Who were the souls of Victorian society?

Published:
8:00 a.m. January 15, 2022



Hatfield House, Ashridge and Panshanger Park, with its glorious former mansion, are three of the grand country houses that feature in a new historical biography about a group of glamorous and intelligent late 19th century friends who were torn apart by scandal .

Nicknamed “the souls” because of their love of conversation, culture and clever games, they were a mix of politicians, writers and artists who disliked the restrictive formalities of class society. superior. They despised “philistine” activities such as gambling and racing, favored by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and his entourage, and met “Saturday to Monday” in pretty houses to talk, play and flirt.

The band grew out of the friendship that began in 1881 between 17-year-old Margot Tennant (later wife of Liberal Prime Minister, HH Asquith) and 33-year-old Arthur Balfour. At first glance, they had little in common.


Ettie Grenfell (later Lady Desborough; courtesy Ivo Mosley)
– Credit: Courtesy of Ivo Mosley

Balfour was a Conservative politician, who entered the House of Commons in 1874 as MP for Hertford and came from one of Britain’s most powerful aristocratic families, the Cecils. Balfour’s uncle, Robert, Marquess of Salisbury, of Hatfield House, was a three-time Conservative Prime Minister. When he resigned in 1902, Balfour would assume this role.

By contrast, Margot was a liberal and the daughter of a Scottish industrialist, rather than an aristocrat. She was known for her originality and directness, Balfour for his scholarship and intelligence, and they found each other interesting. Margot’s family didn’t believe politics should get in the way of friendship, and they welcomed interesting people of all stripes into their home.

In 1887 souls included George Curzon, the future Viceroy of India, and artist Violet Manners, later Duchess of Rutland. Another eminent soul was Ettie Grenfell (née Fane), who had just married William Grenfell and become castellan of his manor, Taplow Court.


Violet Granby (courtesy Jason Cooper)

Violet Granby (courtesy Jason Cooper)
– Credit: Courtesy of Jason Cooper

After losing her immediate family as a child, Ettie was cared for by her aunt and uncle, the Earl and Countess Cowper, who made her their heiress. She became a well-known hostess, entertaining sections of society.

At her Christmas party at Panshanger in 1888, she presided over a favorite game of souls, Dumb Crambo (similar to charades), in which a female soul wore breeches and boots to be Napoleon crossing the Alps, and Ettie played the horse. Such games were a far cry from the usual polite parlor games of Victorian society, and gave women an excuse to dress less formally than was otherwise acceptable.


Arthur Balfour (Tucker Collection - New York Public Library)

Arthur Balfour (Tucker Collection – New York Public Library)
– Credit: Tucker Collection – New York Public Library

Balfour believed that platonic friendship between the sexes was possible. He remained single but maintained a close and intriguing relationship with a married soul, Lady Elcho.

A form of courtly flirtation developed among married souls, the code defined by an outsider as “Every woman will have her man but no man will have his wife.” But sometimes things went deeper than stolen looks and extravagant letters.

Passions raged behind their courteous code. Married souls quietly carried their lovers’ children, and public figures got away with worse. However, it was the brilliant and handsome bachelor Harry Cust, MP for Stamford, and (at a time when MPs were not salaried) revered editor, who caused the book’s central scandal.


Tangled Souls by Jane Dismore.

Tangled Souls by Jane Dismore.
– Credit: Jane Dismore

Harry was heir to his cousin Earl Brownlow who owned the magnificent Ashridge, where souls often gathered. There, Harry carried on an affair with the poet and artist Nina Welby-Gregory, also single, who had loved him for a long time. When she said she was pregnant, horror swept through souls, as her seduction of a single woman of the same class broke the rules. Balfour persuaded Harry that he had to marry Nina or else they would be social outcasts. For the rest of their lives, they would fight to rebuild their reputation and maintain the marriage they were eager to enter into. Here is pre-war society at its most colorful and conflictual.


Harry Cust (courtesy Artemis Cooper) appears in Tangled Souls.

Harry Cust (courtesy Artemis Cooper) appears in Tangled Souls.
– Credit: Courtesy of Artemis Cooper

Tangled Souls: Love and Scandal Among the Victorian Aristocracy by Jane Dismore is published by The History Press on February 17. It is available for pre-order at https://smarturl.it/TangledSouls

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