An irresistible comedy of manners by the Academy Award-winning writer of Gosford Park
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Edith Lavery was the daughter of a successful chartered accountant, himself the grandson of a Jewish immigrant who had arrived in England in 1905 to escape the pogroms of the late, and to Edith's father, unlamented Tsar Nicholas II. I do not think I ever knew the family's original name, Levy, perhaps, or Levin. At any rate, the Edwardian portraitist, Sir John Lavery, was the inspiration for the change, which seemed, and almost certainly was, a good idea at the time. When asked if they were connected to the painter, the Laverys would answer, "Vaguely, I think," thus linking themselves with the British establishment without making any disputable claims. It is quite customary for the English, when asked if they have met so-and-so, to say, "Yes, but they wouldn't remember me," or "Well, I've met them but I don't know them," when they have not met them.
This is because of a subconscious urge on their part to create the comforting illusion that England, or rather the England of the upper-middle and upper classes, is criss-crossed with a million invisible silken threads that weave them together into a brilliant community of rank and grace and exclude everybody else. There is little dishonesty in it for as a rule they understand each other. To an Englishman or woman of a certain background the answer, "Well, I've met them but they wouldn't remember me" means "I have not met them."
Mrs. Lavery, Edith's mother, considered herself a bird of quite different feather to her spouse, fond as she was of him. Her own father had been an Indian army colonel but the salient detail was that his mother had been the great-niece of a banking baronet. Although kindly in many ways, Mrs. Lavery was passionately snobbish to a degree verging on insanity and so her frail connection to this, the very lowest hereditary rank filled her with the warming sense of belonging to that inner circle of rank and privilege where her poor husband must ever be a stranger. Mr. Lavery did not, for this reason, resent his wife. Not in the least. On the contrary he was proud of her. She was, after all, a tall, good-looking woman who knew how to dress and if anything he was rather entertained by the idea that the phrase "noblesse oblige" (one of Mrs. Lavery's favorites) could have the slightest application to his household.
They lived in a large flat in Elm Park Gardens, which was almost at the wrong end of Chelsea and not quite to Mrs. Lavery's taste. Still, it was not exactly Fulham nor, worse, Battersea, names that had only recently begun to appear on Mrs. Lavery's mental map. She still felt the thrill of the new, like an intrepid explorer pushing ever further from civilization, whenever she was invited for dinner by one of her friends' married children. She listened perkily as they discussed what a good investment the "toast rack" was or how the children loved Tooting after the poky flat in Marloes Road. It was all Greek to Mrs. Lavery. So far as she was concerned she was in Hell until she got back over the river, her own personal Styx, that forever divided the Underworld from Real Life.
The Laverys were not rich but nor were they poor and, having only one child, there was never any need to stint. Edith was sent off to a fashionable nursery school and then Benenden ("No, not because of the Princess Royal. We simply looked around and we thought it the most inspiring place.") Mr. Lavery would have liked the girl's education to have been continued at university but when Edith's exam results were not good enough, certainly not for anywhere they were interested in sending her, Mrs. Lavery was not disappointed. Her great ambition had always been to bring her daughter out.
Stella Lavery had not been a debutante herself. This was something of which she was deeply ashamed. She would seek to conceal it under a lot of laughing references to the fun she'd had as a girl and, if pushed for specifics, she might sigh that her father had taken rather a tumble in the thirties (thereby connecting herself with the Wall Street Crash and echoes of Scott Fitzgerald and Gatsby). Alternatively, fudging her dates, she would blame it on the war. The truth, as Mrs. Lavery was forced to admit to herself in the dark night of the soul, was that in the less socially free-wheeling world of the 1950s, there had been clearer demarcation lines between precisely who was in Society and who was not. Stella Lavery's family was not. She envied those of her friends who had met as debutantes with a deep and secret envy that gnawed at her entrails. She even hated them for including her in their reminiscences about Henrietta Tiarks or Miranda Smiley as if they believed that she, Stella Lavery, had "come out" when they knew, and she knew they knew, she had not. For these reasons she had been determined from the outset that no such gaps would shadow the life of her beloved Edith. (The name Edith incidentally was chosen for its fragrant overtones of a slower, better England and perhaps, half-consciously, to suggest that it was a family name handed down from some Edwardian beauty. It was not.) At all events, the girl was to be propelled into the charmed circle from the first. Since by the nineties Presentation at Court (which might have posed a problem) was a thing of the distant past, all Mrs. Lavery had to do was to convince her husband and her daughter that it would be time and money well spent.
