommasi (died 1993), an Italian horsewoman.
  3. Thomas Mitford (2 January 1909 – 30 March 1945), known as Tom was educated at Eton, a close friend of James Lees-Milne there. Lover of Tilly Losch during her marriage to Edward James. Died as a soldier in Burma. According to Jessica’s letters, he supported British fascism and was stationed in Burma after refusing to fight in Europe.
  4. Diana Mitford (17 June 1910 – 11 August 2003). Married aristocrat and writer Bryan Walter Guinness in the 1929 society wedding of the year. She left him in the society scandal of the year (1933) for British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. She was interned in Holloway Prison during the Second World War. Her belief in fascism never wavered nor her affection for Adolf Hitler. Mother of Max Mosley.
  5. Unity Valkyrie Mitford (8 August 1914 – 28 May 1948), “Bobo” or “Boud” to her siblings. Famous for her adulation of and friendship with Adolf Hitler. Shot herself in the head days after Britain declared war on Germany, but failed to kill herself and eventually died of pneumococcal meningitis at West Highland Cottage Hospital, Oban, after being transferred from Inch Kenneth.
  6. Jessica Mitford (11 September 1917 – 22 July 1996), commonly known as “Decca”. Eloped with Esmond Romilly to the Spanish Civil War. Spent most of her adult life in the United States. Two years after Esmond was killed during the Second World War she married Robert Treuhaft, whom she met as a fellow US government employee. Member of the American Communist Party until 1958. She wrote several volumes of memoirs and several volumes of polemical investigation, including the best-sellingThe American Way of Death (1963) about the funeral industry. Grandmother of James Forman, Jr. and Chaka Forman, sons of the African-American civil rights leaderJames Forman by her daughter Constancia Romilly.
  7. Deborah Mitford (31 March 1920 – 24 September 2014). Married Andrew Cavendish who became the Duke of Devonshire, and with him turned his ancestral home,Chatsworth House, into one of Britain’s most successful stately homes. She wrote a dozen books.

 

To read more on the Sisters, click here to find a 2014 article on them from the BBC Magazine. I won’t give you my personal opinion on each sister, as I don’t want you to be influenced before you read the book yourself.

Letters Between Six Sisters was edited by Charlotte Mosley, who is married to Max Mosley, son of Diana Mitford. She has done a marvelous job here and managed to organize a monumental amount of material into a cohesive and very readable format. As the Editor’s Note tells us from the start, “the correspondence between the six Mitford sisters consists of some twelve thousand letters – of which little more than five per cent has been included in this volume.” The letters begin in 1925 with a single letter from Pamela to Diana and pick up speed in the early 1930’s. Mosley thankfully prefaces each decade with an overview of what was occurring in the lives of each sister during that time. Naturally, the elephant in the room for the Mitfords during the 1930’s was Unity’s passion for Adolph Hitler. One never gets a clear picture of Unity as a person, in this or any other source, so I still can’t decide whether her Nazi fantaticism was down to Unity’s having been simple minded, cruel, impressionable or just plain mad. Unity stalked Hitler, especially in a restaurant he was known to frequent, and made no bones about these activities. In a letter to Diana in December of 1935, Unity wrote: “ . . . today at last he came, it was wonderful, and he was tremendously surprised to see me. He immediately asked me . . . to go and sit with him . . . The Fuhrer was heavenly, in his best mood, and very gay. There was a choice of two soups and he tossed a coin to see which one he would have, and he was so sweet doing it. He asked after you, and I told him you were coming soon. He talked a lot about Jews, which was lovely. News from Absyssinia and Egypt kept on coming through on the telephone, which was rather exciting. The Furher stayed in the Osteria for two hours, wasn’t it lovely . . . . .” She signed the letter “With best love and Heil Hitler! Bobo.”

Of course, the letters can only tell us so much about any aspect of the Sister’s lives. Their individual feelings about any subject, or about each other, at various points over the years were often not consigned to writing. There is a lot of reading between the lines to be done, which Mosley admirably accomplishes. However, not all is as it seems, even with her help. In June of 1940, Diana Mitford and her husband, Facist leader Oswald Mosley, were both jailed without charge or trial under Defense Regulation 18B, which allowed for the internment of people suspected of being Nazi sympathisers during WWII. Diana was remanded to Holloway Prison. This did not stop the Sisters from communicating. On 19 November of 1941, Deborah suffered the death of her newborn child, a boy who had been born prematurely, and wrote to Diana in prison: “It was heaven of you to write your precious letter and all. You can’t think how much better I feel now, really quite alright. . . Oh Honks, never Gilliat again,  I have completely lost confidence in him. He never turned up till ages after he was wanted and when I was there with everything over he came in and the nurses said `Here’s a friend to
see you’ and if I’d had the strength I really would have kicked him or at least asked him where he had been all the afternoon . . . .
” Three days later, on 22 November 1941 Nancy also wrote to Diana from her own hospital bed in London, “Darling Diana – Thanks so much for the wonderful grapes, you really are an angel and grapes are so good for me. I have had a terrible time, so depressing because they had to take out both my tubes and therefore I can never now have a child. I can’t say I suffered great agony but quite enough discomfort . . . . The Rodds (Nancy’s soon to be ex inlaws) have been wonderfully true to form – my mother in law was told by the surgeon I shld be in danger for 3 days, and not one of them even rang up to enquire let alone sending a bloom or anything. I long to know if they bothered to look under R in the deaths column, very much doubt it however. . . Muv (their mother) was wonderful, she swam in a haze of bewilderment between me and Debo. When my symptoms were explained to her she said ‘ovaries – I thought one had 700 like caviar.’ Then I said how I couldn’t bear the idea of a great scar on my tum to which she replied `But darling whose ever going to see it?’ . . . . Much love darling and many more thanks for the grapes, Nancy.

