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Story Notes:
The Dowager Countess of Gloria is visited by her great grand-daughter. They pass the time with some glimpses into the Countess' past.
“Oh, hello dear! How nice of you to come and visit! Do come in. Sit down. You do look very nice today, dear. I see you’ve inherited the Gloria sense of style. Your mother always dressed nicely. She took after me. You look very much like her, you know. Come and sit here with me and we’ll have a nice talk. Your mother tells me you did very well in your exams, dear, and you’ll be going to University next year. But St Andrews? Well, it is one of the ancient universities, I suppose, but why not Oxford? All the Glorias have gone to Oxford. Yes, I suppose we must all move with the times. Those photograph albums? Oh, old pictures, cuttings from the papers. Bring that one over “ no, not that one. The one with the white cover. I’ll show you some of the clothes I wore when I was young.”

. * .

1. Presentation at Court, 1947

“This dress was beautiful. Chiffon over taffeta, a lovely creamy shade of white. With honeysuckle embroidered around the neck and sleeves. I was presented to the King and Queen in that dress. My debut. We all waited for hours to go in, and then”! My dear, the nerves! Walking up to the King and Queen, curtseying, then backing away. Holding up your train so you didn’t trip over it. But then, afterwards, we went out to a heavenly cocktail party at Lady Rowanfield’s house. I danced with every boy in the room, I think. That was the night I met Theo, your great-grandfather. He danced with me twice. He was so handsome. Theo did something very secret in the War “ Air Force intelligence, that’s what the rumour was. He asked me to a tennis party. Vivienne Wescombe was so jealous “ she’d been trying to get him to dance with her all night!”

2. Tennis party, 1947

“Now, that’s me in my tennis frock! I was rather good at tennis, you know. I won the Senior Singles cup at my school. Mamma didn’t approve of hockey, which didn’t matter because I didn’t like it myself, but she did approve of tennis. She said a lady can play tennis and still be a lady. That’s me, and that’s Vivienne Wescombe “ we were at school together. She played hockey as well as tennis; she was very good at hockey but not so brilliant on the tennis court. I remember the day this photo was taken “ it was at one of Theo’s tennis parties. I beat him that day. I think he let me win.”

3. Engagement, 1948

“Oh, look: this cutting is from The Times! ‘The engagement is announced between Theodore, eldest son of the Earl and Countess of Gloria, and Helen, second daughter of Major Oswald Prentice and the Honourable Mrs Veronica Prentice, of Pangbourne, Berkshire.’ And here’s the picture that appeared in the Tatler! What a pity it’s in black and white. That dress! I loved the colour “ the palest of pale apple green. Silk organza, from France. All those pin-tucks! It was such a romantic dress. Aunt Lillian, my mother’s sister, told me it was bad luck to wear a green dress to my own engagement party. She was in quite a state about it. Silly old fool, I thought. Perhaps I should have listened. But life unfolds according to its own pattern. What happened had nothing to do with wearing a green dress.”

4. Bridesmaids’ party, 1949

“This one is rather fun! Mamma took this picture at an afternoon tea I had at home for my bridesmaids the week before the wedding. I had a new frock for the occasion. Rationing was still on: you needed coupons to buy clothes and material, but I did manage to have some nice new dresses, all the same. This one was crepe de chine, the most heavenly shade of pale lavender-grey, with pink and yellow roses. See this little ruched feature here at the front? And the skirt was a full circle! It swung so nicely when I walked. I loved this dress; I wore it for years. I think Margaret and Elizabeth were both born before I gave it away. And this is my older sister Caroline “ the dress she’s wearing was a very deep pink “ and my younger sister Nancy, in yellow “ and this is Vivienne Wescombe, and this is Phyllis Trelawney. It was a lovely afternoon … but something rather nasty happened toward the end. I was called out to the telephone, and when I went back into the room, the girls were all gossiping away in a tight bunch, keeping their voices very low. They stopped talking as soon as they saw me, and looked very embarrassed. Nancy told me later what they’d been saying. Phyllis, the disloyal minx, had been telling them some ghastly scandal she got from her cousin Teddy who was at Oxford with Theo. Some innuendo about Theo and his friend Gerald Fitzhenry. Caroline got very cross with her, and told her never to repeat the story again.”

