John Martin-Robinson

From Edwardian idyll to meetings with Nehru: the life of Lady Ursula D’Asbo

A review of The Girl with the Widow’s Peak, by Lady Ursula d’Abo, with a foreword by John Julius Norwich. A very English tale of 20th-century upper-class comings and goings

Ursula, photographed by Cecil Beaton on the eve of the second world war

This is the Real Thing, an evocative account of English upper-class life throughout the 20th century. It begins amidst the Edwardian feudal splendours of Belvoir Castle, where Ursula d’Abo spent much of her childhood with her beloved grandfather ‘Appi’. At the coronation of George VI she was a maid of honour to the Queen. During the second world war she worked with 2,000 women making bullets. Postwar life was hardly less varied and amazing, with an other-worldly stay in princely India, and meetings with Nehru. Married life at West Wratting Park and Kensington Square, two beautiful Georgian houses she restored, was followed in her widowhood by five years with Paul Getty at Sutton Place.

The most moving part, however, is her childhood and closeness to her father John, 9th Duke of Rutland. The inquisitive child’s-eye view is perfect. Not questioning but taking in everything with equanimity, from orchids and gold plate in the dining room to helping the whiskery pig-man feed swill to his squealing piglets.

She was an eldest child and her father’s favourite. She helped him with the painstaking restoration of the Rutlands’ other house, romantic Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. This was a schoolboy dream come true: he had spent his pocket money at Eton rescuing discarded oak furniture from farms and cottages in Derbyshire. Ursula shared her father’s love of beautiful old things. They melted down the ancient lead and used a baizeless billiard table to form new sheets. Together they picked flaking whitewash off the medieval murals in the chapel, she, a fearless child, perched on the highest scaffolding.

The outbreak of war smashed the idyll. Ursula describes the dramatic moment in the Great Hall at Haddon in August 1939 when her father said: ‘We shall never lunch round this table again; war has broken out.’

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