Kathryn Hughes

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Kathryn Hughes

Those Wild Wyn­d­hams:

Three Sis­ters at the Heart of Power by Clau­dia Ren­ton.

Knopf, 458 pp., $30.00

In Fe­bru­ary 1899 John Singer Sar­gent was in­vited to the Bel­gravia home of the wealthy Wilt­shire landowner Percy Wyn­d­ham to meet his three mar­ried daugh­ters. Wyn­d­ham had com­mis­sioned a group por­trait of the women as a way of mark­ing a re­cent ad­vance in the fam­ily’s for­tunes. For while the sixty-four-year-old pa­ter­fa­mil­ias had lost his par­lia­men­tary seat some years ear­lier, his el­dest son Ge­orge was now gain­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a shrewd politi­cian at West­min­ster, where he served as un­der­sec­re­tary at the War Of­fice. Mean­while Ge­orge’s three sis­ters, Mary El­cho, Made­line Adeane, and Pamela Ten­nant, en­joyed a grow­ing ca­chet as hostesses of dis­creet coun­try house week­ends at which states­men of all stripes min­gled far away from the jab­ber of party in­trigue.

Aware­ness of the Wyn­d­ham women’s in­flu­ence had pre­vi­ously been con­fined to the elite net­works that ra­di­ated from the smarter parts of Lon­don to the man­sions and manor houses of ru­ral Bri­tain. Now, though, it felt like the right mo­ment for them to be for­mally in­tro­duced to a wider pub­lic, one that was in­creas­ingly greedy to know about the lives of rich, aris­to­cratic women. No one did sump­tu­ous por­traits of so­ci­ety peo­ple shaded with psy­cho­log­i­cal com­plex­ity bet­ter than Sar­gent. He would be paid £2,000, the equiv­a­lent of about £240,000 to­day, for The Wyn­d­ham Sis­ters, with the aim of fin­ish­ing it in time for the next year’s Royal Academy sum­mer show.

Al­most im­me­di­ately it be­came ap­par­ent that the dead­line was in jeop­ardy. For one thing, the sis­ters were not sold on the idea of co­or­di­nat­ing them­selves into a froth of white, off-white, and cream. Pamela an­nounced that she was in­tent on a blue dress, which meant that Mary, the el­dest at thirty-seven, was left drop­ping des­per­ate hints: “Blue can be so ugly don’t you think?” The mid­dle sis­ter, Made­line, or Mananai, was usu­ally eas­ier, but on this oc­ca­sion was hold­ing out for pink. Mary wor­ried that the beau­ti­ful Wyn­d­ham sis­ters would make their pub­lic de­but look­ing like a slab of Neapoli­tan ice cream.

Even once the foamy dress code was re­solved there was still the prob­lem of the pose. Mary was adamant that noth­ing should look con­trived, yet pro­ceeded to sug­gest that she and her sis­ters ar­range them­selves as “if the Evening Post had just come & one was read­ing a let­ter to the oth­ers,” which sounds stiff and stagy and ter­ri­bly old­fash­ioned. In the end it was Sar­gent who came up with the ar­range­ment in which, rather than lean­ing ea­gerly to­ward one an­other, the sis­ters pose lan­guorously, each an­gled in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, con­spic­u­ously fail­ing to make eye con­tact. It was a bril­liant pro­posal, both for the way it al­lowed each woman to in­habit her own psy­cho­log­i­cal space, but also be­cause it meant that Sar­gent could paint them sep­a­rately, with­out try­ing to sched­ule group sit­tings (get­ting the three so­ci­ety women around the din­ner table for the

in­tro­duc­tory meet­ing had taken weeks of ne­go­ti­a­tion).

