Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Glitter and Cold

I’m holed up in bed with a cold today, just when the weather seems bright and turning to spring. I’ve nothing interesting prepared at the moment, but am enjoying the book I’m reading, so thought I would share bits with you.

These are from The Glitter and the Gold, an autobiography of American heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan.
She is writing about her life as the Duchess of Marlborough, Mistress of Blenheim Palace. (Bill and I visited once, but it wasn't open that day, sadly.) She married at the very young age of 19.

Seating guests at the table had to follow strict rule of rank and precedence:

When seated between two elderly noblemen who owed their rank to their ancestors rather than to any personal merit I found dinner interminably long and boring. Two soups, one hot and one cold, were served simultaneously. Then came two fish, again one hot and one cold, with accompanying sauces. I still remember my intense annoyance with a very greedy man who complained bitterly that both his favourite fish were being served and that he wished to eat both, so that I had to keep the service waiting while he consumed first the hot and then the cold, quite unperturbed at the delay he was causing. An entrée was succeeded by a meat dish. Sometimes a sorbet preceded the game, which in the shooting season was varied, comprising grouse, partridge, pheasant, duck, woodcock and snipe. In the summer, when there was no game, we had quails from Egypt, fattened in Europe, and ortolans from France, which cost a fortune. An elaborate sweet followed, succeeded by a hot savoury with which was drunk the port so comforting to English palates. The dinner ended with a succulent array of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, strawberries, raspberries, pears and grapes, all grouped in generous pyramids among the flowers that adorned the table.

Writing about the four day visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1897:

This visit was a tiring and anxious experience for me, since I was responsible for every detail connected with running the house and ordering the pleasures of my numerous guests. The number of changes of costume was in itself a waste of precious time. To begin with, even breakfast, which was served at 9.30 in the dining-room, demanded an elegant costume of velvet or silk. Having seen the men off to their sport, the ladies spent the morning round the fire reading the papers and gossiping. We next changed into tweeds to join the guns for luncheon, which was served in the High Lodge or in a tent. Afterwards we usually accompanied the guns and watched a drive or two before returning home. An elaborate tea gown was donned for tea, after which we played cards or listened to a Viennese band or to the organ until time to dress for dinner, when again we adorned ourselves in satin, or brocade, with a great display of jewels. All these changes necessitated a tremendous outlay, since one was not supposed to wear the same gown twice. That meant sixteen dresses for four days.

Winston Churchill, a member of the family, in fact born at Blenheim, was a cherished friend.

We had an Indian tent set up under the cedars on the lawn, where I used to sit with our guests. We always brought out The Times and The Morning Post and a book or two, but the papers were soon discarded for conversation. We talked so much more in those days than we do now (1953), when I find my guests stampeding for the bridge table as soon as they leave the dining-room. We talked morning, noon and night, but we also knew how to listen. There was so much to be discussed. Politics were interesting, but also were the latest novels of Henry James and of Edith Wharton – Americans who had the temerity to write of England and of the English. There were the plays of Bernard Shaw and Ibsen, the psychic phenomena of William James, and the social reforms of the Sidney Webbs and the Fabians. We talked endlessly, for the tempo of life was slow, gentle and easy; there was no radio to tune it up. Sometimes we played tennis or rowed on the lake, and in the afternoon the household played cricket on the lawn. The tea-table was set under the trees. It was a lovely sight, with masses of luscious apricots and peaches to adorn it. There were also pyramids of strawberries and raspberries; bowls brimful of Devonshire cream; pitchers of iced coffee; scones to be eaten with various jams, and cakes with sugared icing. No one dieted in those days and the still-room maid, who was responsible for the teas, was a popular person in the household.

I hope this creates lovely pictures in your mind as it does in mine. I'm only up to the coronation of King Edward in 1902, so there is still much to come. Not only are there two wars on the list, but Consuelo divorces Marlborough and is able to marry a man of her own choosing, Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, a Frenchman. They lived in France until the 2nd World War.

Wikipedia's entries are interesting reading as well, tying in various folk from Lilly Lantry to Camilla Parker-Bowles to Coco Chanel...

1 comment:

Pauline Wiles said...

Sorry to have been MIA for a few days. I was lucky enough to visit Blenheim last year (albeit in foul weather) and can well imagine the goings on you describe! The sixteen outfits for four days were just crazy!