In February 1899 John Singer Sargent was invited to the Belgravia home of the wealthy Wiltshire landowner Percy Wyndham to meet his three married daughters. Wyndham had commissioned a group portrait of the women as a way of marking a recent advance in the family’s fortunes. For while the sixty-four-year-old paterfamilias had lost his parliamentary seat some years earlier, his eldest son George was now gaining a reputation as a shrewd politician at Westminster, where he served as undersecretary at the War Office. Meanwhile George’s three sisters, Mary Elcho, Madeline Adeane, and Pamela Tennant, enjoyed a growing cachet as hostesses of discreet country house weekends at which statesmen of all stripes mingled far away from the jabber of party intrigue.
Awareness of the Wyndham women’s influence had previously been confined to the elite networks that radiated from the smarter parts of London to the mansions and manor houses of rural Britain. Now, though, it felt like the right moment for them to be formally introduced to a wider public, one that was increasingly greedy to know about the lives of rich, aristocratic women. No one did sumptuous portraits of society people shaded with psychological complexity better than Sargent. He would be paid £2,000, the equivalent of about £240,000 today, for The Wyndham Sisters, with the aim of finishing it in time for the next year’s Royal Academy summer show.
Almost immediately it became apparent that the deadline was in jeopardy. For one thing, the sisters were not sold on the idea of coordinating themselves into a froth of white, off-white, and cream. Pamela announced that she was intent on a blue dress, which meant that Mary, the eldest at thirty-seven, was left dropping desperate hints: “Blue can be so ugly don’t you think?” The middle sister, Madeline, or Mananai, was usually easier, but on this occasion was holding out for pink. Mary worried that the beautiful Wyndham sisters would make their public debut looking like a slab of Neapolitan ice cream.
Even once the foamy dress code was resolved there was still the problem of the pose. Mary was adamant that nothing should look contrived, yet proceeded to suggest that she and her sisters arrange themselves as “if the Evening Post had just come & one was reading a letter to the others,” which sounds stiff and stagy and terribly old-fashioned. In the end it was Sargent who came up with the arrangement in which, rather than leaning eagerly toward one another, the sisters pose languorously, each angled in a different direction, conspicuously failing to make eye contact. It was a brilliant proposal, both for the way it allowed each woman to inhabit her own psychological space, but also because it meant that Sargent could paint them separately, without trying to schedule group sittings (getting the three society women around the dinner table for the introductory meeting had taken weeks of negotiation).
Sargent started work immediately on what amounted to three individual portraits stitched together. On the far left is Mananai, the least public of the three sisters. Grieving the recent loss of a baby son after four bouncing girls, her palm is turned tentatively upward, as if ready to receive a future blessing that she fears may never come. Pamela, sitting in the central position as always, looks every inch a society beauty, boldly inviting the viewer’s gaze but then, with an insouciant flip of her fingers, making it clear that she doesn’t care whether she gets it or not. Mary, the unofficial leader of the three, is perched on the sofa back, her gaze fixed perhaps on Westminster, where at this moment her confidante Arthur Balfour and her brother George are poised on the brink of real power.
What finally brought the sisters together was the bond of being a Wyndham, which would always trump any little difficulties about chiffon. This family pride went far beyond the usual sense of entitlement that came with being a member of Britain’s hereditary aristocracy. Indeed, judged strictly by titles and ancient seats, the Wyndhams, one might argue, had little to crow about. As the third son of the first Baron Leconfield, Percy Wyndham had no claim to a title beyond an entry-level “Hon.” And while he had inherited a fortune from his fond father, he had no claim on Petworth House, the family’s magnificent Baroque pile in Sussex.
Percy’s wife, Madeline, meanwhile, had neither title nor wealth, although she did come trailing a thrilling family backstory that involved descent from rebellious Irish noblemen and the Orléans kings of France. She also, and more usefully, brought to the marriage a rare talent for emotional engagement, insisting on raising her children with a loving attention that was almost bourgeois. A photograph taken in the late 1860s shows Percy with four-year-old George lolling in his lap in an attitude of deepest trust, the exact opposite of the usual aristocratic froideur. “Family love was almost a religion with the Wyndhams,” recalled Mary’s eldest daughter years later.
