Wellingtons Through History

Weidenfeld & Nicholson published Wellington: A Journey Through My Family by Lady Jane Wellesley. Lady Jane is the daughter of the present 8th Duke of Wellington. Her book takes readers a bit haphazardly but amusingly on a ride through 200 years of family history spiced with many anecdotes.

For 200 years, (male) Wellesleys have tried to get out of the long shadow of the Iron Duke. But how could they? He is greeting from Pub signs everywhere and just about everybody owns and wears Wellington boots; boats, ships, and steam engines are named after him. It’s not a pair of shoes to put on lightly, anyway. And just imagine being saddled with a country pile in the size and of the importance of Blenheim. You wouldn't want it and wouldn't wish it on anyone.

Even a first duke has a mother. And the mother of the Iron Duke knew him well; she is reported having said ‘Anyone can see he has not the cut of a soldier.’ But at least he didn't take after his father who had fashionably died in debt at 46. The Duke at the battle of Waterloo was exactly the same age and had outrun his father's devils and his mother's prediction.

Two centuries later, Jane took her father and her readers through another war fought on the continent. In World War II, her father’s cousin had died at Sarento, leaving her grandfather to become the seventh Duke some time later. This was not the only time the Wellington succession was warped and moved sideways. Like all major English families, wars and disastrous marriages have left their mark on the Wellesley family tree.

The present Duke married Diana McConnel during that same war. The marriage took place in Jerusalem, where Diana’s father was chief of staff. The ceremony took place just after a bomb had been discovered at the church. Diana didn't bother to tell anyone, least of all her bridegroom and the marriage went ahead as planned.

The late Queen Mother was descended from the Iron Duke’s elder brother Richard and his first wife French actress Hyacinthe Roland who bore him five children before he married her. Later in life, Richard would marry again, an American heiress from the early Dollar nobility. But iron was inherited down the line all the same for those who know the Queen Mother.

Lady Jane tells the story of poor Kitty Pakenham, the Iron Duke’s spurned wife. She also tells the story of Dottie, wife of the seventh Duke, who went off to live with Vita Sackville-West. Dottie was a sensitive writer in her own right; she was also a close friend of Yeats. In case you don't know all the gossip, I won't spoil it for you.

The book is not a history lesson. That would fill several volumes. It doesn't pretend to be one, either. It’s rather a family’s history as seen by a member of the family. It is therefore biased but also fresh and immediate. The bias is not a drawback, but rather a plus, as it makes it more immediate, believable, and colorful. It’s an amusing and spellbinding read with some history lessons on the sideboard.