Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle: review
Mrs Wilde was more than just a long-suffering wife. She matched Oscar in both intellect and ambition, says Robert Douglas-Fairhurst.
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst 10 Jun 2011 in The Telegraph
Tragic heroines have an unfortunate habit of living up to their names. For Aeschylus, Helen of Troy was a “destroyer of ships, destroyer of men, destroyer of cities”, punning on the Greek root “hel” (“destroy”). In The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens marks Little Nell’s death with a church bell ringing its “remorseless toll”, as if “Nell” had a ghostly extra “K” hovering around it. Their fate is written into their lives like the lettering through a stick of seaside rock. Nomen est omen.
Constance Wilde has usually been thought of the same way, as the long-suffering wife who remained loyal to her husband Oscar even after he was convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency” (that is, consensual sex) with other men. Her contemporaries recognised as much, as when the actress Ellen Terry wrote to her as “Dearest Constancy” in the weeks before the trial.
The circulation of such stories indicated a widespread desire to establish Constance as something other than a wife crushed by rejection and betrayal. She was a marital martyr, the standard of loving constancy against which her husband’s errant ways should be judged.
Fortunately, the evidence of Franny Moyle’s fine biography, the first to draw on more than 300 of Constance’s unpublished letters, is that she was far more interesting than this. Like one of Wilde’s epigrams, in fact, Moyle takes pleasure in turning our assumptions on their heads.
In some ways Oscar and Constance were a good match. Both had troubled family histories: in his case a surgeon father accused by a former patient of raping her while she was anaesthetised, and in hers a grandfather who exposed himself by running around naked “in the sight of some nursemaids”, followed by a mother whose parenting techniques included “threatening with the fire-irons or having one’s head thumped against the wall”.
More importantly, both husband and wife were clever and ambitious, and for the first few years of their marriage their lives ran along parallel tracks. While he lectured on the need for women to abandon constricting corsets and dangerously flammable crinolines, she put the idea of “rational” dress into practice by wearing daringly baggy trousers and plenty of wool. His theories about the “house beautiful” were supported by her designs for their marital home in Chelsea, an ordinary red-brick villa that they transformed into a temple to aestheticism. Even Oscar’s disappearances into a hidden side of London’s nightlife found echoes in his wife’s experiments with the occult.
Seen with 20-20 hindsight, there were plenty of warnings that their marriage was built on sand. While Oscar had hoped to demonstrate “the pervading influence of art in matrimony”, from the start his love letters were suspiciously theatrical in tone, as if he couldn’t quite tell the difference between affection and affectation.
More dangerous was Constance’s agreement to take in a lodger, Robbie Ross, a precocious 17-year-old who was already, as Moyle quaintly puts it, “a practising homosexual”, and who promptly found someone else to practise with by seducing his host.
Finally, most serious of all, there was the trust she placed in Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the pouting and grasping acolyte who soon learnt that he could twist Oscar around his little finger.
Eventually Constance rumbled “that BEAST”, but as late as 1895 she was prepared to attend the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest sandwiched between them, unwilling to believe that her husband, who had been accused by Bosie’s father of “posing as a somdomite” (sic), had in fact spent far longer posing as a happily married man.
Even after Oscar’s imprisonment, she continued to collect reviews and editions of his work, and only gave up hope of being reconciled when he chose to return to Bosie rather than to her.
Their children were often caught in the crossfire. Although she doted on their elder son, Cyril, she described the sickly younger Vyvyan as “sweet and affectionate” but also “extraordinarily wilful and wayward”. Clearly she worried about how much he took after his father.
Shortly after the final separation she died, following a botched operation in Genoa, and was buried under a tombstone that in 1963 received the inscription “Wife of Oscar Wilde”. Rarely has a simple statement of fact sounded more like a reproach from beyond the grave.
Though unapologetic about his sexual behaviour, Oscar’s treatment of his wife and children left him writhing with remorse. Moyle suggests his fairy tales may have been covert confessions of these feelings, given their emphasis on personal sacrifice, but she also helpfully points out that Constance was far from being merely a spurned wife. She, too, had an affair, writing slyly to her lover that he would make “an ideal husband”, and in some ways she was just as much of a pioneer, with her interests in socialism and pacifism, her involvement in women’s rights, and her enthusiasm for ventures such as Dorothy's Restaurant, where women could dine – and more shockingly smoke – alone.
She might even have raised a rueful smile at the historical irony that she once took Oscar along to meet a friend in Dorothy's. After all, it must have taken a certain comic resilience, as well as genuine sadness, for her to have written that it was pointless being jealous of the young men who were taking up so much of her husband’s time, “when I know that the one I am jealous of fills a place that I cannot fill”.