They did not need much persuasion. Edith had no concrete plans for how she was to pass her adult life and to delay the decision-making process with a year-long round of parties seemed a pretty good idea. As for Mr. Lavery, he enjoyed the vision of his wife and his daughter in the beau monde and was perfectly happy to pay for it. Mrs. Lavery's carefully tended connections were enough to get Edith into Peter Townend's list for the opening tea-parties and the girl's own looks won her a place as a model at the Berkeley Dress Show. After that it was plain sailing. Mrs. Lavery went to the mothers' lunches and packed her daughter's dresses for balls in the country and on the whole had a wonderful time. Edith quite enjoyed it, too.
The only reservation for Mrs. Lavery was that when the Season was over, when the last, winter Charity Balls had finished and the Tatler cuttings had been pasted into a scrap-book along with the invitations, nothing much seemed to have changed. Edith had obviously been entertained by the daughters of several peers-including one duke, which was particularly thrilling-indeed, all of these girls had attended Edith's own cocktail party at Claridge's (one of Mrs. Lavery's happiest evenings), but the friends who stayed on after the dances had ceased were very like the girls she had brought home from school, the daughters of prosperous, upper-middle-class businessmen. Exactly what Edith was herself in fact. This did not seem right to Mrs. Lavery. She had for so long attributed her own failure to reach the dizzying upper echelons of London Society (a group she rather archly labeled "the Court") to her lack of a proper launch that she had expected great things from her daughter. Perhaps her enthusiasm blinded her to a simple truth: the fact that the Season had opened its arms to her daughter meant it was no longer in the 1980s the exclusive institution it had been in Mrs. Lavery's youth.
Edith was aware of her mother's disappointment but while she was certainly not immune, as we would find out, to the charms of rank and fortune, she did not quite see how she was expected to prosecute these intimacies with the daughters of the Great Houses. To start with they all seemed to have known each other from birth and anyway she couldn't help feeling it would be difficult to cater for their pleasures in a flat in Elm Park Gardens. In the end she remained on nodding terms with most of the girls in her year but returned to a very similar groove to the one she had occupied on leaving school.
I learned all this quite soon after first meeting Edith at the Eastons' because it so transpired that she took a job answering the telephone in an estate agent's in Milner Street, just round the corner from where I had a basement flat. I started bumping into her in Peter Jones, or having a sandwich in one of the local pubs, or buying a five-thirty pint of milk in Partridges and gradually, almost without noticing it, we became quite friendly. One day I saw her coming out of the General Trading Company at about one o'clock and I invited her for some lunch.
"Have you seen Isabel lately?" I asked, as we squeezed into a banquette in one of those little Italian places where the waiters shout.
"I had dinner with them both last week."
It was, or well enough. They were engaged in some school drama about their child. Isabel had discovered dyslexia. I pitied the headmaster.
"She asked after you. I said I'd seen you," said Edith.
I remarked that I didn't think Isabel had as yet forgiven me for failing to tell her I knew Charles Broughton, and Edith laughed. It was then that I heard about her mother. I asked if she'd told Mrs. Lavery about our time at Broughton. It so happened that Charles was rather on my mind as that morning I'd seen one of those idiotic magazine articles about eligible bachelors and Charles had led the pack. I blush to say I was rather impressed with the list of his assets.
"Not likely. I wouldn't want to give her any ideas."
"She must be very susceptible."
"She certainly is. She'd have me up the aisle before you could say knife."
"And you don't want to get married?"
Edith looked at me as if I were mad. "Of course I want to get married."
"You don't see yourself as a career girl? I thought all women want careers now." I do not know why I slid into this kind of pompous anti-feminism since it does not in the least reflect my views.
"Well, I don't want to spend the rest of my life answering the telephone in an estate agent's office if that's what you mean."
