FAlmost in 1991 I was employed as secretary to the Dowager Duchess of Argyll, the fourth and last wife of Ian Campbell, the eleventh Duke. Mathilda was the wife after the most famous Margaret, the subject of A very British scandal, the brilliant and downright gruesome three-part drama by Sarah Phelps on the BBC. Whenever I talk about Mathilda, I usually have to make it clear: “Not this Duchess, the next one.”
Margaret always cast a shadow, or as she briefly and curtly writes in her autobiography Do not forget, published in 1975: “Three weeks after our divorce became final, Ian Argyll remarried, for the fourth time, to a Mrs. Matilda Heller. She had been in Ian’s life for a few years before our divorce.
Presumably, the misspelling of Mathilda’s name was deliberate. By 1991, the Duke’s first son from his second marriage had inherited the title and the castle, and none of the subsequent wives were regular visitors. The two women did speak occasionally on the phone, however.
“Desperately sad,” said Mathilda, slowly replacing the receiver. “Poor woman, think she’s on an ocean liner.”
“Where is she?”
I had this job because before keyboards anyone could enter anywhere. At 23, on my regular route to a teaching job that wasn’t really me, I cycled past the University of Oxford Quarry Building. One day, I stopped and wandered inside, and immediately fell in love with a folder marked Miscellaneous. That afternoon I applied to tutor’s son Paul McCartney and spy something in West Africa, but a few months later I found myself on the west coast of Scotland in a miniature castle at the end of a rutted track.
Mathilda rented the top two floors of the Lunga house, a 16e mansion of the century owned by the local laird. She offset the heavy Scottish stone with bright interiors and hand-painted chinoiserie wallpaper, while from her bedroom (in a real tower) she had views across the Atlantic to the Jura.
At that time Mathilda was 65 and was ‘famous for serving the best food in Scotland’. Her face had softened with butter and cream, though her blue eyes sharpened as she put her stepsister policy into practice. At meals, if she finished her plate first, she could say “halves” and take half of what was left on my plate.
As for who she really was, in the pre-internet era, I mainly knew what she chose to tell me. By her own estimation, Mathilda was what Margaret was not. Her 10 years at Inveraray Castle had been happy, scandal-free, and she was happy to display the Duke’s photo on her many side tables. For her, Ian Campbell was not the dark soul of his reputation. She was his fourth wife, yes, but also the Dowager Duchess. Like Catherine Parr, Mathilda was the survivor, loyal to the new Duke (the same as the former Duke) even though she wished he would invite her to dinner more often.
So I knew all that, and then the gossip. Margaret in the 1990s was a mix of gossip – erotic images, spoofed letters, naked, headless Hollywood stars – and Mathilda couldn’t stay away completely. Described in the BBC drama as “an American heiress,” I have heard rumors that she too was a victimized wife. “Pay the bills,” as Paul Bettany’s Duke spits at Claire Foy’s Margaret in A very British scandal, “that’s what you are for.”
Except it wasn’t that simple. Mathilda had grown up in France with her grandparents, was previously married to an Austrian intellectual, and had a cut glass British accent to add to her other three languages. She had studied at Radcliffe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she was not new to land. Perhaps she had dodged her husband’s worst, and her reward was a satisfied Dowager retirement in a scaled-down version of her former marital home.
Part of my job was to keep this illusion intact. I was paid 70 guineas a week, which meant £ 77 “found everything”, including a house in the nearby village of Craobh Haven and an unlimited account in the shop.
The original job description was vague, but I mostly came for ghostwriting. Mathilda had a contract with publisher John Murray for a memoir, and for one simple reason: everyone was interested in Margaret. Ruby Wax was hoping for a TV interview, and there was talk of Wogan. Thirty years later, a three-part drama may still be shown on the BBC, as photographs of a Duchess dressed only in her pearls will. Mathilda was the other woman; she had an angle.
His book, however, will never be finished. Mathilda did not want to write on Argyll vs. Argyll, with the possible exception of her success in evading the press, she and the Duke ventured into the hills of Provence in a racy Sunbeam convertible. She preferred to dwell on her sunny pre-war childhood life and her evacuation to the United States on a ship with a full-size carousel on deck. She was always willing to remember her married life at Inveraray Castle. The balls, the pomp, the sheer exhilaration of a duchess castle with the fancy duchess trimmings.
Each morning, I would watch her complicated breakfast come up the stairs to her bedroom, then take the dictation by her bedside. I wrote letters. We worked on the briefs, generally the Inveraray section. We agonized over menus, toyed with travel plans, and hired a new cook after Mathilda communicated her hatred of garnish by throwing everything decorative and green on the floor. Many times.
