Lady Dorothy Nevill

Lady Dorothy Nevill (1826-1913) was a pioneering horticulturalist in her gardens on the Dangerstein estate and a noted London hostess at her home on Chares Street, Mayfair. But it was the memoirs written in the last five years of her life that made her diaries comparable to Samuel Pepys. Lady Dorothy lived in the reigns of five kings and queens from King George IV to King George V and was in the unique position to meet historic figures from royalty and politicians to literary lions and theatrical knights. So popular were her writings that Lady Dorothy wrote a quick succession of titles Recollections (1906), Leaves from the Notebook of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1907), Under Five Reigns (1910) and My Own Times (1912).

Born in Berkeley Square the daughter of Horatio Walpole, 3rd Earl of Oxford, Lady Dorothy was unusual for women of her generation in that she was tutored in classical and modern languages. As a girl she embarked on a Grand Tour in all but name meeting King Ludwig I of Bavaria and playing with sisters the future Empress Elizabeth of Austria and the Queen of Naples. She was in St Petersburg when Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and witnessed his decimated body being carried through the Winter Palace.

As a young woman, Lady Dorothy eavesdropped on the modes and manners of fashionable society encountering the dandy Count d’Orsay and his mistress Lady Blessington, future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Dickens. Of Disraeli, she said ‘I first met Mr Disraeli, gorgeously dressed, a resplendent dandy as he was at the time’. Dickens ‘bubbled over with fun and conversation talking in a way which resembled nothing so much as some of the best passages of his own books’. In later life Lady Dorothy was one of the only ladies in Edwardian society to consider herself an intimate of Winston Churchill, his parents Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill and his grandmother the Duchess of Marlborough.

Aged twenty-one, Lady Dorothy found herself mired in a scandal that could have ruined her reputation. In 1847, she was caught in a summerhouse with rakish MP George Smythe who, with Disraeli, was a member of the ‘Young England’ Tories. The rumour had it that Smythe had refused to marry a pregnant Lady Dorothy who was swiftly married-off to her cousin Reginald Nevill twenty years her senior. The couple would go on to have six children while Smythe’s political career lay in ruins.

The sandal meant that Lady Dorothy was not welcome in the presence of Queen Victoria. However, she was a celebrated guest and correspondent in artistic circles making friends with Millais, G. F. Watts, Whistler, Thomas Hardy (whose Tess of the d’Urbervilles was a favourite novel), Sir Henry Irving, Thackeray (who she considered ‘sarcastic and severe’) and Oscar Wilde. Wilde and Lady Dorothy were regular correspondents and she would say of his fall ‘that brilliant writer who I think it is best to believe that a dark cloud of insanity settled’.

Lady Dorothy’s marriage to Reginald Nevill appeared to be a happy one. In 1851 they bought Dangerstein and turned the estate garden into a horticultural landmark with seventeen conservatories for Lady Dorothy’s exotic plants. Lady Dorothy was particularly interested in the cultivation of orchids and was known to give rare plants that she imported from the Colonies to Charles Darwin for his research. She was also an intimate of William and Joseph Hooker at Kew Gardens. Lady Dorothy was a pioneer in farming silk worms in England and also kept exotic birds and animals, forming an aerial orchestra by tying whistles to the tails of her flock of pigeons.

After Reginald Nevill’s death in 1878, it emerged that he had willed his money to the children in order to curtail Lady Dorothy’s extravagance. She moved to Sussex in a house called Stillyans rented from one of her botanical friends, Dr Robert Hogg, but her principal residence was her Mayfair townhouse on Charles Street. As a widow Lady Dorothy was at liberty to flex her muscles as a hostess: ‘Her Sunday lunches were a rendez-vouz for all sorts and conditions of celebrities. She mingled them discreetly, however, assigning shining lights of the Tory party as guests of honour but not neglecting literary lions and Upper Bohemia with great success’.

In the 1880s Lady Dorothy was one of the first committee members of the Primrose League; a political cabal to promote Conservatism founded in 1883. Lady Dorothy was welcome at all the great houses such as Longleat, Holland House, Highclere and Goodwood House. On her sojourns on the Riviera she met ex-Empress Eugenie of the French declaring her ‘a splendid grand dame’. In her memoir she ‘did not mention to the Empress that I had known her husband in the days when he was but a pretender to the Imperial crown’. The Prince of Wales entertained her at Sandringham and they exchanged amusing gifts.

But it was the minutiae of aristocratic life that Lady Dorothy described with evident delight and razor-sharp insight in her many memoirs. She would comment on ‘the curious modern invention of cigarettes’ saying ‘to smoke in Hyde Park was looked upon as unpardonable while smoking anywhere with a lady would have been classed as an almost disgraceful social crime’.  She declared Mount Street ‘the best modern street in the West End’ and was old enough to recall ‘the very mention of Marie Antoinette’s name evokes as strong a feeling of sympathetic compassion as it did at the time of her brutal execution’.

Towards the end of her life, Lady Dorothy Nevill was honoured as one of the very few women celebrated in Vanity Fair as a Spy cartoon portrait. Her most famous quote on a life as London hostess was ‘the real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment’. After her death in 1913, Lady Dorothy’s son Ralph Nevill published The Life and Letters of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1919). In her last memoir Lady Dorothy left a damning verdict on London society: ‘People of original character and brilliant intellect were undoubtedly more frequently to be met with some thirty or forty years ago than is now the case, when almost everyone seems to be cast in the mould of a more or less mediocre kind’.

(c) James Sherwood

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