on 2 May 2014
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.
on 6 June 2014
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.
on 4 February 2014
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!
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. However, one world changing event which did completely dominate and change the world of the Wyndham’s, and their friends and acquaintances, were the cataclysmic events of the First World War - which comes near the end of the book. You gather that while those who lost early in the war were obviously mourned, the terrible loss of life led to a real stunned sense of disbelief by the end of the war. A whole generation of men were wiped out and the losses changed the Wyndham family, as it did so many others, at that time.
Overall, this is an excellent biography. It is well written, never sight of the personal over the historical, but keeping a good sense of perspective. Very enjoyable and paints a picture not only of three very interesting women, but also of a whole era.
on 27 November 2014
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.
This book is full of vignettes of history, bits and pieces of lives that make the historical characters more real and understandable.
Life at this period, the high Edwardian times, was the aristocracy at its peak. And it makes for a fascinating read.
I very much enjoyed this biography of the three Wyndham sisters who lives at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. They were all very rich and very well connected so the book is really a social history of the aristocracy of the time and, to some extent, the lives of rich women. The three sisters may have been "at the heart of power" as the edition I read said on the cover but actually they wielded very little so quite a lot of this book is actually about their friends and family and what happened to them all as a whole. The book also tells a larger story, that of the end of the power of the aristocracy which came with the turn of the century and especially after the First World War - of course, we still have our privileged class and they still have all the advantages which come with money and tradition but the expectations of their role in public life are definitely lessened and it is fascinating to see the differences.
Of the three sisters only one made a happy marriage but this was more or less expected in their time and the love affairs that they had and the children whose parentage is doubtful is also a feature of the lives that they lived. It is interesting to look at this life of privilege from the outside and, at times, I did find it very difficult to sympathise with the women irrespective of their marital unhappiness. Even the author finds it hard to sympathise with Pamela on more than one occasion. What is devastating though is the loss that occurs of the men of the family during the First World War.
I thought that this book was very interesting and that the author offered a glimpse into a very different life. I very much enjoy books of this type and compare this favourably to some others I have enjoyed such as "A Circle of Sisters" by Judith Flanders, "The Langhorne Sisters" by James Fox and "The Mitford Girls" by Mary S Lovell - many of the people in this book also appear peripherally in those.
The Wyndham sisters - Mary, Madeline and Pamela - occupied a special place in the pre-war British aristocracy - the tip of the top, one might say. Born into wealth and privilege, they were young, beautiful, educated yet bohemian, enchanting. They were the central hub of the 'Souls', the exclusive and eccentric intellectual clique that numbered many of the era's most celebrated names amongst its ranks - Lord Curzon, Arthur Balfour, Margot Asquith, Violet Manners, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. And yet like so many of their era, this 'golden age' of the later Victorian/early Edwardian period was not to last for them.
As much as it is a biography of the three sisters this is a book about a vanished world, the kind of carefree upper-class existence that is still seen as so mysterious and alluring today, as the popularity of television shows like Downton Abbey attest. The sisters moved in exalted circles, mixing casually with figures of power and influence, from the arts to politics, so the book is populated with a fascinating and well-known cast of characters. They embodied much of the contradictions of their time, the bohemian attitudes and the rigid social mores, unthinking privilege and noblesse oblige, the imperial triumph of the later Victorian period giving way to the tragedy of the trenches.
It is an enjoyable book, although given the sisters' social positions and wide circle of acquaintances, there are a lot of names to get straight in one's head, especially so when names and titles change upon inheritance! I also found the narrative shifts from one sister to another occasionally jarring, particularly when this involved a chronological shift as well. It could perhaps have done with somewhat tighter editing to correct some of this. But as I said, an enjoyable book and well worth reading for anyone interested in the Edwardian aristocracy of Downton Abbey.
on 17 February 2014
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.
on 19 January 2015
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 lives, which I am greatly enjoying.
on 23 June 2015
A really marvellous account of these three extraordinary girls. Well documented a very good account of the times. A must read if you are interested in the period