Sar­gent started work im­me­di­ately on what amounted to three in­di­vid­ual por­traits stitched to­gether. On the far left is Mananai, the least pub­lic of the three sis­ters. Griev­ing the re­cent loss of a baby son after four bounc­ing girls, her palm is turned ten­ta­tively up­ward, as if ready to re­ceive a fu­ture bless­ing that she fears may never come. Pamela, sit­ting in the cen­tral po­si­tion as al­ways, looks ev­ery inch a so­ci­ety beauty, boldly invit­ing the viewer’s gaze but then, with an in­sou­ciant flip of her fin­gers, mak­ing it clear that she doesn’t care whether she gets it or not. Mary, the un­of­fi­cial leader of the three, is perched on the sofa back, her gaze fixed per­haps on West­min­ster, where at this mo­ment her con­fi­dante Arthur Bal­four and her brother Ge­orge are poised on the brink of real power.

What fi­nally brought the sis­ters to­gether was the bond of be­ing a Wyn­d­ham, which would al­ways trump any lit­tle dif­fi­cul­ties about chif­fon. This fam­ily pride went far be­yond the usual sense of en­ti­tle­ment that came with be­ing a mem­ber of Bri­tain’s hered­i­tary aris­toc­racy. In­deed, judged strictly by ti­tles and an­cient seats, the Wyn­d­hams, one might ar­gue, had lit­tle to crow about. As the third son of the first Baron Le­con­field, Percy Wyn­d­ham had no claim to a ti­tle be­yond an en­try-level

“Hon.” And while he had in­her­ited a for­tune from his fond fa­ther, he had no claim on Pet­worth House, the fam­ily’s mag­nif­i­cent Baroque pile in Sus­sex. Percy’s wife, Made­line, mean­while, had nei­ther ti­tle nor wealth, although she did come trail­ing a thrilling fam­ily back­story that in­volved de­scent from re­bel­lious Ir­ish no­ble­men and the Or­léans kings of France. She also, and more use­fully, brought to the mar­riage a rare tal­ent for emo­tional en­gage­ment, in­sist­ing on rais­ing her chil­dren with a lov­ing at­ten­tion that was al­most bour­geois. A pho­to­graph taken in the late 1860s shows Percy with four-year-old Ge­orge lolling in his lap in an at­ti­tude of deep­est trust, the ex­act op­po­site of the usual aris­to­cratic froideur. “Fam­ily love was al­most a reli­gion with the Wyn­d­hams,” re­called Mary’s el­dest daugh­ter years later. Along­side this emo­tional ac­ces­si­bil­ity, which on oc­ca­sion brought her close to psy­cho­log­i­cal break­down, Made­line was also en­gaged with the con­tem­po­rary art world, which gave the Wyn­d­ham fam­ily its slightly bohemian edge. She counted the Burne-Jone­ses among her clos­est friends, had helped found the Royal School of Art Needle­work, and, as a young mar­ried woman, had been painted by G. F. Watts in an out­landish dress that marked her as a firm fol­lower of the aes­thetic avant-garde. So when the time came for the Wyn­d­hams to choose an ar­chi­tect to cre­ate a coun­try house that would ex­press their ex­cep­tion­al­ism, the nat­u­ral choice was Philip Webb, Wil­liam Mor­ris’s long­time pro­fes­sional part­ner.

Clouds House, built in the 1880s in a val­ley on the Wilt­shire Downs, was a fine ex­am­ple of the Arts and Crafts style scaled up to heroic pro­por­tions. The tur­reted green sand­stone ex­te­rior sug­gested a whim­si­cal fairy palace, while in­side the cozy in­glenooks and clois­tered gal­leries fa­cil­i­tated the kind of in­ti­mate group­ings and con­fi­den­tial têtes-à-têtes on which the fam­ily’s sub­tle power de­pended. Mor­ris him­self de­signed ta­pes­tries for the new house, while car­toons by Burne-Jones hung on the walls. The Wyn­d­hams loved Clouds so much that when it burned down in 1889 as a con­se­quence of a stuffed linen cup­board and a rogue can­dle, Percy or­dered it to be com­pletely re­built, this time with bet­ter plumb­ing.

