Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Louise and Dorothy Rachel Melissa Walpole; Part 2

In her autobiography, A Different Drummer: Chapters in Autobiography [Duckworth: 1930], Lady Dorothy Mills writes of her youthful years before her engagement to Arthur Mills, brother of George Mills:

Halfway through my teens, the inevitability of me had become apparent, life changed. "Tom-boyish-ness" was discouraged, and it was subtly instilled in me that I had a part to play in the world. Slowly the beauty of my heritage began to dawn on me, the pride of prospective possession, and with it grew also the realization that I was but a cog in a great machine, the juggernaut of Family Tradition. My looks and my accomplishments were dealt with, I was in general tidied up, and at eighteen I "came out." For awhile the world seemed to be mine to play with. I adored it all, the frocks, the parties, the dancing, the flirtations, the young men who sweated under the collar when they proposed and whom I had no intention of marrying, though I knew that some day I would have to make a 'good match, a prospect that I classed alongside a visit to the dentist.

She continues:

In 1916 I got married after a three years' family warfare; warfare that one might say ended in a draw, in that on the one hand I had done what I intended, on the other that I was cast into utter darkness, to become the Outlier I have ever since remained. I had no trousseau, we had no prospects and no money, scarcely enough even to pay for the wedding celebrations. For though everyone advised a registry office, I decided on a church wedding, and a fashionable one too, that should be, if needs must, my last defiance to a sceptical world. I was the first London bride to wear a gold wedding dress, and incidentally, that bit of gold brocade was to be the last evening frock, except of my own making, that I was to know for several years, until finally it was turned economically into a sofa cushion!

Lady Dorothy was disowned by her family, unwilling to play her expected familial (and financial) role by selecting a suitable bridegroom with the money necessary for admittance into the Earldom. It would be uncanny to me if part of her independent spirit was not, in fact, due to beliefs about family, love, and marriage passed along by Louise Corbin Walpole, directly or indirectly, from the time Dorothy had attended the rancorous Wiedemann trial within her mother's womb, through having been raised under the cloud of the scandal, the tragedy of the death of her brother (the family's much-needed heir), and a bevy of burdensome expectations.

Louise and Dorothy, even if it never had been uttered aloud, had to have known they were disappointments to her father, Robert Horace Walpole, 5th and Final Earl of Orford. Louise, saddled with ill-health and anguish stemming from the scandal and the death of a child, bore up well (as a Walpole should) and eventually became a noted 'globe trotter.' Dorothy, however, eventually chafed under her own set of external expectations and the need to keep up appearances, perhaps even in tribute to her late mother.

Was there a curse bestowed upon the family by the vindictive Fraulein Valerie Wiedemann? Walpole died alone in New Zealand nursing home, far from his family's estates, the Earldom having become extinct with his passing when he was unable to produce an heir. He never got any of wealth of afther-in-law D. C. Corbin: Lady Dorothy collected an inheritance from her distant grandfather only after the passing of her estranged father, the Earl.

Louise passed away at the age 42, the result of a seemingly inconsequential "indisposition" after years of unhappiness, which included with a phobia of having her picture appear in public.

Lady Dorothy slowly estranged herself from her husband, Arthur, and his family as well—neither Dorothy nor Arthur, for example, attended brother George's 1925 wedding although they lived only a few city blocks away—becoming a world traveller and explorer who fascinated society by doing it all without dragging husband Arthur along. She openly wrote of what little need she actually had for him, in addition to the amusing romantic entanglements that arose during her adventures, none of which, according to her, ever came to fruition.

At the height of her career, Dorothy was seriously injured in a car accident in 1929 and never fully recovered. She managed a subsequent trip along the Orinoco, about which she wrote a book that was published in 1931. She also was planning a trip to the Middle East when her father passed away in 1932, allowing her access to the trust fund that had been waiting for her since her grandfather Corbin's passing in 1918.

In that same year, 1932, she filed for divorce from Arthur on the grounds of his adultery. Arthur, like her own flirtatious father, would never see a penny of her American inhertitance.

Lady Dorothy never wrote another book, although she continued to publish the occasional sensational article about her adventures in newspapers in the United States and elsewhere througn the 1930s, just as she had always done. She was soon largely forgotten.

She retired to Brighton, where she lived in a seafront hotel until her passing in 1959. She never remarried and remained childless.

A curse, perhaps? It seems she got what she wanted, and always on her own terms.

Her life, as she packaged and sold it to readers, was both legend and myth [above, left, an illustration that accompanied a wire service story she wrote in 1922 about her real-life adventures]. One wonders, though, if it all made her content with her own life in reality.

