Selina Hastings

House of memories

Selina Hastings recalls her visit in 1989 to Lady Beauchamp, mistress of Madresfield

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Selina Hastings recalls her visit in 1989 to Lady Beauchamp, mistress of Madresfield

Madresfield: the name is now almost as lustrous with literary association as Little Gidding or Adlestrop. To the admirers of Evelyn Waugh, Madresfield is hallowed ground: ‘It’s where Waugh stayed, you know, when he was writing Brideshead Revisited. In fact Madresfield is Brideshead, and the Lygon family is the absolute model for the Flytes, for Sebastian and Bridie and Julia and so on. I mean, look at Lord Marchmain living in exile abroad with his mistress: exactly the same as Lord Beauchamp — only it wasn’t a mistress in his case, of course.’

Well, yes and no. Mad World by Paula Byrne, reviewed last week, has further disentangled truth from fiction. It is true that Lord Beauchamp, married to the sister of that bad bully, Bendor, Duke of Westminster, was run out of the country by his powerful brother-in-law for homosexuality. It is also true that, like Lord Marchmain, Lord Beauchamp spent most of the rest of his life abroad, returning to Madresfield, like Marchmain to Brideshead, for only the last two years of his life. But unlike Lord Marchmain, he made no deathbed reconciliation with the Catholic Church; for although the chapel at Madresfield does feature famously in Brideshead, the Lygons were never Catholic, and nor did Waugh stay at Madresfield while writing the book.

In the novel, Bridie appals his family by marrying Beryl Muspratt, a stout widow with three children from Falmouth. Lord Elmley, before he succeeded to the earldom, also married a widow with a child. But no Mrs Muspratt she.

When I visited Countess Beauchamp in 1989, who had been mistress of Madresfield for 50 years, she was still, at 94, slender, beautifully dressed, expertly made-up and strikingly pretty. Her nails were varnished a deep red, and on the day we met she was wearing a linen dress by Hardy Amies, a dress whose strong cornflower blue matched the strong cornflower blue of her eyes. She smoked a large number of small cigars, and talked with a melodious Scandinavian lilt.

For Else (known as ‘Mona’) Beauchamp was Danish. She was married first and very young to a millionaire property developer, the grandson of an Admiral. With this first husband, Direktor C. P. Dornonville de la Cour, by whom she had a daughter, she lived in Copenhagen, the city where she was born and in which she was brought up by her grandmother, her mother having abdicated all parental responsibility when her husband left her early on in the marriage. It was the Direktor’s custom to celebrate his birthday every February at a dinner at the famous Paris restaurant, Larue; and it was after one of these birthday dinners that he died of a stroke in their hotel bedroom, leaving his young widow to take his body back by train to Denmark.

Several years after this, in 1936, Else married William Elmley, eldest son of the seventh Earl Beauchamp and nearly ten years her junior. They met on the platform at Worcester station. Her friend Lady Carlisle (later the wife of Walter Monckton), with whom Mona had been staying in London, had taken her to spend the weekend with some people called Lygon near Malvern in Worcestershire. The head of the Lygon family, Mona knew, was called Beauchamp, but she failed to realise that the Lord Elmley to whom she was introduced at the station was any connection — until they went into dinner and she saw him take his place at the head of the table. After dinner Lord Elmley invited this very pretty, very chic young woman to sit beside him on the sofa by the window in the drawing-room and play backgammon. They played till really rather late. And quite soon after that, after a few dinners in London and so on, they were married.

There was no question at that time of living at Madresfield. Elmley’s father was in Paris in an exile forced on him by the Duke of Westminster, who claimed to be outraged by what he had heard of his brother-in-law Beauchamp’s homosexual behaviour. While the head of the family lived in comfortable, if humiliating circumstances abroad, the four daughters had the run of the house, fully staffed and amply funded. They had their own bank accounts; they could spend as they pleased. ‘There were some pretty wild parties, I can assure you.’ Lady Beauchamp was entirely uninterested in the Brideshead legend, and indeed in any family association with Evelyn Waugh, whom she may or may not have met before her marriage; she thought perhaps she had once, but if so he had made little impression, he had been a friend of her sisters-in-law, and there had been so many people staying always. Indeed it would have been hard to believe that this soignée person, so immaculate in manner, so courteous and correct, would have chosen to take much part in the eccentric nursery games of Blondie and Co. and the diabolic, iconoclastic Waugh.

