|Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough|
|Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon|
It was this book which brought home to me the true importance of clothes to an upper-class Edwardian girl of marriageable age - clothes which could decide her destiny - and Lady Duff Gordon's writing style influenced me enormously when I was trying to find Eugenie's 'voice'.
Seventy Years Young is the memoir of Elizabeth, Countess of Fingall. Her irrepressible joie de vivre shine through every sentence of this captivating account. Growing up in Ireland, she married Arthur Plunkett, the eleventh Earl of Fingall, at the age of seventeen and lived with him as chatelaine of Killeen Castle, County Meath. Apparently the earl fell in love with her at first sight, on catching a glimpse of her in a Dublin street, and who can blame him? She could clearly charm the birds out of the trees. 'The grass grew higher in Meath,' she writes of her first year of marriage, 'deepened in green colour, the trees became heavier and darker, until at last I felt that the lush growth of everything was sending me asleep. It must have been in an effort to keep awake that I used to dance by myself under the beech trees those summer evenings. "I am alive," I would cry joyously. "I am alive! And no one can take that from me!"'
As hunting was the main occupation during the winter months she had to learn to ride, which she found quite terrifying, although, 'The clothes were fun... To Busvine I went for a riding habit and much admired my own figure as I turned before the mirror while it was being fitted. No garment in the world showed off or gave away a figure like the riding habit of those days. And to Peal and Bartley for boots which must fit perfectly, not showing a wrinkle anywhere. Such bootmakers were geniuses, born not made, and Peal's genius was for the leg of a boot, Bartley's for the foot.'
|Lady Cynthia Asquith|
'I see myself being convoyed by a butler across a wide expanse of well-kept lawn to where beneath the great flat branches of a magnificent cedar, my hostess dispenses tea. Through the mists of my shyness I see the pleasing sight of honey-in-the-comb, blackberry jelly and Devonshire cream. I peer into the silver kettle at my distorted reflection to see if my nose is shiny. It is...'
We also learn the odd little fact that a post-visit thank-you letter was known as a 'Collins' (perhaps after the Collins Dictionary?) 'The prospect of having to write it darkened our whole visit. Painfully laboured rough copies left behind by mistake were sometimes found in blotting-books, and it must be admitted that certain hostesses did have the reprehensible habit of entertaining the guests of one party by reading alound unintentionally funny Collinses written by their previous guests.'
And so to my last and favourite book: Period Piece, by Gwen Raverat, grand-daughter of Charles Darwin and daughter of a strong-willed American, Maud du Puy, who arrived in England for a visit in 1882, married Darwin's second son, George, and never left. Like Cynthia Asquith, Gwen grew up in the late-Victorian/early Edwardian era, and this memoir is an account of her blissful childhood in Cambridge, and the long family visits to Down House in Kent, the home of her famous grandfather. The family lived in Newnham Grange, a large house on the river Cam. Gwen and her brothers and sister spent hours boating and swimming there alone from a very early age - her mother being convinced that her children couldn't possibly drown. The book is a complete delight. Illustrated by Gwen's own line drawings (she was an accomplished artist, later specializing in woodcuts), it captures the general spirit of the times as well as conjuring up a host of eccentric Darwin relatives.
|Gwen Darwin, aged 12|
Aunt Etty is one such lady who, having no children to bring up and a maid to cater to her every whim, took up ill health as her main interest in life. 'When there were colds about, she often wore a kind of gas-mask of her own invention. It was an ordinary wire kitchen-strainer, stuffed with antiseptic cotton-wool and tied on like a snout, with elastic over her ears. In this she would receive her visitors and discuss politics in a hollow voice out of her eucalyptus-scented seclusion, oblivious of the fact that they might be struggling with fits of laughter.'
This is a book to treasure and re-read. The best way to convince anyone of its merits is probably to let the writing speak for itself, so I'll end with one last extract, an account of an ill-fated family picnic.
'It was a grey, cold, gusty day in June. The aunts sat huddled in furs in the boats, their heavy hats flapping in the wind. The uncles, in coats and cloaks and mufflers, were wretchedly uncomfortable on the hard, cramped seats, and they hardly even tried to pretend that they were not catching their deaths of cold. But it was still worse when they had to sit down to have tea on the damp, thistly grass near Grantchester Mill. There were so many miseries which we young ones had never noticed at all: nettles, ants, cow-pats. . . besides that all-penetrating wind. The tea had been put into bottles wrapped in flannels (there were no Thermos flasks then); and the climax came when it was found that it had all been sugared beforehand. This was an inexpressible calamity. They all hated sugar in their tea. Besides it was Immoral. Uncle Frank said, with extreme bitterness: ‘It’s not the sugar I mind, but the Folly of it.’ This was half a joke; but at his words the hopelessness and the hollowness of a world where everything goes wrong, came flooding over us; and we cut our losses and made all possible haste to get them home to a good fire.'
I was delighted to come across this article recently by Gwen's grandson, William Pryor, which gives an insider's view of her life and her later relationships with members of the Bloomsbury group, notably Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa. I have reproduced the photograph of Gwen aged 12 from this post, with many thanks. For anyone wanting to find out more about the Edwardian era and these and many other characters who defined it, I can also heartily recommend Evangeline Holland's meticulously researched and beautifully written blog, Edwardian Promenade.
So, who have I left out? What would be on your list of favourite memoirs?