Constance: the Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde
by Franny Moyle
384PP, John Murray
Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, By Franny Moyle
The importance of being in earnest denial
REVIEWED BY LESLEY MCDOWELL SUNDAY 19 JUNE 2011 in The Independent
In her sympathetic and fascinating biography of Constance Wilde, Franny Moyle largely refrains from making judgements.
So it's something of a shock when she writes, on the start of Wilde's libel trial: "[Constance] was ... about to pay a high price for the streak of rebellion in her character that had led her into the arms of the man she now must have known was about to ruin her life."
Constance Lloyd was born into a well-to-do, upper-middle-class family in 1858, the second child of cold, distant parents. Her father died when she was 16 and her mother resented her only daughter's beauty; it wasn't long before bohemian Constance, favouring the loose, flowing dress of the Pre-Raphaelites, was attracting admirers. She preferred artistic types and fell passionately in love with the king of them all: Oscar Wilde. In spite of obstacles such as American heiresses and lengthy book tours, their relationship blossomed and he proposed. Wilde was then considered rather a ladies' man, Moyle notes, but already there were hints, by Constance's brother Otho, of more worrying tendencies.
Constance didn't want to know and it's hard not to like her stance and admire her brave challenge to society and determination to marry the man she wanted. Did she really "pay a high price" for that, as Moyle suggests? She was very happy for a long time – two children quickly followed the Wildes' marriage (Moyle hints that the second birth ended sexual relations between a couple which had, up until then, been passionate). But Constance wanted her life to be about more than a husband and babies, and she published children's stories (Moyle argues convincingly that she may have not simply transcribed Wilde's story, The Selfish Giant, but actually rewritten it), became involved with the women's suffrage movement, and studied spiritualism; this resulted in a very strange initiation ceremony which many believed she only did because Wilde wanted good material for a story.
As her husband's fame and fortune increased, so Constance became something of a celebrity in her own right. Is that why she ignored her husband's associations with handsome young men? It seems remarkable that she could have been unaware of his predilections, his nocturnal visits to opium dens and brothels. Moyle gives Constance the benefit of the doubt, but it seems a classic case of denial. Constance made too many trips away to friends' homes in the final years of their marriage for it to have been anything but running away from the truth. What cannot be denied, though, is that this brave, loyal woman lived up to her name, visiting her husband in prison and willing, even, to take him back. She died at the age of 40, after a botched operation. Constance lived a remarkable life, and, tragic though the end may have been, I wonder if she would have changed much of it.
Lesley McDowell is the author of Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers, published by Gerald Duckworth & Co, £16.99
Heartbreak, betrayal and the unimportance of being Mrs Oscar Wilde
CONSTANCE: THE TRAGIC AND SCANDALOUS LIFE OF MRS OSCAR WILDE BY FRANNY MOYLE (John Murray £20)
By BEL MOONEY 1 July 2011 in Daily Mail online
When Oscar Wilde first visited her in 1881 she was ‘shaking with fright’. Just over two years later Constance Lloyd wrote to her beloved brother: ‘Prepare yourself for an astounding piece of news. I’m engaged to Oscar Wilde and perfectly and insanely happy.’
Otho Lloyd congratulated his prospective brother-in-law by the next post: ‘If Constance makes as good a wife as she has been a good sister to me, your happiness is certain. She is staunch and true.’ And indeed she was.
But no one could possibly have imagined what future heartbreak and shame Oscar Wilde presented to his wife within the heart-shaped engagement ring he designed himself.
Last week I was sitting next to a distinguished historian at lunch who, on hearing that I was reviewing this book, quipped: ‘Oh, is there enough to make a whole book on Mrs Oscar Wilde?’
Thus are the wives of famous men consigned to the shadows. In the case of Oscar Wilde, popular belief sees the gay man marrying for convenience (and children) before reverting to his true sexuality. Even his work has been over-shadowed by the image of a precious, witty, man-about-town, sporting a green carnation.
No wonder his wife seems a mere cipher - an object of pity, but not a person in her own right. Franny Moyle’s terrific biography sets the record straight.
I have no doubt that Oscar Wilde genuinely loved her - at least, at first. And with good reason. Pretty, energetic, intelligent and talented, Constance Wilde is portrayed by her biographer as a thoroughly modern woman.
Rebelling against her dreadful mother and espousing radical causes - from supporting striking dockers to arguing that women should wear less cumbersome clothes - Constance was certainly somebody worth knowing.
She spoke French, read Italian, painted with skill and went to college to study Shelley.
