Routinely making decisions that have dangerous consequences, strong-willed aristocrat's daughter Celia Lytton sets in motion a series of events during World War I that have a particular impact on her family, a destitute woman, and others. 75,000 first printing.
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Penny Vincenzi is married with four children. She has been writing since she was nine-when she put together her own magazine called Stories-and has written for Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Her novels include Something Dangerous and Into Temptation, also to be published by Overlook.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Table of Contents
Part One - 1904 – 1914
Part Two - 1914 – 1918
Part Three - 1918 – 1920
ALSO BY THE SAME AUTHOR
ALSO BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Almost A Crime
An Outrageous Affair
An Absolute Scandal
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For Paul: with love. Not to mention huge appreciation for some particularly crucial structural advice.
As always, a long list of people without whom this book would not have happened. Probably top of the bill should go to my agent Desmond Elliott (no relation to the villain of the piece) for his encyclopaedian knowledge of publishing, after a wonderful lifetime in the business. Stories, anecdotes, facts and figures tumbled down the wires from his office to mine; the book would have been much the poorer without him.
I owe a big debt too to Rosemary Stark who gave me an extraordinarily insightful view of twin-ness, as did Jo Puccioni.
I would like to thank Martin Harvey for taking me round the Garrick Club and acquainting me so patiently with its history and its connection with publishing, and Ursula Lloyd who once more guided me through the complexities of medicine in the early part of the century, and Hugh Dickens for an immensely authoritative over-view of military matters.
For legal and other advice, I owe, as always, huge gratitude to Sue Stapely who either knows whatever I need to, or someone else who does; and to Mark Stephens who adds zest and originality to his fearsome knowledge of libel law and publishing.
I have delved into some particularly wonderful books for information: most notably Despatches from the Heart by Annette Tapert, In Society: The Brideshead Years by Nicholas Courtney, The Country House Remembered edited by Merlin Watterson, Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter by Diana Souhami and the marvelous Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves. Huge thanks to my four daughters Polly, Sophie, Emily and Claudia who continue to endure my self centered and panicky ramblings as publication draws nearer with kindness and sympathy, never indicating for a moment that they find (as they must do) the annual repetition of the drama rather tedious. I am and always will be immensely grateful to them. And to my husband Paul who has to endure even more of it, and (almost) never indicates it either...
I owe everybody a great deal. It has, as always, in retrospect anyway, been tremendous fun.
1904 – 1914
Celia stood at the altar, smiling into the face of her bridegroom and wondered if she was about to test his vow to cherish her in sickness and in health rather sooner than he might have imagined. She really did feel as if she was going to vomit: there and then, in front of the congregation, the vicar, the choir. This was truly the stuff of which nightmares were made. She closed her eyes briefly, took a very deep breath, swallowed; heard dimly through her swimmy clammy nausea the vicar saying, ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’, and somehow the fact that she had done it, managed this marriage, managed this day, that she was married to Oliver Lytton, whom she loved so much, and that no one could change anything now, made her feel better. She saw Oliver’s eyes on her, tender, but slightly anxious, having observed her faintness, and she managed to smile again before sinking gratefully on to her knees for the blessing.
Not an ideal condition for a bride to be in, almost three months’ pregnant; but then if she hadn’t been pregnant, her father would never have allowed her to marry Oliver anyway. It had been a fairly drastic measure; but it had worked. As she had known it would. And it had certainly been fun: she had enjoyed becoming pregnant a lot.
The blessing was over now; they were being ushered into the vestry to sign the register. She felt Oliver’s hand taking hers, and glanced over her shoulder at the group following them. There were her parents, her father fiercely stern, the old hypocrite: she’d grown up seeing pretty housemaid after pretty housemaid banished from the house, her mother, staunchly smiling, Oliver’s frail old father, leaning on his cane supported by his sister Margaret, and just behind them, Oliver’s two brothers, Robert rather stiff and formal and slightly portly, Jack, the youngest, absurdly handsome, with his brilliant blue eyes restlessly exploring the congregation for any pretty faces. Beyond them were the guests, admittedly rather few, just very close friends and family, and the people from the village and the estate, who of course wouldn’t have missed her being married for anything. She knew that in some ways her mother minded about that more than about anything else really, that it wasn’t a huge wedding like her sister Caroline’s, with three hundred guests at St Margaret’s Westminster, but a quiet affair in the village church. Well, she didn’t mind. She didn’t mind in the very least. She had married Oliver: she had got her way.
‘Of course you can’t marry him,’ her mother had said, ‘he has no money, no position, no house even, your father won’t hear of it.’
Her father did hear about it, about her wish to marry Oliver, because she made him listen; but he reiterated everything her mother had said.
‘Ridiculous. Throwing your life away. You want to marry properly, Celia, into your own class, someone who can keep you and support you in a reasonable way.’
She said she did not want to marry properly, she wanted to marry Oliver, because she loved him; that he had a brilliant future, that his father owned a successful publishing house in London which would be his one day.
‘Successful, nonsense,’ her father said, ‘if it was successful he wouldn’t be living in Hampstead would he? With nowhere in the country. No, darling,’ for he adored her, his youngest, a late flower in his life, ‘you find someone suitable and you can get married straight away. That’s what you really want, I know, a home and husband and babies; it’s natural, I wouldn’t dream of stopping you. But it’s got to be someone who’s right for you. This fellow can’t even ride a horse.’
Things had got much worse after that; she had shouted, raged, sworn she would never marry anyone else, and they had shouted and raged back at her, telling her she was being ridiculous, that she had no idea what she was talking about, that she clearly had no idea what marriage was about, that it was a serious matter, a considerable undertaking, not some absurd notion about love.