5. Wedding, 1949

“And here I am in my wedding dress. It was a lovely occasion. The weather was divine on our wedding day, and all the guests dressed so nicely. I think Mamma would have preferred me to get married in the church at Pangbourne, but Theo and I both wanted to be married in London so we had the wedding at St Margaret’s, Westminster. Yes, it was a lovely dress. Silk satin, with a lace overlay. A beautiful shade of ivory-cream. You can’t see them in the picture, but there was a row of little satin-covered buttons running all the way down the back! I would have liked a longer train, but “ well, rationing, you know. And Theo looks so handsome in his morning suit, doesn’t he? The bridesmaids all wore pale blue moiré taffeta. And those sweet little wreaths of velvet rose-leaves in their hair “ just the colour of Theo’s eyes! I was so happy. I went into that marriage so sure that the future was going to be wonderful for us.”

6. Garden party at home, 1950

“These pictures were taken at a garden party at Castle Gloria. Theo’s father died suddenly the year after we were married, and my goodness, how fast things changed! No more than a fortnight after the funeral, his mother had shifted to the Dower Cottage and we’d moved into Castle Gloria. That photo shows some of the east wing “ see the pretty turrets on the corners? The Castle wasn’t in bad repair, but things were a little outdated. Pre-war plumbing, darling”! Well, Theo put that right straight away. He had all the plumbing re-done, all the bathroom fittings replaced. All the carpets. The kitchen fittings. He and his mother quarreled over it, I’m afraid to say, but what could she do? He was the Earl, and the house was his, and that was that. He liked his creature comforts, and he liked to impress our guests. This was our first garden party at Castle Gloria. All our friends were there. All the important County people. There’s Vivienne, in red. There are my sisters “ and that’s Caroline’s little girl “ your mother’s cousin Louise. Isn’t she pretty? And this is me, standing by the wisteria arbour. Don’t you love the wide collar on that dress? And the lovely narrow nipped-in waist? I was pregnant, would you believe it? Hadn’t started to show, of course, so I could still get into lovely slim clothes. And I loved the colour: that gorgeous shade of emerald green! I’m sure Aunt Lillian would have had something to say if she’d still been alive.”

7. Christening of the first child, 1951

“This is the day of your Auntie Margaret’s christening. See, she’s wearing the Gloria family’s christening gown. All the Earls’ children have worn that for their christening since 1832. I hadn’t quite got my figure back, but that deep diagonal fold in the jacket distracts the eye, and I can’t deny it: foundation garments do wonders. And that soft shade of beige was very flattering. Just right for a chilly day. That’s my mother, in the lilac suit; and Theo’s mother “ her dress was a lovely shade of dove grey. And there’s Theo; and his friend Gerald Fitzhenry; and Monty Carstairs, who was his Best Man; and our neighbor Rex Price. I think Theo was a little disappointed that Margaret wasn’t a boy. You know how these old families are, wanting an heir to the title. I told him it would be a boy next time. But of course, it wasn’t. It was your mother, dear.”

8. Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, 1953

“Ah, yes. The Coronation. We were both supposed to attend at the Abbey, of course. As a Peer of the Realm, Theo had to swear his Oath of Fealty and witness the crowning of the monarch. If you look closely … yes, see there! There’s Theo, in his robes and coronet, along with the other Earls. I couldn’t go. I was expecting another baby, and I was so ill with morning sickness that I simply couldn’t move! There was no question of my getting into my finery and going to the Abbey. Of course I was devastated, but what could I do? I hadn’t been that sick with Margaret or Elizabeth. Theo took it as a sign that this time, it would be a boy. Of course, it wasn’t: it was Victoria. Here’s the designer’s sketch for the dress I was supposed to wear. Yes, very plain. But it was to go under the robes, you understand. I never wore it. I gave it away.”