An early feminist, she had bold, innovative ideas about fashion and interior design and wrote children’s stories, too. This young woman was perfectly equipped to become half of a celebrity couple.
Ironically, the author of The Importance Of Being Ernest, and so many other works of genius, was once thought to be rather a ladies’ man.
But that was before the green carnations, the monstrously egotistical affectations, the rent boys and Lord Alfred Douglas.
It would be wrong to think of Oscar’s marriage as a cover-up of his real self. Seven months after their wedding in 1884 he wrote to Constance from Scotland: ‘I feel your fingers in my hair and your cheeks brushing mine. The air is full of the music of your voice, my soul and body seem no longer mine, but mingled in some exquisite ecstasy with yours.’
So - love there was and frustration at the separations ‘that keep our lips from kissing’.
But this fashionable couple embarked on a dangerous path, believing in freedom and independence as much as any self-consciously ‘cool’ partnership of the Sixties in our own time. Right from the beginning they spent too much time apart. Then, just one year after writing the passionate letter above, Wilde confessed to a friend that the romantic feelings he once held for his wife had shifted into ‘a curious mixture of ardour and indifference’.
It is a strange experience to read this book, like watching a car crash in slow motion and longing to cry out: ‘Stop!’
Intelligent and imaginative as she undoubtedly was, Constance must have observed that her husband was inordinately fond of the company of young men. The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1890) raised eyebrows because of its focus on male beauty, but Constance was (as Moyle puts it) ‘immune to the insinuations’.
By now she had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, travelled a lot, spent weeks at a time in Devon with an older woman friend, tried to juggle their perilous finances, but still delighted in her husband and took pride in his work. It is one of Franny Moyle’s missions to emphasise ‘the commitment the couple continued to have to one another in the first years of the 1890s’.
Nevertheless, I can only see Constance as a woman in denial, constantly on the move to avoid subconscious awareness of what her husband was up to and her own incipient depression.
She doted on her eldest son, neglected Vyvyan and ignored the chasm opening up within her marriage. Even her closest friend - perhaps scenting danger - told her to slow down.
Which is not to blame Constance in any way for the tragedy that befell her family. That was left to the poisonous Lord Alfred Douglas, who dragged Oscar Wilde into the depths and then (years later) had the insolence to reproach the wronged wife for what happened.
‘Bosie’ was a spoilt, effete young aristocrat who entered Wilde’s life as a fan and became his lover and destroyer. Wilde was smitten by the beautiful young man, but his passion turned into a fatal addiction.
On the one hand he frequented expensive hotels, lavishing money he didn’t have on Bosie, as well as entertaining ‘renters’ and behaving with increasing recklessness.
On the other hand, Constance’s ‘beloved Oscar’ could dedicate his second book of fairy tales to his wife in loving and uplifting language. Wilde was pulled in two directions, but it was the manipulative, demanding, greedy, selfish Bosie who won.
The facts of the notorious libel case against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry and the subsequent trial of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency - resulting in two years’ hard labour - are well known.
But here we focus on poor Constance - well-named for all she tried to do for her husband, but forced in the end to flee abroad and change her name to Holland.
Later Vyvyan remembered his mother ‘in tears, poring over masses of press cuttings’. So-called celebrities caught in the spotlight today can’t even approach the public disgrace that was faced by anyone associated with Oscar Wilde - including his innocent wife.
The drama ended sadly, madly, badly. The love that once existed between Constance and Oscar was reduced to a fight over money and mutual recrimination.
Constance died a miserable death aged 39 after an operation in Genoa. Wilde followed her two years later, having visited her grave (then omitting his name) and writing sorrowfully: ‘Life is a terrible thing.’
As for the beastly Bosie, his judgement on Constance takes your breath away: ‘If she had treated him properly and stuck to him, after he had been in prison, as a really good wife would have done, he would have gone on loving her to the end of his life. Obviously, she suffered a good deal and deserves sympathy, but she fell woefully short of the height to which she might have risen.’
Franny Moyle does not gloss over Constance’s failures as a mother, nor her wilful blindness as a wife, but leaves us with a picture of a brave woman who married the wrong man - but loved him just the same.
Frank Smythson Ltd., more simply known as Smythson, of Bond Street is a British manufacturer of luxury stationery, leather goods, diaries, and fashion products based in London, England. Smythson opened his first shop on 29 September 1887 at 133, New Bond Street, London. The current flagship store is located at 40 New Bond Street, London. Clients have included the current Royal Family, Queen Victoria, Sir Edmund Hillary, Madonna, and Grace Kelly.
