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Those Wild Wyndhams: Three Sisters at the Heart of Power [Kindle Edition]

Claudia Renton
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Winner of the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2014

A rich historical biography of ‘those wild Wyndhams’ – three cultured aristocratic sisters born into great privilege in late Victorian Britain.

Mary, Madeline and Pamela – the three Wyndham sisters – were painted by John Singer Sargent in 1899. For The Times it was, quite simply, ‘the greatest picture of modern times’. But these beautiful, fin de siecle gentlewomen came to epitomize a vanished world. The languor of their pose reflects the leisured, gilded, existence of the late Victorian aristocracy that was to be dealt a deathblow by the First World War.

Yet the lives of these three Wyndham sisters were far more turbulent than their air of calm suggests. Brought up in artistic circles, their childhood was liberal and romantic. Their parents were intimate friends with the Pre-Raphaelites and the girls grew to become leaders of the aesthetic movement. Bowing to convention, they made excellent marriages but found emotional support from others – Mary with Arthur Balfour and the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt; Pamela with Liberal statesman and ornithologist Edward Grey. Their liaisons shocked society, while the First World War devastated their way of life.

‘Those Wild Wyndhams’ is their first ever biography, and is based on the many letters they have left behind – compelling, humorous and brilliantly illuminating. This sparkling debut by Claudia Renton captures them and their age in an unforgettable piece of historical and political biography.



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Review

‘Wonderful … a magnificently skillful biography of this trio of sexy sisters and the politically turbulent context of their lives. Renton demonstrates her scholarship with butterfly-winged elegance as she tells the story of a generation of Imperialist Victorians Suffused with privilege, power, money and sex that eventually ended in tragedy’ Evening Standard

‘Renton never loses sight of the bigger historical picture. She sets the sisters’ fabulously privileged and sometimes troubled lives against the convulsions of home and international politics through which they lived. The result is an impeccably researched, beautifully written and compellingly readable biography’ Daily Mail

‘Magnificent … [It] has the wisdom, excitement and psychological depth of a very good novel. She succeeds in combining the novelist’s art with the historian’s craft, laying the sources and workings before us. The beauty and romance are captured unforgettably’ Observer

‘Impeccably rehearsed and researched … a serious, spellbinding chronicle of the last days of Edwardian England’ The Times

‘A magnificently skilful biography…based on scrupulous research and enriched by hundreds of deliciously indiscreet, charmingly frank, pre-Mitfordian letters… Renton demonstrates her scholarship with butterfly winged elegance … [a] wonderful book’ Evening Standard

‘This elegantly written tableau of a book is much more than a group biography; it is an elegiac account of the horrors of the First World War from a female perspective. Renton is excellent at setting personal events within their larger political or social context’ Literary Review

‘A lucid and superbly researched book’ Spectator

‘Hilarious, heartbreaking and completely absorbing, Renton has captured the last rays of light of a gilded family of remarkable women’ Amanda Foreman

‘Readers who enjoyed reading about the Mitfords and Stella Tillyard's ‘Aristocrats’ will relish Renton's elegant book. [An] enthralling period portrait’ Daily Express

From the Back Cover

Mary, Madeline and Pamela – the three Wyndham sisters – were painted by John Singer Sergeant in 1899. For The Times it was ‘the greatest picture of modern times’. These beautiful, rich fin de siècle women clad in white came to epitomize a vanishing world: the leisured, gilded, existence of the late Victorian aristocracy that was to be dealt a deathblow by the First World War. Yet the lives of the Wyndham sisters were far more turbulent than their air of calm suggests. Brought up in artistic and liberal circles, their childhood was freedom-loving and filled with medieval fantasies. Their parents were intimate friends with the Pre-Raphaelites, and the sisters, with Mary as a leader, became involved in ‘the Souls’ – an accidental grouping of brilliant, sincere and loyal friends with liberated morals and shocking beliefs about sexual equality. Bowing to convention, all three made excellent marriages, but only one was happy. All found emotional support from others – Mary with Arthur Balfour and the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt; Pamela with the Liberal statesman and ornithologist Edward Grey.

Their first ever biography, Those Wild Wyndhams charts these enchanting and markedly different lives until the First World War brought devastation to their milieu. For readers of Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana and Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats, this brilliant debut by Claudia Renton is an unforgettable historical and political biography that captures a family and its dwindling age.


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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not quite. 6 Jun. 2014
Format:Hardcover
Yes, it's full of interesting personages and gives a good picture of high society in the early 20th century, but oh dear it's hard going. Too many people, often with the same or similar names; a muddled and muddling time line; no very clear narrative. The research put into this book really deserved better from the publisher: some strong constructive editing would've weeded out the occasionally clunky, slangy language and sorted out the time line, making the book easier to read. I was interested at first, but eventually more exasperated as the three sisters' stories dodged back and forth in time, and I lost my grip on who was who. Overall it could have, and should have, been so much better, given the basic material the author had to work with.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating story! 4 Feb. 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have just started reading this wonderful book and am totally captivated!

The historical anecdotes and the relationships of the various characters create an utterly compelling and absorbing read.

