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Mathew Lyons on Walburga, Lady Paget, Embassies of Other Days, Slightly Foxed 82

Eye-wateringly Sharp

‘I always see the faults of my friends,’ writes Walburga, Lady Paget, in the introduction to her two-volume memoir Embassies of Other Days (1923). ‘But I like their faults and I mention them as it adds to the piquancy of their personalities.’ The second volume closes with a further disclaimer. ‘I have related everything exactly as it appeared to me to be and may thereby have inadvertently hurt the feelings of some, but this must be put to the account of my sincerity.’ Reader, be warned: Lady Paget can be alarmingly sincere.

In all, she wrote six volumes of memoirs about her experiences as the wife of the diplomat Sir Augustus Paget, who between 1860 and 1883 was Britain’s ambassador in Copenhagen, Lisbon, Florence and Rome, and then, from 1883 to 1893, at the imperial court in Vienna, to which Walburga was also appointed ambassadress in her own right. Embassies, written during her ten years in Vienna, mixes memoir with diary entries and letters; it is the most fully autobiographical of her books, which have long been out of print. That is not surprising. As The Times noted when she died in 1929, aged 90, she belonged to a world ‘which, already obsolescent, was utterly swept away by the Great War . . . a world in which “Society” in most European countries meant a small set of aristocrats and diplomats who spent their lives in expensive amusements, sport, intermarriage and the painstaking observance of an elaborate etiquette.’ Put like that, I suppose, one can see its flaws.

Still, it’s a shame her books are neglected. Piquant observations – some of them eye-wateringly sharp – are everywhere. Within a few random pages, one might meet Lady Malet with ‘the look of an ancient Sybil . . . marred by the too frequent use of the waterproof which at times appeared to be her only and certainly was her principal garment’. Or Mme de Haymerle, wife of the Austrian ambassador in Rome, ‘a small, attenuated pe

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‘I always see the faults of my friends,’ writes Walburga, Lady Paget, in the introduction to her two-volume memoir Embassies of Other Days (1923). ‘But I like their faults and I mention them as it adds to the piquancy of their personalities.’ The second volume closes with a further disclaimer. ‘I have related everything exactly as it appeared to me to be and may thereby have inadvertently hurt the feelings of some, but this must be put to the account of my sincerity.’ Reader, be warned: Lady Paget can be alarmingly sincere.

