Among the late 19th-century circle of aristocratic artists and wits known as the Souls, adulterous affairs were accepted. But when a relationship between two unmarried Souls resulted in a pregnancy, the scandal that followed threatened to destroy careers and exposed the group’s conventionality. Jane Dismore’s latest book tells their story.
It was not until she was an adult that Lady Diana Cooper, actress, writer and society beauty, discovered who her biological father really was. Born in 1892 to the artist Violet Manners, later Duchess of Rutland, and raised as the Duke’s daughter, Diana thought the handsome, witty Harry Cust, heir to Earl Brownlow, on whose modest estate she had lived as a child, was simply a dear family friend. Only after his death did she discover the truth. However, it was not Harry and Violet’s relationship that caused the central scandal of Tangled Souls.
Born in 1861, Harry was precociously bright and sporty and predicted at school to become prime minister. MR James, Harry’s friend at Cambridge and later the famed author, said he was “the most shining of social successes…. good-looking, a most facile speaker, a delightful actor…. He really was the expectancy and rose of the fair state”.
By the late 1880s Harry and Violet were part of a glamorous, clever circle of mostly aristocratic friends dubbed ‘the Souls’ by outsiders who were jealous of their originality and wit.
Sharing a love of conversation, culture and clever games, they were a mix of politicians, writers and artists who disliked the restrictive formalities of upper–class society. They scorned ‘philistine’ pursuits such as the gambling and racing favoured by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and his set, or any pastimes that segregated the sexes, and gathered at ‘Saturday to Mondays’ at grand country houses to talk, play and flirt.
On the face of it they had little in common. Balfour, a trained philosopher, was a Conservative politician, who had entered the House of Commons in 1874 as MP for Hertford and belonged to the powerful aristocratic family the Cecils. Balfour’s uncle Robert, Marquess of Salisbury, was three times Conservative Prime Minister, a role Balfour would assume in 1902.
By contrast, Margot was the daughter of a Scottish industrialist and Liberal MP. She was noted for her originality and directness, Balfour for his erudition and intellect, and they found each other interesting.
The Tennants did not believe politics should stand in the way of friendship and welcomed any interesting people to their home. Balfour too believed civilised discourse was possible among those of differing views. At a time when the issue of Home Rule for Ireland was threatening to divide the United Kingdom, such an ideal would distinguish and elevate the Souls.
Other notable Souls included George Curzon, future Viceroy of India; George Wyndham, who became Chief Secretary for Ireland, and two of his siblings who are immortalised in JS Sargent’s portrait, The Wyndham Sisters: Mary (by marriage Lady Elcho) and Pamela (Tennant). Ettie Grenfell (later Lady Desborough), a society hostess, was also a member.
At their centre was Balfour, who believed platonic friendship between the sexes was possible. He remained single, although maintained a life-long and intriguingly close relationship with Lady Elcho.
A form of courtly flirtation developed among married Souls, the code defined by an outsider as: “Every woman shall have her man but no man shall have his woman.” But sometimes things went beyond stolen glances and extravagant letters. Passions raged behind their courtly code.
While married Souls discreetly bore their lovers’ children, and public figures got away with worse, it was bachelor Harry who, in 1893, caused the scandal at the heart of the book. He was the popular MP for Stamford in Lincolnshire and, at a time when MPs were not salaried and sometimes took a paid occupation, the lauded editor of the Pall Mall Gazette.
However, Harry had a weakness. Many women pursued him, often older and married to men chosen by their parents, and he seldom resisted. But there was one unmarried woman who loved him from afar. Nina Welby-Gregory, to whom he was distantly related, was beautiful, clever and reserved, from a family of formidable women and the artistic protégée of the older Violet Granby.
As her husband was raising Diana as his own, Violet realised she could only see Harry behind the cloak of respectability that marriage conferred, and she encouraged Nina to think a future with him might be possible. Unknown to their friends, they began an affair.
But Harry had fallen in love with Pamela Wyndham and spoke to her of marriage. He was intending to formalise matters when Nina announced she was pregnant.
Horror swept through the Souls, for his seduction of a single woman of the same class broke the rules. Balfour persuaded Harry he must marry Nina, otherwise they would both be social outcasts. He did so, in October 1893. No child, however, was born.
Through mutual acquaintances, word reached suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who pursued a public morality campaign against Harry to prevent him remaining in parliament. Nina was publicly damaged too, for she had fallen off the moral pedestal that Fawcett believed women occupied. For the rest of their lives, the couple would fight to rebuild their reputations and maintain the marriage they were pressurised to enter.
While Harry and Nina’s scandal has been mentioned in earlier books, this is the first detailed presentation, which also looks at their younger lives. Too often, Harry has been reduced to the sum of his liaisons, but he was far more complex.
Here is the man whose conversation so dazzled Edith Wharton that she visited him whenever she was in London; the fearless editor whom HG Wells credited with launching his career; the exuberant presence who made men and women feel ‘close to the springs of life’.
The multi-talented Nina, too, has been reduced to a shadow, obsessively loving Harry despite his waywardness. Yet the seriousness that set her apart from the more extrovert Souls, and her artistic skill, saw her books receive global acclaim and her sculpture exhibited widely.
Her work lives on today at Belton House in Lincolnshire; now a National Trust property, it was the home of Earl Brownlow, of which Nina would have been chatelaine had Harry lived long enough to inherit it.
Perhaps one day interest in her exquisite poetry, too, will be revived. For whatever her tribulations, her love for Harry fuelled her creativity and made her soul sing.
Tangled Souls: Love and Scandal Among the Victorian Aristocracy by Jane Dismore is published on 17 February 2022. It can be pre-ordered athttps://smarturl.it/TangledSouls
Tangled Souls is Jane Dismore’s fourth biographical book. She also writes features for newspapers, magazines and history websites, has presented on radio and popped up in podcasts and on TV.
You may also enjoy these Historia features which look at similar themes:
‘Paedo Hunter Turns Prey!’ The ironic fate of the father of tabloid journalism by Carolyn Kirby, about the scandal which hit another editor of the Pall Mall Gazette
A Guide to Victorian Sex by William Sutton
Top ten films set in the Victorian era by Kate Griffin
Queen Victoria: a dark, if splendid, monster? by Miranda Carter
The Victorian theatrical world of mystery and illusion by Essie Fox
When Queen Victoria was Empress Alexandra’s interfering granny by Melanie Clegg
Victoriana: a HWA short story collection
Violet Granby, courtesy Jason Cooper: supplied by author
Harry Cust, courtesy Artemis Cooper: supplied by author
Ashridge House in Hertfordshire, home to Harry’s cousin Lord Brownlow, where Harry and Nina carried on their affair: Colin for Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Violet Granby, see above
Nina Cust by Cyril Flowers: supplied by author
Tomb of Henry John Cockayne Cust, sculpted by his widow, Nina, in St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Belton: Andrewrabbott for Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
This feature is ©Jane Dismore, 26 January 2022