9. Chelsea Flower Show, 1957

“You know, after three girls, I really started to think I’d never have a boy. It became a topic to be avoided at all costs: Theo and I didn’t speak about it anymore. I know he minded. His mother certainly minded. But what could we do? I honestly think it was the only reason”. Well, never mind. We avoided the topic. As we avoided other topics. Such as, why Theo needed to go on so many bachelor weekends with that wretched Gerald Fitzhenry. And why he needed to dine at his Club so often and stay overnight in London. Things were a little strained. But I mustn’t dwell on that. I should remember the positive side, which was that I could go to a lot of places I wanted to go to, and would never have persuaded Theo to go to in a thousand years. See, now: this is Caroline and me at the Chelsea Flower Show. I was expecting again, and it was still rather frowned on for women to go about in society when they were showing, but those divine swing coats covered all that up. Don’t you just adore the hat? Theo hated it.”

10. Dorian’s christening, 1957

“Of course, things improved for a while after Dorian was born. Theo was ecstatic. He had the son he wanted, the heir to pass his title on to. Dorian was such a lovely baby, so pretty: all pink and white and golden curls. He was a happy little soul, too. The girls adored him. We had this family portrait taken on the day of his christening. See, he’s wearing the Gloria christening gown, just as all the girls did. The girls look so pretty, dressed in their best dresses. And do you like my suit? Silk shantung, darling, so luxurious, and a divine shade of ice-blue. And Theo looked genuinely happy. He liked my suit, too. And my hat.

11. Ball at Castle Gloria, 1958

“After Dorian was born, we were able to entertain again, which suited Theo because he loved company and loved being the centre of attention. I liked it too “ it was nice to have adult company instead of being with the children all day long. This photo was taken the year after Dorian was born “ a Harvest Festival ball, everyone dressed up in autumn colours. There’s Vivienne and her husband. Nancy, looking lovely in brown velvet. My gown was bronze-coloured satin brocade. I’d got my figure back again by this time. How? Dieting and dancing, dear, dieting and dancing. And there’s … now what was his name? Donald? Dougal? He was the younger brother of someone Theo knew at Oxford. We saw quite a bit of him for a while.”

12. Summer at home, 1964

“Theo adored Dorian. I think he genuinely loved that child, regardless of any thoughts about Earldoms. He was so proud of him. I think he spoiled him a little. Whatever else I might have said about Theo over the years, he was a good father in many respects. He was generous with his children, and paid them more attention than some fathers did in those days. This photo was taken the summer Dorian turned seven. That was the summer he was first allowed to ride a pony. He was so pleased! Isn’t he sweet? Theo took this picture. I’m looking a bit uncomfortable holding the bridle because I didn’t want the wretched pony to dribble on my nice blue and white linen dress. Dorian was such a lovable child, but at about this age he started to develop a sly streak. He used to steal things. My jewellery. The girls’ little trinkets and treasures. Oh, we always got them back again, but he was so pleased with himself. And Theo”! Well, Theo was no help. He refused to punish the child. He’d laugh about it, and say it was the Gloria pirate ancestry showing through. I really think his attitude wasn’t in the child’s best interests. A responsible father would at least have reprimanded him.”

13. At home, 1964 “ 1970

“Ah, these were all taken during the 1960s. It was supposed to be a time of rebellion, or that’s what the magazines say today. I can’t say I noticed much rebellion amongst our crowd “ but then, the people we knew tended to be dependable people. Landed people. People with responsible City jobs. Academics and civil servants. Of course, there were Theo’s friends “ all those painters and poets and actors “ but they were harmless enough, I suppose. Apart from not knowing when to leave us to ourselves. Really, some of them rather overstayed their welcome, if you want to know my opinion, but Theo never seemed to think so. This photo was taken at one of Theo’s arty gatherings. When he got that crowd together, their talk bored me rigid, so I tended to leave them to it. This fellow in the Indian shirt was a poet of some kind; the blond one was an actor “ or so he said, he seemed to be out of work more often than not. The sinister-looking one with the black beard wrote novels or short stories or something. The rest of them “ I really couldn’t tell you. Theo loved them, though “ there seemed to be an endless string of them passing through. This one was a musician of some kind; he was always popping off to India or Morocco or some such place, learning about their traditional music. He brought me back a length of Indian silk after one of his trips, and I had it made into a dress. Yes, see: this is Caroline and me at the opera “ I’m wearing that very dress. Saffron yellow silk “ and see all the little mirrors around the hem? Rather fun, don’t you think?”