In all, she wrote six volumes of memoirs about her experiences as the wife of the diplomat Sir Augustus Paget, who between 1860 and 1883 was Britain’s ambassador in Copenhagen, Lisbon, Florence and Rome, and then, from 1883 to 1893, at the imperial court in Vienna, to which Walburga was also appointed ambassadress in her own right. Embassies, written during her ten years in Vienna, mixes memoir with diary entries and letters; it is the most fully autobiographical of her books, which have long been out of print. That is not surprising. As The Times noted when she died in 1929, aged 90, she belonged to a world ‘which, already obsolescent, was utterly swept away by the Great War . . . a world in which “Society” in most European countries meant a small set of aristocrats and diplomats who spent their lives in expensive amusements, sport, intermarriage and the painstaking observance of an elaborate etiquette.’ Put like that, I suppose, one can see its flaws. Still, it’s a shame her books are neglected. Piquant observations – some of them eye-wateringly sharp – are everywhere. Within a few random pages, one might meet Lady Malet with ‘the look of an ancient Sybil . . . marred by the too frequent use of the waterproof which at times appeared to be her only and certainly was her principal garment’. Or Mme de Haymerle, wife of the Austrian ambassador in Rome, ‘a small, attenuated person, who might have been pretty had she not been so washed-out looking . . . a native of Frankfurt where, apparently, the art of eating with grace does not enter into a higher education’. Or Anthony Trollope – ‘rough, heavy, persevering and rather vulgar, like his books’. If all this sounds a touch de haut en bas, even for an ambassadress, there is a reason for that. Lady Paget was born Walburga Ehrengarde Helena de Hohenthal in 1839, the daughter of a German count with vast estates in Saxony, Prussia and elsewhere. The family seem to have travelled constantly, from estate to estate, from palace to palace: Lauenstein, Dresden, Ostend, Thuringia, Silesia, always among the very first of people, with the biggest houses, the most servants. Who among us doesn’t have a favourite among our family’s castles? Walburga’s favourite was that at Püchau, where the terrace outside the south tower quickly fell away to a drop of hundreds of feet and the air in summer was sweet with the scent of orange flowers and verbena. She was given her first ball gown at the age of 5 – white tulle over white satin looped with rosebuds. ‘Inharmonious colours’ would always cause her suffering. But there was severity amid the splendour. Walburga’s English governess up to the age of 7 beat her every time she hesitated or made a mistake in her nightly prayers. The combination of a thin nightgown, having to kneel on a cold floor in the middle of winter, and the anticipation of punishment meant she was beaten often. Her parents were unaware of all this, but perhaps it was par for the course. Walburga’s father had been a delicate child; his mother had thought the best way to strengthen him was by privation. He was starved so thoroughly that hunger drove him to eat the stubs of candles. Walburga’s friends called her Wally – pronounced with a ‘V’. She needed friends. Her father died in 1852. Money – Wally had never heard the word before – was suddenly scarce. By 1855 she and her four younger siblings were orphans. The family was broken up and the children divided among relatives. Wally took solace in the church – ‘I went [there] constantly and passionately’, she wrote – and was tempted by the nun’s vocation, liking to visit the poor and the sick. Possibly she liked the drama of the idea itself. She devoured English novels and surely had a taste for the gothic; a great leaning towards ‘the Tragic Muse’, she writes, meant her party piece was to fall in a dead faint to the floor. But it was then, really, that Wally’s life – and her wider travels – began. At 18 she became maid of honour to Queen Victoria’s 17-year-old daughter, the Princess Royal, also named Victoria, who was shortly to marry Prince Frederick of Prussia. For the next few years, until her marriage to Augustus Paget in 1860, her life was a circuit of palaces and other royal residences. These were not an unmitigated pleasure. The sitting-rooms might be stately, she recalled, but the bedrooms were wretched. ‘I do not believe anyone washed in former days, for if you were lucky you found a basin the size of an entrée dish.’ At Babelsberg she was housed in a cottage on the royal estate, which leaked whenever it rained. ‘I was in the habit of sleeping with an open umbrella tied to the head of my bed.’ It may be that, as with inharmonious colours, she could be at once doughty and unduly sensitive: later, when she first entered the British embassy in Vienna, she found it ‘a cross between a Café Chantant and a second-rate railway hotel’. She sat down in her bedroom – sea-green walls, furniture of yellow maple – and wept. She would probably have said her memoirs were those of an aesthete; certainly beauty in her eyes seems to have been almost a moral quality. Whistler, Burne-Jones and other, now forgotten artists pass through her pages. She begged – or perhaps cajoled – her way into helping two monks remove the whitewash hiding some medieval frescoes in Florence’s Sante Croce church. She had the sharpest of eyes for the ebb and flow of fashions too: her own dresses, and those of the women she met, are described in perceptive detail: the Italian politician’s wife, for instance, wearing ‘a cream-coloured satin dress, with creamy coloured lace about it, out of which her beautiful creamy shoulders did more than peep’. It