Ettie Desborough was a glittering Edwardian hostess, gathering powerful men and lovestruck young admirers into her orbit by (as one contemporary put it) “the magnetic charm of fearless flattery”; she lived in and almost exemplified “The Last Age of Privilege”.
She belonged to the class that looked down on bathrooms as common, since one should have enough servants to carry hot water to every bedroom; she expected housemaids to rise at 1.30am to stoke fires; she considered it “fast” to reverse in a waltz; and she could spot the political affiliations of other grandees by their tribal drawls. (The “Devonshire House” pronunciation of “cucumber” was “cowcumber”, and “bracelet” became “brasslet”.)
The epistolary and conversational style of these grandees is now almost as alien as their accents: Edwardian ladies exclaimed, underlined, flirted, and gushed. Davenport-Hines, who has a telling eye for detail, relates how the Desborough family butler, who served them from 1875 to 1943, was once asked to send a telegram accepting an invitation, and faithfully reproduced the family style: “Yes how perfectly wonderful love love love.” The recipient, however, was an official of the Thames Conservancy Board.
It was a life spent, as Violet Bonham Carter said, “in the loveliest country houses in England – Wilton – Wrest – Stanway – Panshanger – (what visions those names conjure up to those who knew them, of grey and golden stone, of green lawns in the shade of great trees!)”. But “Et in arcadia ego”: and Ettie’s earliest memory prophetically mingled sweetmeats and grief.
She was born in 1867; her mother died when she was just 16 months old; and her father, Julian Fane, broke down and died 18 months later. Ettie Fane, not yet three, was old enough to remember sitting on the floor with her baby brother, surrounded by weeping adults and “tasting chocolate for the first time.” The little orphans were shunted between the beautiful houses of their grandmothers, who were both dowager duchesses: by the time Ettie was 13, both beloved grandmothers and her baby brother were dead. By the time she was 20 she had also lost the aunt who cared for her most, and the uncle who was most nearly a father: the aunt had died broken-hearted after the death of her eldest son, and the uncle broken-hearted at the death of his sister.
Ettie learnt early that grief can kill. She had herself inherited the depressive “lassitude” of the Cowper family, and her life became a formidable fight of sheer willpower against the “morbid” temptations of despair. Her iron determination to make the best of things sometimes made her seem artificial or hard to outsiders: Davenport-Hines’s sympathetic admiration for his heroine is all the more persuasive since he recognises the point of some of the criticisms levelled against her. This is no hagiography, but a fine account of a form of Christian courage peculiarly of its era. Ettie’s “stubborn gospel of joy” would be tested to its utmost in and after the First World War.
Ettie Fane found happiness partly though her marriage – although this relationship, too, is very much of its time, and class. As a beautiful heiress, she attracted many suitors, or “spangles”, but eventually settled on Willie Grenfell (later Lord Desborough). Her cousin Mabell, newly married herself (“one’s honeymoon is chiefly passed in .?.?. feeling dreadfully ill,” she reassuringly told Ettie. “I was nearly frightened to death and suffered tortures !!”), offered the benefits of her wisdom: “If you do not absolutely hate him I should marry him I think .?.?. he may be a little dull, but after all, what a comfort it is to be cleverer than one’s husband.”
Ettie found her most passionate fulfilment in motherhood. This may partly have been, as Davenport-Hines suggests, because children satisfied “her strong need to be adored, admired and dominant”; but she passionately adored them back, particularly her “dear boys, with their straight sunny eyes, who walk so happily & healthily in their bright lives”.
All three of her “golden boys” were killed. Two died in the war. The eldest, Julian, was wounded in the head by a splinter shell near Ypres in May 1915. He took 13 days to die of septicaemia; his parents were at his hospital bed. “He always seemed radiantly happy,” reported his mother, “and he never saw any of the people he loved look sad.” Self-delusion? Maybe; but also a truly heroic strategy for coping with the unbearable.
Only months later, her second son, Billy, was killed in a futile and misconceived attack, “one of the worst of the many blunders of the war”. Ettie could not and did not allow herself to believe that the lives of her sons had been wasted. In celebration (the only way she could allow herself to mourn) she commemorated Julian and Billy with the publication of Pages from a Family Journal, portraying them as forever young, brave and gay.
Davenport-Hines adds proper notes of balance to this desperate maternal idealisation: the faintly sour remarks of their Eton housemaster, and those of Lytton Strachey, wondering whether there was really anything special in the lives of ex-undergraduates who had been keen on blood sports. Yet these spots of tarnish on the golden image make Ettie’s account all the more moving: these were real boys, who certainly adored their mother, but also, in ordinary teenage fashion, had begun to find her adoration stifling. Poor Ettie, even she confessed to a “bankruptcy of courage” at the prospect of her last son, Ivo, going off to war. A certain amount of string-pulling seems to have kept him from the front, only, soon after the war, to die in a car crash. He too took 13 days to die in hospital. This time, his mother could not even cling to the consolation that he was dying for a noble cause.
Courage, like corsetry, has its fashions; and Ettie Desborough’s version, whale-boned in Christian faith and privilege, may seem thoroughly outdated. Davenport-Hines’ excellent biography, which frequently moved me to tears, resurrects her “dauntless spirit” – and her era – for modern readers.