Good Reading : March 2010
52 goodreading ı MARCH 2010 BOOKBITE Madresfield had so many staircases that if the children heard their mother coming up one of them they ‘could be sure to go down another.’ working deftly with weights and scales, shovels and canisters, paper and string: 'Always from my earliest memories I delighted in watching things well done.' Years later, when his Oxford friend Henry Yorke took him to his family's factory in Bir mingham, he was able to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the industrial plant, recording in his diary how impressed he was by the 'manual dexterity of the workers ... The brass casting peculiarly beautiful: green molten metal from a red cauldron.' This is not to say that he was drawn to the white heat of a technological future. The manual dexterity of those workers was, he said, 'nothing in the least like mass labour or mechanisation'. Rather, it was 'pure arts and crafts'. His delight in watching things well done was bound up with a sense of custom and tradition. As he admits in A Little Learning, he was in love with the past. He longed for the loan of a Time Machine. Not to take him to the future ('dreariest of prospects'), in the manner of H G Wells, whose The Time Machine was published just a few years before he was bor n, but rather 'to hover gently back through the centuries'.To go back into the past 'would be the most exquisite pleasure of which I can conceive'. If the adult Evelyn had travelled on his Time Machine back to the childhood of one of the aristocrats who would become his Oxford contemporaries, he would have found -- and been pleased to find -- that little had altered over the years. Hugh Lygon and his siblings were typical products of a system that had endured for generations. For the boys, prep school, Eton and Oxford; for the girls, very little in the way of for mal education -- a gover ness who taught in the schoolroom at home and the use of a well-stocked library were deemed to suffice. Hugh was the second son of William Lygon, the seventh Earl Beauchamp. His early childhood was as far removed from Evelyn's middle-class background as could be imagined: a heady cocktail of aristocracy, eccentricity and piety. Evelyn was effectively an only child once Alec went away to school; Hugh was one of seven.The Lygon family consisted of William, known from his birth in 1903 as Lord Elmley, Hugh (bor n 1904), Lettice (1906), Sibell (1907), Mary (1910), Dorothy (1912) and Richard (1916).They divided their time between Madresfield Court, their ancestral home nestling beneath the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, Halkyn House, their town residence in Belgrave Square (London's smartest address), and Walmer Castle -- which genuinely was an enormous castle in Kent, the earl's official residence in his capacity as holder of the ancient office of Warden of the Cinque Ports.The family and their immediate entourage moved between houses in their own private train. In the early days of the railway, Madresfield Court had its own station. At the time of the 1911 census, shortly before Elmley and Hugh went off to board at prep school, the household at Madresfield included a butler, a valet, three footmen, two hallboys, a housekeeper, five housemaids, a nurse, three nursery maids, a cook and four kitchen maids. A coachman and two grooms lived in the stables, while a skeleton staff of four was retained at Halkyn House. The family were very devout and when at Madresfield they all attended Anglo- Catholic services twice a day in the chapel. All the staff had to attend too, men on the right and maids on the left, with the family in front. High Church rituals were strictly observed: the candle on the right of the altar would always be lit before the one on the left. Each child had a leather-bound prayer book with their name on it, a flower emblem engraved in gold and a loving inscription from their father. When they were at their London home, the Lygons would cross the city every Sunday to their favourite church in Primrose Hill. Rather surprisingly, they travelled by bus and the newly opened underground railway; Lord Beauchamp in top hat and morning coat, Lady Beauchamp in satin and fur bedecked with jewels. The earl considered taxies an extravagance and thought that Sundays should be a day of rest for cars as well as horses. The Lygon children disliked their overbearing, pious mother. Lady Beauchamp always insisted on hiring a nanny who had a neat parting precisely in the middle of her head because this reminded her of the Madonna in Renaissance paintings. She instructed the children personally in religious education. One of her daughters described her mother as 'very odd, a religious zealot'.Within the family, she was nicknamed 'Tomo', because her motto was 'Tidiness, Order, Method and Organisation'. Lady Sibell, the longest- lived of the siblings, recalled that this mantra was 'the secret of the house and she once made me write it out a hundred times'. She also remembered her mother saying: 'I'm right because I'm always right and anyone who says I'm wrong is mad and wicked.' Madresfield had so many staircases that if the children heard their mother coming up one of them they 'could be sure to go down another'. Each child found him or herself displaced from the countess' special affections when a new baby ar rived. 'I had quite a long innings,' said Sibell, 'because she had a miscarriage in 1908.' The children were encouraged to be hardy and robust, to take regular outdoor exercise. The three boys were taught boxing and lawn tennis. Hunting was encouraged for the girls (side-saddle of course) as well as the boys. Sibell was put on a horse at the age of two and grew up to become a Master of Foxhounds. When riding out, the children were always accompanied by a groom dressed in black, with polished silver buttons and a black silk top hat. They swam regularly both at Madresfield, where there was an outdoor pool, and at Walmer Castle, which was by the sea.The water in the Madresfield pool was never changed, so must have been somewhat stagnant. Rather than being taught to swim, the children were thrown in at the deep end and told to make movements.When the ladies had departed from a swimming party, Lord Beauchamp would announce that 'Gentlemen may lower their costumes.'The children loved Madresfield but heartily disliked Walmer Castle, where their mother forced them to swim in the freezing sea. Sibell's birthday was in October. 'Tomo' asked her what she would like to choose as a birthday treat. 'Not to bathe today' was Sibell's answer. The countess replied: 'For that you will go in twice.'When the girl was stung by a jellyfish, 'Mother's cure for that was to fill a bucket with jellyfish and throw them at me.' Apart from God, the Countess Beauchamp's great passion in life was food.