Alongside this emotional accessibility, which on occasion brought her close to psychological breakdown, Madeline was also engaged with the contemporary art world, which gave the Wyndham family its slightly bohemian edge. She counted the Burne-Joneses among her closest friends, had helped found the Royal School of Art Needlework, and, as a young married woman, had been painted by G.F. Watts in an outlandish dress that marked her as a firm follower of the aesthetic avant-garde. So when the time came for the Wyndhams to choose an architect to create a country house that would express their exceptionalism, the natural choice was Philip Webb, William Morris’s longtime professional partner.
Clouds House, built in the 1880s in a valley on the Wiltshire Downs, was a fine example of the Arts and Crafts style scaled up to heroic proportions. The turreted green sandstone exterior suggested a whimsical fairy palace, while inside the cozy inglenooks and cloistered galleries facilitated the kind of intimate groupings and confidential têtes-à-têtes on which the family’s subtle power depended. Morris himself designed tapestries for the new house, while cartoons by Burne-Jones hung on the walls. The Wyndhams loved Clouds so much that when it burned down in 1889 as a consequence of a stuffed linen cupboard and a rogue candle, Percy ordered it to be completely rebuilt, this time with better plumbing.
It was around this time that Clouds became known as a “palace of weekending” that attracted young men and women drawn from a loose grouping of four intermarrying dynasties: the Balfours, Lyttletons, Tennants, and Wyndhams. The men, who were mostly in politics, included both Liberals and Conservatives, which sounds like a recipe for some very bad-tempered table talk. Explosions at Westminster over the toxic matter of Home Rule for Ireland, imperial tariff reform, and the looming Boer War had coarsened political discourse to the point where it became advisable for guests at grand society weddings to be seated on opposite sides of the church according to their party persuasion.
What made “the Gang,” as the Wyndhams and their associates called themselves, so different was their resolution to rise above such petty factionalism. Taking their cue from their unofficial leader, Arthur Balfour, the languid Conservative secretary for Ireland who had once opined that “nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all,” they steered their conversations toward more speculative realms. “You all sit and talk about each other’s souls,” announced the hearty Lord Charles Beresford. “I shall call you ‘the Souls.’” The name stuck, and while they pretended not to like it, you could tell they were secretly pleased.
But what exactly did the Souls talk about? What did it feel like to find yourself cornered in the inglenook at Clouds with a Wyndham sister bearing down on you for a confidential chat? It is these missing textures that many historians have tried to recover, most recently Nancy Ellenberger in her valiant Balfour’s World: Aristocracy and Political Culture at the Fin de Siècle (2015). Yet no one, including Claudia Renton in her accomplished first book, Those Wild Wyndhams, has quite succeeded. For while the Souls liked to imagine themselves intellectuals, they were not deep thinkers.
The men had often gone straight from Eton into the army before entering Parliament. The women, including the Wyndhams, lived in a world far from the one in which middle-class girls were beginning to attend the new urban high schools followed by three years at one of the women’s colleges recently established at Oxford and Cambridge. Instead the sisters were brought up by a series of well-meaning but ineffectual governesses, whom they would later remember affectionately in a series of comic turns. In an attempt to raise the tone among the female Souls, Mary Wyndham (now Lady Elcho) helped organize a weekly ethics class in London with subjects including “Conscience self love etc” and “Kant.” But it turned out to be “rather above our heads” since no one had bothered to do the reading. As the social season wore on, attendance at the Wednesday afternoon seminars dropped to just three.
The evidence we have suggests that it was talking, rather than reading, writing, or even thinking, that lay at the heart of Souls culture. Laura Tennant, Mary’s best friend, described the first Souls weekend, which took place in December 1884 at Stanway, the Elchos’ Gloucestershire place:
We quarrel about everything—we talk up to the top of our bent—we grow hyper-sentimental and blow blue bubbles into the stars…we none of us open a book or write a letter—we scribble & scrawl & invent words & reasonless rhymes.