On the face of it, both of these letters sound like nothing more than correspondence from two sisters to a third. Nancy’s letters, though written from a hospital bed, still manage to retain Nancy’s typical breezy tone, offered up with a dollop of sarcasm. However, in 2002, MI5 released WWII era documents that described Lady Mosley (Diana Mitford) and her political leanings. “Diana Mosley, wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, is reported on the ‘best authority’, that of her family and intimate circle, to be a public danger at the present time. Is said to be far cleverer and more dangerouso than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions. She is wildly ambitious.” Nancy Mitford was the `best authority’ quoted above. Diana at last learned that her sister had not once but twice written to the government about herself and Oswald Mosley and that her words had gone a long way towards seeing them both imprisoned. 

These two dark episodes in the lives of the Mitford Sisters aside, the majority of the letters in this book are far lighter in tone. Here are a few examples: 

Deborah to Diana, 13 August 1957 – ” . . . . I wonder if you’ve seen the papers, they are full of Hardwick and the death duty deals, I think v. satisfactory for us but sad nevertheless (1). . . . Evelyn Waugh came last week, on his way to Renishaw. He is a crusty old thing, he didn’t actually get cross but one felt he was on the verge all the time. The Wife was here (2), we were talking in my room when we’d mounted (the stairs) and he kept coming in saying things like `I hope there is Malvern Water by my bed, I hope the blinds keep the light out, may I have some lemonade to take my sleeping draught in, has Lady Mersey finished with the bathroom’ and generally making one feel that things weren’t quite right and that it was one’s fault. I thought he had really gone for good when he came back with a look of triumph on his face, and said `I’ve looked in the pedestal beside my bed and I thought I ought to tell you the POT IS FULL.’ Oh Honks the humiliation, the horror. I was rooted to the bed, couldn’t help in any way, left him and the Wife to deal with it, hid my head in the blankets and was properly put out. Evelyn seemed rather pleased. Oh dear, not what Nancy calls a nice character . . .  

1. Hardwick Hall, which had been in the Devonshire family for fifteen generations, and nine of Chatsworth’s most important works of art, had been handed over to the government in lieu of death duties. 
2.  Lady Mersey, Deborah’s longtime friend. 

Deborah to Diana, 13 August 1958 ” . . . . . We went to lunch with the Sitwells on Monday. Dame Edith was in a long fur coat (which she never even unbuttoned for lunch) and a feather hat and her long white hands and huge rings. She is lovely and gone on the same people as me, viz. Cake (1) and Greta Garbo. She told us the chief things she remembered her mother saying were ‘We must remember to order enough quails for the dance’ and ‘If only I could get your Father put into a lunatic asylum.’ Poor Osbert doesn’t seem much worse, but it is frightening to see him walk with that fast shuffle . . . . .

(1) The Queen Mother. Deborah adopted the nickname after attending a wedding where the Queen Mother, when told that the bride and groom were about to cut the cake, exclaimed, ‘Oh, the cake!’ as though she had never seen it happen before. Deborah was lastingly impressed by her enthusiasm.

Nancy to Pamela, 25 November 1966 – “Dereling, Many Happies – but where to send them? Oi don’t know. How old we are, eet ees deesgusting – I wonder if we smell like old people used to. One lars (alas). 28 Nov 66 Well I left this to moulder and got yours this mg from a very improbably address but also one from Debo expecting you there. The list! (1) Diana and I are already on non-speakers over it but finally arranged for her to fetch the things (all that either you or the others don’t want) and then will fight it out here. But be sure to take what you do want regardless of us. I die specially for the opal brooch and the Miss Mitford watch. If Debo begins to say she wants anything kindly direct her gaze to the Chatsworth Safe and say I said so. Take her there and shut the door on her until the things are in Forceful Lady Mosley’s bag. (Though Lady M is putty in her hands I fear.) I’ve got to do a thing on the Fr. wireless and must flee – Much love, Naunceling.

(1) A list of possessions belonging to the sisters’ Aunt Iris, who had recently died. 

The final letter in the book was sent by fax from Deborah to Diana on 5 January, 2002 and runs “Darling Honks – So thrilled with two from you this a.m. Keep at it but please make the ghoul effort and finish yr book for OUR SAKES. I’ve just written you a long letter but this is to say we’re still alive in the snow and cold THEY give a thaw but God seems to think otherwise in his unsweeting way. I wish he’d weet a bit. Hurrying over the ice to the post in the village. Much love, Debo.