Smythson's can customise its products, particularly for weddings and parties. The highest-end stationery is often detailed with 24-carat gilded edges, hand-painted borders, custom-engraved motifs and monograms.
In 1908 the company created the first featherweight diary, enabling diaries to be carried about.
Smythson opened its first freestanding store in the United States on West 57th Street near Fifth Avenue in New York City. SawickiTarella Architecture Design designed the shop using simple lines and colours following the style of the store's products. Smythson products are also available at the high-end department store Bergdorf Goodman around the corner. The products are also sold in small boutique-style alcoves inside Harvey Nichols, Harrods, and Selfridges department stores in the United Kingdom.
In the 1950s, the John Menzies Group acquired Smythson, which was at the time also operating under the name "Pendragon". In 1998, Smythson's then managing director Sarah Elton led a management buyout backed by a private investor. Since then, the business has grown and the company is now operating six outlets in the UK and one in the U.S. In 2004, Smythson recorded £12m in sales revenues.
In early 2005, Smythson shareholders appointed Cavendish Corporate Finance Limited to advise on the disposal of their stake in the business. Besides maximizing value for themselves, the shareholders wanted to find a buyer who would protect the heritage of the brand and offer the management team the opportunity to continue to grow.
Kelso Place Asset Management and King Street Partners, backed by a consortium of high net worth individuals, were identified as the preferred bidders. Sarah Elton commented that she was satisfied with the deal.
In mid December 2009 the label was sold for £18m to Greenwill SA, the holding company for Tivoli Group, an Italian leather goods manufacturer. Jacques Bahbout has become Chief Executive and Chairman of Smythson.
For the Autumn/Winter 2010 Collection, Smythson collaborated with British designer Holly Fulton to produce a capsule collection of diaries and accessories.
An exhibition organized by the Kent State University Museum
Katharine Hepburn knew the importance of costume in defining character and drawing the audience into a story. She had a sure sense of what would work for her. Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen includes costumes Katharine Hepburn kept in her personal collection of performance clothes, wardrobe which she wore for publicity, and examples of “rebel chic” from her casual and rehearsal wear. Augmented with film still, posters and playbills, the exhibition spans her long career in theater, film and television. Wonderful costume designers are represented with stage costumes by Valentina, Howard Greer, Cecil Beaton, and Jane Greenwood, as well as film costumes by Walter Plunkett, Irene, Muriel King, and Margaret Furse. The Lincoln Center presentation will also include costume research, sketches and comments from Hepburn’s correspondence, scripts and notebooks in the Katharine Hepburn Papers, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
New York Public Library To Showcase Style Icon
By ULA ILNYTZKY 10/18/12 in http://www.huffingtonpost.com
NEW YORK — A new exhibition is hailing the fashion sense of Katharine Hepburn, whose trademark khakis and open-collar shirts were decidedly unconventional in the 1930s and 40s, when girdles and stockings were the order of the day.
The fiercely independent Hepburn famously once said: "Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, `Try one. Try a skirt.'"
But skirts and dresses abound in "Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen" at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which opens Thursday.
Hepburn, who died in 2003 at age 96, saved almost all the costumes from her long career that included four Oscars and such memorable films as "The Philadelphia Story," "The African Queen," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "On Golden Pond." Forty are on view at the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 12.
One of the first things visitors will notice is how slender Hepburn was – she had a 20-inch waist – and a grouping of seven khaki pants artfully arranged on a pair of mannequin legs.
"The fact that she wore slacks and wanted to be comfortable influenced women's ready-to-wear in the United States," said Jean Druesedow, director of the Kent State University Museum, which was given 700 items from Hepburn's estate. Kent State was selected because it's one of the country's only museums of performance clothes.
"That image said to the American woman `Look you don't have to be in your girdle and stockings and tight dress. You can be comfortable. That was probably the first aspect of becoming a fashion icon," said Druesedow, a co-curator of the exhibition.
The strong-willed actress known for taking charge of her career worked closely with all her designers to decide her performing wardrobe.
"They understood what would help her characters, what she would feel comfortable wearing ... how it would support the story," Druesedow said.
Margaret Furse, an English designer who created Hepburn's wardrobes for "The Lion in Winter," "A Delicate Balance" and "Love Among the Ruins," went shopping with the star and talked extensively about what kinds of things would set the scene.
Among the highlights is a stunning satin and lace wedding gown created by Howard Greer for her role as Stella Surrege in "The Lake." The 1933 production was her first major Broadway role and also a huge flop. Writer and wit Dorothy Parker described her performance as running "the gamut of emotion from A to B." The experience taught Hepburn to have a bigger say in what roles she accepted, said Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, curator of exhibitions at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
When she really liked a costume she had copies made for herself, sometimes in a different color or fabric. A silk dress and coat by Norman Hartnell from "Suddenly, Last Summer" and a green raw silk jumpsuit by Valentina from "The Philadelphia Story" were among the pieces she had copied.
