Good chablis and ‘halfies’: life with the other Duchess of Argyll | Aristocracy

For most of 1991 I was employed as secretary to the Dowager Duchess of Argyll, the fourth and final wife of Ian Campbell, the 11th duke. Mathilda was the wife after the more famous Margaret, the subject of A Very British Scandal, Sarah Phelps’s brilliant and frankly horrifying BBC three-part drama. Whenever I talk about Mathilda I usually have to clarify: “Not that duchess, the next one.”

Margaret always cast a shadow, or as she writes briefly and drily in her autobiography Forget Not, published in 1975: “Three weeks after our divorce became final Ian Argyll married again, for the fourth time, to a Mrs Matilda Heller. She had been in Ian’s life for some 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 neither of the later wives were regular visitors. The two women did, however, occasionally speak on the phone.

“Desperately sad,” Mathilda would say, gently replacing the receiver. “Poor woman, thinks she’s on an ocean liner.”

“Where is she?”

“Claridge’s.”

I had this job because in the days before keypads anyone could walk into anywhere. Aged 27, on my regular route to a teaching position that wasn’t really me, I used to cycle past the Oxford University careers building. One day I stopped and wandered in, and instantly fell for a box-file marked Miscellaneous. That afternoon I applied to tutor Paul McCartney’s son, and for something espionagy in west Africa, but a few months later ended up on the west coast of Scotland in a miniature castle at the end of a rutted track.

Mathilda rented the top two floors of Lunga House, a castellated and turreted 16th century manor owned by the local laird. She offset the heavy Scottish stonework with bright interiors and hand-painted chinoiserie wallpaper, while from her bedroom (in an actual tower) she had a view over the Atlantic to Jura.

By this time Mathilda was 65 years old, and “famous for serving the best food in Scotland”. Her face had softened with butter and cream, though her blue eyes sharpened when she acted out her policy of halfies. At meals, if she finished her plate first she could say “halfies”, and take half of whatever was left on my plate.

As for what she was really like, in those pre-internet days I knew mainly what she chose to tell me. In her own estimation, Mathilda was whatever Margaret was not. Her 10 years at Inveraray Castle had been happy, free of scandal, and she was pleased to display the duke’s photo on her many occasional tables. To 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 (same as the old duke) though she wished he’d invite her more often to dinner.

So I knew all that, and then the gossip. Margaret, by the 1990s, was a composite of gossip – erotic images, forged letters, headless naked Hollywood stars – and Mathilda couldn’t stand entirely aloof. Described in the BBC drama as “an American heiress”, I heard whispers that she too was a victim bride. “Pay the bills,” as Paul Bettany’s duke spits at Claire Foy’s Margaret in A Very British Scandal, “it’s what you’re for”.

Claire Foy as Margaret, Ian Campbell’s third wife, whose racy life is the subject of a BBC three-part series, A Very British Scandal.
Claire Foy as Margaret, Ian Campbell’s third wife, whose racy life is the subject of a BBC three-part series, A Very British Scandal. Photograph: TBC/BBC/Blueprint

Except it wasn’t quite 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 three other languages. She’d studied at Radcliffe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she wasn’t fresh off the boat. Perhaps she’d dodged the worst of her husband, and her reward was a contented dowager retirement in a downsized version of her former marital home.

Partly, my job was to keep this illusion intact. I was paid 70 guineas a week, which meant £77 “all found”, including a house in the nearby village of Craobh Haven and an unlimited account in the shop.

The original job description was vague, but above all I came for the ghostwriting. Mathilda had a contract with the publisher John Murray for a memoir, and for one simple reason: everyone was interested in Margaret. Ruby Wax hoped for a TV interview, and there was talk of Wogan. Thirty years on, a three-part drama can still be pitched to the BBC, because photographs of a duchess dressed only in her pearls will do that. Mathilda was the other woman; she had an angle.

Her book, however, would never be finished. Mathilda didn’t want to write about Argyll vs Argyll, except possibly for her success at escaping the press, she and the duke daring the hills of Provence in a racy convertible Sunbeam. She preferred to dwell on her sunlit pre-war life as a child, and her evacuation to the States on a ship with a full-sized on-deck carousel. She was always open to remembering her married life at Inveraray Castle. The balls, the pomp, the sheer exhilaration of a duchess castle with the fancy duchess trimmings.