On the whole, there is nothing earth shattering in any of the letters – they are simply missives between six sisters which give a rare insight into a way of life now gone and celebrated names long passed. But as a whole, the letters transport one into a world that was far more enchanting, amusing and engaging than the present day. At least for as long as it takes one to get through the 800 plus pages of this book. I am bereft having just finished it. Let’s hope that Charlotte Mosley gets around to editing the other 95% of the Mitford sister’s letters soon. In the meantime, I consoled myself by visiting a few Mitford sites during my trip to England in May, 2016 and by making this portrait of Debo my FB profile picture.

Chatsworth House
Heywood Hill Bookshop, Curzon Street, where Nancy worked during WWII.
And in case you simply cannot get enough of the Mitfords, here’s the link to the Mitford Society, which regularly posts new articles on the subject(s) and which offers a good sized archive of past articles.
Please click here to find a video of Charlotte Mosley interviewing
Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, for the Frick Collection.

 

ON THE SHELF – THE ROY STRONG DIARIES

In 1959, Roy Strong became an assistant keeper at London’s National Portrait Gallery and was appointed as its Director in 1967. Young, flamboyant and energetic, Strong worked tirelessly to bring the Gallery into the 20th century and to mount exhibitions that would appeal to a wide range of visitors, from those who knew little about art to those who were some of the country’s greatest collectors.

In 1973, Strong became the youngest ever director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Again, Strong set about putting the collections into modern order and putting on shows that were meant to shake up the status quo, including his legendary exhibition, The Destruction of the Country House, which raised awareness of the loss of so many of the country’s stately homes and helped to energize the efforts of the heritage sector. Strong has also written columns for several newspapers and magazines and has written books on history, design and gardening, a personal passion of his.

I came across the Strong diaries on a recent trip to Hatchard’s, London. Many of you will already be aware of my fondness for diaries – this is the most contemporary of my collection. As with any good diary, the author has to have a keen eye for detail, a modicum of wit and the ability to use snark to good effect. Strong does not disappoint. Strong’s diaries chart his career, the inner workings of two of London’s greatest museums, and provide insight into the personalities of the day and those who comprise the circle in which he moves. A favourite of the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Cecil Beaton, Strong also documents the last hoorah of many society stars from an earlier age. Here is just a sample of the entries within –

18 December 1969 – The event of the day was Lady Adean’s drinks party. There is a custom that once a year just before Christmas those who have grace and favour residences all give parties on the same evening, or at least those who have windows which look out on to the inner courtyard of St. James’s Palace. In the middle blazed two coke-filled braziers supplied, I was told, free of charge by the gas company, while an ancient lamplighter lit the gas lamps surrounding the courtyard. At seven promptly the Bach Choir entered in procession, carrying candles and singing carols. Within, the chatter and clink of glasses stopped, and everyone moved towards the windows to look down and listen. It was enchanting.

Sybil Sassoon, Countess of Rocksavage by John Singer Sargent, 1913

16 March 1970 – A party by Sybil Cholmondeley at her residence at No. 12 Kensington Palace Gardens – I was ushered through to the drawing room at the back of the house overlooking the gardens, a huge room in discoloured green with a chimneypiece at either end, in both of which a log fire blazed. Over one hung the famous Oudry of a dead swan, over the other a portrait by Sargent of the hostess, in the guise of an Infanta by Coello. From this one gathered that in her day she had been a great beauty. . . The other guests were the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, William Plomer, the poet, and Lady Fermoy . . . The Duke was twitchy as usual, the Duchess complaining that she only had an hour and a half to choose fabrics for clothes at Liberty’s. They formed a great contrast, he somewhat shambling, she with not a hair out of place. She hates plays, opera and most ballet, and anything that in any way constrains her. He in sharp contrast, admitted to loving them all.

Lady Diana Cooper

16 June 1970 – Diana Cooper’s Warwick Avenue house always seems solidly 1930’s romantic in mood . . . she has a timeless magic which cuts across the generations and makes differences in age irrelevant. She’s still beautiful, with that delicate bone structure and those huge pale aquamarine eyes which always slay me . . . She was making one of her specials when I arrived, that lethal mix of vodka, grapefruit juice and mint of which I have learned to beware. Before I could say anything she grabbed me by the arm saying, ‘Such a disaster. At 12:30 I went to check that everything was in order and found that the cook was coming tomorrow . . . and such a distinguished luncheon party.’ . . . . The result of this catastrophe was that the party ended up in the Maida Vale Steakhouse, a typical hostelry of the late Sixties with tartan on the walls, plastic table tops and imitation leather banquettes. . . So there we were, an ex Prime Minister (Harold Macmillan), a marquess and marchioness (Salisbury wearing a straw hat engulfed in white net), an ex-American ambassador, myself and Diana Phipps, who had just bought a foot by Rubens in the Portobello Road . . . By the evening news of this bizarre gathering had reached the Evening Standard. What it showed was that Diana was unsinkable.