Comfort was paramount to Hepburn – being able to throw her leg over a chair or sit on the floor. She always wore her `uniform' – khakis and a shirt – to rehearsals and pant ensembles to publicity appearances.
A companion book, "Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic," describes how RKO executives hid Hepburn's trousers in an effort to persuade her to abandon them.
"Her response was to threaten to walk around the lot naked. Though she only stripped down as far as her silk underwear before stepping out of her dressing room, she made her point – and she got her trousers back," fashion writer Nancy MacDonell wrote in an essay for the book.
But comfort didn't mean sacrificing style – and she certainly knew how to be glamorous especially when a role called for it.
In her private life, she shopped at the major cutting-edge New York couturiers and worked with the best costume shops of the period, including Muriel King and Valentina, said Cohen-Stratyner.
"She really appreciated good fabric and good construction," she said. "Even her trousers are couture."
The exhibition is supplemented by film clips, movie posters, and archival photographs of Hepburn wearing the very costumes worn by the mannequins. Her false eyelashes, makeup trays and sensible shoes are also on display.
Jeeves wishes Fine and Dandy a good start ... and Merry Christmas
A week ago Saturday we quietly opened the doors of our new shop in Hell's Kitchen, NYC. I say "quietly" because we've considered it a soft opening with our official press opening/party in a few weeks. We wanted some time to work out the kinks before heavily promoting the shop. After an incredible week and a unanimously positive response from the folks in the neighborhood, we're ready to announce that we're open. So please come visit: 445 West 49th Street. Mon-Sat noon-8, Sun noon-7. (212) 247-4847. We're looking forward to seeing you in person!
NOVEMBER 13, 2012
Enrique and Matt, the proud shopkeepers, in front of Fine and Dandy at 445 West 49th Street, NYC
Photographs / iphone using instagram.by Rose Callahan in @rcallahanphoto / http://dandyportraits.blogspot.nl
It is impossible to follow "Downton Abbey" without associating it with the world of rich American heiresses who came to England to marry, and rescue with their money, ancestral houses and titles ... as described in "The Buccaneers", the last unfinished work of Edith Wharton ...
You may be surprised by the many similarities between the plot of Downton Abbey and the history of the Highclere Castle and the Carnarvon family. Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, is life-long friend of the Carnarvons and used bits of family history as inspiration. One of the more striking similarities is between Cora Crawley and Almina Carnarvon.
As the result of the rapid industrialization of the late 19th century, a new upper class was created in the United States. It was almost impossible for the "new money" to integrate themselves into the established American upper class due to the attitudes of the established old money. Beginning in the late 1870s, the new American heiresses began to turn to Britain to find suitable husbands in the aristocracy. At the time, the British upper class was land-rich but were running out of money. They were in desperate need of cash in order to run their vast estates. They gladly turned to the new American money so they could avoid losing their family estates. In Britain, the rules of inheritance was based on primogeniture and property was almost exclusively passed to the eldest male. In the United States, property was usually spilt between children, enabling women were able to inherit large sums of money. For fifty years, there were many marriages between British aristocrats and American heiresses. These new members of the British aristocracy were referred to as Buccaneers. By 1900, it was estimated that about a quarter of the British House of Lords had an American connection.
As the first installment of Downton Abbey revealed, Cora, an American heiress, married Lord Grantham for her money. Cora was the daughter of a dry goods millionaire and a member of "new money" American class. When she married Lord Grantham, the estate of Downton Abbey was near financial ruin. Afterwards, Cora's large dowry and later large inheritance, was tied up in an entail (see this post on Austenprose for info). Though the the marriage was initially one out of convenience, it grew into a love match as seen in the series.
In the book, The World of Downton Abbey, it is stated that Cora was inspired by the real-life Buccaneer, Lady Curzon. However, there are several parallels to Lady Almina Carnavorn, real life chatelaine of Highclere. In the late 19th century, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was in serious debt, about 150,000 pounds. He owned 6,000 acres from four estates, including Highclere Castle. At the time, Highclere was in poor shape due to the large amount of money required to maintain the house. In 1895, Lord Carnarvon married Almina Wombwell, an heiress with access to an enormous amount of cash. Officially, Almina was the daughter Marie and Fred Wombwell but she was rumored to be the love child of Marie and Alfred de Rothschild. Rothschild was a wealthy banking tycoon. Unlike the social norm, he did not shun his illegitimate daughter and only child. Instead, he provided his "god-daughter" with a sizable dowry and eventually, inheritance. Almina had many suitors as a result. Once married, Rothschild not only provided a large dowry, but he also gave the couple a substantial annual allowance. Rothschild's money paid for Highclere's expenses and it also provided money for the couple to maintain several other homes as well as fund the Earl's Egyptian adventures in the 1920s. Initially, Almina was looked down upon by society. She eventually won society over and her husband through "her wit, brave spirit and fabulous dresses."