was not just fashions that changed; sartorial mores did too. Crinolines fell in and out of favour, and with them the taste for dresses that obscured or revealed their wearer’s shape: Wally was forced by Queen Victoria to abandon her crinolines for pretty French dresses that ‘flapped around me like sails in a calm’. Then there was the period when it would have been ‘the crassest ignorance or, worse, vulgarity’ for ladies to wear anything but light brown gloves of Swedish leather; she would never have dined without them, Wally says, even if eating alone with her aunt. But it is the people you remember most. Olympia Usedom, née Malcolm, was the Scottish wife of a Prussian diplomat, large-bodied, large-voiced, with a nose that Olympia herself likened to a brigand’s spear. Blocked by police from proceeding through a festive crowd, she stood up in her landau and bellowed, ‘Let me pass. I am Prussia.’ Sir Henry Drummond Wolff was ‘something of a cheap angel and a German professor’. Lady Pontarlington seemed ‘extremely high-bred looking, with a suggestion of a strangled bird’. The Belgian Baron d’Hoogvorst was ‘distinguished mainly by his unbounded hospitality, his love du cheval, and as being the owner of sixty-six pairs of shepherd’s plaid trousers, and two hundred blue satin cravats with white spots’. Spencer Cowper was a shy man whose dinner invitations were issued ‘with the air of a person who was going to ask you to lend him some money’, while Emilia Peruzzi, wife of a Florentine politician, was ‘a fat, lively little lady, who spat at you volubly in four different languages’. The Archduchess Maria Theresa, ‘barely thirty . . . whom the Archduke Charles Louis kills, from sheer ennui . . . looks like a wild forest creature caged and pining for liberty’. It is as if you are watching the cast of an Italian comic operetta assemble. And then you remember that these people governed the fates of nations and empires. The scene is so brilliantly painted, in fact, that you don’t notice the sleights of hand. High imperial politics toil away in the background: the Crimean War, the Schleswig-Holstein question, the Risorgimento, the Franco-Prussian War, Home Rule for Ireland, the Austro-Prussian War, Bismarck’s creation of Germany, and so on. Sometimes it comes to the boil: there is nothing diplomatic about Wally’s detestation of Gladstone, for example. But for all her seeming indiscretions, veils are discreetly drawn in multiple directions. At first glance, you might say the business of diplomacy is largely missing from the memoir. But if misdirection is part of that business, then every page is glistening with it. Late in the second volume we glimpse her, between dinner and the theatre, spending an hour – in full dress and tiara – working on the cipher of the latest diplomatic telegram. The curtains part for a moment, the machinery of politics revealed; and then, with a passing dig at Mrs Gladstone, they swish back into place once more. If her world was, as The Times reported, already obsolescent by 1914, what does it look like to us now, a whole century later? This is, after all, Europe in which nation states were being dragged kicking and screaming into the world, transnational dynasties were being supplanted by nascent democracies, and notions of blood and kinship that had dominated politics were giving way to ideology. Wally, however awkwardly, and no doubt unconsciously, straddles some of this divide: ‘It is astonishing under what glass cases these Archdukes live, especially the older ones,’ she writes in imperial Vienna. ‘They are in no touch whatever with the world.’ A vegetarian and an ardent opponent of blood sports, she was also a firm believer in the occult. Who can blame her? Ghosts of the past were everywhere. Her father had as a child met Napoleon; he remembered the emperor in ‘a short coat with [frogging] and white riding breeches . . . very short and pale’. In London she met Lady Jersey, the only woman to shake hands with Byron after his disgrace. There are present-day ghosts too. Wally’s younger brother died aged 5. Another brother died in August 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War, though it was nine years before his death was officially confirmed. Political violence was on the rise. Assassination attempts, some successful, pepper the narrative. ‘In those days we had not yet become accustomed to these attempts on crowned heads,’ she writes of the murder of Tsar Alexander II. Outbreaks of cholera and typhoid were common. ‘Wherever we stopped,’ she says of one childhood journey through cholera-ridden Germany, ‘the dead and dying were carried round about in baskets, with a bellringer before them to warn people to get out of the way.’ Death is a constant presence. In Vienna, she records ‘an epidemic of suicides . . . Servants kill themselves because they break a plate, children of seven or eight hang themselves because they cannot do a lesson, soldiers because they do not like the army . . . I was warned not to ride in the Prater in the morning before the patrol which takes the corpses off the trees had gone round.’ What a strange world it was, and how exotic its creatures seem to us. Yet how gorgeously alive she makes them, these lavishly dressed, vain, powerful, flawed, self-satisfied denizens of a doomed elite, stalking the haunted splendours of their ballrooms and salons across a continent fracturing beneath their feet.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 82 © Matthew Lyons 2024


About the contributor

Matthew Lyons is a writer, historian and reviewer. He’d like to see Lady Paget back in print one day.

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