Every morning, I watched her complicated breakfast go up the stairs to her bedroom, and then took dictation at her bedside. I wrote letters. We worked on the memoir, usually the Inveraray section. We agonised over menus, toyed with travel plans and employed a new cook after Mathilda communicated her hatred of garnish by throwing anything decorative and green on to the floor. Repeatedly.

Then we’d pack up and head for Paris, and Mathilda’s flat in the Rue de Tournon. The magnificent central room contained her bed and a bath and a swing hanging from the rafters, but our unchanging daily routine included lunch with wine and at six sharp some iced Wyborowa and games of backgammon before dinner. I was often politely drunk. We were nearly always smoking.

Mathilda liked to tell me she was my finishing school, and it’s true I learned how to open oysters. And to drive her Ford Mustang across the Place de la Concorde at rush hour, and the correct pronunciation of Inveraray as “Inverarer”. She introduced me to the great brasseries of Paris, Wandering (my favourite) and The Procope and also the old Nazi favourite The dome. Sometimes I waited up late, so that when she came home from some party I could unhook the back of her dress, and make a start on the zip.

“Thank God,” she’d say, “it’s so much easier when there’s two of one.”

But however hard we pretended, and whatever the heiress situation when she married, the duchess had money worries. The good Chablis was running low in the cellar, and the dealer from Christie’s who stayed for lunch left with a rolled-up rug beneath his arm. In Scotland, the oysters we ate were rejects from the local bay at Craobh Haven, too big to be sold to the trade. Poor us. I was sent to Paris on my motorbike to sell a first edition Ulysses.

A secretary was an indulgence, but I wasn’t really that and nor was I a ghostwriter. My role was mostly to be present, especially at meal times, like a “lady-help” from the 19th century. I was the paid companion. So, naturally I judged her. In the early 60s Margaret had the tabloids to question her integrity. In 1991 Mathilda had me, exuding disapproval as proof I wasn’t entirely servile. With little else to compensate for the power imbalance (70 guineas a week), I got angry at Mathilda for what I hated in myself. She was lonely, and wasting her advantages in life. She was banal. She wanted to be a writer but couldn’t buckle down.

I felt I ought to have an opinion, and decided the aristocracy was terrible. Mathilda was terrible, but – the lackey’s delusion here – without me everything would have been worse. I wasn’t deluded, she was deluded. I refused to be grateful, in the way expected of me. I was very rude to Ruby Wax’s people.

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 drapes drawn back. I pulled up a chair. Her long, hennaed hair was spread over the pillows and she crossed her hands above the whiteness of the duvet. She waited, perfectly serenely, for me to refresh her memory, to summarise her life.

It was very sad, so much of it. She’d lost two children, a son from her first marriage and with the duke a daughter who lived only a few days. Her own father was a wealthy homosexual seduced in the 20s by her mother for a bet. Quite possibly 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’s. A close friend. Margaret had no monopoly on unsettling and salacious stories.

“You own a five-litre convertible Mustang,” I said, going in softly. “It plays the Star-Spangled Banner when placed in reverse.”

I liked to make her smile. I told her about her easy-going friendships with the artist Brion Gysin and the composer Pierre Boulez. In Edinburgh, she lunched with the photographer Brodrick Haldane, and in Paris with the sculptor Joseph Erhardy.

“Nudes or motorbikes,” I reminded her. “He was good fun, but told us subject was a problem.”

She sent a monthly cheque to the ageing poet Peter Russell. Yes, I said, of course we’d continue to do that. Warming to my task, I reminded her of her rare talent for liking anybody who had anything at all likeable about them, which was pretty much everybody. Including me. Her houses were equally open to judgmental non-writing writers and convicted drug smugglers, and to Steven Berkoff.

“You are the Dowager Duchess of Argyll.” This was not something anyone else could say, and especially not Margaret. “You survived your husband the duke, after 10 happy years at Inveraray Castle.” For verification, she could read the pages of her memoir. Her life had been an admirable adventure, and was definitely worth remembering.

Mathilda did recover, up to a point. After I stopped working for her we became friends, and the last time I saw her we had dinner at the Hotel Continental in Lausanne. We shared affectionate memories, and talked up the pool house in Vézelay where she dreamed of ending her days. A year later, in 1997 not long before her 72nd birthday, I was surprised by her name in the papers.

The funeral was held in Vézelay, and three of her former secretaries attended, one from before my time and one after. Despite Margaret’s shadow we came to pay our respects. To Mathilda, not the famous Duchess of Argyll but the next one. The one we knew and loved.

Richard Beard is the author of Sad Little Men (Harvill Secker)

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