26 June 1970 – I went on . . . to visit Shirburn Castle at Watlington to inspect the Macclesfield collection for an Estate Duty Office evaluation. No one had been able to get into the place for years and the family had a reputation for eccentricity. The castle was, it seemed, Regency Gothic with a moat and drawbridge but it left me totally unprepared for the pileup of tat and junk within. Lord Macclesfield made a brief appearance in a plebeian cloth cap and overalls, carrying a cardboard box, for all the world like a removal man. I was taken around by his son, Lord Parker, and the pictures were staggering, the dining room lined with seven Stubbs and a great Hogarth. Later I learned that the Macclesfields were so disliked that the locals burnt down their model farm.

3 – 5 July 1970 – A weekend at Boughton – Viewing Boughton from the road the average person would wonder what kind of institution this vast pile now was. But, oh no, every bit of it is lived in still. The front is late seventeenth century, very French in style, and there’s a huge stable-block to the left with a cupola. . . In the middle there’s a grass courtyard with beds of lavender and sweet-smelling climbers . . . I concluded that it was the smell, or rather fragrance, of the house which was so magical, the white morning room scented with lilies, the unforgettable ancient linen (I saw sheets dated 1811), the curious faint odour of the tapestries, one of which was tossed across my bed as a counterpane.

Mary (Mollie), Duchess of Buccleuch, at the coronation of George VI in 1937

Mollie Buccleuch (nee Mary “Mollie” Lascelles) would be a bonus to any great house, for both her energy and her enthusiasm appear to be unending.  A complete tour of the house is obligatory and that includes the attics, where sixty tapestries exist rolled in bundles and where Catherine of Bragaza’s marriage furniture is stored. It takes three hours non-stop and there’s no sympathy for stragglers. Those that didn’t make it, like John Pope-Hennessy, who spent one weekend there . . . aren’t asked again. Mollie leads with her sing-song voice with its 1930s inflections. Walter Buccleuch lets it all wash over him, a P.G. Wodehouse duke in baggy tweeds, but noble in his way and extremely sweet-natured.

5 June 1979 – One of the V&A’s branches was Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner. Relations with the Wellingtons were never easy. They got off to a bad start in 1974 when I allowed the Byron Society in for a glass of sherry after they had laid a wreath at the statue of Byron close by, on a freezing winter’s day. That prompted a very long letter from the Duke saying how his ancestor, the first Duke, had not approved of Byron and that these poor members of the Byron Society should never have been allowed in. Apsley House in fact belonged to the nation and the Wellingtons were merely tenants, a fact of which from time to time one had to remind them.

We are just about to purchase the famous Wellington Egyptian service for 350 thousand pounds. Valerian Wellesley is a very stupid man. Indeed there have been no brains in the family since the first Duke and no money. They have huge Capital Transfer Tax debts to meet and they are broke. Neither the present, nor the future duchess has brought any money in. The saga began with Valerian Wellington being asked for a boar hunt weekend with the President of France. After this he had the nerve to ask for one of the military banners, taken by the first Duke from Napoleon’s army and hung at Apsley House, to give as a ‘thank you’ present to the President. I put him down rather forcefully on that one. At any rate it was during that weekend that the service was apparently sold to the French. The Reviewing Committee for Works of Art, of course, stopped it, much to his fury. That transaction then became public, also to his fury, as he is now seen as someone thoughtless of the national heritage, selling it abroad. It will mean that as a result of the purchase the Museum (the V&A) will be broke again as usual, but it will be worth it.

 * * *

The diaries of Sir Roy Strong continue in a volume that covers 1988 – 2003, which I plan on reading as soon as possible.

ON THE SHELF: IN PRAISE OF OLD BOOKS

by Louisa Cornell – originally published June 26, 2017

Regular visitors to Number One London have read of my obsession with research books written on the Regency era. I collect them with a fervor just short of that of the Regency’s most avaricious bibliomaniac. As a subdivision of my obsession, I want to tell you a bit about my relationship with research books written during the Regency era. What the latest generation of twenty-somethings would call ancient books.

I currently own slightly over 500 research books about the Regency era. They are catalogued online at LibraryThing  which is one of the earliest online cataloguing services. I understand there are far more platforms now, but this one has served me well and the community is without peer when it comes to discussing and admiring the libraries of its members. My library is listed as public, which means it can be viewed by any member of LibraryThing. Here’s the link to my Regency Research Book collection, which comprises 1/6th of the books I have catalogued so far. I won’t tell you how many of my books are not catalogued. The number frightens even me.

As dearly as I love my Regency research books, those books written and published during or just after the Regency era are my most prized. Why? It isn’t the monetary value nor the cache of having antique books to display on my shelves. I live in the middle of nowhere and my library is hardly ever seen by anyone else. My old books have incalculable value to me for two reasons.

Their proximity to the era about which or during which they are written puts my research as close to the source as I can reach. Ask anyone who is a fanatic about a certain period and place in history and they will tell you, whether it be visiting an exhibit of clothing sewn and worn during said era or reading a copy of a book written and printed during that era, extant resources are the best. To be able to actually look at an item, be it a Manton pistol or a single-lens quizzing glass or a lady’s corset, transports a person into a place as near to the era as they will ever be absent a teleporting police box, a ring of Scottish stones, or an acquaintance with a couple of gentlemen named Bill and Ted. Books written about an era during that era or shortly afterwards offer the very best view into not only the subject matter, but also into the mind of the writer. An invaluable view to have.

