Friday, April 23, 2010

'"But in England, Men Admire Thin Women..."

I suppose it's because she was the daughter of the Earl of Orford, but I don't seem to have much trouble turning up a seemingly endless stream of bits of information about Lady Dorothy Walpole Mills, who for 16 years was married to the brother of George Mills, Arthur Frederick Hobart Mills.

Still, I think it might also have been a factor of a burgeoning media that was thriving on advancements in communication technology in the fledgling 20th century. Suddenly, even seemingly trivial bits of information could make their way halfway around the world amazingly quickly. While news of Lady Agnes Mills, George's grandmother in Cornwall, and Lady Catherine Mills, first wife of George's father Barton, is virtually non-existent, they lived and died in the 19th century.

But neither of those two women had the glamour of Lady Dorothy's mother, Louise Corbin, an American who'd married the heir to the Earldom of Orford. Although she had been born in Helena, Montana, and raised almost exclusively in and around the finest spas of Europe [she never lived in her father's house in Spokane, Washington, except briefly as a guest], New York City claimed her as a native, and the British press seemed fascinated by this woman who was allegedly from the Big Apple of the United States.

Lady Dorothy had been born in 1887, but by the time she was a teen, her life was being written about quite publicly and being read about around the world, especially the speculation over when her parents would allow her to make her debut in society. This was long before her first novel, press conference, or highly publicized excursion.

Still, I'm not quite yet ready to explore Lady D's life here. Last night, however, while reading her book, The Road to Timbuktu, I came upon a section in which she describes her husband, Arthur, George's half brother.

The scene finds her in the tent of the wife, sister, and sister-in-law of a Touareg tribe's chieftain,
"squatting around a low fire of embers" somewhere amid the wastes of the Western Sahara…

After a few minutes of rather sticky silence and constraint, while they eyed me furtively and brewed me some sickly-sweet tea, their questions poured out so quickly that I had scarcely time to answer them. Was I married? How old was I? Did a man in England have more than one wife? Did my husband beat me, as did the husbands of the negresses? Did we have divorce?

They made favourable comparisons between the English and the Touaregs when I told them that we, too, were monogamous and not addicted to wife-beating, but they evidently thought it scandalous that in a civilised country a man should be able to divorce his wife, and that on the trifling ground of unfaithfulness. But that being the so, they were surprised that, having been married nearly seven years, I had not yet been divorced! Though, as the old lady remarked, rather cattily, I thought:

'When a man goes forth to fight, little can he know what passes in the tent.'

The little wife wanted to know if my husband was a great man.

'Very great, though not so great as yours,' I answered tactfully. 'When he speaks, his words are carried by road and air throughout the breadth of our land and far beyond the seas.' I thought that rather a neat way of describing a fellow-scribbler, and evidently it impressed them. In answer to another question, I said that to the best of my belief my husband loved me.

'But,' broke in the old crone, who seemed to have a spiteful outlook on life, 'he cannot be very rich or you would not be so thin.'

'What has that got to do with it?' I asked.

'Were he rich, and did he have a great regard for you, he would instruct his servants to feed you with rich milk and fattening pastes, and to rub you with oil, so that you would be fat and good to look upon.'

'But in England, men admire thin women,' I protested, lying simply to preserve a fragment of my self-respect, but evidently they did not believe me.

In many ways, Lady Dorothy tries to be as intellectual and detached as possible in her explorations. Of course, sometimes it can't help but become personal, such as when, after running through the night in her underwear after a departing riverboat, she was rescued, slung over a strong black shoulder, and carried like a sack of potatoes back to the vessel. Or when the stalking of a tribesman reputed to be a cannibal ended with her shyly being presented a bouquet of hand-picked wild berries and a smile full of sharpened teeth.

Here we do learn that she is proud of her husband Arthur [left], with whom she feels an affinity as a
"fellow-scribbler"they'd both published a few novels at that point in their marriage. In addition, we learn Arthur's books are so popular that they're being published abroad. I've seen editions of Mills' books in French, German, and Swedish, and I don't claim that's any sort of exhaustive list.

Switching to the subject of body image, Lady Dorothy is quite thin to begin with—something she admits is at odds with her being attractive to the average British male in the early, pre-Twiggy 20th century—and even more so after a couple of months cruising the Niger River and knocking about the desert. Does she wonder in her heart if Arthur truly finds her attractive—at least attractive enough to keep her?

She does think Arthur loves her at that moment, at least 'to the best of her belief.' That may be a preview of coming attractions as Arthur is discovered in flagrante delicto in a hotel in 1932, leading to Lady Dorothy's filing for divorce which was uncontested and granted in 1933 [below, right]. I'll ashamedly admit that I do wonder, "How thin was Arthur's lover that evening?"

It was Lady D who was often away from home, living in the countries of people whose bodies she often described with phrases like "magnificent black torso" with "sheer animal strength," and "fine physical specimens… well over six feet and well proportioned." It was Arthur's activities at home
"in the tent," however, that ended up making the discussion of divorce with the chieftain's wife prophetic.

One does wonder about Lady Dorothy's complete adventures as a traveler and explorer. We read West with the Night by Beryl Markham and Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen [Karen Blixen] and do find breathtaking African adventures along the lines of Lady Dorothy's. Men like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Denys Finch Hatton may be frequently mentioned in those two texts, but only in the most Platonic of ways. Still, the words of the two authors often resound with passions that I'm certain were also explored in their undocumented affairs with those lovers.

In contrast, Lady Dorothy's words are frequently those of someone cataloging an adventure rather than completely savouring it. She often spends an entire chapter ticking off various tribes, religions, or locations in such strict organization and sequence that her story can take on the aspect of a very user-friendly textbook. Sections in which she recites racist litanies of offensive smells, sights, sounds, and proclivities are far less user-friendly, and paint her in a much less flattering light.

Anyway, Lady Dorothy's words, as quoted above, do give us some small bit of insight regarding the relationship between her and husband Arthur. One can't help wondering if theirs was a relationship that changed a great deal as she saw her career arc ascend over the next several years, while Arthur—the "very great" man she'd married who "when he speaks, his words are carried by road and air throughout the breadth of our land and far beyond the seas"—would soon see himself pounding out genre-specific novels that would come to be seen both then and now as having reached a rather low point on the scale of timeless literature.

The Road to Timbuktu is entertaining and even, at times, extremely insightful. It's also racist, elitist, and exhibits thinking along the lines of many of the worst aspects of colonialism. I can see why these books have slowly drifted out of our line of sight while, say, Out of Africa hasn't.

From our perspective today, we don't always find Lady Dorothy's beliefs very defensible. They do, however, offer a very personal glimpse into the world in which George Mills would have been born, bred, schooled, and wed.

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