It was around this time that Clouds be­came known as a “palace of week­end­ing” that at­tracted young men and women drawn from a loose group­ing of four in­ter­mar­ry­ing dy­nas­ties: the Bal­fours, Lyt­tle­tons, Ten­nants, and Wyn­d­hams. The men, who were mostly in pol­i­tics, in­cluded both Lib­er­als and Con­ser­va­tives, which sounds like a recipe for some very bad-tem­pered table talk. Ex­plo­sions at West­min­ster over the toxic mat­ter of Home Rule for Ire­land, im­pe­rial tar­iff re­form, and the loom­ing Boer War had coars­ened po­lit­i­cal dis­course to the point where it be­came ad­vis­able for guests at grand so­ci­ety wed­dings to be seated on op­po­site sides of the church ac­cord­ing to their party per­sua­sion.

What made “the Gang,” as the Wyn­d­hams and their as­so­ciates called them­selves, so dif­fer­ent was their res­o­lu­tion to rise above such petty fac­tion­al­ism. Tak­ing their cue from their un­of­fi­cial leader, Arthur Bal­four, the lan­guid Con­ser­va­tive sec­re­tary for Ire­land who had once opined that “noth­ing mat­ters very much, and few things mat­ter at all,” they steered their con­ver­sa­tions to­ward more spec­u­la­tive realms. “You all sit and talk about each other’s souls,” an­nounced the hearty Lord Charles Beresford. “I shall call you ‘the Souls.’” The name stuck, and while they pre­tended not to like it, you could tell they were se­cretly pleased. But what ex­actly did the Souls talk about? What did it feel like to find your­self cor­nered in the in­glenook at Clouds with a Wyn­d­ham sis­ter bear­ing down on you for a con­fi­den­tial chat? It is these miss­ing tex­tures that many his­to­ri­ans have tried to re­cover, most re­cently Nancy El­len­berger in her valiant Bal­four’s World: Aris­toc­racy and Po­lit­i­cal Cul­ture at the Fin de Siè­cle (2015). Yet no one, in­clud­ing Clau­dia Ren­ton in her ac­com­plished first book, Those Wild Wyn­d­hams, has quite suc­ceeded. For while the Souls liked to imag­ine them­selves in­tel­lec­tu­als, they were not deep thinkers.

The men had of­ten gone straight from Eton into the army be­fore en­ter­ing Par­lia­ment. The women, in­clud­ing the Wyn­d­hams, lived in a world far from the one in which mid­dle-class girls were be­gin­ning to at­tend the new ur­ban high schools fol­lowed by three years at one of the women’s col­leges re­cently es­tab­lished at Ox­ford and

Cam­bridge. In­stead the sis­ters were brought up by a se­ries of well-mean­ing but in­ef­fec­tual gov­ernesses, whom they would later re­mem­ber af­fec­tion­ately in a se­ries of comic turns. In an at­tempt to raise the tone among the fe­male Souls, Mary Wyn­d­ham (now Lady El­cho) helped or­ga­nize a weekly ethics class in Lon­don with sub­jects in­clud­ing “Con­science self love etc” and “Kant.” But it turned out to be “rather above our heads” since no one had both­ered to do the read­ing. As the so­cial sea­son wore on, at­ten­dance at the Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon sem­i­nars dropped to just three.

The ev­i­dence we have sug­gests that it was talk­ing, rather than read­ing, writ­ing, or even think­ing, that lay at the heart of Souls cul­ture. Laura Ten­nant, Mary’s best friend, de­scribed the first Souls week­end, which took place in De­cem­ber 1884 at Stan­way, the El­chos’ Glouces­ter­shire place:

We quar­rel about ev­ery­thing—we talk up to the top of our bent—we grow hy­per-sen­ti­men­tal and blow blue bub­bles into the stars...we none of us open a book or write a let­ter—we scrib­ble & scrawl & in­vent words & rea­son­less rhymes.

