on 30 July 2013
For anyone interested in the great society hostesses of the first half of the 20th century (they disappeared rapidly after WWII and no comparable 'salons' now exist in Britain) 'Mrs Ronnie' makes a great read. Similarly for those who know and love the beautiful National Trust house, Polesden Lacey, this book sets the perfect backdrop to this idyllic place.
The book is a very nicely written and well-paced biography of that great society hostess, the Hon. Mrs Ronald Greville, imperatrice for so many years of Polesden Lacey. Margaret Greville was a woman assiduous in her pursuit of the aristocracy and, in particular, members of the Royal Family. In this she was remarkably successful, considering that her great wealth stemmed from her Father's remarkable success in 'trade', which was rather looked down upon by the aristocracy of the time. I can only think that her wealth was so enormous, her collection of jewellery so fabulous, her hospitality so lavish, her connections so impressive, that very few important people of the day could ignore her. And if they did so, it risked them being subjected to her notoriously vicious tongue.
Sian Evans paints a very fair and non-judgmental picture of her subject, and of her life and times. On balance, I rather like Mrs Greville. She may have been ambitious and self-seeking, but behind that rather hard carapace I find a woman with a warm heart. She had a legion of servants who adored her and had served her for many years and her generosity to them when she died was remarkable for the time.
The author's task was not made easier by the fact that Mrs Greville's Head Steward, in accordance with his Mistress's wishes, destroyed all her personal papers after her death. Sian Evans has coped very well with this handicap and produced a nice volume which is easy to read and assimilate. I think it will be well received, and I urge readers who are interested in British Society in the first half of the 20th century to see this for themselves.
on 29 May 2013
Read this fascinating biography of Margaret Greville of Polesden Lacey and you'll wonder why we've never heard of this astonishing woman before. Sian Evans unveils a goldmine of material, as racy and pacy as any episode of Downtown Abbey. In fact, I couldn't help thinking that this story is crying out to be made into a screenplay.
It's so refreshing to have the original owner of one of the National Trust's great houses, brought to life. The Trust could do with telling more stories like this, although Mrs Ronnie might take some beating. A must read for anyone planning a visit to Polesden Lacey and everyone who is a fan of period drama. Truth really is stranger than fiction!
“… I can see her, small but forceful, making her way to the front of any company she was in.”
Margaret Helen Anderson was born in 1863; even then her life was shrouded in mystery, the father listed on her birth certificate most likely an amenable employee of her real father, William McEwan a wealthy Scotsman who had made his fortune in brewing beer. Later her mother married McEwan and Margaret was treated as his true daughter, with his fortune later being inherited by her. A wealthy young woman of good family, she was propelled into society further by her marriage to the well-connected Captain the Hon. Ronald Henry Fulke Greville, first-born son of the 2nd Baron Greville and his wife, Lady Beatrice Violet Graham, daughter of the 4th Duke of Montrose. From then, ‘Mrs Ronnie’ as she like to be called, made the storming of polite English society her forte and her passion. In 1906, she and her husband brought the substantial country house of Polesden Lacey in Surrey with money given by McEwan to Margaret (approximately ₤4.5 million in today’s currency) and ‘Mrs Ronnie’ turned her hand to making Polesden Lacey a luxurious home fit for kings to stay.
When Margaret’s father William McEwan died in 1913 at the age of 85, he left a fortune worth approximately ₤65,000,000 in today’s currency. His will confirmed that Margaret was his “lawful daughter”. By 1913, Margaret had been widowed without children, and had lost both her mother and father. But she was by no means ready to retire from society. ‘Mrs Ronnie’ travelled widely, knew and was known by everyone who was anyone, and was part of royal and noble society right up until her death in 1942. When she died leaving approximately ₤39,000,000, she left generous bequests to many friends and employees, all her jewellery (over 60 items) to the then Queen Elizabeth, and her estate at Polesden Lacey and other endowments to the National Trust.
A remarkable lady, her life and the times in which she lived have been wonderfully captured in this book, full of pictures and mementos of ‘Mrs Ronnie’. A great read, vastly interesting and informative.