I was duly reprimanded. "That's not quite what I had in mind," I said.
Edith looked at me indulgently as if it were necessary to take me through my three times table. "I'm twenty-seven. I have no qualifications and, what is worse, no particular talent. I also have tastes that require, at the very least, eighty thousand a year. When my father dies he will leave what money he has to my mother and I don't anticipate either of them quitting the scene much before 2030. What do you suggest I should do?"
I do not know why but I felt rather muted by this Anita Loos-style practicality emanating from the little rose before me, with her Alice band and her neat, navy blue suit.
"So you intend to marry a rich man?" I asked.
Edith looked at me quizzically. Perhaps she felt she had given away too much, perhaps she was trying to ascertain if I was judging her and if so, whether or not she was coming out ahead. She should have been reassured by what she saw in my eyes for it has always seemed to me that if one can face up early on to what one really wants in life, then there is every chance of avoiding the seemingly inevitable modern disease of mid-life crisis.
"Not necessarily," she answered, with a trace of defensiveness in her voice. "It's just that I cannot imagine I would be very happy married to a poor one."
"I do see that," I said.
Edith and I did not meet for some time after this luncheon. I was cast in one of those unwatchable American mini-series and I left for Paris and, of all places, Warsaw for some months. The job involved the supremely depressing experience of celebrating Christmas and New Year in a foreign hotel where they give you cheese for breakfast and all the bread is stale, and when I returned to London in May, I certainly did not feel I had very much advanced my art. On the other hand, I was at least a bit better off than when I left. Quite soon after I arrived home I received a card from Isabel asking me to join their party for the second day of Ascot. She must have forgiven me in my absence. I thought I would have to refuse as I had done nothing about applying for my voucher to the Enclosure but it turned out that my mother (who with such gestures would betray a defiant denial of the work and the life I have chosen) had applied for me. Today, in these more graceless times, it would not be possible for her to apply for someone else, even her own child, but then it was. She had in fact undertaken this annual responsibility in my youth and she proved reluctant to give it up. "You'll be so sorry if you have to miss something fun," she would say whenever I objected that I had no plans to attend the meeting. And this time my mother was proved right. I accepted Isabel's offer with the half-smile that the prospect of a day at Ascot always brings to my lips.
Like many famous institutions, the image and the reality of the Royal Enclosure at Ascot bear little or no relation to each other. The very name "Royal Enclosure" (to say nothing of the glutinous coverage in the lowbrow press) conjures up visions of princes and duchesses, famous beauties and Rand millionaires strolling on manicured lawns in haute couture. Of this picture, I can, I suppose, testify to the quality of the lawns. The vast majority of the visitors to the Enclosure appear to be middle-aged businessmen from the more expensive suburbs of London. They are accompanied by wives wearing inappropriate outfits, generally in chiffon. What, however, makes this disparity between dream and truth unusual and amusing is the willfully blind support of the fantasy by the participants themselves. Even those members of Society, or rather those members of the upper-middle and upper classes, who do actually go to the meeting, take a touching delight in dressing and behaving as if they were at the smart and exclusive event the papers talk about. Their women wear just as inappropriate but more becoming fitted suits and swan about greeting each other as if they were at some gathering at Ranelagh Gardens in 1770. For a day or two every year these working people allow themselves the luxury of pretending that they are part of some vanished leisure class, that the world they mourn and admire and pretend they would have belonged to if it still existed (which as a rule they would not) is alive and well and living near Windsor. Their pretensions are naked and vulnerable and for that reason, to me at least, rather charming. I am always happy to spend one day at Ascot.
David collected me in his Volvo estate and I climbed in to find Edith, whom I had expected, and another couple, the Rattrays. Simon Rattray seemed to work for Strutt and Parker and talked a lot about shooting. His wife, Venetia, talked a little about her children and even less about anything else. We nosed our way down the M4 and through Windsor Great Park until we finally reached the course and David's slightly obscure car park. It was a perennial source of irritation to him that he could not get into Number One and he always vented his annoyance on Isabel as she was pointing out the signs. I never minded; it had become part of Ascot for me (like my father shouting at the tree-lights every Christmas-one of my few really vivid childhood memories), I had after all been with them several times.