This sounds so­cial and hec­tic rather than par­tic­u­larly deep. It also sounds as if it might make any­one out­side the golden cir­cle feel rather cross. In 1893 the rad­i­cal weekly Truth got hold of an “Ex­pres­sion Exam pa­per,” a quiz made by fe­male Souls on their de­vel­op­ing pri­vate lan­guage, and glee­fully re­pro­duced it in or­der to rouse its read­ers to right­eous scorn:

An­a­lyze the fol­low­ing phrases: This is dis­tinctly Sir Giles. She al­most pecked him. He has got a touch of egg. I have got three den­tists to­day. Je suis mar­iée, vous n’êtes pas. He’s got a cruet.

Of course aris­to­cratic co­ter­ies have a long his­tory of bend­ing lan­guage in or­der to keep oth­ers out—one thinks of the Devon­shire House set in the late eigh­teenth cen­tury with their eti­o­lated vow­els and con­trived lisps. What was per­haps new, or new within liv­ing mem­ory, was the way that the male and fe­male Souls bat­ted this stuff back and forth on terms of un­self­con­scious equal­ity. More than that, they made a point of by­pass­ing the weighty per­for­mance of gen­der that was still part of the Prince of Wales’s raff­ish Marl­bor­ough House set, where hearty men smoked cigars and pretty women sim­pered. Dur­ing a typ­i­cal Souls coun­try week­end the men didn’t shoot if they didn’t feel like it, of­ten pre­fer­ring to stay co­zily in the draw­ing room with the women, play­ing games of Ex­pres­sion. The women smoked cig­a­rettes, wore pared-down aes­thetic dresses with­out a bus­tle in sight, and presided over meals that would have struck His Royal Port­li­ness, King Ed­ward VII, as pos­i­tively mea­ger. (Ren­ton points out that the two things went to­gether: un­corseted aes­thetic dress only works if you are slen­der, and there was no such thing as a fat Soul.)

Most im­por­tantly, the Souls cham­pi­oned in­tense but pla­tonic love af­fairs, the most en­dur­ing of which in­volved Mary El­cho and Arthur Bal­four. They had met at the ages of sev­en­teen and thirty-three at one of Fred­eric Leighton’s cham­ber mu­sic af­ter­noons, and there had been an in­stant spark. When it was clear that Bal­four would not pro­pose, Made­line Wyn­d­ham hur­ried her el­dest daugh­ter into mar­riage with the wealthy Hugo Char­teris, heir to the Earl of Wemyss (bohemian or not, the Wyn­d­hams still be­lieved in do­ing cer­tain things the old-fash­ioned way). Be­hind Bal­four’s life­long if un­con­su­mated love af­fair with Mary, one might see some­thing of the chival­ric tra­di­tion of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, one of the Souls’ fa­vorite texts, in which knights pine after fair ladies who are mar­ried to their best friends. But the fact re­mains that Bal­four never wed, and his­to­ri­ans have long spec­u­lated that he may not have been sex­u­ally in­ter­ested in women. He was dubbed “Pretty Fanny” by jour­nal­ists who knew ex­actly what they were in­sin­u­at­ing. An added fris­son about the sex­ual pro­cliv­i­ties of male Souls arose from the fact that it was the Wyn­d­hams who had first in­tro­duced Os­car Wilde to their cousin Lord Alfred Douglas. Here and there are clues that some­thing more may have been go­ing on be­tween Mary and Arthur. In 1906 she wrote him a let­ter won­der­ing if he re­mem­bered their “f-rst k-ss” of twenty years ear­lier, which sug­gests that, de­spite at­tend­ing Fabian meet­ings with the Webbs, she had a pes­simistic view of the lit­er­acy of the pry­ing ser­vant classes. There is also a strong sug­ges­tion, which Ren­ton takes pains to min­i­mize, that dur­ing Mary’s reg­u­lar Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon vis­its to Bal­four, they in­dulged in recre­ational spank­ing.

But even if Mary and Bal­four never con­sum­mated their re­la­tion­ship, it didn’t mean that Mary felt obliged to re­frain from sex with other men. In 1895 she em­barked on a fully phys­i­cal af­fair with yet an­other cousin, the li­bidi­nous Wil­frid Scawen Blunt, who made cer­tain to note down all the de­tails in his di­ary. It was a pointed choice on two counts. First, be­cause Blunt had pre­vi­ously had an af­fair with Mary’s own mother, Made­line. And sec­ond, be­cause two years ear­lier, Bal­four, as chief sec­re­tary in Ire­land, had sen­tenced the po­lit­i­cally sub­ver­sive Blunt to two months’ hard la­bor.