For instance,

1829 Edition Paterson’s Roads
Title Page Paterson’s Roads 1829 Edition

 

 

Foldout map from Paterson’s Roads 1829 Edition

Paterson’s Roads was one of the essential travel atlases of the Regency era. Those huge, unwieldy spiral bound atlases one can purchase at rest stops, restaurants, and in no less a location that Walmart have nowhere near the elegance of this volume, but they serve the same purpose. With Paterson’s Roads in hand a Regency gentleman, an ambitious coachman, or a young lady looking to escape an unwanted marriage might find his or her way nearly anywhere the road might take them. My copy has a bit of scuffing about the cover, but it does include all eight foldout maps intact, a rarity. It also has the added thrill, mixed with a bit of sadness, of coming from the library of a country house. The new owners of Lowick Hall in Cumbria have parted with large portions of the home’s library in order to afford renovations necessary to maintain the house. Their loss is my gain, but I cannot help but wonder at whose hands have touched this book before me and what adventures it took them on before it made its way across the Pond to me.

I own two editions of The Stately Homes of England, Illustrated with 210 Engravings on Wood by Llewellyn Jewitt. One is the 1877  two-volume first edition published in England and the other is volume one of the 1878 edition published in the United States. The British edition was an intentional purchase from a book dealer in Saxmundham, England. The American edition I came upon at a flea market and I simply could not leave it there to languish unappreciated. This book allows me to see these stately homes, many of them gone now, through the eyes of both a writer and an engraver who lived only slightly removed from the Regency era. One cannot put a price on their vision. And the wood engravings are exquisite.

Stately homes of England by Llewellyn Jewitt 1877 edition

My 1890 edition of Glimpses of Old English Homes, Illustrated with drawings and portraits by Elizabeth Balch is a bit worse for wear. As with all of my old books it is carefully wrapped and preserved and I wear gloves when I consult it. She is a fragile old girl, but the information and illustrations and the scholarly research conducted by the author provide myriad little details a researcher more removed from the era might never have the opportunity to see.

Glimpses of Old English Homes by Elizabeth Balch 1890 edition
Front page Glimpses of Old English Homes by Elizabeth Balch 1890 Edition

In addition to these three beauties, I own a few more ancient books, as my nephew would call them. I have an 1860 edition of William Makepeace Thackery’s The Four Georges – Sketches of Manners, Morals, Court and Town Life. This book is both entertaining and informative and tells me in no uncertain terms what the author thought of the Georgian era and the people who made the era what it was.

I also have an 1821 edition of Real Life in London: On the Rambles and Adventure of Bob Tallyho, Esq. and His Cousin, the Hon. Tom Dashall through the Metropolis; Exhibiting a Living Picture of Fashionable Characters, Manners, and Amusements in High and Low Life. By an Amateur. Embellished and Illustrated with a Series of Coloured Prints, Designed and Engraved by Messrs. Heath, Alken, Dighton, Brooke, Rowlandson, &c. London: Printed for Jones & Co. This is a fun read and rife with all sorts of ideas for stories set in the Regency era. This is actually an imitation of the original work by Pierce Egan. However, this particular imitation is the one Egan is said to have favored the most. I have to agree with him.

Also on my shelf is The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature, for the Year 1804 which was actually published in 1806. This is the sort of volume one would have lying about the library or the lounge of a club or anywhere someone might want to pass a few hours reading articles about various subjects as they appeared in the year noted. I cannot tell you how fascinating it is to pick up this book and immerse myself in the major, minor, and every level in between events of a single year during the Regency era.

I also have an 1818 edition of One Hundred Sixteen Sermons, Preached Out of the First Lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer, For all Sundays in the Year by William Reading, M.A. This book is especially close to my heart as it was given to me by a dear friend who knew how much I would treasure it. The inscription of the first owner is dated December 29, 1818. December 29th is my birthday. Reading the sermons probably has not made me a more pious person, but it has given me insight into the religious year and into the way people of this era practiced and thought of their faith.

I said before, there are two reasons I treasure these extant resources so very much. The second reason has nothing to do with monetary value, research value or their usefulness to me as a writer of Regency historical romances. It has to do with me as a human being. My Native American ancestors say “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.”

That spiritual experience is what I have when I hold these books in my hand. When I curl up in a chair with a cup of Earl Grey and a plate of Walker’s shortbread and read the same pages someone from another time and place read I feel a connection, a tie to those long ago readers. I wonder about their lives, their hopes, and their reasons for owning and reading these books before me. When each of these books arrived, I spent a great deal of time holding it and turning it over and over again in my hands. I guess that makes me some sort of book geek, at best, and a book weirdo, at worst. Guilty as charged.

