In 1913, when Percy (Perf) Wyndham married the Hon. Diana Lister, one onlooker commented about the remarkable family assembled for the occasion: “The Wyndham clan – all so beautiful and so well pleased with each other.”
The remark, while astutely nailing one of the problems induced by reading about these intensely self-obsessed, largely leisured women for four hundred pages, is especially poignant because, with hindsight, we know that their apparently perfect world was about to be destroyed for ever. Perf, as well as many of his friends and relations, was killed in action little more than a year later, aged 26. And so, this elegantly written tableau of a book is much more than a group biography; it is an elegiac account of the horrors of the First World War from the female perspective. Yet the women, in spite of enormous suffering as their children are blasted away from them, don’t always come out of it well. When Pamela, the youngest of the five Wyndham children, gives birth in 1916 to a girl who lives for only a few hours, she cannot contain her grief, behaving as though she were the only person to have suffered loss in the world.
“Her behaviour on Hester’s death as her own family’s sons died around her, tries the empathy of the biographer most,” writes Claudia Renton.
Yet on the whole Renton, a practising barrister and former actress, deals sympathetically with the lives of the three Wyndham sisters, Mary, Madeline (known as Mananai) and Pamela, born into a family of immense wealth and privilege in late Victorian Britain. Surrounded by artists and politicians they enjoyed a childhood that was both stimulating and full of freedom, where guests invited to their Wiltshire home, Clouds, – ‘a palace of weekending,’ – were offered masseuses for ‘Swedish rubbing’, garden gymnastics classes or golf as well as a spiritualist working in a darkened room. The Wyndhams and their extended family are compulsively fascinating and Renton has confidently grasped this complicated story telling it as a gripping narrative. She is excellent at setting the personal events within a larger political or social context. On February 14, 1895 Mary, Lady Elcho, (or Melcho, as she called herself), told Wilfrid Blunt that following a desert dalliance she is pregnant with his child. The same day Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest premiered in London with the devastating chain of events that ensued as Wilde, accused of being a Somdomite (sic), sued for libel.
Mary, the leader of the clan, patiently tolerates her husband Hugo’s mistresses, even allowing them to move in, and wrote sweetly to Hugo when he was in his early forties that ‘it’s dreadful for you having nothing to do.’ Yet, when she tells him that the child she is expecting is Blunt’s, Hugo warns her that although he will not divorce her nor will he ever love the child. It is easy to see why Mary is powerless to stand up to her husband at a time when divorce wrought havoc on a woman’s life. But, as Renton points out, these women, ‘at the heartland of power,’ were not entirely without influence – Mary was the long standing companion of Arthur Balfour and Pamela of Edward Grey, whom she eventually married. They were the intimate confidantes of men in the upper echelons of the British political establishment, men who led Britain into war.
“Looking back it is incredible, near impossible, that women of this generation and class watched their sons being sacrificed in a war governed by their husbands and lovers without ever once breaking faith. Pamela and Mary were two of these women. Yet for different reasons they did not.” In her own published works after the war Pamela even maintained that the conflict which had killed her young son, Bim, had been glorious. “War…meant for Bim Romance,” she wrote. “He had been playing at it, and dreaming of it, and writing about it…now it was his, and it brought him freedom, and self-expression, and joy.’
Recognising his daughters’ beauty – and perhaps the fleeting nature of time – Percy commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint the trio in 1900, thus immortalising them in their dreamy white dresses as The Three Graces in a painting which decorates the cover of the book and which is now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. These women were not only beautiful they and their circle were exceptionally gifted and historians must be grateful for their habit of constantly writing letters, journals and memoirs. But they were short on humour, which might have helped them deal with life’s tragedies and vicissitudes, and long on introspection.
Pamela once proposed, with some seriousness, the introduction of a national holiday of grief “an annual two day celebration of being really, thoroughly, impossibly, cruelly unhappy.” Percy Wyndham, worried when Pamela wanted to marry Harry Cust, tried to explain his concerns to his daughter. He wrote that he believed that the world was divided into two camps, the mad and the sane, who were their keepers. He believed that he, his wife Madeline and Pamela were undoubtedly mad. What worried him was that Cust appeared to be perfectly sane and was playing with Pamela who was trapped like a fly in his web. Percy claimed that Mananai, his middle daughter, was neither mad nor sane, which perhaps explains why she was the only daughter to have a happy marriage (to Charles Adeane). Or was she simply lucky since, having only daughters, she could lose no sons in the war?
Anne Sebba is writing about Paris from 1939-49 through Women’s Eyes