Re­gard­less of what scram­bled mes­sages were be­ing sent, the li­ai­son be­tween Mary and Blunt pro­duced an il­le­git­i­mate daugh­ter, whom Mary’s hus­band agreed to bring up as his own. This sounds like hand­some be­hav­ior, un­til you re­al­ize that it was ac­tu­ally part of an elab­o­rate scheme of traded fa­vors. As a se­rial adul­terer, Hugo El­cho reg­u­larly dumped his mis­tresses, in­clud­ing the ac­tress Mrs. Pa­trick Camp­bell, on Mary as long-term guests at their Glouces­ter­shire manor house. Such for­bear­ance roused even the ever-lan­guid Bal­four to some­thing that sounds like ir­ri­ta­tion: “I can­not con­ceive why you per­mit­ted your­self to be sad­dled with her.”

Eas­ier to un­der­stand, although much harder to like, was the youngest Wyn­d­ham sis­ter, Pamela. At least ten years ju­nior to the rest of the Souls, she none­the­less ex­em­pli­fied the in­su­lar self-in­volve­ment that the next gen­er­a­tion would find so off-putting. “We do not ask our­selves and one an­other and ev­ery poor devil we meet ‘How do you de­fine Imag­i­na­tion’ or ‘What is the dif­fer­ence be­tween tal­ent and

ge­nius?,’ ” snapped bril­liant young Ray­mond Asquith, step­son of Pamela’s sis­ter-in-law Mar­got Ten­nant. The sto­ries have been told many times be­fore of how, dur­ing a din­ner party, a bored Pamela would get up and turn around and stare at the wall in a bid to be the cen­ter of at­ten­tion. When she was re­ally frus­trated she lay on the floor and bit the car­pet.

Pamela liked to as­sert her Soul­ful in­dif­fer­ence to Lon­don’s so­cial sea­son by os­ten­ta­tiously spend­ing sum­mer nights camp­ing on the Downs with her chil­dren in a Gypsy car­a­van. In ad­di­tion she reg­u­larly in­flicted her folksing­ing on the lo­cal vil­lagers, who looked on im­pas­sively as she strummed away on her berib­boned gui­tar. In 1900, the year The Wyn­d­ham Sis­ters was dis­played at the Royal Academy of Arts and de­clared a mas­ter­piece by The Times, Pamela pub­lished her Vil­lage Notes, whim­si­cal tales of lo­cal life that fea­tured fore­lock-tug­ging lo­cals spout­ing homely wis­dom. “Em­i­nently sooth­ing” was the kind­est thing that any­one could think to say.

Much of this ma­te­rial is fa­mil­iar; none­the­less Ren­ton works hard to shape it into in­ter­est­ing new con­fig­u­ra­tions. Par­tic­u­larly fine is the way she draws on the re­mark­ably frank let­ters among the Wyn­d­ham women to map out their bod­ily re­al­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly their ex­pe­ri­ence of men­stru­a­tion. Ei­ther “Lady Bet­sey” is late, which means the un­wel­come news of yet an­other preg­nancy (Mary, in par­tic­u­lar, was ex­hausted with pro­duc­ing “the usual hardy an­nual”), or else Bet­sey comes in gush­ing huge clots, pre­sag­ing a mis­car­riage of what might have been a much-needed son or a late baby to sweeten mid­dle age. In­deed, Ren­ton re­veals that one rea­son it had been so tricky to get the sis­ters to­gether to meet Sar­gent at the be­gin­ning of 1899 was that Mary was in an Ed­in­burgh nurs­ing home un­der­go­ing a gy­ne­co­log­i­cal “Spring-Clean­ing” fol­low­ing an op­er­a­tion to cor­rect a pro­lapsed uterus, the par­tic­u­lars of which she re­ported in fas­ci­nated de­tail to her mother. Pamela, mean­while, be­came a friend and ad­mirer of Marie Stopes, con­fid­ing to the pi­o­neer­ing birth con­trol doc­tor and au­thor of Mar­ried Love that her re­la­tion­ship with her hus­band had al­ways been sex­u­ally un­sat­is­fy­ing. Des­per­ate for ba­bies in her mid-for­ties, Pamela sounded out Stopes about the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing ar­ti­fi­cially in­sem­i­nated with a male donor of Stopes’s choos­ing. Ap­palled by the re­spon­si­bil­ity, the doc­tor sen­si­bly re­fused.