Meanwhile, Lord Elmley pursued a political career in London and in his east coast constituency, commuting between a converted lighthouse in Norfolk and a flat in Hyde Park Gate. Relations between Elmley and the rest of the family were not warm: he had little in common with his sisters, none of whom were interested in either politics or backgammon, and he refused after the scandal to have anything to do with his father. But this Mona had been able to rectify. Having met her father-in-law in Paris, she was charmed by him and persuaded her husband to a rapprochement. ‘He was a charming man. He was really what you call bisexual. And if he’d had a very, you know, sexy wife, he would not have been homosexual. Oh but she was very, very DOLL. Pretty perhaps when she was young — but so DOLL.’

Lord Beauchamp died in 1938; Elmley succeeded; and the sisters moved out of Madresfield. Until the war the new Lord Beauchamp continued with his political interests in the House of Lords; he sat on a number of committees (‘Oh, I don’t remember committees for what. Just committees’); he played backgammon; and he was passionate about anything to do with trains. Mona did her share of good works (awarded the MBE) and played bridge. Indeed bridge is one of the great interests of her life. She kept score in a little leather-bound notebook with her initials embedded in diamonds. Several times she asked me whether I played. ‘No?’ A blue look of disbelief. ‘You do not play bridge? Not at all? Then’ — a sweet smile — ‘I am afraid you are a social failure.’

At the outbreak of war Lord Beauchamp enrolled in the Ordinance Corps and was stationed at Didcot, where his wife joined him every weekend. In 1945 he was ordered to Italy, but had got only as far as France when the war stopped.

Madresfield, too, escaped unscathed. The house was requisitioned for the use of the royal family, should it ever have become necessary for them to leave London. ‘It was very difficult. Everybody was so curious. They asked me all the time questions about it. Why are you all alone in that big house, with your 54 bedrooms? So first I tell them it was going to be a convalescent home. But then the army, they made big defences here. So I said, you mustn’t say to anyone, but the treasures from the Tower of London are coming.’ In fact the royal evacuees never turned up, but all was kept in readiness for their arrival, two bedrooms for the little princesses, one in pink, one in blue, with a room for Lady Beauchamp permanently booked at a hotel in Malvern in case the King and Queen should choose to accompany their daughters.

Madresfield was an appropriate choice for a royal bolt-hole: well protected from marauding Germans by a double moat, it is grand, it is big (162 rooms), and it is brim-ful of some of the most priceless art-treasures still in private hands. This comes as a surprise, as one’s impression of the Lygon finances, again from the Waugh letter s, is one of genteel poverty: Lady Sibell living thriftily in Gloucestershire, Lady Mary’s husband drinking his way through her small income and Lady Dorothy being reduced to working as a governess for a family in Greece. But they, of course, are girls. The Earls Beauchamp were very rich. Both Lady Beauchamp’s husbands were millionaires. The fabulous collection of pictures and furniture are in perfect condition: the Holbeins and Bronzinos, the tapestries, the cases of Limoges, of enamelled snuff-boxes and diamond-framed miniatures, the Buhl furniture from Versailles.

Her husband died in 1980 and Mona continued at Madresfield alone. Very occasionally the large and lovely garden was opened to the public to raise money for the village church. The house never. ‘All the time all sorts of people write and ask to see the house, and my answer is always the same.’ ‘What is your answer?’ ‘No.’ Once a year at Christmas the local vicar takes a service in the family chapel, where Lady Beauchamp went most days, just for a few minutes, to say her prayers. When in London during the week, where she was driven in a powder-blue Rolls Royce, she would sometimes look into the church at the bottom of Sloane Street to communicate with her creator.

In the old days the Lygon town house was a many-storeyed mansion in Belgrave Square. This is now the Ghanaian High Commission, although its spacious stable block in Halkin Place has been retained and converted into a six-bedroom ‘pied-à-terre’. ‘The original house was much too big, so I asked the Grosvenor Estate if I could convert it into flats. They said I could not, because they did not wish undesirables living there.’ A deep inhalation on the little cigar. ‘So I sold it to the Ghanaian Government.’ Another sweet smile.

Lady Beauchamp’s niece, Lady Rosalind Morrison now lives at Madresfield.