Sunday, 10 October 2010


"He'll never marry her"
"How can you be so sure?"
"She pronounces the 't' in "often""
So speak some of the characters in The Two Mrs Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne about Ann Arden (real name Urse Mertens of Kansas) before she stared her heady climb into the uber-rich socialite world of old money in New York in the '40's.  A tale of  love, murder, social climbing and class peopled by semi-fictional characters and the real celebrities of the time.
But, like Downton Park, it's plot is somewhat incidental - the real hook of the book is manners - or lack of them. Manners are a strange and terrible thing, aren't they?  We inherit so much from our parents and then have to re-learn them when we fall in with the peers that we feel at home with. As a child I could swap quite happily from home where I had to say "what?" if I hadn't heard something to the mealy mouthed "pardon?" at primary school.  The same with "loo" and the pronunciation of "Hoorah"  It was just something - along with other incomprehensible things that didn't confuse me as a child.  I put it down to the sheer perverseness of adults. 
The formidable matriarch of the family Grenville that the ambitious Ann tries so hard with is the Emily Post of her day.  Alice Grenville has it all.  Money, breeding, houses, horses, jewels and manners.  She knows that Ann has designs on her only son - Billy, and resigns herself when is a quick wedding takes place. Her daughters cordially loathe her.  Ann may be beautiful, but after all she was a showgirl.... and she wears scarlet lipstick, eye-shadow in the afternoon, over dresses and - horror - cuts her bread roll with a knife at the table.
But, Ann is a quick learner.
"Don't say 'Mansion' say 'House'"
"Don't over-scent.  You're not in the Copacabana now."
"And for goodness sake, just pass your hand over the top of your wineglass before the butler pours if you don't want any more wine, don't turn your glass upside down."
Poor Ann, she used the wrong brocade in her new house, and curtsied to Wallis Simpson (''tacky') and generally got it wrong.  But not for long.  Soon, she looked and sounded like all the rest.  Except of course she wasn't.  Her past catches up with her and she shoots her husband dead one night after a drunken row.
Alice Grenville is caught in a position of horror.  Should she reject her daughter-in-law who killed her beloved son, and risk having the dirty family laundry aired in public - even worse - in the papers?  (She is of the opinion that women of her position should have their names thrice only in the press, birth, marriage and death) Or, should she close, rank, pull in a few favours from the rich and powerful friends and have Ann on her hands for the rest of her life?
From Biarritz to Paris, from Long Island to Kentucky the two Mrs Grenvilles have to tolerate one another in this tale of wealth, glamour and ultimately - terrible sadness.  Maybe money really doesn't buy happiness?
"What does NOCD mean?" Ann asks, knowin that two women were talking about her.
"Not Our Class Darling." is the harsh answer.

No comments:

Post a Comment