The most telling photograph of her mother, Louise Corbin, throughout this entire tragic tale is one I recently found in, oddly, the Badminton Library's 1895 edition of Sea Fishing, a book of which it had been implied by the press that Lord and Lady Orford had been the authors.

Almost expectedly, as was the case virtually with all of the exaggerations that had been published as facts about the Orfords in 1905 (we read about them last time), Robert and Louise Walpole actually are not listed among the main writers of the text: The main author was John Bickerdyke, but the section entitled "Tarpon" is credited to Alfred C. Harmsworth.

That section begins on page 445 of the text, and is fully titled "Tarpon Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico."

On page 448, Harmsworth writes: "Among the most successful tarpon anglers are the Lord and Lady Orford. Lady Orford is probably the only woman in the world who has killed two in one day. Her best fish was 128 lbs. Lord Orford has killed one weighing 183 lbs., the fifth largest known tarpon at the time of the writing.

He has kindly furnished me with some notes of his experiences during his visit in 1894. He says, after remarking that few tarpon fishers agree as to the details of the sport, and that every man has his own theory on the subject:

Our first attempts at tarpon fishing were at Punta Gorda, but we had no luck, and I do not think well of the place from an angling point of view. About the middle of April we went to Fort Myers, and there my wife and I killed seventeen fish, my best 183 lbs, smallest 75 lbs. I have presented one weighing 150 lbs. to the Norwich Museum, and am keeping my 183-pounder and Lady Orford's 106-pounder. There can be no doubt in my opinion that the tarpon, as a fish, is quite as game as the salmon."

After several paragraphs of discussion of the actual catching, reeling in, and killing of the fish, Walpole adds: "One has many slips while tarpon fishing and it should never be forgotten that the slightest check can be fatal to one's chance of killing. One of my fish (it had only fouled the trace by getting it under its scissor jaw) took three hours to kill."

Harmsworth adds a few lines about the difference between tarpon and salmon fishing, but Walpole sums it up this way:
"Of course there is not the pretty scenery, the casting, and the same amount of knowledge of where fish are to be found that makes salmon angling so delightful. Nevertheless, tarpon fishing is a magnificent sport, and I wonder that more Englishmen do not take to it."

Right off the bat, I'll say that I love Punta Gorda, far more than Walpole ever could have—my parents lived there for some 25 years after my father retired!

Secondly, what's interesting is what's written about Lady Orford: "…probably the only woman in the world who has killed two in one day."

That brings us to the point here: The somber photograph seen adjacent to this text. It is taken from page 447 of the book, and depicts a woman standing between two tarpon, strung up after the catch.

Now, I've seen this sort of trophy photograph before, and the angler usually is smiling ear to ear, reflecting pride and determination, or both.

Here we see what is ostensibly an anonymous "angler and her catch," but it is clearly Louise Walpole posed between her 106- and 128-pounders. Don't forget, she very much preferred not to have her photograph displayed in public, hence the attempt at anonymity. And Lord Orford probably probably provided it as well as very correctly feeling that, despite the very open clue in the text, the vengeful Valerie Wiedemann, one-time stylish German governess and current debt-ridden madwoman, was unlikely to be reading deep into a tome about the fishing habits of rich Englishmen.

The utter neutrality of Louise's face is stunning. I can make out no pride in her catch, and certainly no joy. In fact, beyond the distinctly neutral expression seemingy encompassing her entire face, there seems to also have been a touch of sadness, or perhaps resignation, in her eyes.

We saw a hint of ominous melancholy in her LIFE magazine photograph above as well.

One occasionally sees a similar vacant expression in a criminal's mug shot, by a grave site after the funeral, or perhaps in a pensive moment, when a person is alone and and solemnly contemplative. One would not associate this woman's face with the exhilaration of this sport—described here as making the "kill"—as well as having earned the distinction of becoming the first woman to bring two of these magnificent creatures to their demise at one time.

One also must consider the idea that it was likely Lord Orford's description of his bride's enthusiasm for tarpon fishing that we've read about all along, not her own.

That notion is corroborated in the June 1905 issue of Ainslee's magazine (Vol. XV, No. 5), in whch the author, Lady Willshire, describes the renowned outdoorswoman, Louise Corbin Walpole (Lady Orford), who we know throws popular shooting parties in Norfolk: "Next after music, sport—fishing most especially—engages her particular interest. Though she rarely goes out with the guns, her husband declares she is a capital shot, and that she could and would ride to hounds with the most daring of our fox-hunting peeresses."

