Friday, July 23, 2021

The loveliest dance

Exactly 80 years ago today, the young Alathea Gwendoline Alys Mary, a constant companion to the young Lilibet, future queen of England, attended a dance - one that she described as ‘the loveliest dance I’ve ever been to’. Alathea’s diaries, written when she was in her late teens and early 20s, have recently been published to much acclaim - A. N. Wilson, for example, is quoted as calling the work, ’A wonderful book’. They certainly provide a wonderfully carefree contrast to diaries written in nearby London during the war.

Alathea was born in 1923 at Norfolk House, Sheffield, to Henry FitzAlan-Howard, 2nd Viscount FitzAlan of Derwent, and Joyce Elizabeth Mary Langdale. Had she been a boy, she would eventually have become Duke of Norfolk, the head of England’s leading Catholic aristocratic family, and Earl Marshal and inherited Arundel Castle. Instead, the title went sideways to her third cousin. At the beginning of the Second World War, she was sent to live with her rather old-fashioned grandfather at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Park. There, her constant companions were Princess Elizabeth, 13, and Margaret, 9, who had been sent to Windsor for safety, and were also being educated by governesses. 

In 1953, Alathea married Hon. Edward Ward, and they settled in Lausanne, Switzerland. She died in 2001. There appears to be no further biographical information about her readily available online. However, in 2020, Hodder & Stoughton published a selection of Alathea’s diaries, as edited by Celestria Noel, under the title The Windsor Diaries 1940-45. According to her friend Isabella Naylor-Leyland, who wrote a foreward for the book, Alathea kept diaries all her life. This early selection, though, has particular interest because during the war years she was in daily contact with the future Queen. The book can be previewed at Amazon or Googlebooks.

The publisher says of Alathea: ‘She captures the tight-knit, happy bonds between the Royal Family, as well as the aspirations and anxieties, sometimes extreme, of her own teenage mind.’ It adds: ‘These unique diaries give us a bird’s eye view of Royal wartime life with all of Alathea’s honest, yet affectionate judgments and observations - as well as a candid and vivid portrait of the young Princess Elizabeth, known to Alathea as ‘Lilibet’, a warm, self-contained girl, already falling for her handsome prince Philip, and facing her ultimate destiny: the Crown.’

The book was critically well received. A. N. Wilson called it ‘a wonderful book’; The Times said it was ‘Funny, astute, poignant and historically fascinating’; and Charles Moore in The Spectator said Alathea ‘captures that tiny, peaceful island in a world on fire’. However, it is worth noting that there’s quite a contrast between Alathea’s diaries - full of emotions roused mostly by social concerns, not least preparing for parties - and other diaries written during the war years in nearby London. See, for example, the diaries kept by Charles Graves or Marielle Bennett.

Here is Alathea’s report to herself on one of those parties.

23 July 1941
‘Spent most of the morning and afternoon quietly lying on rug in garden reading. After tea, I sewed indoors, as flies so bad. At six I went up to begin the great affair of dressing! Could hardly eat any dinner and all the way to the Castle in the Barley Mow taxi I was in a state of nervous excitement. Arrived and was miserable at first because everyone had long white gloves, then I saw lots hadn’t, but I should have liked to have worn them. We all filed through into the Red Drawing Room, shaking hands with the K and Q and the princesses. Then dancing began. Never, in all my life, shall I forget this evening - it was the loveliest dance I’ve ever been to. There were nearly 200 there and I knew almost all - it went on till three in the morning without a lull, although supposed to end at twelve! We walked out on to the terrace in between dances. Everyone admired my dress including the Queen and I got on wonderfully and danced with everyone I wanted - except the King although he did clutch my arm in the first Palais Glide. I loved the waltz best, though, by far. The Q was wonderful and danced all the ‘funny dances’ and Paul Jones,’ etc., and looked lovely in a full frock of white tulle, covered with silver sequins and the princesses wore dresses rather the same as the Q, also from Hartnell, in white lacy stuff, embroidered with pale blue marguerites, and they had flowers in their hair and at their waist, but they were especially pretty because they weren’t ordinary children’s party frocks and were unlike anyone else’s. Actually, there weren’t very many lovely frocks and I honestly think that mine and the princesses’ were the prettiest there. No Eton boys, for which I was glad, as we then only had the dashing young ‘cavaliers’! I was terrified I wasn’t going to dance with Hugh Euston and could have killed Libby when she had him, for ages, but then I met him at the buffet and he said, with that great charm of his, ‘Oh, Alathea, I’ve been looking for you all the evening, we must have a dance!’ It wasn’t true but still!! I danced the last dance of all with him and it went on for ages - we got on beautifully and had a drink together at the end. The rooms were insufferably hot and someone fainted. PE asked me how many times I danced with him and said she was rather hurt because he only had the first one with her because he was asked to and then not again. Hugh loved my dress. We said goodbye about three fifteen - P Margaret stayed up till the very end. She was so sweet and everyone was mad about her. Car came to fetch me and I got home and fell into bed exhausted but blissfully happy! Never, in all my life, shall I forget this night.’

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