While immersed in the 1920s Henry Poole ledgers, I chanced upon an order from Sir Jock Delves-Broughton, he of the still-unsolved Happy Valley murder in Kenya in 1941. You’ll recall cash-strapped Jock married young beauty, Diana, and took her out to Africa where he was one of many dissolute British aristocrats avoiding the war and speculating on hopeless plantation schemes.
Diana soon fell-in with the Happy Valley Set ruled by Kenya’s queen of vice Idina, Countess of Errol. Idina was estranged from third husband of five Joss Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll. The model for Nancy Mitford’s Bolter, Lady Idina hosted risqué parties at her villa, Clouds, where guests would gather round her green onyx bath as the naked hostess-cum-games-mistress blew a feather in the air to choose who slept with who.
Boredom, not glamour, drove the Happy Valley Set to distraction. Joss Errol was the most notorious swordsman at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club which goes some way to explain why there was no shortage of suspects when he was found with a bullet in his head on the road from Jock and Diana’s estates. Not coincidentally, Diana had announced that she was leaving Jock to live with Joss on his estate the Djin Palace.
Prime suspect Jock Delves-Broughton was arrested and tried for the Earl’s murder even though the Muthaiga Club mafia suspected Joss’s former lover Countess Alice de Janzé. Alice had form shooting a previous beau Raymond de Trafford in Paris. As the quip went around the bridge tables, ‘where did she shoot him? The Gare du Nord?’ ‘No, in the balls’. Jock was acquitted but returned to England in disgrace and committed suicide … as, incidentally, did his granddaughter Isabella Blow many years later.
The Happy Valley murder was expertly examined in James Fox’s excellent book White Mischief and the subsequent film starring Charles Dance as Joss, Greta Scaachi as Diana and Joss Ackland as an uncanny Jock Delves-Broughton. The film in particular glamourises British ex-pat Kenya with Dance and Scaachi making one of the most elegant, sexually charged couples in film history.
Evidently, daily life in Kenya was sweatier, dirtier and far more tedious than the romanticised screen version. Nevertheless,White Mischief does hint at the vacuousness at the heart of Happy Valley. When nobody wants to blow the feather, Idina (played by Jacqueline Pierce) moues ‘doesn’t anybody want to f*** me?’ Moments before she blows her brains out, Alice de Janzé (Sarah Miles), drifts out onto her balcony overlooking an idyllic vista, yawns and drawls ‘not another f****** beautiful day’.
In truth, none of Nairobi’s white expat elite had what you would call amusing or fulfilling lives let alone ones with a happy finish. Before her suicide, Alice routinely injected morphine, drank and was a depressive. Joss’s second wife Molly died from an overdose of alcohol and heroin. Raymond de Trafford served three years in jail for manslaughter and died bankrupt.
Only Diana rose from the ashes. She stayed in Africa and married wealthy homosexual landowner Gilbert Colville. When he died, she bagged the 4th Baron Delamere. As ‘White Queen of Africa’, Lady Delamere lived in a lesbian menage with Lady Patricia Fairweather and her pliant third husband. In some respects I think it kind of James Fox to paint a veneer of glamour over the lives of the Happy Valley Set. I am sure Diana, Joss, Alice et al would have been thrilled to be pinned like butterflies in history as the beautiful creatures they were on film.
Whenever I watch White Mischief I think of an old line about Princess Margaret’s life: ‘it probably looked a lot more fun than it was’. History does tend to erect modesty screens around its casualties as if shielding a crime scene from passers-by. All that’s left of Diana, Idina and Alice is Fox’s swift, dashing pens portrait in the style of Helleu.
Reading Frances Osborne’s biography of her great-grandmother Lady Idina hammered home how much time Lady Idina had to kill after the Kenyan ‘idyll’ with Joss. The Earl and Countess of Erroll married in 1923 and divorced in 1930. Lady Idina lived another twenty-five-years drifting, divorcing, drinking and a complete social pariah who was booed when she entered Claridge’s. Yes, her life probably looked a lot more fun than it was.
Apropos of nothing, I have recently converted from Radio 4 to Radio 3. It is a gift that keeps on giving. For one, the presenters don’t all have regional accents or shout at you. For two, even a philistine like me can appreciate that music composed before the 21st century is basically better for the soul. But the spoken word on Radio 3 is a revelation.
Yesterday, I listened to a superb consideration of Jane Austen’s last (and my favourite) novel Persuasion. Persuasion tells the story of an ageing heroine, Anne Elliot, who has lost her bloom and her chance of marrying Captain Wentworth. Anne is, I believe the closest of all Austen’s heroines to her own circumstances. The fact that she is given a happy ending by a dying Jane Austen adds poignancy.
Did you know Jane Austen earned a total of £630 (£25,000 in today’s money) for all of her novels? For me, Jane Austen’s £630 is salt in a wound. What hope for the rest of us if the greatest was not appreciated in her lifetime? It makes you weep to see talentless trollops like ‘Hey fatty bum-bum’ Kardashian throw another mink on the fire in the same world that Jane Austen died in poverty.