‘These Great Ladies: Peeresses and Pariahs’ reviewed

❉ Lyndsy Spence introduces us to a truly fascinating group of Great Ladies.

‘Oh dear,’ said Evelyn Waugh of his society friends, ‘these great ladies.’ In this book of pen portraits the reader is introduced to obscure ladies who were society stars in their day. From the Churchills to the Mitfords, British and European Royals, to international playboys and film stars, these ladies knew everyone. And everyone knew them, for better or worse.

These Great Ladies, Peeresses and Pariahs is prolific biographer Lyndsy Spence’s latest book. As with her most recent book, The Mistress of Mayfair, she looks into the lives of unconventional and very glamorous women who lived in the early part of the twentieth century, long before their official permission to behave as badly as men, was granted. Most of the characters detailed in this book were born into wealth and privilege, and if they hadn’t, certainly married into it, which softened the rather expensive errors of judgement they sometimes made, especially regarding their mates. Few ever seemed to make successful love matches. They were famous for being themselves.

So who are these eight people, whose description by Evelyn Waugh gives the book its title? The first is my favourite, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, the grit in the pearl as Spence subtitles her.

The daughter of a self-made millionaire, whose early choice of men included a suicidal drunkard who threw up in Cliveden House, a doomed aviator, and had a secret abortion thanks to David Niven’s penis. Her father’s background meant that her life was not as restricted as others from her wealth set. Her youth coincided with the rise of fascism, the general strike and the depression. When the second world war broke out in 1939, her control freak Catholic husband wanted to take their children back to America but she wanted to contribute towards the war effort. She would have been a pariah had she not, a fate which befell the Mistress of Mayfair. Following an accident in a lift shaft in 1943, she suddenly developed a desire for sex and since her husband had been satisfying his own tastes, divorce soon came. Like every good Catholic, he had hoped a good Mass would sort things out.

“Marg of Arg”: Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (1948).

 Margaret’s second marriage was to the Duke of Argyll, a debt-fuelled drunken gambler, a fortune hunter who wanted to restore Argyll castle to its former glory. That marriage did not last long. His antics in setting up a divorce and the lengths he went to prove her adultery are quite shocking. The trial was in 1963 – the year sexual intercourse famously began. This is quite a story and deserves a full length biography, although Margaret did pen her memoirs.

Mariga Guinness, well, that surname ought to ring a few bells. Descended from German, her father was a member of the Nazi party to pursue his career (he apologised when the war was lost) and her mother went mad in Japan shortly before the war. An intellectual, she lived in post-war Oxford where she married a scion of the Irish brewing family, and her mother-in-law was now married to Sir Oswald Mosley, Britain’s answer to Hitler. Mariga was no fascist, and had no time for the Mosleys. She had little time for socialists too. Spence says she liked buildings more than people. She was certainly no snob, and careful in her terminology: ‘travellers,’ not gypsies, and traditional, not folk music.

Sylvia Ashley is the serial bride. Born into working class stock, her looks soon took her into musical theatre, and she was determined to become a star. For an important audition, she sung the National Anthem, aware that the producer was an ardent monarchist. She courted the great and the good and became a society star and she scandalised polite society by marrying an earl. The marriage did not succeed and since she did not want to return to her previous life, became the mistress to the elderly and legendary Douglas Fairbanks whom she eventually married and outlived. As a wealthy widow, she now fell for another titled and drunken gambler whom she married and supported and quickly divorced. Clark Gable came next, who had recently been made a widow by the death of Carole Lombard (whose recent biography is reviewed here). Again, not a successful marriage, as she had great wealth and was not afraid to flaunt it. She took her revenge within the divorce courts and Gable had to cough up 10% of his future income. She ended her life as an unhappy and childless princess.

Joan Wyndham, born into a Victorian estate in Wiltshire, also became seduced by the acting bug,since she had no intention to become a debutante. Perhaps the most earthy of our eight, she liked to drink and swear and fell into a promiscuous bohemian artistic set, although she was not easy to seduce but the Blitz sorted that out.

Enid Lindeman an Australian who married a millionaire shipping magnate. He died within the year and the rich widow unwisely settled for an untitled cavalry officer who she hoped could manage her finances as they lived the army life around the world. Husband number three died as well, so you can where the rumours she bumped them off began. She spent part of the war living in a suite at Claridges hotel with a former lover, the obese Viscount Castlerosse, who appears in The Mistress of Mayfair. She did her bit for Blighty working in a munitions factory as a welder but transferred the equipment to her home from where she happily worked. She married Castlerosse after his wife committed suicide, and then basically shagged him to death. Her mother-in-law ordered her to abort their unborn baby, to which she agreed. She was rumoured to have inadvertently bumped off New York department store owner Donald Bloomingdale, to whom she gave a fatal dose of heroine. You really don’t want her telephone number.

We’re back into politics with Venetia Montague, and a fascinating tale of a rather complicated love triangle featuring British Prime Minister Henry Asquith, his wife and daughter Violet. The evidence suggest they were having an affair and may even have produced a child. Violet had been an early boyfriend to Winston Churchill and did not take his eventual marriage well. Asquith’s secretary, Edward Montagu was also after her too and eventually they married, much to Asquith’s distress. To keep his inheritance, she had to convert to Judaism.

Irene Curzon’s father was a viceroy of India during a time of militant uprisings. Her father’s influence dominated her life well into adulthood, especially when he wanted to tap into her income. They were estranged when he died. She was thirty and left out of the will. Her brother-in-law was Oswald Mosely, whose own treatment of his wife, her sister, Irene held a grudge. She particularly hated Mosley’s lover, Diana Mitford. Here we delve into the murky world of the British Union of Fascists. Irene was a visitor at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and met Hitler, but she was disgusted by what she saw. Mosley’s internment during the war must have pleased her enormously.

Finally, Jean Massereene. A banker’s daughter, she is here described as eccentric; in other words far from conventional. She wanted to become a fashion icon, and features in a 1909 book called Britain’s Beautiful Ladies, with a foreword written by Queen Alexandria! Her mode of dress was considered scandalous, she did not wear a corset. She was also out-spoken about politics, in particular the vexed issue of Home Rule for the Irish. She was pro-union during the troubles, which lead to a potential assassination attempt when her home at Antrim castle was set on fire.

As you can see, some of these lives are interlinked, it’s a small world in some ways. Spence demonstrates just how far we have come in certain attitudes, although I suspect that was not her motive here. There is a helpful reading list at the end if you wish to find out more. Spence hopes to give some of these lives full biographies in the future. So hurry up, Spence! Montague and Margaret please!

If there is a moral from this entertaining book,  it is simply don’t get married. Just take a cheque. Wish I had.

❉ ‘These Great Ladies’ was published on 12 February 2017, RRP £9.99. 

❉ Check out our reviews of Lyndsy Spence’s books Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen, and The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne.

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