While there are some differences between the stories of Almina and Cora, there are several parallels. Both women married into the British aristocracy because of their money and were responsible for saving the estate from severe financial ruin.
Posted 10th January by Abby in http://nookstowersandturrets.blogspot.nl
Remains of the Days
Three Books Explore the Reality Behind the World of ‘Downton Abbey’
By JUDITH NEWMAN
Published: February 3, 2012 in The New York Times
The British costume drama “Downton Abbey,” shown here on PBS, is now unfurling in all its magnificence, and I, like its millions of American fans, will again be reminded of what it would take for my life to be truly suitable:
— Everything brought to me on a silver salver.
— Breakfast in bed daily, because I am a married woman and that is my prerogative.
— A steward’s room boy whose entire job it is to watch a panel of bells, each connected to a different room in the house from which I might ring for service. Since I live in a 1,500-square-foot co-op, this isn’t such a bad job.
— The soles of my shoes polished.
— My newspaper ironed.
— My sheets ironed.
— My shoelaces ironed.
Until “Downton Abbey,” I never realized how many of my deepest desires involved ironing. True, it would also be nice to have a great deal of furtive sex with my social inferiors, preferably in crinolines. But at this point, I’d settle for a crisp newspaper.
I know I should feel guilty about my cravings for these things. But that’s the beauty of shows like “Downton Abbey” and its venerable ancestor “Upstairs, Downstairs”: the lives of the gentry are filled with so much intrigue, excruciating protocol and silent suffering that it would be churlish to resent their unimaginably comfortable existence.
And there’s another draw for Americans, particularly in an election year. We continue to labor under the delusion that we live in a class-free society — that social mobility is a birthright, not a remote possibility. If we’re not continually upgrading our circumstances, as Newt Gingrich reminds us, it’s our own damn fault. We are expected to be “Oprah”-ishly self-actuating and self-improving, and only sloth prevents us from achieving spiritual clarity and financial success. How perversely comforting, then, to turn our attention to a world where you will die where you are born and where the heroes are the rare overachievers who work their way up to butler from footman.
The merchant class, which is to say the publishing industry, is mining the popularity of “Downton Abbey” with the release and re-release of two books that inspired the show, and the inevitable companion volume to the TV series (inevitably titled “The World of Downton Abbey”). One memoir is written from the point of view of upstairs, one from downstairs. See if your keen discerning eye can spot the difference:
“Highclere was a symbiotic system, and mutual respect was the key to its success. The fifth Earl prided himself on an Old World courtesy, and that set the tone for the entire household. He took an interest in the well-being of the staff and the cottagers on the estate; often a donation would be made towards a fund for a tenant whose livestock had died, and money was also made available for the staff to have medical treatment.”
“On Christmas Day after breakfast all the servants had to line up in the hall. . . . Mr. and Mrs. Cutler, and the daughter and the grandchildren, were assembled complete with Christmas smiles and social welfare expressions. The children looked at us as though we were beings from another world. . . . When we got to the Christmas tree we deferentially accepted the parcels that were handed to us by the children, and muttered, ‘Thank you, Master Charles, thank you, Miss Susan.’ ”
The first selection, from “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey,” is written by the former fashion designer Fiona Aitken, now the eighth Countess of Carnarvon. She and her husband, the earl, are the current residents of Highclere, the 1,000-acre Hampshire estate that, not surprisingly, resembles Parliament, considering they share an architect, Charles Barry. Highclere is also the filming location of “Downton Abbey.”
The countess’s book tells the story of the beautiful and diminutive “Pocket Venus,” Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell, who lived at Highclere from 1895 to 1923 with her husband, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon. He is best known as the co-discoverer of King Tutankamen’s tomb — after a series of expeditions financed by Almina. Because, like many aristocratic families of the time, the Carnarvons were long on lineage and short on cash. So he did what every self-respecting gadabout did: look for an heiress who could rescue him, and his family pile, from ruin.
