Colonel Repington, Arnold Bennett and Lady Constance

I’ve been looking again at a text I’ve neglected for a long while, The First World War, 1914-1918 (1920) by Colonel Repington. It was a book that scored a huge hit at the time of publication – ten editions in a year he claimed. It was something of a succes de scandale, because it was essentially a printed version of his gossipy diaries over the war years, when he was military correspondent for the Times (and later the Morning Post). The book gives an interesting picture of the interlinking of the military elite and the social one. Repington knew everyone and interviewed everyone, and in these diaries he is sometimes indiscreet. He is especially good on the friction between soldiers and politicians.

But what I noticed particularly today was a passage that put me very much in mind of Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady (1918), easily the best novel of civilian life written during the war.

In Bennett’s novel, the protagonist, Hoape, lives a double, or maybe triple life. He sits on earnest and sanctimonious committees, the sort that have the power to forbid the fraternisation of doctors and nurses in field hospitals. At the same time, he has a lively social life, mixing with women like Queenie, whose private life is very different from the sort that the committee would officially approve of. In addition to this, he has a mistress cosily installed in a West End flat.

The Pretty Lady is satire, but I thought of Hoape, and of the way that he spans the very different worlds of officialdom and Bohemian decadence, when I read this extract from Repington’s diaries. In 1916 Repington’s war work was not on an ambulance committee, but on a Tribunal that rules on men seeking exemption from conscription:

Dec 14th, 1916: Sat on the Tribunal all the afternoon. Horrible process of sending fathers of families into the Army. Then to the Ritz, half an hour late, to dine with Lady Strafford’s party for the Italian Day […] The contrast between the afternoon and the evening made me sad. Found myself between the two prettiest women in the party. […]Afterwards a vaudeville, and Lady Constance Stewart Richardson posed and contorted and danced, in few clothes and with bare feet. She looked like a white dervish. Lady Strafford suggested that she was playing John the Baptist, and that the contortions represented her attempts to find locusts and wild honey. […] Many fled when lady C. danced, including Sir William Robertson, who, when asked whether he did not think she had a very fine leg, replied that ‘it was just like any other damned leg.’

Lady Constance was the daughter of Earl of Cromartie and the wife of Sir Edward Austin Stewart-Richardson, but was also a keen dancer, and performed on the stage. Wikipedia tells me that Edward VII ‘considered it unsuitable behaviour for a noblewoman, and she was barred from Court’ The thought of Edward VII laying down the law about sexual morality is an amusing one. (See here.)

After 1914, part of her war work seems to have been to provide movement classes for munitions workers. Here is The Illustrated London News taking an opportunity to show her in some odd positions.

In Repington’s diaries I’ve mostly been reading his account of the end of the war, and the growing realisation that Germany was becoming demoralised and losing the power to fight back. Here’s a snippet that struck me:

I was amused by the story that over a Boche dug-out was a notice saying that ‘ We fear nothing but God and our own Artillery.’ A Boche officer declared that when his men knew that the Canadians were in front of them they would not fight, and he shot five of them pour encourager Us autres.

This has been a rambling post, just scattered thoughts inspired by reading Repington. But he’s that sort of writer. Browse in his two volumes for a while, and you’ll be led in all sorts of directions. I own the actual books, but they are available in digital form on the Internet Archive. To finish, here’s Max Beerbohm’s reaction to the 1920 publication of his diaries:

The caption is ‘A Chiel’, and one society lady is saying to the other:

I wonder what dear sweet Colonel Repington always carries that funny little notebook around with him for.

‘A Chiel’ is a reference to Burns’s ‘On The Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland’:

Hear, Land o’ Cakes, and brither Scots,
Frae Maidenkirk to Johnie Groat’s;-
If there’s a hole in a’ your coats,
I rede you tent it:
A chield’s amang you takin notes,
And, faith, he’ll prent it:

7 Comments

  1. ROGER ALLEN
    Posted July 29, 2020 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    You’ve confused your Edwards: VII, not VIII.

    Repington’s title – The First World War – caused a stir because of its assumption that there would be more world wars.

    • Posted July 29, 2020 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      Whoops! Thanks. that will be corrected.

      I think Repington intended the emphasis on World rather than First – pointing out the unique scope of this terrible war – but it was indeed read the other way by critics. And of course, another did indeed follow.

  2. R. Burton
    Posted July 30, 2020 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    That diary extract from December 1916 suggests that, despite being a military man, Colonel R had some sympathy for Conscientious Objectors? Quite unusual for the time?

