Well for those who have had to endure it I thank you and hereby award you a gold medal in the new sport of Olympian Forbearance, and after all that distraction I think it's time we talked books again.
The Endsleigh Salon book theme for August was 'Reflections and Echoes' and it transpired that every book I read in the weeks before would have fitted the bill, but I had chosen and bought The Mistresses of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone purposely, so I decided to stay with it and it was my choice to present on the evening.
And it seemed meet and right to take a book like this along with me because there are some minor similarities between Endsleigh and Cliveden, not least the presence of a formidable woman, in the case of Endsleigh Georgina, Duchess of Bedford. I wrote about the remarkable Georgina a few years ago here
Whilst The Mistresses of Cliveden will travel back to the 17th century and the first mistress of the house Anna-Maria the Countess of Shrewsbury, the book begins with a latter-day mistress and a scandal that would rock the political establishment...many of you will know of it...
Bill Astor (son of the fifth mistress of Cliveden Nancy Astor) is holding a dinner party on a summer's evening in 1961. He decides to walk his guests, who include the President of Pakistan and an MP who is also The Secretary of State for War, down to the swimming pool where a young woman, a friend of a tenant on the estate is skinny-dipping with friends.
When MP John Profumo sets eyes on Christine Keeler a chain of events will be set in place that will eventually bring down the government and change the course of British history. Scandal is nothing new to Cliveden and if ever you have been to an old house and wished the walls could talk, well here is a book that does just that, I was riveted by it and I took in a fascinating good history lesson along the way.
On the banks of the Thames, five miles upriver from Windsor and thirty miles from Westminster, the site for Cliveden was first ear-marked as the perfect location for a love-nest by George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham in the 1660s. Finishing off the Earl of Shrewsbury in a duel cleared the way for George's mistress Anna-Maria to move in with him and his wife in a menage-a-trois, this in keeping with the French morals that have arrived in England with the restoration of Charles 2nd to the throne. Mistresses are acceptable and obvious, nothing secret about it at all.
But for all that I might have thought women were powerless and controlled it is clear that given the right circumstances they could be just the opposite.
It will be a second cousin of George's. Elizabeth Villiers who becomes the next mistress of the house. Her claim to fame, an affair with William of Orange who has, with his wife Mary ascended to the English throne as William 3rd. Eventually married off to the Earl of Orkney for the sake of respectability, Elizabeth seems surprisingly happy. Cliveden is re-modeled, bits are added on with a Chinese Room included as an essential fashion statement, which all reminded me of Saltram House in Plymouth and its similar nod to the decor of the time. I must go back and have another look.
Natalie Livingstone is already making several interesting points about women's lives....
Whilst the men are away fighting endless wars in Europe the women are left at home to assume responsibility and quickly assume power, though sadly their voices have largely been lost to history because their letters were not felt worthy of preservation. Two mistresses in and I can already see the house as a palimpsest, each layer peeled back to reveal its importance as a route to acceptability.
Elizabeth will hand the keys (not literally) to Augusta who, having married Frederick, Prince of Wales must have been thrilled to set up home at Cliveden in 1738. They are Britain's golden couple carrying the future hopes of the nation and the monarchy...
Except I am guessing something goes amiss because no King Freddie.
Meanwhile history is weaving along in the background.
This is the London of the coffee houses and newspapers, satire is rife and expected, nothing new about Twitter. Augusta produces heirs and plenty of spares (George 3rd is one of them) but when Frederick dies (I knew it) for reasons various she is vilified and shunned. It isn't difficult to come up with twentieth century comparisons to another Princess of Wales and the cycle of elevation and demotion, approval and condemnation, from nation's darling to arch-villainess and as Augusta's fortunes decline so do Cliveden's. It is as if the house mirrors the fortunes of its incumbents falling into a sad state of disrepair and 1795 will see the first of a several fires in the history of the house, but fear not. 'tis a phoenix and will rise again.
Now it will be the turn of Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland (and grand-daughter of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire) to revive the fortunes, becoming the fourth mistress of Cliveden on her marriage to George Leveson-Gower, a man twenty years her senior and after something of a whirlwind courtship.
Met on April 25th 1823 married on May 28th 1823 and who can know if Harriet being an heir to the Sutherland estate of a million acres in Scotland sped things along at all. But the couple are seemingly happy and, though no indication of happiness, a large brood of children will follow. Elizabeth, Evelyn, Caroline, George, Blanche, Frederick, Victoria, Albert, Ronald, Alexandrina ...and their may have been more that I missed, but therein lies the clue to royal connections. Harriet will become a bosom friend of the young Victoria and eventually take up the position of Mistress of the Robe, being at the new Queen's side at the Coronation and her closest friend and confidante following the death of Albert.
Harriet is so formidable in her accomplishments that I could only wonder when she had time to sit down...
A leading society hostess of the day and involved in the organisation of the Great Exhibition of 1851
A woman capable of managing and overseeing the upkeep, building, renovation, decoration and staff of six large houses.
And, oblivious to her own culpability given her wealth and its sources, would take up the cause of the abolition of slavery and hand a petition to Harriet Beecher Stowe in person (this did not go down at all well with the Americans)
The final mistress of Cliveden will be the inestimable Nancy Astor, and considering her very local connections to Plymouth I think I will award Nancy a blog post of her own, but by now I hope you can get a sense of the book. Natalie Livingstone creates; a real and tangible picture of each woman offering depth and insights. Each knew where her strength and powers lay and even if limited and curtailed by society or events, or social and cultural mores, would find ways to use those powers to their best advantage. Manipulation and being a few steps ahead of the game was crucial and they were good at it, whilst surrounding them was the rock that was Cliveden; twice burned to the ground, thrice built, the house seeming to show a resilience and tenacity to match its remarkable occupants.
It makes me wonder too how many more houses around the country are sitting on stories like this as yet untold. From my limited knowledge Port Eliot would have to be one, and that is a book I would love to see written, because alongside these tenacious chatelaines walks the history of women's lives, hard-fought battles, hard-won gains from which in some ways perhaps we benefit today.
As for Cliveden, well maybe the Profumo affair changed everything for the house, perhaps it was one scandal too far...
MP John Profumo, smitten, embarked on a high risk affair with Christine Keeler...
Christine Keeler's 'other' friend happened to be a Russian naval attache...
Questions were asked in Parliament..
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigned..
Osteopath Stephen Ward, the tenant who had sanctioned the pool party, seems to have been the fall guy, was accused of pimping Christine Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies and committed suicide during his trial.
Bill Astor the owner of Cliveden died of a heart attack and meanwhile the house gained an insurmountable reputation for secrecy, conspiracy and opulence. It is now owned by the National Trust but leased as a hotel, though I think (someone will know) it is possible to do guided tours.
If you have visited the house I would love to know your thoughts and impressions about it.
I can't recommend this book highly enough, especially if you like your history attached to a fascinating and involving story and are in need of a good all-absorbing read; Mistresses of Cliveden one of those books you can't wait to pick up again.
And talking of Queen Victoria, I hope everyone has figured out how to set the TV recorder next Sunday evening because I have a horrible feeling that Victoria, the new eight-part series about the life of the young queen, is going to clash with the new series of Poldark.
How could they...and there's the poor TV, only just recovering from Rio.