14. Separation, 1970

“Oh, now: I loved that dress! It was designed and made for me in Paris. So smart! The Peter Pan collar, the lace sleeves! I didn’t wear dark colours very often “ being so fair, I tended to choose soft colours “ but this dress looked so stylish. French navy, almost black! I had a matching hat that I liked to wear with it “ made of light-weight mesh, with a wide brim. I always liked to dress well. Not that Theo seemed to notice any more. In fact, if I’m honest, things were not good between us. He seemed to think of nothing but socializing with his arty crowd, and he was encouraging very bad behavior in Dorian. He let the boy mix too much with his arty friends; I thought they were a very bad influence on him. And Dorian was still pilfering, and Theo’s attitude only encouraged him. I was fed up. It was inevitable that we’d part. I think we’d got to the stage where we couldn’t have patched our marriage up if we’d wanted to. I don’t think Theo wanted to, and I was past caring. So I left. I took the girls with me. Dorian stayed with his father. I still don’t know to this day whether leaving him with Theo was the right thing to do. Theo’s influence wasn’t that healthy “ but the boy had stopped listening to me, and if I’d taken him with me he very likely would have turned into a juvenile delinquent. I took some comfort from the fact that he’d be away at school for a lot of the time; at least that would give him some discipline. Theo moved to Cornwall. I’d emphasized to my lawyer how important it was for Theo to provide amply for the girls. The divorce settlement didn’t leave him with much ready cash “ so he stopped the endless partying and socializing. Cornwall was too far away from London for a lot of his crowd, too. Which was no bad thing as far as Dorian’s welfare was concerned. Moving to Cornwall got him away from those effete young men Theo used to cultivate, and away from that odious man Rex Price. His influence was most undesirable. Perhaps, in the long run, going to live in Cornwall was good for Dorian.”

15. The Earl’s funeral, 1976

“I didn’t see Theo again for a long time. We communicated through our lawyers when we needed to communicate at all. He took an interest in the girls “ from a distance. He sent them letters, gifts at Christmas or birthdays. Dorian did well at school, then was admitted to Oxford. The last time I saw Theo alive, he looked dreadful. He’d become drawn, shrunken, terribly thin. Cancer. Inoperable. He was dead within months. Dorian inherited the title while he was still at Oxford. This cutting is from the local paper. The photograph was taken outside the church the day of the funeral. Margaret and her husband; Elizabeth on her own “ your father was at sea, he was still in the Navy. Victoria. Poor girl couldn’t stop crying. We all wore black, of course. I don’t think Theo would have liked this hat, either. Poor Theo. A wasted life, cut short.”

16. Garden party at Castle Gloria, 1979

“These were taken at a garden party at Castle Gloria. Dorian had invited at least a hundred people. All the County neighbours. People from London. Foreigners. You could hear conversations going on in every language under the sun! He really did travel more than was decent, but I suppose it was none of my business. This was the first time he’d invited me to the Castle since he’d bought it back from those awful, vulgar people Theo had sold it to. Dorian had done very well after Oxford, but I didn’t like to inquire too closely. I suspect a lot of it was stock market speculation and gambling. Rather vulgar, if so. Dorian took after his father in his choice of friends, too: there seemed to be a lot of actors and television people there. This one shows me talking to that woman from BBC television; she had on a very nice dress, lovely shade of pale sea-green. The invitation had called for casual dress, but I wanted to keep up appearances, so I wore Thai silk. And a hat. A lady should always wear a hat to a garden party. A lot of the guests seemed to be very flamboyant. I mean that they behaved in an affected manner and dressed in a way that drew attention to themselves, dear. Dorian, of course, was probably the worst of all in those respects. And he seemed to be surrounding himself with questionable people. He was turning Castle Gloria into some sort of Bohemian haven, as far as I could see. I wasn’t sure I quite liked it.”

. * .

“Oh dear, excuse me! Yawning like that “ not very ladylike of me. Looking at these old pictures has made me a little tired. Do you think that you can go and get me a nice cup of tea, dear? Then I shall have a nap. When one is ninety, one is entitled to have a nap in the daytime. If I’m already asleep when you bring the tea in, just put it on the side table.”


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