Book Reviews

An Odd Bunch – The Surprising Life of Constance Spry

By Sue Shepherd

Macmillan £18.99

Review by Anne Sebba, Literary Review, April 2010

review constanceThe Surprising Life of Constance Spry

ISBN 9780230741812

Countless newlyweds in the 1960’s, suddenly facing a need to cook for the first time in their lives, turned with relief to The Constance Spry Cookery Book as their kitchen bible. The 1956 bestseller reeked respectability, reliability and refinement.

Yet Constance herself, until then known only as a florist, offered more controversial advice in person. “Just be natural and let the rules go to hell,” she once wrote, referring to her unconventional and highly original ideas about flower decoration. She might just as well as have been discussing her philosophy of life.

Although always known as Mrs Spry, she lived for more than thirty years with a man who was not her husband, H E Spry, known as Shav. The scandalous truth, had it ever emerged, would have cost them both their jobs and their reputations. In middle age she indulged in a passionate lesbian romance with the wealthy painter, Gluck, a mutually stimulating relationship which left her desolate when Gluck broke it off. In later life she turned a blind eye to what effectively became a menage-a-trois with Shav and her second in command at Flower Decorations Ltd, Val Pirie.

When invited in 1937 to do the flowers at the wedding of the twice divorced Mrs Simpson to the newly exiled Duke of Windsor at the Chateau de Cande in France, Constance did not hesitate. The ex-King had been a good client and, charmed by the romance of his love affair with Wallis which had been kept out of British newspapers, she told her staff firmly that they, too, were to be absolutely silent and loyal. She travelled to France with Pirie where the pair spent more than two days creating lavish displays out of all proportion to the number of people who could admire them in person. Yet Vogue magazine described her as “the florist of the moment.”

Although Constance did not have another royal commission until 1947 when she was invited to do the flowers at the wedding of the Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip in Westminster Abbey, she never regretted her decision. Her loyalty to Wallis Simpson owed something to her understanding of the heavy price both women paid for an unhappy first marriage and the rigid attitude of society to a divorcee.

Constance Fletcher was born in 1886 in Derby to an ambitious railway clerk, George Fletcher, who became a headmaster, and his wife, Etty, a woman of fierce social ambition. From childhood Connie had always been interested in gardens and in arranging flowers inside the home. But, although her mother was happy to hand over the duty of “doing the flowers,” the idea of her daughter actually studying horticulture was out of the question. Instead, she travelled around Ireland, where the family was living, lecturing on health education, before suddenly agreeing to marry a widowed mine manager, James Heppell Marr. Almost immediately she regretted the marriage. Aged 31, much to her parent’s distress, she abandoned him and came to London with Anthony, their son. Working as a civil servant in the Ministry of Munitions she met Spry and at the end of the War was appointed headmistress of the Homerton and South Hackney Day Continuation School.

Flower arranging was still only a hobby but increasingly word of her talent spread. The breakthrough came in 1927 when she was asked to fill the windows of a new perfumery shop in London and commissioned by the young Sydney Bernstein to supply flowers for the foyers of his new London cinemas. She soon resigned her teaching post, threw everything into these new ventures and throughout the late twenties and early thirties became society’s ‘must have’ florist. The pinnacle of her success came in 1953 when she was awarded an OBE for her work on the Coronation flowers and a post-Coronation luncheon, which she and her friend, the accomplished cook Rosemary Hume, had organised.

Sue Shepherd writes clearly and engagingly and has an interesting story to tell. In some ways the most fascinating part of Constance Spry’s life is the light it sheds on opportunities offered by 19th and early 20th century education for social mobility. In the 1920’s, as headmistress of a new type of school, Connie had to knock on doors of tenement homes and confront enraged fathers who saw no point in educating children who could be out earning. By 1946, when she and Hume set up Winkfield Place as a school for young girls (not only debutantes) who were not what was then considered university material, it was the pupils who begged for exams and a diploma to prove that they were qualified in something useful before marriage.

I would have preferred less about the apparently jaw dropping flower arrangements Spry created, however wonderful, and more of the private life. Why did she marry Heppell Marr and was his violence a result of her coldness to him? Why was her son happier with his father? Why did she put up with Shav and Pirie’s behaviour together? Shepherd recognises that Connie was a restless spirit, a private person who never revealed her innermost feelings. But, as readers, that’s precisely what we long to know. Constance Spry died suddenly on January 3rd , 1960, full of ideas and plans.

Anne Sebba is the author of Jennie Churchill, Winston’s American Mother and is currently researching the life of Wallis Simpson.