Before too long the car was safely on its numbered place and the lunch was unpacked. It was clear that Edith had had no hand in it as it was Isabel and Venetia who assumed control, fussing and clucking and slicing and mixing until the feast was spread in all its glory before our eyes. The men and Edith watched from the safety of the folding chairs, clutching plastic glasses of champagne. As usual, there was a certain poignancy in all this preparation, given the brevity allotted to the food's consumption. We had hardly drawn up our seats to the wobbly table when Isabel, as predictable as David's worry over the car park, looked at her watch. "We mustn't be long. It's twenty-five to two now." David nodded and helped himself to strawberries. Nobody needed an explanation. Part of this day, Mass-like in its ritual, was getting to the steps in the Enclosure in time to see the arrival of the Royal house-party from Windsor. And getting there early enough to secure a good vantage point. Edith looked at me and rolled her eyes, but we both obediently gulped down our coffee, pinned on our badges and headed for the course.
We passed the stewards at the entrance, busily dividing the wheat from the tares. Two unfortunates had just been stopped, though whether it was because they didn't have the right badge or were wrongly dressed I do not know. Edith squeezed my arm with one of her secret smiles. I looked down. "Something funny?"
She shook her head. "No."
"I have a soft spot for getting in where others are held back."
I laughed. "You may feel that. Many do. But it is rather low to admit it."
"Oh dear. Then I'm afraid I'm very low. I must just hope it doesn't hold me back."
"I don't think it will," I said.
What was interesting about this exchange was its honesty. Edith looked the perfect archetype of the Sloane Ranger girl she was, but I was beginning to understand that she had a disconcerting awareness of the realities of her life and situation when such girls generally make a show of pretended ignorance of these things. It was not that her sentiments marked her apart. The English, of all classes as it happens, are addicted to exclusivity. Leave three Englishmen in a room and they will invent a rule that prevents a fourth joining them. What made Edith different is that most people, and certainly all toffs, put on a great show of not being aware of it. Any suggestion that there is pleasure in being a guest where the public has to buy tickets, of being allowed through a gate, of being ushered into a room, where the people are turned away, will be met by the aristocrat (or would-be aristocrat) with blank looks and studied lack of comprehension. The practiced matron will probably suggest with a slight movement of the eyebrows that the very idea denotes a lack of breeding. The dishonesty in all this is of course breathtaking but, as always with these people, the discipline in their unwavering rules commands a certain respect.
We must have dawdled, as the others were all at the steps, which were fast filling up, and waved to us to join them. A distant roar announced that the carriages were on the way and the footmen or stewards or whatever they are rushed forward to open the gates from the course. Edith nudged me and nodded towards Isabel as the first coach carrying Her Majesty and some dusky premier of an oil-rich state swept through the entrance. Like the other men I took my hat off with a perfectly genuine enthusiasm but I could not ignore the look on Isabel's face. It was the glazed, ecstatic expression of a rabbit before a cobra. She was hypnotized, enraptured. To be included in the Ascot house-party, Isabel, like Pervaneh in Hassan, would have faced the Procession of Protracted Death. Or at least she would have considered it. It only goes to show, I suppose, that for all the educated classes' contempt of mass star-worship, they themselves are just as susceptible to fantasy when it is presented in a palatable form.
Actually, the procession that year was a bit disappointing. The Prince of Wales, Isabel's paradigm of perfection, was not there and nor were any of the other princes. The only junior Royal was Zara Phillips, brightly attired in revealing beachwear. Edith had been murmuring irreverent criticisms in my ear, much to the annoyance of Isabel and a woman with blue hair standing next to her, so, rather than continue to spoil their fun, we turned to go when I heard a voice right behind me: "Hello, how are you?" I looked round and found myself face to face with Charles Broughton. This time there was no awkwardness over names, the best part of the Enclosure being that everyone has to wear a badge with their name written on it. There you will find no fumbling of introductions or pretending that people have already met. Just a cursory glance at the lapel or bosom of the unknown one and all is well. Would that such labeling was compulsory at all social gatherings. Charles's badge proclaimed "The Earl Broughton" in the distinctive, round handwriting of the well-bred girls of the Ascot Office.