Then we would pack our bags and set off for Paris, and Mathilda’s apartment, rue de Tournon. The gorgeous centerpiece contained her bed, tub, and swing hanging from the rafters, but our steadfast daily routine included lunch with wine and six o’clock sharp ice-cold Wyborowa and games of backgammon before dinner. I was often politely drunk. We almost always smoked.
Mathilda liked to tell me that she was my bac, and it’s true that I learned to open oysters. And driving his Ford Mustang through Place de la Concorde at rush hour, and the correct pronunciation of Inveraray as “Inverarer.” She made me discover the great brasseries of Paris, Vagenende (my favorite) and The Procope and also the old Nazi favorite The dome. Sometimes I would wait until late, so that when she got back from a party, I could unhook the back of her dress and tackle the zipper.
“Thank goodness,” she said, “it’s so much easier when there are two on one”.
But however harsh our pretensions, and whatever the heiress’s situation at the time of her marriage, the Duchess had money worries. The good Chablis was running out in the cellar, and the Christie’s dealer who had stayed for lunch left with a rolled up rug under his arm. In Scotland, the oysters we ate were suckers from the local bay of Craobh Haven, too big to sell in commerce. Poor of us. I was sent to Paris on my motorbike to sell a first edition Odysseus.
A secretary was an indulgence, but I wasn’t really that, and I wasn’t a nigger either. My role was above all to be present, especially at mealtimes, as a 19th century “lady-in-waiting”. I was the paid companion. So naturally I judged her. In the early 1960s, Margaret had the tabloids to question her integrity. In 1991 Mathilda had me, exuding disapproval as proof that I was not entirely servile. With little else to make up for the power imbalance (70 guineas a week), I got mad at Mathilda for what I hated about me. She was alone and was wasting her advantages in life. It was commonplace. She wanted to be a writer but couldn’t linger.
I felt I had to have an opinion, and decided that the aristocracy was terrible. Mathilda was terrible, but – the lackey’s illusion here – without me everything would have been worse. I was not mistaken, she was deceived. I refused to be grateful, in the way that was expected of me. I was very rude to the people at Ruby Wax.
And then one morning in September, Mathilda woke up and forgot who she was. The baffled doctor prescribed aspirin and rest, and Mathilda sat patiently in her four-poster bed, the white lace curtains drawn back. I pulled up a chair. Her long henna hair was spread over the pillows and she folded her hands over the whiteness of the quilt. She waited, perfectly calm, for me to refresh her memory, to sum up her life.
It was very sad, so much. She had lost two children, a son from her first marriage and with the Duke a daughter who only lived a few days. His own father was a wealthy homosexual who was seduced by his mother for a bet in the 1920s. Most likely a bet made by the Duke himself, Mathilda’s future husband, who at 23 years her senior had once been a friend of her mother. A close friend. Margaret did not have a monopoly on disturbing and salacious stories.
“You own a five-liter convertible Mustang,” I said, entering quietly. “He plays the Star spangled banner when placed upside down.
I liked to make her smile. I told him about his easy friendships with artist Brion Gysin and composer Pierre Boulez. In Edinburgh, she had lunch with photographer Brodrick Haldane, and in Paris with sculptor Joseph Erhardy.
“Nudes or motorcycles,” I reminded him. “He was great fun, but told us the topic was a problem.”
She sent a monthly check to aging poet Peter Russell. Yes, I said, of course we will continue to do so. Warming up to my task, I reminded him of his rare talent for loving anyone who had something lovable about them, which was pretty much everyone. Including me. Its homes were also open to non-writers and convicted drug traffickers, as well as Steven Berkoff.
“You are the Dowager Duchess of Argyll.” It wasn’t something anyone else could say, and especially not Margaret. “You outlived your husband the Duke after 10 happy years at Inveraray Castle.” For verification, she was able to read the pages of her memoirs. Her life had been an admirable adventure and truly deserved to be remembered.
Mathilda has recovered, to a point. After we stopped working for her, we became friends and the last time I saw her we had dinner at the Continental Hotel in Lausanne. We shared fond memories, and discussed the pool house in Vézelay where she dreamed of ending her days. A year later, in 1997, shortly before his 72nd birthday, I was surprised by his name in the papers.
The funeral took place in Vézelay, and three of its former secretaries attended, one before my time and one after. Despite Margaret’s shadow, we came to pay homage to her. To Mathilda, not the famous Duchess of Argyll but the next one. The one we knew and loved.
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