Enter Almina, for Burke’s Peerage the child of Capt. Frederick Charles Wombwell and Marie Boyer but rumored to be the illegitimate daughter of Sir Alfred de Rothschild. A director of the Bank of England for 20 years and the first Jew ever to hold that position, Rothschild doted on his “godchild” and made it known that he was prepared to give her a “fortune” on her marriage. He also wanted to solidify both her standing in society and his own. He paid up Lord Carnarvon’s debts and settled on her a sum of £12,000 (roughly $1.5 million in today’s currency) a year. Almina proceeded to turn Highclere into a social epicenter of Edwardian England.
When World War I broke out, the perfect society lady became the perfect nurse, opening her home to the wounded and transforming it into a hospital. Loyal servants who wanted to go off and fight were promised that their jobs would be available upon their return. Does oblige ever get more noblesser? When Lord Carnarvon died, allegedly of a mosquito bite and blood poisoning, a pall fell over the dozens of grieving servants. At least this is the eighth countess’s story. Almina was a woman of great charm and courage, and the family universally beloved.
This account differs somewhat from that in a biography of Lady Almina that came out last year. William P. Cross’s “Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon” tells of a woman who traded her money for a prestigious but arid marriage, took lovers young and old (including her husband’s best man) and burned through Rothschild’s dowry, leaving her feckless son enraged and penniless when he finally inherited the estate. Lady Almina did, in fact, open her home to the wounded, and went on to open a series of tony nursing homes (and discreet abortion clinics) for the rich and famous. But the homes never paid for themselves, and she and her second husband, a military officer named Ian Dennistoun, whom she married a few months after Lord Carnarvon’s death, ended up in bankruptcy court. Almina died in greatly reduced circumstances in Bristol in 1969, at the age of 93.
I suspect the real story of the relationship of servants to their masters is more accurately told by Margaret Powell, in her simple and quite brilliant “Below Stairs.” Here she throws the last shovel of dirt on the myth of the devoted help and their unfailing love and respect for the stately home. Powell notes that G. K. Chesterton “wrote about the malignity of inanimate objects,” and then adds that she thinks “they are malign because they take up so much of my time dusting, polishing and cleaning them.”
First published in England in 1968, Powell’s memoir was an inspiration for the classic television series “Upstairs, Downstairs.” She recalls her years “in service” from the time she was a desperately poor girl from a family of seven, growing up in a few rented rooms in Hove, to her years working long days as a kitchen maid and eventually cook in the houses of the good and the great. Apparently she was sufficiently immune to the charms of her employers to seek escape through marriage, children and higher education. “Below Stairs” was a hit, and Powell went on to write other books about her experiences. But perhaps none were quite so powerful as this one, which describes in simple and often excruciating detail the divide between Us and Them. “We always called them ‘Them,’ ” Powell writes. “ ‘Them’ was the enemy, ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them,’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil.” In those carefree days before nondisclosure agreements, it was assumed by everyone that “what they upstairs did, although it was a subject of scandal and gossip and laughter, was their privilege. Not because they were better than us, but because they had money and it was no good having money if you couldn’t deviate from the norm.”
What makes Powell such a credible narrator is the fact that she’s never reflexively bitter or nasty. When she worked for a family that treated her with kindness and without condescension, she was deeply grateful and desperate to please. These families were rare. More common were those that showed their utter disregard for the servants by practicing necessary “economies” on the staff, monitoring their food and furnishing their rooms with broken castoffs. As the arbiters of morality for the help, a girl’s employers could dismiss her for paying too much attention to her appearance, since there was a slippery slope from wearing makeup to having an out-of-wedlock child (cause for immediate dismissal, of course, without pay and indeed, usually, without anyplace to go). In one home, Powell was excoriated for passing the day’s mail to the lady of the house by hand: “Tears started to trickle down my cheeks; that someone could think that you were so low that you couldn’t even hand them anything out of your hands without it first being placed on a silver salver.”
Well. It made me kind of rethink my whole silver salver fantasy. Though I still want my sheets ironed.
All these years later, “Below Stairs” retains its peculiar fascination. Powell does nothing to romanticize poverty or domestic service, and considers the few servants who Stockholmishly identified with their masters as jackasses. But she also makes us understand that service could be tolerable and, in some cases, almost pleasant. There’s a certain freedom from stricture, at least in your life outside work, and a certain pleasure in knowing you’re a capable person, while the people you serve are not.
Later in her career, Powell had occasion to work for older ladies in reduced circumstances — perhaps ladies like Lady Almina. “I can’t help thinking that people who were once wealthy and now have to live on a fixed income are worse off than ordinary working-class people,” she observes, while “people who are living on fixed incomes like these old ladies have got to keep on trying to keep up some sort of show.” And that, perhaps more than anything, is what united servant and master. Not love, not admiration, not even fear — but a certain measure of pity. That man standing at attention in the white gloves may be feeling just a little bit sorry for you.
