One of the books I checked out of the Waterbury library was The Marlborough House Set, by Anita Leslie, a young second cousin of Winston Churchill and therefore an immediate descendant of the Victorian society about which she wrote so amusingly.
Each chapter contains a vignette of a famous member of, or a famous scandal concerning, the social group that surrounded Marlborough House, the home of Bertie, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, oldest son of Queen Victoria. Patsy, as we have already heard, was part of this crowd, as was many another well-known member of high society. Names like Lillie Langtry, Lord Charles Beresford, Moreton Frewen (discoverer of the impoverished but truly beautiful Lillie), and Jennie Jerome Churchill, Winston’s famously beautiful American mother who married the son of a duke, float through the pages like references in a society column. While nearly all these names have long since been lost to the annals of time, known only to a few academics, they were all very well known in their day, and Anita, born in 1914, was well aware of them all as she was growing up. Indeed, many were still alive when she was a child, and all were great friends of her grandmother, Lady Leonie Leslie, sister to Winston’s mom Jennie and a central figure in that society.
But as I read about the mostly absurd foibles and follies of these ever-so-spoiled lords and ladies, my head spinning with unfamiliar names, a peculiar thing began to happen.
Starting the very first evening, I began having wildly vivid dreams. Names from Anita Leslie’s book kept running through them, filled with unfamiliar scenarios about which I had read nothing. Charlie Beresford, smoking cigars, laughing uproariously and flirting madly with me despite a vast age difference; me, fighting off my teenaged crush on him, knowing how absurd it was even at that young age. Moreton Frewen appearing in the background, his name sounding like a funny rhyme I couldn’t get out my head. Lillie Langtry’s daughter, about whom I had read nothing, riding beside me on a train; somehow I knew I was a young matron escorting her to France at the behest of Bertie, who adored her mother, his former mistress. An extravagant dinner party, with me aged 18 or so, laughing shyly but delightedly at the famed wit of James Whistler, the artist, who flirted with me charmingly.
Indeed, these names all sounded extremely familiar as I read them – especially some of the more resonant ones, like Moreton Frewen, Lord Charles Beresford and Hwfa Williams. The odder the name, the more likely it was to follow me through my days, ringing in my head. Bertie appeared frequently in these dreams as well. I had never read about any of these people before – yet the names all nudged at me like déjà vu, completely recognizable for no reason at all.
I finally reached a chapter concerning one of the most famous and wealthiest beauties of all, Daisy, the Countess of Warwick. Her picture was so lovely I could not take my eyes off her. Unlike a great many other so-called beauties, Daisy was actually beautiful by the standards of any time, even in the old photographs that normally rendered everyone stiff and unremarkable. As I read about this amazing woman, I was wholly entranced. She was lovely, wealthy in her own right beyond all imagination, a superb horsewoman, and kindhearted in the extreme. Even Queen Victoria fell under her spell and tried to marry off her younger son Leopold to Daisy, thinking that would be a nice change of pace from the endless parade of impoverished German royals who had been matched with the older children.
As I read the stories about Daisy, I wondered if I at last had found someone about whom I could genuinely say I felt a past life connection. I adored this unknown, long-dead woman with a passion that could hardly have been elicited by a brief biography, no matter how beautifully written. Just gazing upon her image inspired a devotion that could not be expressed.
I put down the book mid-chapter, called away by my child-rearing and homemaking responsibilities. Peg happened to phone me that evening, so I shared my feelings about Daisy. Intrigued, Peg reached out to Ursula after we hung up, then called me back in excitement:
“Ursula says you were indeed dear friends, and she says you will read about yourself tomorrow.”
As always, I took this with a huge grain of salt – but then something remarkable happened.
The next afternoon I settled down to continue reading the chapter on Daisy. Two pages later, I caught my breath – for in a letter quoted by the author, Daisy mentions she is writing from Paris, having gone there to purchase some gowns with her friends Gladys, Georgie andRachel! Just as Ursula had predicted!
My excitement was huge for about ten seconds – until I realized that the author, Anita Leslie, apparently did not know who Rachel was, or hadn’t bothered to do the necessary research to find out. She identified the other two – Gladys, Marchioness of Ripon, and Georgiana, Countess Howe, one of Winston’s younger aunts. But Rachel was left anonymous, and I was left enormously frustrated.
It was at this point that I decided Rachel was likely a non-entity, someone who had no real place in this world Peg had insisted was ours together. After all, if Anita Leslie didn’t know who she was, how important or rich could she be? I began to doubt I could ever learn more.
I could not have been more wrong – but I needed Al Gore to “invent” the internet, first.