Adding some sparkle to your life

I have just held some of the most exquisite jewels that once belonged to the Duchess of Windsor. My heart was racing. If you are a biographer, you can’t get much closer to your subject – or at least to this particular subject – than handling jewels she once owned and wore, even trying them on for size. (They fitted me rather well, actually) This jewelry blazed forth to the world not just that Wallis was rich but that she had exquisite taste and was in the vanguard of modern design. She may have been stripped of the royal initials HRH that most lawyers believed were her due but no one could stop her wearing a ruby crown above a diamond heart with emerald initials, a gift from her husband. It is now on offer again to the highest bidder, and, judging by the crowd looking at the jewels with me, there are plenty of women hoping their man will prove as devoted a jewel buyer as the Duke of Windsor.

Twenty three years after the historic sale of almost all the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels, 20 pieces from that sale will be re-auctioned on Tuesday 30th November. For the past few months the exquisite objects have been tempting buyers around the world and now they are on display again in London. These highly personal pieces with their intimate inscriptions may never again be seen. There may never again be collectors like the non royal WE – Wallis and Edward.You have just three days left to see them. Hurry.

Leaving the World a Better Place

Talking to A. N Wilson about TOLSTOY last night was an eerie experience. It was one hundred years since the death of the great Russian novelist and reformer and our venue to reflect on his achievements was the magnificent and newly restored Normansfield Theatre at Teddington, completed in 1868 just as Tolstoy was finishing War and Peace to be published the following year, 1869. As we sat beneath the backdrop of an idyllic woodland scene with panels of Ruddigore along the walls, I was constantly reminded that this theatre represented the life’s work of Dr John Langdon Down, a pioneer doctor who believed, radically for the time, that children with learning difficulties responded well to working on stage and with a variety of theatrical entertainments. He and his wife Mary worked together in this venture, living on site and sinking their own small fortune into the Theatre. Although he gave his name to the condition known as Down’s Syndrome, he has been neglected by medical historians and is hardly known today. Yet he was born in November 1928, just a few weeks after Lev Tolstoy, and like him he worked to improve the world. Both were concerned with the education of children and desperately cared about improving the condition of the disadvantaged, both worked together with their wives yet Sofya Tolstoy as her recently published diaries show was a desperately unhappy woman. Mary Langdon Down a deeply fulfilled one. How sad that the world knows so little about this extraordinary pair of reformers. I hope to be in this wonderful theatre again and soak up some more of its sparkling atmosphere.

Remembering Tolstoy

Listening to the wonderful Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, talking with such a depth of knowledge and empathy about Tolstoy last night made me nostalgic for my schooldays. If only he had been my Russian teacher wouldn’t I have worked harder at my Russian studies, instead of scraping through O level and failing to grasp the pain of being human in War and Peace? There’s an essay about Tolstoy every night this week at 11 pm to celebrate the centenary of his death. Tonight it’s the turn of his biographer AN Wilson. On Saturday November 20th, the actual date of the great man’s death, I’ll be discussing the Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy with AN Wilson at the Richmond Festival of Literature. As ever the question for biographers like me is: should we be examining the life to help us understand the work? As the Archbishop said, Tolstoy’s fiction is Tolstoy explaining himself, pouring himself out in words. I’ll go with the Archbishop on this one.