These 3 sis­ters were the 1 per­cent of the 1 per­cent - be­fore it all crashed

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Pastimes - BY ANNA MUNDOW The Wash­ing­ton Post

The por­trait seems to say it all: On a bil­low­ing silken couch that re­sem­bles a gi­ant pe­ony, three women swathed in white ap­pear to bloom, their beauty and priv­i­lege an ex­pres­sion of na­ture as much as art. John Singer Sar­gent had done a good job. Com­mis­sioned in 1899 by Percy Wyn­d­ham to paint his daugh­ters, the Amer­i­can artist cap­tured the blithe supremacy of the British rul­ing class. But there was more to it than that. “At a time when the up­per classes felt that their tra­di­tional hege­mony was be­ing eroded by a myr­iad of di­verse forces,” Clau­dia Ren­ton writes in this splen­did new bi­og­ra­phy, “the paint­ing rep­re­sented a dis­tinct salvo on be­half of the be­lea­guered aris­toc­racy.”

In the pro­logue to “Those Wild Wyn­d­hams,” Ren­ton then leads us into the shad­ows of Sar­gent’s can­vas where “gleams Made­line Wyn­d­ham,” the girls’ tem­pes­tu­ous mother. Within a few pages, pri­vate lives and pub­lic af­fairs are dex­ter­ously en­twined, and from then on Ren­ton’s nim­ble touch never fails. Draw­ing on let­ters, diaries and his­tor- ical records, she af­fords us an in­ti­mate yet clear-eyed view of a dy­nasty that both em­bod­ied and shaped a tu­mul­tuous era. Her por­trait, no less than Sar­gent’s, is a tri­umph of ob­ser­va­tion, in­sight and eru­di­tion.

Let’s start with the money. In 1860, when Percy Wyn­d­ham and Made­line Camp­bell mar­ried, they re­ceived al­most 36,000 pounds (around $4 mil­lion to­day) from Percy’s fa­ther, Lord Le­con­field. No won­der Henry James, con­tem­plat­ing an 1870 por­trait of Made­line, judged it “a ‘sump­tu­ous’ pic­ture. ... That is, the lady looks as if she had thirty-thou­sand a year.” With only 1 in 5 prop­er­ty­own­ing males eli­gi­ble to vote, the Wyn­d­hams and roughly 400 other fam­i­lies con­sti­tuted the hub of Bri­tain’s im­pe­rial ma­chine.

Yet Percy mar­ried for love, be­sot­ted with sen­sual Made­line — or “Mananai” — whose aris­to­cratic roots were Irish and whose lovers in­cluded Percy’s cousin, the poet and anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist Wil­frid Scawen Blunt. Blunt went on to se­duce Mananai’s daugh­ter Mary and to fa­ther one of her chil­dren, while Mary main­tained a life­long af­fair with Prime Min­is­ter Arthur Bal­four, an in­ti­macy spiced by spank­ing. In­deed, there was plenty of spice in the Wyn­d­ham off­spring — Mary, Made­line, Pamela, Ge­orge and Guy.

An el­e­gant, re­strained writer, she rarely com­ments. Con­se­quently, her sub­jects seem to re­veal them­selves. Mary the sly ec­cen­tric, Made­line the serene grown-up and Pamela the nar­cis­sis­tic beauty ma­te­ri­al­ize both as fas­ci­nat­ing spec­i­mens of their class — in­hab­it­ing great houses, com­mand­ing scores of ser­vants — but also as com­plex, flawed in­di­vid­u­als. Of Pamela, Ren­ton writes, “She had sim­ply been spoiled so long that she could not see any­one else as more than a cir­cling planet and she the sun.” While Mary the ide­al­ist re­turns from a 1902 meet­ing of the Fabian so­ci­ety, “shin­ing-eyed, full of talk about how her new friends had promised to save her from be­ing first against the wall when the rev­o­lu­tion came.”

But world war comes in­stead. Five Wyn­d­ham grand­sons were killed, 1 in 5 British peers died, and a chasm opened “be­tween the gen­er­a­tion that fought and those who sent them there, nowhere more so than among the elite,” whose way of life was end­ing.

Faced with puni­tive taxes, they sold or leased their coun­try es­tates, and here, as through­out this bi­og­ra­phy, Ren­ton’s de­scrip­tions are as evoca­tive as they are in­for­ma­tive. She ends with Pamela in 1928, re­turn­ing to the fam­ily demesne, now sold, where, “she saw them­selves as chil­dren ... saw the great teas where thirty or more sat and waited for toast, al­ways cold and curl­ing af­ter the ser­vants’ trek down miles of cor­ri­dor.” Through Ren­ton’s flaw­less lens, the reader sees them, too.

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