This sounds social and hectic rather than particularly deep. It also sounds as if it might make anyone outside the golden circle feel rather cross. In 1893 the radical weekly Truth got hold of an “Expression Exam paper,” a quiz made by female Souls on their developing private language, and gleefully reproduced it in order to rouse its readers to righteous scorn:
Analyze the following phrases: This is distinctly Sir Giles. She almost pecked him. He has got a touch of egg. I have got three dentists today. Je suis mariée, vous n’êtes pas. He’s got a cruet.
Of course aristocratic coteries have a long history of bending language in order to keep others out—one thinks of the Devonshire House set in the late eighteenth century with their etiolated vowels and contrived lisps. What was perhaps new, or new within living memory, was the way that the male and female Souls batted this stuff back and forth on terms of unselfconscious equality. More than that, they made a point of bypassing the weighty performance of gender that was still part of the Prince of Wales’s raffish Marlborough House set, where hearty men smoked cigars and pretty women simpered. During a typical Souls country weekend the men didn’t shoot if they didn’t feel like it, often preferring to stay cozily in the drawing room with the women, playing games of Expression. The women smoked cigarettes, wore pared-down aesthetic dresses without a bustle in sight, and presided over meals that would have struck His Royal Portliness, King Edward VII, as positively meager. (Renton points out that the two things went together: uncorseted aesthetic dress only works if you are slender, and there was no such thing as a fat Soul.)
Most importantly, the Souls championed intense but platonic love affairs, the most enduring of which involved Mary Elcho and Arthur Balfour. They had met at the ages of seventeen and thirty-three at one of Frederic Leighton’s chamber music afternoons, and there had been an instant spark. When it was clear that Balfour would not propose, Madeline Wyndham hurried her eldest daughter into marriage with the wealthy Hugo Charteris, heir to the Earl of Wemyss (bohemian or not, the Wyndhams still believed in doing certain things the old-fashioned way).
Behind Balfour’s lifelong if unconsumated love affair with Mary, one might see something of the chivalric tradition of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, one of the Souls’ favorite texts, in which knights pine after fair ladies who are married to their best friends. But the fact remains that Balfour never wed, and historians have long speculated that he may not have been sexually interested in women. He was dubbed “Pretty Fanny” by journalists who knew exactly what they were insinuating. An added frisson about the sexual proclivities of male Souls arose from the fact that it was the Wyndhams who had first introduced Oscar Wilde to their cousin Lord Alfred Douglas.
Here and there are clues that something more may have been going on between Mary and Arthur. In 1906 she wrote him a letter wondering if he remembered their “f-rst k-ss” of twenty years earlier, which suggests that, despite attending Fabian meetings with the Webbs, she had a pessimistic view of the literacy of the prying servant classes. There is also a strong suggestion, which Renton takes pains to minimize, that during Mary’s regular Wednesday afternoon visits to Balfour, they indulged in recreational spanking.
But even if Mary and Balfour never consummated their relationship, it didn’t mean that Mary felt obliged to refrain from sex with other men. In 1895 she embarked on a fully physical affair with yet another cousin, the libidinous Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who made certain to note down all the details in his diary. It was a pointed choice on two counts. First, because Blunt had previously had an affair with Mary’s own mother, Madeline. And second, because two years earlier, Balfour, as chief secretary in Ireland, had sentenced the politically subversive Blunt to two months’ hard labor.
Regardless of what scrambled messages were being sent, the liaison between Mary and Blunt produced an illegitimate daughter, whom Mary’s husband agreed to bring up as his own. This sounds like handsome behavior, until you realize that it was actually part of an elaborate scheme of traded favors. As a serial adulterer, Hugo Elcho regularly dumped his mistresses, including the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, on Mary as long-term guests at their Gloucestershire manor house. Such forbearance roused even the ever-languid Balfour to something that sounds like irritation: “I cannot conceive why you permitted yourself to be saddled with her.”
Easier to understand, although much harder to like, was the youngest Wyndham sister, Pamela. At least ten years junior to the rest of the Souls, she nonetheless exemplified the insular self-involvement that the next generation would find so off-putting. “We do not ask ourselves and one another and every poor devil we meet ‘How do you define Imagination’ or ‘What is the difference between talent and genius?,’” snapped brilliant young Raymond Asquith, stepson of Pamela’s sister-in-law Margot Tennant. The stories have been told many times before of how, during a dinner party, a bored Pamela would get up and turn around and stare at the wall in a bid to be the center of attention. When she was really frustrated she lay on the floor and bit the carpet.
