Those Wild Wyndhams
Three Sisters at the Heart of Power
The three dazzlingly beautiful, wildly rich Wyndham sisters, part of the four hundred families that made up Britain's ruling class, at the center of cultural and political life in late-Victorian/Edwardian Britain. Here are their complex, idiosyncratic lives; their opulent, privileged world; their romantic, roiling age.
They were confidantes to British prime ministers, poets, writers, and artists, their lives entwined with the most celebrated and scandalous figures of the day, from Oscar Wilde to Henry James. They were the lovers of great men--or men of great prominence...Mary Wyndham, wilder than her wild brothers; lover of Wilfrid Blunt, confidante of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (the Balfour Declaration); married to Hugo, Lord Elcho; later the Countess of Wemyss...Madeline Adeane, the quietest and happiest of the three...and Pamela, spoiled, beautiful, of the three, possesser of the true talent, wife of the Foreign Secretary Edward Grey (later Viscount Grey), who took Britain into the First World War.
They lived in a world of luxurious excess, a world of splendor at 44 Belgrave Square, and later at the even more vast Clouds, the exquisite Wiltshire house on 4,000 acres, the "house of the age," designed, in 1876, by the visionary architect, Philip Webb; the model for Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton.
They were bred with the pride of the Plantagenets and raised with a fierce belief that their family was exceptional. They avoided the norm at all costs and led the way to a blending of aristocracy and art. Their group came to be called The Souls, whose members from 1885 to the 1920s included the most distinguished politicians, artists, and thinkers of their time.
In Those Wild Wyndhams, Claudia Renton gives us a dazzling portrait of one of England's grandest, noblest families. Renton captures, with nuance and depth, their complex wrangling between head and heart, and the tragedy at the center of all their lives as the privilege and bliss of the Victorian age gave way to the Edwardian era, the Great War, and the passing of an opulent world.
Attorney Renton's thorough, if less than fully captivating, biography of three high-society sisters who were part of the British cultural and political elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provides a portrait of the aristocratic intelligentsia in Victorian and early Edwardian England. Mary (1862 1937), Madeline (1869 1941), and Pamela Wyndham (1871 1928) come across as less vapid, more intellectual proto-Kardashians who were known mostly for being known. Daughters of a conservative politician, the sisters were immortalized in a John Singer Sargent painting and were prominent members of a circle of socially and politically influential friends dubbed the "Souls." They served as informal confidantes for their husbands and rumored lovers, including Mary's close "Soul" friend, Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, raising the possibility that they had influence on public policy. By the time they are middle-aged, the Wyndhams' distraught letters reveal their devastation after WWI killed most of their sons and ended their prewar way of life. Renton uses a light, almost gossipy tone in describing the Souls' early games of wit and petty squabbles, and pulls no punches in describing Pamela's literal carpet-biting tantrums or Mary's coldness toward her progeny. Drawing on an impressive array of family and acquaintance diaries, journals, and letters, Renton attempts to flesh out the Wyndhams to explain both public fascination with them and also their hand in creating pre WWI British culture, but the famed Wyndham charisma doesn't quite shine through. This tale of the witty, sparkling privileged set may appeal most to fans of Downton Abbey.