Love and scandal among Hertfordshire’s Victorian elite

Nina Cust (by Cyril Flower), features in Tangled Souls.

Nina Cust (by Cyril Flower), features in Tangled Souls. - Credit: Cyril Flower

Hatfield House, Ashridge and Panshanger Park, with its glorious former mansion, are three of the great country houses that feature in a new historical biography looking at a late-19th century group of glamorous and clever friends who were torn apart by a scandal.

Nicknamed ‘the Souls’ because of their love of conversation, culture and clever games, they were a mixture of politicians, writers and artists who disliked the restrictive formalities of upper–class society.

They scorned ‘philistine’ pursuits such as gambling and racing, favoured by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and his circle, and gathered at ‘Saturday to Mondays’ at lovely houses to talk, play and flirt.

The group stemmed from the friendship that began in 1881 between 17-year-old Margot Tennant (later wife of Liberal Prime Minister, HH Asquith) and Arthur Balfour, 33. On the face of it they had little in common.

Ettie Grenfell (later Lady Desborough; courtesy Ivo Mosley)

Ettie Grenfell (later Lady Desborough; courtesy Ivo Mosley) - Credit: Courtesy Ivo Mosley

Balfour was a Conservative politician, who had entered the House of Commons in 1874 as MP for Hertford and belonged to one of Britain’s most powerful aristocratic families, the Cecils. Balfour’s uncle Robert, Marquess of Salisbury, of Hatfield House, was three times Conservative Prime Minister. When he resigned in 1902, Balfour would assume that role.

By contrast, Margot was a Liberal and the daughter of a Scottish industrialist, rather than an aristocrat. She was noted for her originality and directness, Balfour for his erudition and intellect, and they found each other interesting. Margot’s family did not believe politics should stand in the way of friendship and they welcomed interesting people of all persuasions to their home.

By 1887 the Souls included George Curzon, the future Viceroy of India, and artist Violet Manners, later Duchess of Rutland. Another prominent Soul was Ettie Grenfell (nee Fane), who had just married William Grenfell and become chatelaine of his mansion, Taplow Court.

Violet Granby (courtesy Jason Cooper)

Violet Granby (courtesy Jason Cooper) - Credit: Courtesy Jason Cooper

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After losing her immediate family in childhood, Ettie was cared for by her aunt and uncle, the Earl and Countess Cowper, who made her their heir. She became a noted hostess, entertaining swathes of society.

At her Christmas party at Panshanger in 1888, she presided over a Souls’ favourite game, Dumb Crambo (similar to charades), in which one female Soul wore breeches and boots to be Napoleon crossing the Alps, and Ettie played the horse. Such games were far from the usual polite parlour games of Victorian society and gave the women the excuse to dress less formally than was otherwise acceptable.

Arthur Balfour (Tucker Collection - New York Public Library)

Arthur Balfour (Tucker Collection - New York Public Library) - Credit: Tucker Collection - New York Public Library

Balfour believed platonic friendship between the sexes was possible. He remained single but maintained a life-long and intriguingly close relationship with a married Soul, Lady Elcho.

A form of courtly flirtation developed among married Souls, the code defined by an outsider as ‘Every woman shall have her man but no man shall have his woman.’ But sometimes things went further than stolen glances and extravagant letters.

Passions raged behind their courtly code. Married Souls discreetly bore their lovers’ children, and public figures got away with worse. However, it was the brilliant and handsome bachelor Harry Cust, MP for Stamford, and (at a time when MPs were not salaried) a revered newspaper editor, who caused the central scandal of the book.

Tangled Souls by Jane Dismore.

Tangled Souls by Jane Dismore. - Credit: Jane Dismore

Harry was heir to his cousin Earl Brownlow who owned magnificent Ashridge, where the Souls often gathered. There, Harry conducted an affair with poet and artist Nina Welby-Gregory, also single, who had long loved him. When she said she was pregnant, horror swept through the Souls, for his seduction of a single woman of the same class broke the rules. Balfour persuaded Harry he must marry Nina, otherwise they would be social outcasts. For the rest of their lives, they would fight to rebuild their reputations and maintain the marriage they were pressurised to enter. Here is pre-war society at its most colourful and most conflicted.

Harry Cust (courtesy Artemis Cooper) features in Tangled Souls.

Harry Cust (courtesy Artemis Cooper) features in Tangled Souls. - Credit: Courtesy Artemis Cooper

Tangled Souls: Love and Scandal Among the Victorian Aristocracy by Jane Dismore is published by The History Press on February 17. It is available to pre-order at