"Hello," I said. "You remember Edith Lavery?" I had employed the correct English usage for presenting a person whom one is fairly certain will have been forgotten, but in this instance I was wrong.
"Certainly I do. You're the safe one who lives in London."
"Well, I hope I'm not as safe as all that." Edith smiled and, either on her own initiative or on Charles's invitation, took his arm.
The Eastons and the Rattrays were bearing down on us and I could almost see the whites of their eyes when I suggested a visit to the paddock. It seems hard and probably reveals a deep insecurity in me but I felt embarrassed for poor old Isabel in her eagerness, and David's ambition looked nearly malevolent in its intensity. Mercifully, Charles, who was after all quite a polite fellow, nodded a greeting to Isabel that dismissed her but showed at least that he was aware they had been introduced. David, seething, hung back and the three of us headed off towards the paddock where the horses were being paraded before the first race.
Predictably Charles turned out to know quite a lot about horses and before long he was happily engaged in informed chatter on fetlocks and form, none of which interested me in the least, but I was kept amused by observing Edith gazing up at him with fascinated, flattering attention. It is a technique that such women seem to acquire at birth. She was wearing a neat linen suit of pale bluish color, I think the correct term is eau-de-nil, with a little pill-box hat tipped forward over her forehead. It made her look frivolous but, in contrast to the Weybridge matrons in their organza frills, unsentimental and chic. It was an outfit that added a dash of wit and humor to her face, which, I was by this stage aware, was extremely beguiling. As she studied her card and made notes against the names with Charles's pencil, I watched him watching her and it was perhaps then that I first became aware of a real possibility that he was attracted to her. Not that this was very surprising. She had all the right attributes. She was pretty and witty and, as she had said herself, safe. She was not of his set, of course, but she lived and spoke like his own people. It is a popular fiction that there is a great difference in manner and manners between the upper-middle and upper classes. The truth is, on a day-to-day level they are in most things identical. Of course the aristocracy's circle of acquaintance is much smaller and so there is invariably with them the sense of the membership of a club. This can result in a tendency to display their social security by means of an off-handed rudeness, which doesn't bother them and upsets almost everybody else. But these things apart (and rudeness is very easily learned) there is little to tell between them in social style. No, Edith Lavery was clearly Charles's kind of girl.
We watched a race or two but I could sense that Edith, in the nicest possible way, was trying to shake me off and so when Charles inevitably suggested tea in White's, I excused myself and went off in search of the others. Edith threw me a grateful look and the pair of them walked away arm in arm.
I found Isabel and David in one of the champagne bars behind the grandstand, drinking warm Pimm's. The caterers had run out of ice. "Where's Edith?"
"She's gone off to White's with Charles."
David looked sulky. Poor David. He never did manage to be taken into White's at Ascot, neither in their old tent nor, so far as I am aware, in their new, more space-age accommodation. He would have given an arm to be a member. "Jolly good," he said through gritted teeth. "I wouldn't have minded some tea."
"I think they were going to meet up with the rest of Charles's party."
"I'm sure they were."
Isabel in contrast said nothing but kept sipping at the tepid liquid with its four bits of floating cucumber.
"I said we'd meet up at the car after the second last race." "Fine," David said grimly, and we lapsed into silence. Isabel, to her credit, still looked more interested than irritated as she stared into her unappetizing drink.
Edith was already leaning against the locked car when we got there and I could see at once that the day had been a success.
"Where's Charles?" I said.
She nodded towards the grandstand. "He's gone to find the people he's staying with tonight. He's coming tomorrow and Friday." "Good luck to him."
"Haven't you enjoyed yourself?"
"Oh yes," I said. "But not half as much as you."
She laughed and said nothing, and at that moment David arrived to unlock the vehicle. He did not mention Charles and he was noticeably grumpy with Edith, so it was not as a general announcement but in a whisper that she informed me that Charles had asked her out for dinner the following Tuesday. It was of course more than she could do to keep it to herself.
Copyright ©2005 by Julian Fellowes
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