There is a reverence to the written word. Those of us who know the importance of words, of their preservation in these old books, can see as others do not the intangible connection books provide from one era to another, from one person to another, and from one soul to another. The electronic age has provided us with access to plenty of old books via inter-library loan and Google books. I do a great deal of my research this way. I confess if a book is particularly helpful I let the Harvard Bookstore print a Google book up for me. They are cute little volumes and the script and text are presented exactly as they appear in the originals.

In the end, there is simply something about holding a stalwart leather bound volume in my hand and carefully turning the pages of a book other souls thought important enough, for any number of reasons, to preserve so that I might treasure it all over again. In that moment, I understand them. Their soul speaks to mine. And as important as our connection to each other is, we can learn a great deal from our connection to those who have come before us. Old books give us that chance – to connect, to learn, and to grow on our human journey, and our spiritual one.

 

ON THE SHELF: A COLOURED CANVAS

Guest post by author Corille Fraser

 

A Coloured Canvas, Lives, loves and losses in the artistic heart of Regency England

This is a novel about Sir Thomas Lawrence but, as the sub-title suggests, it is much more than a biography of the 18th/ 19th century portrait painter who was only six when he started impressing patrons at his father’s Black Bear Inn by sketching their pictures. The story is full of engaging characters and is told with humour and insight into the world of Regency Bath and London in the years from the American and French Revolutions, through the Napoleonic Wars and the accession of George IV to the coming of the railway, but it touches also on some of the political events and personalities of the era.

All sorts of people stopped at the Black Bear on their way from London to Bath, among them actors including David Garrick and, perhaps, the young Sarah Siddons, as yet unknown but on her way to becoming the leading tragedienne of the period. Did he draw her likeness then? Did she recognise in the boy and herself potentials for greatness? Was that the beginning of the long and tempestuous relationship between the renowned artist and the Siddons family?

Sarah Siddons

Using extensive research into letters, newspapers and comment of the time, I explored the influence his father and many close friends exerted on Lawrence’s career as it developed from West country sketcher to portraitist of Kings and Queens, Popes and Emperors, Prime Ministers, distinguished ladies, diplomats and sportsmen. I singled out some of his subjects for their particularly intriguing stories. Among those are the beautiful but confused Mr Bell, the unprepossessing but clever Irish politician, Mr Curran, the irascible artist, Henry Fuseli, neither rival nor admirer. Children and their pets were particular favourites as of course were members of the Siddons/ Kemble family.

Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1790

Every year from 1789 when he was twenty, his work was to be seen at the Royal Academy Exhibition. His best known studies though not always his best liked were ‘Pinky’, a wintry portrait of Miss Elizabeth Farren and the gigantic ‘Satan’ in which he blended the most imposing features of two friends: the handsome head of actor John Philip Kemble and the powerful body of champion boxer ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson.

The distinguished career was not without its problems. Despite his huge output and ever-increasing income, he was never out of debt and yet he was known to be far from profligate in his personal life. His family, which he supported, not unwillingly, for most of his life, was a financial burden; he spent, often unwisely, on works of art and the latest domestic innovations like a plumbed (but cold water) bath. His friends and advisers, Joseph Farington and John Julius Angerstein helped him organize his budget and kept him out of the bankruptcy court.

And throughout his life at all its stages, Sarah Siddons, her actor brothers Kemble, her husband-manager William who disliked and disapproved of Thomas, and above all her two daughters, sweet Sally and selfish Maria, contenders for his love in their different ways. An intense, difficult triangle that drove him to the brink of madness—or was it a quadrangle? Lawrence was to live out his life as a bachelor, his name, probably but not certainly, platonically linked with several women. His friendship with Sarah Siddons diminished but endured till his death at the age of 60 in 1830.

Note: A Coloured Canvas is available on both Google Books and Amazon.  Corille was born in Scotland, lives in Australia and has a background in theatre and radio. You can visit her website here.

 

ON THE SHELF – PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR: A LIFE IN LETTERS

by Kristine Hughes Patrone

Selected and edited by Adam Sisman, a New York Review Book, 2016 (available through Amazon)

I have so much to thank James Lees Milne for, really. It was through reading his diaries and letters that I have found so many flamboyant, larger-than-life, madcap and  interesting people. He introduced me to a circle of his friends and acquaintances and a time period that has become one of my favourite: England between and just after the War(s). One of the people Mr. Lees-Milne introduced me to is Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose author bio on Amazon reads thus:

“In December 1933, at the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) walked across Europe, reaching Constantinople in early 1935. He travelled on into Greece, where in Athens he met Balasha Cantacuzene, with whom he lived – mostly in Rumania – until the outbreak of war. Serving in occupied Crete, he led a successful operation to kidnap a German general, for which he won the DSO and was once described by the BBC as ‘a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene’. After the war he began writing, and travelled extensively round Greece with Joan Eyres Monsell whom he later married. Towards the end of his life he wrote the first two books about his early trans-European odyssey, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. He planned a third, unfinished at the time of his death in 2011, which has since been edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper and published as The Broken Road.”

A potted history, to be sure, and a fuller bio can be found on Wikipedia. A respected British author and travel writer, PLF also felt a pull to Greece, where he travelled extensively and eventually built a house along with his wife, Joan.