Margaret Greville- or Mrs Ronnie as she liked to be called - rose from obscure and humble origins to be a famous society hostess and friend to the good and great of British society. At her beautiful house, Polesden Lacey she entertained just about everyone who was anyone, with even Queen Mary popping in to tea. From Edward VIII to George VI, she was on intimate terms with all the royals. George VI and his new bride even spent their honeymoon at her house. She was there for the abdication crisis and the war, and was as impressed by Mosley and Hitler as were many of her friends. But a life spent simply knowing and entertaining other people doesn't make for a very interesting life, and Sian Evans hasn't managed to make her subject come alive in any way. The book reads just as a list of people and events, with no insight into thoughts and feelings. Evan's task was not made any easier by Mrs Ronnie having all her private papers destroyed after her death by her steward, and certainly Evans has done an impressive amount of research, particularly into Margaret's early life. The book is also very interesting from a social history point of view, with much detail about parties and food and society life. Lots of photos help make this book an attractive one to look at, but ultimately the description of the book makes it sound more fascinating than it is in reality. "Dark secrets, racy scandal and power broking" - yes, they're all there but told in such a flat documentary style that Mrs Ronnie never comes to life - but then maybe she wasn't really a very interesting person anyway?
Nevertheless, this is a readable and pleasant enough historical account, and certainly a bonus for anyone visiting Polesden Lacey, which its owner bequeathed to the National Trust, and a visit to the house will certainly be enhanced by knowing about its fabulously rich former owner and the people she entertained there.
Published for the National Trust, this is a glossy though fairly balanced account of Mrs Ronnie, a snobbish social-climber who prided herself on her ability to get close to the wealthy, the aristocratic and the royal. There's no need for us to like her in order to enjoy the book, and I certainly found her often stupid, with ill-judgement and an acute lack of self-awareness - and yet still found this an enjoyable read.
Low points in Mrs Ronnie's career are her adoration for Hitler's Germany and her acceptance of a personal invitation from Hitler and Hess to attend the 1934 Nuremberg Rally from which she returned `full of amazement... I adored my visit'. Evans rightly makes the point that while there were other Nazi supporters amongst her social circle, she also knew people like Harold Nicolson, husband of Vita Sackville-West, who, after a brief flirtation with Oswald Mosley, joined the Labour party: there's a nice anecdote of him attending one of Mrs Ronnie's lunch parties in 1936 and sniping at the Hitler supporters who were telling him how wonderfully changed fascist Germany was: "Yes, I should find all my old friends either in prison, or exiled, or murdered".
There are also revealing episodes as Mrs Ronnie takes it upon herself to phone up Winston Churchill at the war office to offer him her advice... and an account of a lavishly insensitive war-time dinner where she invites the dispossessed king of Greece to the Dorchester ("I do like him, even if he is an X-king") - the poor man `said he could hardly look at food as it made him think of his starving compatriots'.
So I didn't warm to Mrs Ronnie and shared Nicolson's verdict: `a waspish woman who got where she did through persistence and money'. All the same, this is a hugely enjoyable read of a fearful snob and shameless social climber who was never satisfied unless she was name-dropping her acquaintance with royalty.
It is worth adding that this book has been beautifully formatted for Kindle so that the pictures and captions appear properly.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
After Mrs Ronnie (Margaret Greville) died her steward destroyed all her papers at her request. Because of this there is little first hand information available about her and the biographer is limited to secondary sources. This means that in this book the author spends quite a lot of time telling us about the society of the day, quoting from other published sources (mainly Beverley Nichols) and listing who attended what event. There were too many occasions where this seemed like padding and added little to the narrative.
The story of Mrs Ronnie is an interesting one in that she came from a poor background and, because of the wealth of her step-father and her husband, was able to make herself into a society hostess of note. The author doesn't make any assessment of the value of the role and is careful to show how she was adored by some of those who attended her events and disliked by others. She is clear that the woman was a snob who enjoyed meeting famous people, especially those with a title, and then dropping their names later in conversation - she is also clear that in this she was little different from others who had the same function in society.
