An elite family faces a vastly changing nation.
The three daughters of fabulously wealthy Percy Wyndham and his wife, Madeline, take center stage in Renton’s accomplished literary debut, a spirited and captivating history of the lives and loves of aristocrats in Victorian/Edwardian Britain. Drawing on letters, memoirs, histories, and abundant archival sources, the author creates a richly detailed tapestry featuring the three alluring Wyndham sisters: Mary (1862-1937), Madeline (1869-1941), and Pamela (1871-1928). They inhabited an opulent world. Among the family’s several residences was Clouds, an enormous sandstone-and-brick edifice boasting five reception rooms (the sky-lit central hall was two stories high), 25 bedrooms, two nurseries, and a separate wing for offices and bedrooms for the indoor staff, numbering around 30. At a time of social and economic upheaval, while other “landed elite” worried over maintaining their estates, “Clouds trumpeted to the world that the Wyndhams were founding a dynasty that would operate at the very heart of power.” It was a prime destination for clandestine political brokering, and an invitation to visit, Renton reveals, “was a prize indeed.” Madeline, in a flowing gown, smoking Turkish cigarettes, and festooned in scarves and bangles, was “a consummate hostess,” providing guests with masseuses, gymnastics classes, and “hand-bound copies of their favorite books at their bedsides.” Among those guests was a rarefied clique dubbed the Souls, “a group of very good, fiercely competitive friends, whether in romance, politics or friendship.” Extramarital romance flourished. Mary’s husband, a philanderer and gambler, flaunted his many mistresses. Mary’s liaisons included a relationship—not sexual, Renton maintains—with the prominent politician Arthur Balfour, who rose to become prime minister. Like so many aristocrats, Percy rued reforms that took power from the Lords. Political dissension, he believed, “simply proved how ill-suited the masses were to make decisions about the future of their country.” World War I, writes the author, finally drove an irreparable rift “between the generations that fought and those who sent them there, nowhere more so than among the elite.”
A sparkling family portrait and riveting history.