One gilded afternoon in 1899, the Wyndham sisters were seated together on a couch, pliant yet statuesque, within the velvet recess of their drawing-room in Belgravia. Their satin dresses, weightless and ethereal, merged into an ivory cloud, dimpled with lavender and gold. Their limbs were slim and exhausted, starved of all bourgeois musculature by centuries of aristocratic breeding. Ballerina necks balanced on nests of bones, smooth with the lazy flesh of diaphanous bodies. Their chilly, patrician hands barely had the strength to hold a teacup – warmed only by the bronze liquid that shattered the porcelain into shards of light.
These ladies – Madeline Adeane, Pamela Tennant and Mary Constance, Lady Elcho – were called “The Three Graces” by the Prince of Wales, Windsor’s glittering roué. They should have been content with their decorative existence as royal favorites, draped across sofas like animal skins, clothed like the sea in gowns of froth, their fashionable spines bent by the bones of whales. But there was a wary intelligence, entwined with the bland vanity, which lurked in each of the sisters’ faces. Like a predator, it waited: within eyes as dark as Pandora’s Box, under the brows’ dusky horizons, trembling on subtle lips.
Pamela, the youngest and prettiest of the three, had the misspent spirit possessed by those cursed with such charms. Overly aware of her advantages, she had the disconcerting habit – though possibly excusable in one so lovely – of rising from the dinner table and facing the wall if she felt she was receiving insufficient attention.
Lady Mary had the discipline and logistical talent to seamlessly govern a large household, a philandering husband as well as a string of noteworthy lovers. Her amours ranged from Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt – long past but never over his affair with the courtesan Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters. Mary traveled with Blunt to Arabia, where she would bear his child, in 1895.
Madelaine was looked on as the forgotten Wyndham, only because she had to audacity to be content with her lot. Shy and gentle, she was the closest to the Edwardian feminine ideal. Happy, with a talent for needlework and bringing up her children, Madelaine seemed to embrace all of the housewife’s virtues.
The Wyndham sisters shared a DNA of foolishness and restlessness, tempered with a soupcon of quietude. But their dreaming wisdom was designed for speculation and fancy. They had the leisure for thought. Because of these serene qualities they were prominent members of a unique social group called The Souls. (Lord Charles Beresford supposedly said: “You all sit and talk about each other’s souls — I shall call you the ‘Souls'”.)
Weary of salons absorbed with politics and gossip, The Souls sought to distance themselves from such mediocre concerns. They were bent on pleasure, but pleasure of a superior kind…their intellect was both arrogant and amusing; their arguments louche, ridiculous and brilliant.
The Souls sculpted their dialogues as if they were works of art, with wit that was nimble and flirtatious. Lovers and ideas were shared with incestuous abandon. They were daring, but beautifully so.
The Wyndham sisters’ lives of exclusivity, culture and indolent wisdom would end – as it would for all members of their élite class – with the First World War. In 1918 peacetime, tethered with a new cynicism, began…but their exquisite lives had ended many years earlier.
“I am and always shall be sorry for wounding the feelings of anyone I care for but otherwise it is difficult to wholly regret days of beauty and romance.”
– Mary Constance Wyndham