Although we get a clear picture of Mrs Ronnie's position in society and lots of detail about the house parties she hosted and the events she attended we don't really understand the woman herself. At this distance and without the primary source material it is probably impossible to do this. We can surmise that she may have been lonely but it cannot be proved.
In the end I think that there is possibly too little remaining information to sustain a full biography. What we get are descriptions of events, snippets of very general social history, and a series of anecdotes. When I had finished the book I didn't feel that I'd really learned anything substantial. The photos, however, were plentiful and interesting. I received a free copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
on 30 July 2014
I had visited Polsden Lacey, and wanted to know more. This book proved to be an essential adjunct to the visit - magnificently written almost as a series of articles, separate but contiguous, about Mrs Ronnie's life and lifestyle.
The only question is, should it be read before or after a visit to Polsden Lacey, her home. I am not sure, but I will visit again, and then probably read the book again!
on 25 June 2013
A very readable insight to the lives of the Victorians and is highly readable. Nothing appears to have changed over the centuries when it comes to scandal. Hugely enojable.
on 14 June 2014
The life of the heir to the McEwen's beer fortune, the formidable grand dame The Hon. Mrs Ronald Greville, is told with ease and grace in this attractively designed volume, whose pages are a rainbow of coloured paper, reflecting, one must dare to imagine, the many shades of Mrs Greville's extraordinary personality. Other reviewers here have commented that she used her great wealth to overcome her somewhat lowly Scottish origins, and her advantageous marriage to an indolent aristocrat whom she adored and who sadly died before he could raise her to the peerage or give her children, but essentially Mrs Greville's life story has been retold many times just as well in the many editions of the National Trust's guidebook to Polesden Lacey, the country estate near Dorking which she bequeathed to the Trust at her death in 1942. Because her personal papers were destroyed at her instructions it has proven difficult to get quite a grip on her quicksilver nature, rich and generous, gossipy and malicious, forthright and yet hiding something deep. Occasionally here and there one gets a brief sense of her genuine interest in the lives of her political and intellectual friends and aristocratic and royal friends, as when a whole letter to the Viceroy of India is quoted about her concern that Louis Mountbatten was really only interested in Edwina Ashley for her money! More archives needed to be scoured for longer for more of Mrs Greville's letters, for even if she destroyed her papers, it is hard to believe that she left so little trace in the lives of many of those she knew and wrote to, spreading social gossip, enlarging her guest lists, pouring forth hospitality on a prodigious scale, and commenting on public affairs. Where the book is also let down slightly is that for many readers and visitors to Polesden Lacey who will buy the book, the fact that the art collections in her Mayfair mansion and at Polesden were condensed and lesser pieces sold off (something the Trust would never do today, though apparently sanctioned by Mrs Greville's will) is a cause for huge regret, and one longs for far more photographs of the interiors at Polesden in her own lifetime, if they exist, showing how she arranged her many rooms, and certainly for more than just one photograph of the front door or the house in Charles Street. One would like to have seen a plan of the Mayfair mansion, and to have had reproduced photographs that must have been taken of the interiors there at parties etc, and one would have liked to have had far more of her specific treasures reproduced, and to have learned much more of Mrs Greville's attitude to her collections, those that she inherited from her father and those she purchased; dealers like Agnews from whom she bought items have left records, and Mrs Ronnie kept records of what she paid for her pictures. It's all very well reproducing photographs of the royals she collected, but ultimately these are well-known and say nothing much about Mrs Greville herself; the reader would like to see photographs of her in her 1937 Coronation Dress if it exists, on her travels, etc, and there must be press photographs where she is present. It also surprised this reader that her famous quip in 1940 that 'To hear Alice [Keppel] talk, you would think she had swum the Channel with her maid between her teeth' is not included. It is to be hoped that the National Trust will at some stage issue an enlarged edition of this readable volume where these slender defects can be remedied to provide a still fuller life of Maggie Greville.
on 6 September 2016
Page turner - unstoppable reading :D - Impossible not to imagine at least a day time film about Mrs Ronnie. Unbelievable how I did not know of her existence before reading this.