Surely I am not the only one who has harbored secret dreams of being an heiress — not the nouveau riche kind with a reality television crew trailing behind me, but the sort with a full staff, gobs of silver and afternoons spent on the hunt. Though I've come around to my untitled American life, I still adore reading books about drafty old houses and the privileged people who inhabit them.
If the success of the PBS series Downton Abbey is any indication, I'm not alone. The satisfying truth is that these individuals are rarely perfect. The glamour belies the financial strain that comes along with a house too large to keep up, and the customs of the aristocracy are difficult to maintain over several generations. The lives of heiresses are complicated matters, which of course means they provide excellent material for books.
This biography of the Mitford sisters is the perfect entry point for the reader who has always longed to know what it's really like on the other side of a great house's walls. The sisters themselves — Jessica, Nancy, "Debo," Pam, Diana and Unity — are eccentric and bright, and the book is peppered with zingers from their letters to one another, always including nicknames and words in their secret sisterly tongue. Jessica and Nancy became novelists, Unity became a Nazi, Diana went to prison, Pam left the society life for a more rural one, and Debo became a duchess, to this day successfully running a grand estate. The book is full of details that will make your toes curl with pleasure: that their father, known as "Farve," used to chase the children in the woods with the family bloodhound, and that before she became a Nazi, Unity would take her pet rat, Ratular, to debutante parties.
This razor blade of a novel tells the story of a young woman's relationship with her frosty and bitter Great Granny. The titular relation is rich and stingy, and prefers her freezing-cold house perfectly silent, too. The cast of characters is rounded out with Great Granny Webster's devoted, one-eyed housemaid Richards, and the narrator's flighty and wild Aunt Lavinia, who was famous for showing up to a party wearing nothing but a sanitary towel. Blackwood herself was an heir to the Guinness fortune, and first married painter Lucien Freud and later poet Robert Lowell. That the book is autobiographically based makes the wickedness all the more startling, and Blackwood's witty sense of humor all the more impressive.
Of course, there are heiresses on this side of the pond, too. Rosamond Bernier was born in Philadelphia to an American father and an English mother, and raised by French governesses because they were the best. Bernier's Polaroid-style memoir paints her as the well-dressed and charming Zelig of the 20th-century art and music worlds. She befriended Picasso, Matisse, Hockney, Katz, Copland and Bernstein, just to name a very small number of her nearest and dearest. Reading the book, it's not hard to see why Bernier made such a good impression: She comes off as both plucky and kind, and if the corners have been sanded a bit, who would argue with her?
So did the books break me of my habit, and leave me content with my world, full as it is of blue jeans and take-out containers? Of course not. They give me hope that I will someday have a house full of antiques, and salty relations, and artists begging to paint my portrait. I don't see why it couldn't happen, do you?
Emma Straub is the author of Other People We Married.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Andrew Otis.