Magazine article The Spectator

Adventures of a Lost Soul

Magazine article The Spectator

Adventures of a Lost Soul

Article excerpt

ETTIE: THE INTIMATE LIFE AND DAUNTLESS SPIRIT OF LADY DESBOROUGH by Richard Davenport-Hines Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25, pp. 450, ISBN 9780297851745 £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

There was something not quite right about Lady Desborough. Richard Davenport-Hines, in this intelligent and well-written book, extols her charm, her wit, her courage, her vitality, her infinite capacity to convince any man that he was uniquely talented and the only person with whom she was concerned.

The roll-call of her conquests -- Balfour and Asquith, Churchill and Kitchener, Kipling and Siegfried Sassoon -- attests to her potent and widespread appeal. Beatrice Webb, a woman who might have been expected to deplore everything that Ettie Desborough stood for, paid tribute to her 'great organising capacity . . . iron will, excellent temper and methodical mind'.

And yet, there was a terrifying artificiality behind the highly polished veneer. She 'told enough white lies to ice a wedding cake', said Margot Asquith. 'That woman is more affected than all the Mitfords', was Oswald Mosley's judgment. She was rapaciously possessive, resentful when her sons showed interest in another woman. 'Ettie's determination to keep her eldest son in thraldom left him frustrated, angered and depressed', writes Davenport-Hines: 'Her possessiveness in 1908-10 is a dark blot, which sullies her self-image as a perfect mother.' Nor was it only her sons whom she wished to control.

Her enthralled interest in human beings, said Cynthia Asquith, was 'combined with both the power and the desire to dominate them'. The interest was genuine but it was at the same time solipsistic: however great the achievements of the men with whom she consorted, they existed only in relationship with her.

Things might have been different if she had been born into another generation and able to exercise her formidable energies in building her own career: she 'ought to be the head of a great institution', thought Beatrice Webb. Her childhood was in one sense easy -- aristocratic lineage, vast wealth -- yet in another was cruelly bleak. She was orphaned when still a small child and her beloved only brother died when she was seven. She was precociously intelligent as well as attractive, reading Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist by the age of six. (Jane Eyre led to one of her few setbacks. 'Look at this extraordinary little book which Lady Desborough says I ought to read', the Prince of Wales complained to Alan Lascelles. 'Have you heard of it?') She became a valued member of The Souls but, in spite of her natural affinity with that talented yet slightly precious group, married a hearty philistine, Willie Grenfell. …

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