This is not only a book for anyone interested in Edwardian England but also for anyone who loves an emotional and elegantly-written, true story!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Admirably researched, replete with personages 2 May 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is an impressively researched historical account with the requisite historical background (succinctly summarised if sometimes simplified) and social context, and the author draws on rich resources, primarily the correspondence of the Wyndham sisters. It’s a good story, too, with exciting grand events (the struggle for home rule in Ireland, Gordon’s defeat at Khartoum, the Boer War), emotional intrigue (unwanted pregnancies, flirtations, courtships, confidences) and social drama among the upper classes (marriages, illnesses, bequests, country house visits). Its primary flaw, however, is that the forest gets lost for the trees: there are so many interesting characters-- not only the Wyndham sisters themselves but their parents and children and brothers and numerous other relatives and friends and lovers as well as prominent figures of the time in politics (Gladstone, Disraeli) and the arts (Burne-Jones, Rossetti, William Morris, John Singer Sargent, Henry James)—that this reader cannot finally sympathise very much with anyone. This is extremely disappointing, as Claudia Renton has obviously worked extremely hard to produce an account of people and places and an era that in this book fascinates as much as it frustrates.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Those Wild Wyndhams 10 Feb. 2014
By S Riaz HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
In 1898, John Singer Sargent began the portrait of three sisters: Mary, Madeline and Pamela Wyndham. The Wyndham Sisters was heralded as Sargent’s masterpiece, with the Prince of Wales calling it, “The Three Graces.” In this book, the author chronicles the times of these three cultured, beautiful and aristocratic women, who as members of The Souls, mixed with those in positions of political influence, as well as artistic circles.

This book straddles both the Victorian and Edwardian age. Parents Percy (youngest son of Lord Leconfeld) and Madeline (from a prominent Irish family, but without a fortune) had a marriage full of affection and love –although, as life always is, not without its difficulties. Their eldest child was daughter Mary, followed by sons George and Guy. The two youngest daughter, Madeline (always known as Mananai, after childish attempts to say her name) and Pamela, were close in age and naturally paired off together. Although the boys were educated at Eton, like many parents at that time, a good education was not thought essential for girls at that time. Mary was almost self-taught and governesses gave basic lessons.

Throughout this biography, we follow the marriages, love affairs, scandals and tragedies of the sisters. The sisters were involved with just about everyone in aristocratic, political and artistic circles – we are taken from the desert in Egypt, to the pomp of India during the Raj and to scandals which rocked the Souls (Harry Cust and Nina Welby) and society (Oscar Wilde and Bosie Douglas). The author does a great job of noting the political events that are important throughout the book, but always keeping the book personal and not overshadowing the characters.
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3.0 out of 5 stars the Downton crowd 1 Mar. 2015
By Zangiku
Format:Paperback
without deep prior knowledge of the political history of the period, the merits of this book will pass the reader by. there is too much breathless mention, without a jot of explication, of knotty subjects such as Home Rule, the Fabian movement --not to mention the personalities themselves, who are numerous & sundry!-- for those readers without benefit of serious background education. this is a shame, as the research sources were apparently voluminous & well annotated, & the writing is engaging. i had thought to learn more, but found it a frustrating read. the chapters on the great war are very moving & good history, but otherwise we are left with women who played parlor games & led enormously pretty but essentially shallow lives.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poignant and beautifully written - a lovely book 17 Feb. 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Sargent's group portrait of the Wyndham sisters is, in essence, a portrait of Victorian privilege at its most elegant. The spacious room (the family's mansion in Belgrave Square), the impossibly complex clothes, the entitled posture of the sitters; all suggest a world insulated from want and sadness. What Claudia Renton does with skill and tenderness in this lovely book is to show us not just the real people behind this illusion of perfect grace - the miscarriage on which Mananai was dwelling as she sat, the frustrations of talented, demanding Pamela, the almost impossible reserves of patience which Mary brought to her dysfunctional marriage - but also a portrait of the world in which they lived, and how that world disappeared before their eyes.
So we get to glimpse the life of astonishing ease and beauty into which the girls were born, the privileged coterie (the Souls) of which they and their various men formed a part; and how that coterie assumed that ease and power would be theirs. And then we see how the talented stars of their generation somehow failed to achieve pre-eminence, but were nonethless close enough to power to be heartbreakingly complicit in the making of a war which was to take away some of their own most beloved and brilliant children.
Finally one sees the world into which the girls were born dismantled: their childhood home stripped of its treasures, rented out, reduced, as other members of their circle turn to desperate expedients to live in the houses of their fathers.
As for the Wyndham women each, with her different voice, gives us a window on this world of excitement, promise, change and disappointment, leaving us with a sense of having, albeit briefly, joined them.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Fine book
Published 2 days ago by frederik riphagen
5.0 out of 5 stars so am most delighted to read this wonderful account of their lives
Having a picture of these girls in my bedroom, I have longed to know the story behind the picture of these sisters, so am most delighted to read this wonderful account of their... Read more
Published 1 month ago by anny
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Book in perfect condition
Published 1 month ago by carla falcó medina
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Excellent.
Published 1 month ago by Elinor Mary Goodman
5.0 out of 5 stars Edwardian history through the lives of society women
The Wyndham sisters were eminent wives and hostesses at the turn of the 19/20th century, and knew all the politicians and society of the time. Read more
Published 3 months ago by tessa st john
5.0 out of 5 stars was delighted to find at last
Riveting! Having long been interested in the Wyndham family, was delighted to find at last, such an interesting book telling of this distinguished family! Loved it!
Published 3 months ago by martine leuchter
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
interesting
Published 4 months ago by simken
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very good
Published 5 months ago by A.MCQUILLAN
4.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant well researched book
It is one of those books that fascinates one who has an interest in the ruling classes and the influence of women from within. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Natalie
5.0 out of 5 stars The three graces
This book is an absolute joy! About 3 sisters their marriages, interesting lives, children! All against a backdrop of WW1 and it's aftermath! Read more
Published 8 months ago by crumblie
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