‘Very over-rated, love,’ her mother said briskly, ‘doesn’t last, Celia, not what you’re talking about. And when it’s gone, you need other things, believe me. Like a decent home to bring up your children in. Marriage is a business and it works best when both parties see it that way.’
Celia was just eighteen years old when she met Oliver Lytton: she had looked at him across the room at a luncheon party in London given by a rather bohemian friend of her sister’s and fallen helplessly in love with him, even before they had spoken a single word. Afterwards, trying to analyse that sensation, to explain it to herself, she could only feel she had been invaded by an intense emotion, taken hold of, shaken by it; she felt immediately changed, the focus of her life suddenly found. It was primarily an emotional reaction to him, a desire to be with him, close to him in every way, not mere physical attraction which she had experienced to some degree before; he was quite extraordinarily handsome, of course, tall and rather serious, indeed almost solemn-looking, with fair hair, blue eyes, and a glorious smile that entirely changed his face, bringing to it not just a softness, but a merriment, a sense of great joie de vivre.
But he was more than handsome, he was charming, beautifully mannered, clearly very intelligent, with a great deal more to talk about than most of the young men she had met. Indeed he talked about things she had never heard a young man speak of before, of books and literature, of plays and art exhibitions. He asked her if she had been to Florence and Paris and when she said she had, asked her then which galleries she had most enjoyed and admired. He also – which she found more engaging than any of the rest – had a way of treating her as if she were as clever and as well-read as he. Celia, who was of a generation and class of girls educated at home by governesses, was entirely charmed by this. She had been brought up in the only way her parents knew and recognised: to marry someone from her own social class, and to lead a life exactly the same as her mother’s, raising a family and running a household; from the moment she set eyes on Oliver Lytton, she knew this was not what she wanted.
She was the youngest daughter of a very old and socially impeccable family. The Beckenhams dated back to the sixteenth century, as her mother, the Countess of Beckenham, was fond of telling everyone; the family had a glorious and quite grand seventeenth century house and estate called Ashingham in Buckinghamshire, not far from Beaconsfield, and a very beautiful town house in Clarges Street, Mayfair. They were extremely rich and concerned only with running their estate, conserving their assets, and enjoying what was mostly a country life. Lord Beckenham ran the home farm, hunted and shot a great deal in the winter, and fished in the summer, Lady Beckenham socialised both in London and the country, rode, played cards, organised her staff, and – rather more reluctantly – saw to the upkeep of her extensive wardrobe. Books, like pictures, were things which covered the Beckenham walls and were appreciated for their value rather more than for their content; talk at their dinner table centred around their own lives, rather than around abstract matters such as art, literature and philosophy.
Confronted by a daughter who professed herself – after only three months’ short acquaintance – to be in love with someone who, by their standards, was not only a pauper, but almost as unfamiliar to them as a Zulu warrior, they were genuinely appalled and anxious for her.
Celia could see that they were entirely serious in their opposition; she supposed she could marry Oliver when she was twenty-one, but that was unimaginably far off, three years away. And so, staring into the darkness through her bedroom window late one night, her eyes sore with weeping, wondering what on earth she could do, she had suddenly found it: the solution. The breathtakingly, dazzlingly simple solution. She would become pregnant and then they would have to let her marry him. The more she thought about it, the more sensible it seemed. The only alternative was running away; but Oliver had rejected that sweetly but firmly.
‘It would cause too much anxiety, hurt too many people, my family as well as yours. I don’t want us to build our life together on other people’s unhappiness.’
His gentleness was only one of the many things she loved about him.
Just the same, she thought that night, he would not accede to this plan too easily. He would argue that pregnancy would also cause great distress; he would not see that they deserved it, her blind, insensitive, hypocritical parents: hardly models of marital virtue themselves, her father with the housemaids, her mother with her lover of many years. Her sister, Caroline had told her about him, the year before, at her own coming out ball at Ashingham. Caroline had had too much champagne and was standing with Celia between dances, looking across at their parents talking animatedly to one another. Celia had said impulsively how sweet it was that they were still so happy together, in spite of the housemaids, and Caroline had said that if they were, much of the credit should go to George Paget. George Paget and his rather plain wife, Vera, were old family friends; pressed to explain precisely what she meant, Caroline said that George had been her mother’s lover for over ten years. Half shocked, half fascinated, Celia begged to be told more, but Caroline laughed at her for being so innocent and launched herelf on to the dance floor with her husband’s best friend. But next day she had relented, remorseful at disillusioning her little sister, said she mustn’t worry about it, that it wasn’t important.
‘Mama will always keep the rules.’
‘What rules?’ Celia said.
‘Society’s rules,’ said Caroline, patiently reassuring. ‘Discretion, manners, those sorts of things. She would never leave Papa. To them marriage is unshakable. What they do, what all society does, is make marriage more pleasant, more interesting. Stronger, actually, I would say.’
‘And – would – would you make your marriage more pleasant in that way?’ Celia asked and Caroline laughed and said that at the moment, hers was fairly pleasant anyway.
‘But yes, I suppose I would. If Arthur became dull, or found pleasure of his own elsewhere. Don’t look so shocked, Celia, you really are an innocent aren’t you? I heard it said the other day that Mrs Keppel, you know, the king’s mistress, has turned adultery into an art form. That seems quite a nice achievement to me.’
Celia had still felt shocked, despite the reassurance. When she got married, she knew it would be for love and for life.
So – Oliver must not realise the full exte...
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