Desk in Fermor’s garden near Kardamyli, 2007 copyright R. de Salis, Wikipedia

But it’s PLF’s circle of friends, also his correspondents, that make this book so interesting. Here again we meet Duff and Diana Cooper, the Devonshires, Andrew and Debo, Evelyn Waugh, Ann Fleming, Cyril Connolly, Lawrence Durrell and a host of others who seemingly all lived out sized lives and who are all people with whom one would have loved to share the odd shaker of martinis. The one slight quibble I had with this book is that it only contains PLF’s letters to people, and none from them, but this can hardly be seen as a flaw when the writing is this good.

While in an army hospital in Surrey recovering from pneumonia in February, 1940, PLF wrote the following to Adrian Pryce-Jones:

“Last night something marvellous happened. I am just being tucked up for the night, when I hear strange foreign noises outside the door, which opens, and in bursts Anne-Marie Callimachi (1) followed by Costa (2). She was dressed in black satin and dripping with mink, with pearls and diamonds crusted at every possible point, topped by the maddest Schiaparelli hat I’ve ever seen. Then Costa, who is very dark, with a huge grin, and quite white hair at the age of thirty. He was dressed in a bright green polo jersey over which he wore a very long black new coat with an immense astrakhan collar: both laden with huge presents. The nurses were struck dumb. Shrill squeals burst from us all, and then we were gabbling the parleyvoo like apes. The nurses fled in  disorder. Then, of course, they couldn’t get a taxi as Anne-Marie had left the Rolls Royces etc. in London; but they had their luggage, and stopped the night at the hospital! We all pretended they were married, so the Sister, with girlish squeaks, got their room ready, with screens coyly arranged between the beds. By this time Costa was telephoning to the Ritz to say Her Highness wouldn’t be back that night, his voice echoing down the passages. The sensation in the hospital was absolutely phenomenal. Huge princely coronets on the luggage – such nighties! Slippers! Oh!! The hospital hasn’t recovered yet, and my glamour value among the nurses is at fever pitch. . . . They left this morning, Anne-Marie leaving a munificent cheque for the Hospital Fund, which I tendered with a languid gesture to the head doctor. Their passage will not be forgotten for ages!”

Fourteen years later, in September 1954, such hobnobbing with the cream of society was still in full flow. PLF writing to Ann Fleming from Hydra:

“Diana’s (Lady Cooper) presence proved a magnet for other yachts, first of all Arturo Lopez (3) in a vast sodomitical-looking craft, done up inside like the Brighton Pavilion, a mandarin’s opium den and the alcove of Madame de Pompadour. . . but this is nothing compared to five days ago, when a giant steam yacht (with a aeroplane poised for flight on the stern) belonging to Onassis came throbbing alongside. . . . On board were Lilia Ralli, several blondes, a few of the zombie-men that always surround the immensely rich, Pam Churchill & Winston Jr.”

We can forgive PLF his forays into the world of the rich and famous, not only because they’re so amusing, but as these brief interludes are tempered with quiet, bucolic and often mundane passages. To Jessica Mitford, PLF wrote in 1983, “Went to a marvelous sheep sale yester’een with Debo (her sister, Deborah, nee Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire), it was wonderful, faces like the whole of Gilray and Rowlandson, and an auctioneer haranguing, in what sounded like Finnish but was just rustic north country. This is the sort of whirl I like to  live in.”

PLF’s friends were generous as well as amusing, several of them allowing he and Joan to use their homes whenever they chose, as was the case with Gadencourt, a manor house in Normandy owned by Sir Walter and Lady Smart – to Patrick Kinross, February 1952 – “They frightfully kindly  let me live here for the whole winter. Why don’t you come and move in on your way home?” He also often stayed at a mansion owned by artist Niko Ghika on Hydra. PLF wrote, “He was seldom there, and, with boundless generosity, he lent it to Joan and me for two years.” Additionally, PLF was a regular house guest of such friends as Lady Diana Cooper, staying at her house in Chantilly and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, spending many Christmas’s with them at Chatsworth House. In February 1960 PLF wrote to Ann Fleming, “Christmas was glorious and went on for ages, consisting of Andrew, Debo and children, Andrew’s mother, Nancy (Mitford) and Mrs. Hammersley, for whom I developed a reciprocated passion. She strikes a wonderful note of bilious gloom about anything.”

Joan and Patrick would eventually build a house in Greece and spent many of their happiest years there, coming back to England regularly and staying at Joan’s family home in Devon. Occasionally, PLF stayed at the Easton Court Hotel in Devon, especially when he was seeking solitude in which to write. In a letter to Lady Diana Cooper, September 1956 –

” . . . . My muse and I are cloistered here, a gale howls down the chimney, cats and dogs come down on the sodden fields outside in an almost unbroken stream and a wind blows that would unhorn cows. I don’t think you’ve ever been here, but it’s a great retiring place for literary purposes, for E. Waugh, & Patrick Kinross and others – I first came here seven years ago with Patrick . . . and have been back several times in extremis . . . It is owned & run by an odd couple, Mrs. Carolyn Postlethwaite Cobb, an elderly American of very improbable shape, now largely bedridden, and her middle-aged ex-lover Norman Webb, a Devonshire chap she met a number of decades ago running a team of donkeys in Biskra or Fez. . . . ”