Pamela liked to assert her Soulful indifference to London’s social season by ostentatiously spending summer nights camping on the Downs with her children in a Gypsy caravan. In addition she regularly inflicted her folksinging on the local villagers, who looked on impassively as she strummed away on her beribboned guitar. In 1900, the year The Wyndham Sisters was displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts and declared a masterpiece by The Times, Pamela published her Village Notes, whimsical tales of local life that featured forelock-tugging locals spouting homely wisdom. “Eminently soothing” was the kindest thing that anyone could think to say.
Much of this material is familiar; nonetheless Renton works hard to shape it into interesting new configurations. Particularly fine is the way she draws on the remarkably frank letters among the Wyndham women to map out their bodily realities, particularly their experience of menstruation. Either “Lady Betsey” is late, which means the unwelcome news of yet another pregnancy (Mary, in particular, was exhausted with producing “the usual hardy annual”), or else Betsey comes in gushing huge clots, presaging a miscarriage of what might have been a much-needed son or a late baby to sweeten middle age. Indeed, Renton reveals that one reason it had been so tricky to get the sisters together to meet Sargent at the beginning of 1899 was that Mary was in an Edinburgh nursing home undergoing a gynecological “Spring-Cleaning” following an operation to correct a prolapsed uterus, the particulars of which she reported in fascinated detail to her mother.
Pamela, meanwhile, became a friend and admirer of Marie Stopes, confiding to the pioneering birth control doctor and author of Married Love that her relationship with her husband had always been sexually unsatisfying. Desperate for babies in her mid-forties, Pamela sounded out Stopes about the possibility of being artificially inseminated with a male donor of Stopes’s choosing. Appalled by the responsibility, the doctor sensibly refused.
Where Renton is less adept is in integrating these fine-grained intimacies into the broader political story. Nonetheless, she is quite right to try. Unlike the Bloomsbury Group a generation later, the Souls considered themselves first and foremost political animals, and Renton wants to make it clear that she is not simply writing an upmarket soap opera of the Downton Abbey kind. But it is very hard to keep these differently scaled narratives developing together, and the result is paragraphs that lurch from the latest on the brewing Boer War to someone’s first trimester, or from the first Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910 to the campaign for a Home Defense Army.
In the last analysis it was World War I that saved the Wyndham sisters from triviality. Along with every other aristocratic family in Britain, they lost young brothers and sons on the fields of France and Flanders. Mary mourned two boys, Pamela one, and their brothers lost a son apiece, making five in all. Renton is an admirably unobtrusive presence, but at this point she steps out from behind her narrative and wonders just how the female Souls could have borne the irony that it was the men in their circle—Mary’s Balfour, Pamela’s lover Lord Grey, even their recently deceased bellicose brother George—who were responsible for the war that sent their sons to their deaths. Life was no longer a parlor game of Expression or even a catch-up session on Kant.
After the war a succession of high taxes, death duties, labor shortages, and the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, meant that the kind of grand country house existence on which the culture of the Souls depended was no longer feasible.
Mary was obliged to rent out her beloved Stanway, where they had first gathered in the winter of 1884, to the playwright J.M. Barrie. Her other big house, Gosford in the Scottish Borders, was now run grumpily as a sort of hotel by her husband, Hugo, and his resident mistress, Angela Forbes, who had installed a cocktail bar and spent her days spying on the paying guests. Pamela signed up for spiritualism, as so many bereaved people did after the war, and became a kind of comedy viscountess as far as the popular papers were concerned. Menanai, kind as ever, invited her mother to live at her country house, Brabaham, but had to ask her to contribute financially toward her keep.
As for The Wyndham Sisters, in which John Singer Sargent had rustled the young women up into a symphony of white, it was sold in 1927. The new paterfamilias of Clouds, Dick Wyndham, a second son of a second son, needed to scratch together some cash. So he let the painting go to the Metropolitan Museum in New York for a mere £20,000 (Sargent was terribly out of fashion), where it hangs to this day.