Where Ren­ton is less adept is in in­te­grat­ing these fine-grained in­ti­ma­cies into the broader po­lit­i­cal story. None­the­less, she is quite right to try. Un­like the Blooms­bury Group a gen­er­a­tion later, the Souls con­sid­ered them­selves first and fore­most po­lit­i­cal an­i­mals, and Ren­ton wants to make it clear that she is not sim­ply writ­ing an up­mar­ket soap opera of the Down­ton Abbey kind. But it is very hard to keep these dif­fer­ently scaled nar­ra­tives de­vel­op­ing to­gether, and the re­sult is para­graphs that lurch from the lat­est on the brew­ing Boer War to some­one’s first trimester, or from the first Post-Im­pres­sion­ist ex­hi­bi­tion of 1910 to the cam­paign for a Home De­fense Army.

In the last anal­y­sis it was World War I that saved the Wyn­d­ham sis­ters from triv­i­al­ity. Along with ev­ery other aris­to­cratic fam­ily in Bri­tain, they lost young brothers and sons on the fields of France and Flan­ders. Mary mourned two boys, Pamela one, and their brothers lost a son apiece, mak­ing five in all. Ren­ton is an ad­mirably un­ob­tru­sive pres­ence, but at this point she steps out from be­hind her nar­ra­tive and won­ders just how the fe­male Souls could have borne the irony that it was the men in their cir­cle—Mary’s Bal­four, Pamela’s lover Lord Grey, even their re­cently de­ceased bel­li­cose brother Ge­orge—who were re­spon­si­ble for the war that sent their sons to their deaths. Life was no longer a par­lor game of Ex­pres­sion or even a catch-up ses­sion on Kant.

After the war a suc­ces­sion of high taxes, death du­ties, la­bor short­ages, and the first Labour prime min­is­ter, Ram­say Mac­Don­ald, meant that the kind of grand coun­try house ex­is­tence on which the cul­ture of the Souls de­pended was no longer fea­si­ble.

Mary was obliged to rent out her beloved Stan­way, where they had first gath­ered in the win­ter of 1884, to the play­wright J. M. Bar­rie. Her other big house, Gos­ford in the Scot­tish Borders, was now run grumpily as a sort of ho­tel by her hus­band, Hugo, and his res­i­dent mistress, An­gela Forbes, who had in­stalled a cock­tail bar and spent her days spy­ing on the pay­ing guests. Pamela signed up for spir­i­tu­al­ism, as so many be­reaved peo­ple did after the war, and be­came a kind of com­edy vis­count­ess as far as the pop­u­lar papers were con­cerned. Me­nanai, kind as ever, in­vited her mother to live at her coun­try house, Braba­ham, but had to ask her to con­trib­ute fi­nan­cially to­ward her keep.

As for The Wyn­d­ham Sis­ters, in which John Singer Sar­gent had rus­tled the young women up into a sym­phony of white, it was sold in 1927. The new pa­ter­fa­mil­ias of Clouds, Dick Wyn­d­ham, a sec­ond son of a sec­ond son, needed to scratch to­gether some cash. So he let the paint­ing go to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum in New York for a mere £20,000 (Sar­gent was ter­ri­bly out of fash­ion), where it hangs to this day.

John Singer Sar­gent: The Wyn­d­ham Sis­ters: Lady El­cho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Ten­nant, 1899

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