I found that PLF and I had a lot in common in the end, very odd considering that I’m neither a man, British nor a lover of all things Greek and that I come from a different generation. In a letter to his publisher, Jock Murray in July of 1953, PLF writes that he’d travelled through Greece, finally arriving in Missolonghi by sea:

“Here the great search for Byron’s shoes began. I hadn’t got Lady Wentworth’s (4) letter with me, containing the address . . . I asked all over the town – mayors, local bigwigs, etc. – for a old man who had a pair of Byron’s shoes. . . I tracked him down in the end, a very decent, wall-eyed old man called Charalambi Baigeorgas or Kotsakaris . . . along with a lot of scimitars, yataghans, pistols, powder horns, etc., he produced a parcel, already addressed, on the strength of my letters last year, to Baroness Wentworth. . . . Since then, though, he seems to have fallen in love with them, and (rather understandably) wants to leave them to his children. . . He undid the parcel, and produced a pair of slippers that looked more Turkish, or Moroccan or Algerian (or Burlington Arcade oriental) than Greek . . . . I enclose a sketch and a description of the colours . . . the age looks just about right. I made a tracing of both of them, also of the parts of the soles where the criss-cross tooling is worn smooth, in case it should corroborate, or conflict with, known facts about Byron’s malformation.”

Lady Wentworth

Do admit, these are the sort of lengths I might conceivably go to if the artifact involved Wellington. There’s no information in the book regarding the outcome or provability of the shoe’s being Lord Byron’s but there is PLF’s description of Lady Wentworth herself, and it’ s a pip –

To Lady Diana Cooper, March 1954: “. . . The house (Crabbet Park, Sussex) is untidy as a barn – trunks trussed, and excitingly labelled `LD BYRON’S papers – LDY BYRON’S papers’ in chalk, pictures stacked, furniture piled, wallpaper, curtains etc. exactly the colour and shape of coloured Phiz or Leech . . . . gilt, faded plum and canary, v. grand and dusty. We had rather a mouldy luncheon, ending up with spotted-dog, in a room as full of papers, pictures, horsey accoutrements and favours as a jackdaw’s nest. Lady Wentworth was wearing, as usual, gym-shoes from playing squash, a Badminton skirt to the ground, a woollen shawl, a gigantic and very dishevelled auburn wig that looked as though made of strands from her stallions’ tails gathered off brambles, and on top of this a mushroom-like, real Sairey-Gamp mob-cap, but made of lace and caught in with a Nile-green satin ribbon. Rather a fine, hawky Byronic face under all this, but scarlet patches on the cheeks as from a child’s paint-box; I think she’s eighty-two or three – and a very thin, aristocratic, bleak voice – `have some more spotted-dog?’ sounding like a knell.”

PLF  was a writer with projects constantly on the go, but he was easily distracted by passing fancies, often missing deadlines and being forced to write the dreaded mia culpa letter to editors or friends to which he’d promised pieces.  In a letter to Lady Diana Cooper in November of 1975, PLF confesses: “Michael Stewart has sent us the Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names, which I’ve been deeply immersed in for the last two days: all their derivations, etc.” And to her son, John Julius Norwich, PLF writes: “Last year Jock Murray suddenly told me that about two hundred pounds had mounted up (in royalties) so I blew the lot on the DNB (Dictionary of National Biography) . . . so give me a few minutes notice and I can be pretty knowing about almost anyone in England – before 1900 – up to William Tytler (1711-1792) . . . it would be hard to find a more fascinating and time-wasting acquisition.” Both examples could be me to a T.

A Life In Letters is a delight, some parts reading like a travel book, other parts a glimpse into a vanished lifestyle, all of which is bound up with great friendships, anecdotal offerings and humour.

 

So, what will I read next? In Tearing Haste, edited by Charlotte Mosley, was one of PLF’s last projects and is a compilation of the letters exchanged between himself and Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, over the course of a friendship that spanned more than forty years. However, having already read this when it was first published, I’m thankful that Patrick Leigh Fermor has led me to another possibility, as so often happens with the best books –

From a letter to Lawrence Durrell, November 1954 –

“. . . I’ve just got . . . Daphne’s (5) autobiography Mercury Presides . . . . which is rattling, splended stuff, not a bit the niminy-piminy society memoir you would think, but hell for leather, a mixture of lyrical charm and touchingness with a clumsy, rustic tough edge to it which is most engaging and terribly funny. Rather like the letters of Lady Bessborough or Caroline Lamb, half-sylph, half-stablehand.”

Leave a comment below in order to be entered

into a drawing to win a copy of this book! 

 

  1. Rumanian Princess Anne-Marie Callimachi.
  2. Greek photographer Costa Achillopoulos.
  3. Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, Chilean millionaire.
  4. Judith Anne Dorothea Blunt-Lytton, whose mother had been Byron’s granddaughter.
  5. Daphne Fielding, formerly Marchioness of Bath.