Obituary: Lady Dorothy Heber-Percy

Article excerpt

LADY DOROTHY Heber-Percy owed her modest degree of fame to her friendship with Evelyn Waugh. When he said "I fell in love with a family", it was hers to which he referred and he put bits of some of them and their house into his most popular and famous novel, Brideshead Revisited.

She had been born in 1912 Lady Dorothy Lygon, fourth child of the rich, aristocratic and altogether grand seventh Earl of Beauchamp of Madresfield Court, in Worcestershire. Waugh had met two of her brothers at Oxford, the younger, Hugh, being charming, weak and already drinking rather a lot. Later their father was involved in a scandal. His homosexuality had never been a secret - the fingers of the footmen serving dinner were said to have been glittering with diamonds. His wife's resentful brother, Bendor, the second Duke of Westminster, constantly referred to him as "my bugger- in-law" and so forced the situation that he had to flee the country to avoid prosecution in 1931.

Although it was explained to her at great length, Lady Beauchamp never quite understood what all the trouble was about. She retired with her youngest boy, leaving the house to the other children, who therefore had an unusual degree of freedom. Waugh became a constant visitor and lifelong friend, particularly with the girls. He wrote them smutty, childlike letters full of private slang and jokes and gave them nicknames: Lady Mary, "Maimie" to others, was "Blondy"; Lady Dorothy, who had generally kept her nursery name of "Coote", became "Poll", "Little Poll" or "Pollen".

It was not long after his painful divorce and Waugh was happy at Madresfield. Years later, when his nostalgic book Brideshead was about to come out in 1945, he wrote to Lady Dorothy,

It's all about a family, whose father lives abroad, as it might be Boom [Beauchamp] - but it's not Boom - and a younger son, people will say he's like Hughie but you'll see he's not really Hughie - and there's a house as it might be Mad, but it isn't really Mad.

So in the same way, Lady Dorothy was not really the younger sister, Cordelia. Later still, Waugh's second wife, Laura, was to describe Lady Dorothy as "the nicest of all your friends".

Lady Mary, two years older, was a powerful, almost Wagnerian, blonde with many admirers. Lady Dorothy was plainer and quieter. When they signed joke names in a visitor's book Lady Mary wrote "Sporting Hostess" and Lady Dorothy "ADC to Sporting Hostess". In 1932 Waugh dedicated Black Mischief to them both.

When the Second World War came Lady Dorothy joined the Waafs and went to Italy, where she worked on photographic interpretation. Afterwards she farmed in Gloucestershire, rode keenly and was one of the last women in England to hunt side-saddle. She worked as social secretary to the British Ambassador in Athens and in 1956 went as a governess to Istanbul, where she slept under a table. After a spell on a Greek island she returned and put an advertisement in a magazine, "Woman wants work". Not as a direct result, she became an archivist for Christie's.

The visitor's book the sisters signed had been at Faringdon, then in Berkshire, now in Oxfordshire, home of the eccentric peer Gerald, 14th Baron Berners and his companion, Robert Heber-Percy. …