Ettie Desborough was a glittering Edwardian hostess, gathering powerful men and lovestruck young admirers into her orbit by (as one contemporary put it) "the magnetic charm of fearless flattery"; she lived in and almost exemplified "The Last Age of Privilege".
She belonged to the class that looked down on bathrooms as common, since one should have enough servants to carry hot water to every bedroom; she expected housemaids to rise at 1.30am to stoke fires; she considered it "fast" to reverse in a waltz; and she could spot the political affiliations of other grandees by their tribal drawls. (The "Devonshire House" pronunciation of "cucumber" was "cowcumber", and "bracelet" became "brasslet".)
The epistolary and conversational style of these grandees is now almost as alien as their accents: Edwardian ladies exclaimed, underlined, flirted, and gushed. Davenport-Hines, who has a telling eye for detail, relates how the Desborough family butler, who served them from 1875 to 1943, was once asked to send a telegram accepting an invitation, and faithfully reproduced the family style: "Yes how perfectly wonderful love love love." The recipient, however, was an official of the Thames Conservancy Board.
It was a life spent, as Violet Bonham Carter said, "in the loveliest country houses in England - Wilton - Wrest - Stanway - Panshanger - (what visions those names conjure up to those who knew them, of grey and golden stone, of green lawns in the shade of great trees!)". But "Et in arcadia ego": and Ettie's earliest memory prophetically mingled sweetmeats and grief.