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Ask the author: Lyndsy Spence on society women


We continue to be fascinated by the glamour, glitz and gossip that made up the lives of the turbulent 20th century’s society women, and historian Lyndsy Spence has brought 10 of these compelling women back to life in her latest book, She Who Dares. We had a chat with Lyndsy to ask her about her experience of researching and writing the book.

What drew you to the 10 women in She Who Dares?

I have always been fascinated by Jean Massereene and Mariga Guinness. Aside from Lady Massereene’s militant phase, she and Mariga could have been bookends, though born decades apart. I wanted to work on a project that drew on those two women and so She Who Dares was born, and I decided to write about 10 women who have always fascinated me and whose stories deserve to be told.

What do you think it is about the lives of society women that continues to fascinate us?

I think it’s the hidden layers of their lives. Like all women, especially during that era, they were given a set of rules and expected to behave a certain way. Even if they did conform for the sake of appearances, their privates lives were quite different. Many think such women had an endless source of money and could cushion themselves against life’s pinpricks, but the truth was they often had titles and little money, and yet they set forth and lived how they pleased.

What was the most difficult and most rewarding part of the research process?

The most difficult part was balancing the 10 stories and trying to devote equal ‘air time’ to each woman. There was also an aspect about the women’s stories that allowed me to draw on the female influences in their lives, and so in some of the chapters i.e. Mariga Guinness, her mother’s story runs parallel to her own. There was also the close mother and daughter relationship with Jean Massereene and Diana Skeffington, and the sisterly bond between Sylvia of Sarawak and her sister, Doll. There was the obsessive friendship between Venetia Montagu and Violet Asquith. Lady Redesdale, of course, was mother to the Mitfords, and Enid Lindeman embarked on the life of a courtesan as such to provide for her children. So, the difficult part was finding a way to incorporate those co-stars, for lack of a better word, into the bigger picture. Learning about those secondary characters’ lives was very rewarding and offered food for thought.

I had a lot of support from archives, historians, and the women’s families. Lord and Lady Massereene, in particular, were very supportive and gave me permission to quote from Jean Massereene’s letters, and Patrick Guinness was an endless source of information when it came to his mother, Mariga, and grandmother, Rosemary. Also the Derek Hill Foundation and Lord Gowrie were incredibly generous in allowing me to access a closed archive and to use Hill’s painting of Mariga Guinness, as well as the Bryson and Huxley families in permitting me to use their photographs. It very much felt like everyone was on board with the book. It was also fascinating to chat to people who knew the women during various parts of their lives, as that gave me an insight into their private selves. One of the best parts of doing my research was visiting the homes where some of the women lived, particularly the old courthouse in Glenarm and Castletown House.

Did you find it difficult to balance the amazing life stories of these women? Did any of them try to hog the limelight?

Some of the women’s stories did take precedence during the research process. I treat the ‘ladies’ equally, but some of the stories did capture my imagination more than others. The great thing about this book is that there is a chapter and a heroine that will appeal to everyone. It’s a mixed bag and I am sure readers will discover their own favourites.

No one wants to pick a favourite, but which of the women did you find yourself relating to most while writing this book?

Mariga Guinness, because I have been drawn to her story for such a long time and I live in Antrim, where she once lived. I love her sense of theatre and her ability to make the best of everything. I found myself looking past her theatrical costumes and sense of adventure and admiring her courage more than anything. The same goes for Jean Massereene, I live beside Antrim Castle Gardens and have always been interested in her story. To quote Lord Gowrie, Mariga never lost her sense of theatre. The same could be said about Jean Massereene. Yet they each had a practical side. I love that, with the 10 women, there is more than what meets the eye. The more I learned, the more I wanted to share their incredible lives with others. That being said, I loved writing about Enid Lindeman and shedding light on her story, as she had a small part in my book, The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne.

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