This is a woman who suffered a great deal during a life that ended all too soon. Making that publicly apparent, however, would have been out of the question, as we can can read above and observe in her seemingly noble bearing in an image she [or Lord Orford] did allow to be published. As Lady Dorothy wrote above, "[Walpoles] had a part to play in the world... [as] a cog in a great machine, the juggernaut of Family Tradition."

We see etched very clearly on the drawn face of Louise Corbin Walpole in 1894 the so-called joy she took in sharing the "globe trotting" hunting and fishing adventures of her hsuband.

The record shows that Lady Dorothy was along on many of those excursions. On page 138 of her autobiography, Dorothy writes her own recollection of that 1894 deep sea fishing trip to florida:

The Christmas of my fifth year brought me my first sight of an alligator. It was in southern Florida, where my parents were deep sea fishing, and the negligence of a nurse gave me opportunity to wander unattended by the river bank, where a party of negroes had just landed—to my childish eyes—the dragon of all my fairy tales. Round, blue eyes surveyed the Apochryphal beast with a faint fear that merged into fascination.

"When I am big I shall kill those," I announced grandiloquently. The darkies roared delightedly with a flash of white teeth.

"When li'l Missy big, she hunt 'em 'gaitor good," they assured me. I think on that Christmas Day came the first premonition that, many years hence, the prototypes of those good-natured darkies would be my hunting companions and brothers in the dark jungles of Africa, where so many strange beasts have their habitation.

Setting aside any criticism regarding colonialism and racism, this is—at least in hindsight, and in the mind of Lady Dorothy—a premonition that her own path would be markedly different than the one taken by her mother and father. And her choice in that regard could have been as much due to her mother's long term reaction to her father's illicit liaison as it was from the highly publicized affair itself.

One wonders, as well, what sort of speculative and gossipy discussions of the scandal young Dorothy was privy to while governesses, nurses, and parlour maids assumed she was playing, studying, or wrapped up in reading a book [as we see her in her youth, left]. One also wonders of the impact all of that had on her. The passage above is the only reference to Louise Corbin, directly or indirectly, in Lady Dorothy's memoirs.

In the end, Lady Dorothy married a man like her father: A soldier, a traveller, and a flirt. Unlike her mother, she was determined that she would not need a man—or even a family—and spent a lifetime proving just that.

Family time together could not have been so very important to the Walpoles clan in general. In her autobiography, she also relates, "My first actual memory of a foreign Christmas was as a very small and miserably seasick child crossing the Atlantic to North America, in the teeth of an icy northerly gale. Perhaps it was that initiatory experience that atrophied [my] Dickens' spirit." The chapter goes on to describe all of the Christmases in her life, 1888 – 1929, that she had spent away from friends, family, and especially England.

That would have included Christmases spent without husband Arthur, who doesn't seem to have figured much into her holiday agendas. One Christmas during the 1920s, while Arthur may have been enjoying festivities with his own family (or amusing himself in other pleasant ways with another pleasant person who happened to be located in England at the time), Lady Dorothy was in the Sahara where, on a certain Christmas Day, she and her guide, Ismael, had discovered a dying man and chose to pass him by. A half hour later, they watched from the saddles of their camels as the vultures finally swooped down for their own holiday meal. Ismail placidly told her, "To-morrow his bones will make a good landmark for the caravans. We needed one in those dunes."

Christmas is, after all, about giving—just as that poor wretch had.

It seems that Lady Dot's estrangement was not simply from her own family, but everyone's family, and England's fascination at the time with her daring exploits doesn't make those deeds seem any less empty when considered in the context of a more fully realized life spent at times with one's own, loving family. Still, she had a vision of herself that included other things, many real and some undoubtedly the product of her vivid imagination [at right, an illustration from a 1934 newspaper story sold into U.S. syndication by Lady Dorothy].

We see this no better than in the contrast between the first two illustrations of Lady Dorothy above—cool, stiff, and aloof—and the certainly more lurid, sensual, and vulnerable autobiographical newspaper imagery that percolated up from somewhere within her. She was clearly the antithesis of her mother when it came to having a desire for one's likeness to be published.

Thank goodness Louise had passed away before Robert Horace Walpole and his daughter, Dorothy Rachel Melissa, her loved ones, made the uncompromisingly mutual decision to divest themselves of each other—permanently.

In this tragic tale of family obligations and tradition without accompanying familial love, yes, Louise Melissa Corbin Walpole to me is the most tragic of all the characters life with which life seems to have dealt bitterly during my study of the life and times of George Mills.

I hope I'm wrong about her profound suffering. But I suspect I'm not.

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