    • Posted July 30, 2020 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Colonel R shows no sympathy for conchies, but a great deal for the married men ordered to leave their (maybe large) families and dependents at home without sufficient means of support. Relatively few applicants at Tribunals were C.O.s. Most were men pleading that their civilian work was necessary to the country and/or to their family’s survival.

      • R.Burton
        Posted July 30, 2020 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        Ah, that explains it. Thank you!

  3. Tom Deveson
    Posted August 1, 2020 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    An excellent read, as always – thank you.

    The dance of Lady Constance reminds me of Gorla Mustelford in Saki’s When William Came.

    Gorla is ‘the daughter of a peer’.

    ‘…“What?” cried Joan, in loud-voiced amazement; “haven’t you heard? Hasn’t Cicely told you? How funny that you shouldn’t have heard. Why, it’s going to be one of the events of the season. Everybody’s talking about it. She’s going to do suggestion dancing at the Caravansery Theatre.”

    “Good Heavens, what is suggestion dancing?” asked Yeovil.

    “Oh, something quite new,” explained Joan; “at any rate the name is quite new and Gorla is new as far as the public are concerned, and that is enough to establish the novelty of the thing. Among other things she does a dance suggesting the life of a fern; I saw one of the rehearsals, and to me it would have equally well suggested the life of John Wesley. However, that is probably the fault of my imagination—I’ve either got too much or too little. Anyhow it is an understood thing that she is to take London by storm.”

    “When I last saw Gorla Mustelford,” observed Yeovil, “she was a rather serious flapper who thought the world was in urgent need of regeneration and was not certain whether she would regenerate it or take up miniature painting. I forget which she attempted ultimately.”..’

    And then:

    ‘…To the uninitiated or unappreciative the dancing of Gorla Mustelford did not seem widely different from much that had been exhibited aforetime by exponents of the posturing school. She was not naturally graceful of movement, she had not undergone years of arduous tutelage, she had not the instinct for sheer joyous energy of action that is stored in some natures; out of these unpromising negative qualities she had produced a style of dancing that might best be labelled a conscientious departure from accepted methods. The highly imaginative titles that she had bestowed on her dances, the “Life of a fern,” the “Soul-dream of a topaz,” and so forth, at least gave her audience and her critics something to talk about. In themselves they meant absolutely nothing, but they induced discussion, and that to Gorla meant a great deal. It was a season of dearth and emptiness in the footlights and box-office world, and her performance received a welcome that would scarcely have befallen it in a more crowded and prosperous day. Her success, indeed, had been waiting for her, ready-made, as far as the managerial profession was concerned, and nothing had been left undone in the way of advertisement to secure for it the appearance, at any rate, of popular favour. And loud above the interested applause of those who had personal or business motives for acclaiming a success swelled the exaggerated enthusiasm of the fairly numerous art-satellites who are unstinted in their praise of anything that they are certain they cannot understand. Whatever might be the subsequent verdict of the theatre-filling public the majority of the favoured first-night audience was determined to set the seal of its approval on the suggestion dances, and a steady roll of applause greeted the conclusion of each item. The dancer gravely bowed her thanks; in marked contradistinction to the gentleman who had “presented” the performing wolves she did not permit herself the luxury of a smile.

    “It teaches us a great deal,” said Rhapsodic Pantril vaguely, but impressively, after the Fern dance had been given and applauded.

    “At any rate we know now that a fern takes life very seriously,” broke in Joan Mardle, who had somehow wriggled herself into Cicely’s box.

    As Yeovil, from the back of his gallery, watched Gorla running and ricochetting about the stage, looking rather like a wagtail in energetic pursuit of invisible gnats and midges, he wondered how many of the middle-aged women who were eagerly applauding her would have taken the least notice of similar gymnastics on the part of their offspring in nursery or garden, beyond perhaps asking them not to make so much noise. And a bitterer tinge came to his thoughts as he saw the bouquets being handed up, thoughts of the brave old dowager down at Torywood, the woman who had worked and wrought so hard and so unsparingly in her day for the well-being of the State—the State that had fallen helpless into alien hands before her tired eyes. Her eldest son lived invalid-wise in the South of France, her second son lay fathoms deep in the North Sea, with the hulk of a broken battleship for a burial-vault; and now the grand-daughter was standing here in the limelight, bowing her thanks for the patronage and favour meted out to her by this cosmopolitan company, with its lavish sprinkling of the uniforms of an alien army….’

    Saki was writing in 1913 but the book [for those who may not know] is set a few years later after Germany has conquered the Uk and occupied London.

  4. Posted August 4, 2020 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    As a Constance, I always like reading about my forbears, especially the titled ones!


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