Judith Newman is the author of “You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: Diary of a New (Older) Mother.
THE WORLD OF DOWNTON ABBEY
By Jessica Fellowes
Illustrated. 303 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $29.99.
LADY ALMINA AND THE REAL DOWNTON ABBEY
The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle
By the Countess of Carnarvon
Illustrated. 310 pp. Broadway. Paper, $15.99.
The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey.”
By Margaret Powell
212 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $22.99.
The Glitter and the Gold
Author: Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
For fans of Downton Abbey, this is the riveting real-life story of the Vanderbilt heiress who married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. A fascinating insight into upstairs-downstairs life and the highest circles of Edwardian aristocracy.
Consuelo Vanderbilt was young, beautiful and the heir to a vast family fortune. She was also deeply in love with an American suitor when her mother chose instead for her to fulfil her social ambitions and marry an English Duke. Leaving her life in America, she came to England as the Duchess of Marlborough in 1895 and took up residence in her new home - Blenheim Palace.The 9th Duchess gives unique first-hand insight into life at the very pinnacle of English society in the Edwardian era. An unsnobbish, but often amused observer of the intricate hierarchy both upstairs and downstairs at Blenheim Palace, she is also a revealing witness to the glittering balls, huge weekend parties and major state occasions she attended or hosted. Here are her encounters with every important figure of the day - from Queen Victoria, Edward V11 and Queen Alexandra to Tsar Nicholas, Prince Metternich and the young Winston Churchill.This intimate, richly enjoyable.
Because of their "new money" background, four American girls have difficulty breaking into the upper-crust society of New York. Laura Testvalley, the governess of one of the girls, suggests a London season and thus the young women set sail for England and the unsuspecting English aristocracy. In England, all the girls soon find eligible husbands and the youngest girl, Nan, seems to land the best husband of them all: the handsome and very wealthy Julius, Duke of Trevennick. Nan and Julius meet for the first time in a ruin, which is an indication of where their marriage is soon heading. After the nuptials, Julius seems more interested in clocks and stable boys than Nan's happiness, and all the girls soon discover that English upper-class men are not at all what they expected and hoped for.
Situated in a neighbourhood that used to be determined by the "bon chic, bon genre" of the Boulevards "fin du siécle", Versailles stands now, as the nostalgic last resistant of a way of life, isolated and surrounded by the alienation and the destruction that Modern Architecture brought since the Fifties.
This is the most famous teahouse in Lisbon, and it has been declared part of the "national patrimony." Some patrons reputedly have been coming here since it opened in 1922. In older days, the specialty was licungo, the famed black tea of Mozambique; you can still order it, but nowadays many drinkers enjoy English brands. (The Portuguese claim that they introduced the custom of tea-drinking to the English court after Catherine of Bragança married Charles II in 1662.) The decor is rich, with chandeliers, gilt mirrors, stained-glass windows, tall stucco ceilings, and black-and-white marble floors. You can also order milkshakes, mineral water, and fresh orange juice, along with beer and liquor. The wide variety of snacks includes codfish balls and toasted ham-and-cheese sandwiches. A limited array of platters of simple but wholesome Portuguese fare is on offer, too.
in The New York Times
The TAYLOR Tradition was founded on September 1st, 1854 by Jeremiah Taylor, the great grandfather of today's Chairman. He opened his Hairdressing and Hair Treatment Salon in Bond Street (in the heart of London's fashionable West End) and gained a reputation in British Society for his botanical extract for hair and scalp treatment. His son, Ivan, using his training as a chemist, succeeded his father, developing many fine herbal treatments.
The TAYLOR Tradition continued through the next generation with Sidney, who became Chairman of the Company in 1930 and was responsible for opening a second branch in Jermyn Street. In 1955 Leonard, the current Chairman, joined his father and still carries out the work of formulating and manufacturing hair and skin products to the same high standards. Leonards brother in law Stanley Morris joined the company in 1960 and to continue the progression of family involvement, Barry Klein the son-in-law of Leonard, joined the company in 1996. We are determined to continue the tradition by keeping Taylor of Old Bond Street a carefully managed family business.
The TAYLOR Tradition has always been to manufacture products with ingredients as pure and natural as is practicable. We refuse to compromise quality under any circumstances. TAYLOR's product range includes the luxurious and the unusual.
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Last 5 Photographs courtesy of www.snappylifestyle.blogspot.com