The Only Rule

There is only one rule in polite English society, but it is ironclad.

Of course, polite English society is a fiction. For one thing, its members are rarely polite. Politeness is for the middle classes, rather than those live off ancestral acres of English soil.

The rule remains, however: never complain, never explain and never apologise. Generations of small boys are sent away from home to have this beaten into them, and the girls learn it anyway. Diana Pole had grown up knowing that every morsel of food she ate belonged to her brother, although he was much younger than herself, and not as intelligent. As small children, Diana and Henry had been evacuated with their widowed mother to a cottage on their grandfather’s estate in Wiltshire. There was never a moment when they were not conscious of this, or their father’s bad luck in being the second son, and a vicar.

Naturally, Diana’s education was of the skimpiest sort. There was no money for her to go to boarding school, that was all for her brother, but her mother taught her to read, cook and sew and her grandfather how to ride to hounds. These were the only skills thought suitable for a girl of her class, but others were added: for at eighteen Diana had grown into a beauty, and in a cold climate beauty, like soft fruit, needs particular care to ripen into its social potential. It was decided that she should be presented at Court for a single season.

“What a pretty frock! Hartnell?”

“No, just a little woman in the village,” Diana said. The little woman was her mother; this, like being a poor relation, was one of many secrets she kept as, swathed in yards of white silk and wearing her grandmother’s pearls, she queued to be presented to the Queen. The dresses made them look like girls in a fairy-tale but were more like sports kit, designed to withstand hours of dancing (and pawing) before falling to bits. The freedoms allowed their sex by the War were over, and now once again to be a single woman after twenty-one was a mark of shame and failure. In the game of hatch, match and despatch they were all rivals.

“Charming,” said her interrogator, with a faint grimace. Diana shrugged slightly. She could have worn a dress made of paper and still looked lovelier than the rest. It was not vanity to know this.  

“The trouble is that they let in anybody these days,” was the complaint of the season, and she knew that as a vicar’s daughter she was barely acceptable. They had rented an attic in Knightsbridge for the season. While her mother chaperoned her and circulated at the May tea-parties, Diana was on a typing course, changing, like Cinderella, in the evening.

“Do not, whatever you do, show that you have a brain,” her mother said.

Diana schooled her face to show no shock when men whispered into her ear while dancing; she never joined in when the other debs clustered like hens to peck at whoever showed any weakness. An enigmatic expression was her only defence. She must never show greed, or enthusiasm or pain or kindness.

It was just as well that she knew this, because she was terrified. Her air gave her the appearance of poise, and suggested experience when she had none. By the end of the season, she had learnt to lock her bedroom door when going on the dull, damp country house weekends that were also part of this ritual. Her suitors all seemed to her to have no chins and less conversation, yet one of them was destined to become her husband. Unless she wanted to become a secretary, and endure the humiliation of the single life, there was no other option.

When she met Peregrine Evenlode, the surprise was that here, at last, was a handsome man.

“So what do you think?” he asked as they danced.

 “You appear to have no visible deformities,” she answered, candidly. He laughed.

“I’m a natural blond with a title.”

She smiled; later, his response would become a family joke.

“But there might be other reasons to like you.”

“I certainly hope so,” he answered.

“I don’t know why you’re with him, he’s never going to inherit all this,” her future father-in-law told Diana on their engagement. Lord Evenlode had just handed over the enormous Cornish house and its 1000 acres of dairy farming to his eldest son to avoid death duties.

The sensation of relief was powerful enough to ensure that, at the beginning, the marriage was a success. They were photographed by newspapers and magazines emerging from St George’s, Hanover Square, in an arch of swords held aloft by his regiment. Perry resigned his commission, and attempted a political career. Diana was an excellent wife and mother, even if he was dismayed to discover she had no trust fund. She was, however, the grand-daughter of a Baronet, and knew how to behave. Throughout the delivery of three babies – all daughters – she never once whimpered.

“Jolly good,” said Perry, arriving after the event.

“Another girl,” Diana said.

“Better luck next time,” he replied.

They had a flat in Chelsea, which seemed daringly Bohemian; for weekends and holidays, they had the use of Lode, where brown Wiltshire water gushed clankingly from taps. It was freezing cold and everything was filthy with dog hair and dust. Nothing was supposed to be changed, but Diana cleaned it, installed an Aga in the kitchen and hung interlined curtains across all the draughty windows. She taught her daughters to control themselves; but in private she also lavished them with love and affection. At night, while Perry snored, she read. She helped fundraise for local charities, and did the flowers for the village church. London life repelled her. The parties, the scheming, the gossip exchanged like cards at a table were too lowering.

“You’ll always be a vicar’s daughter,” Perry observed, exasperated. His career demanded that she was by his side in public, but in private they drifted apart.

Diana discovered his infidelities by slow, heart-sinking steps. He was ten years older than herself, of course he had different ideas about marriage. There were bills from nightclubs and fashionable Soho restaurants, sightings of him at the Savoy and the scent of other women’s bodies in their bedroom in Chelsea.

She was like a white swan that glides along, furiously paddling underneath the still surface of a lake with its big ugly feet. There were seven of them, all women she had some connection to: it would be easier, in a way, had they been models or staff, but even in adultery Perry kept some sense of propriety.

She loved him, and he never noticed it. All that she did was as invisible as air. Now that it was clear to everyone that his elder brother was not the marrying kind, Perry was hunted as never before. Divorce was becoming acceptable, and he was a far bigger prize than suspected. If only she could give him an heir, their marriage might yet be saved. A son was his heart’s desire, and would ensure that the title and land remained on his side. She’d had three throws of the dice, there could only be one more.

His fortieth birthday approached.

“Why don’t we have a dinner?”

Diana organised it all. Guests arrived, and among them were Perry’s mistresses; like bad fairies at a christening, they could not be left out. She could feel other people looking at her, wondering whether she knew, or whether, like so many wives in their set, she was complaisant. Perry made no secret of it, just as he never apologised. Diana, graceful and inscrutable, kept smiling. She had planned the placement with the expertise of the hostess who must spend long hours thinking about how to perform the ritual of separating couples at dinner and seating them with others whom they might find interesting. There had to be equal numbers, that was the difficulty, because (as in life) there were never quite enough men to go round. It didn’t matter whether they had no chins, or necks, or brains: they were still men. How could any wife stand her ground?

Dinner was announced, and then after inspecting their names and places, guests made their way one by one, to the flotilla of round tables to which they had been assigned, and sat down.

The roar of conversation died away: for there, in the middle of the room was a table that consisted entirely of women. All looked utterly furious.

Every one of them had been Perry’s mistress; and although it was perfectly clear why they had been singled out in this very public but completely silent way, they could neither complain nor explain. People began to titter, then to laugh. For the rest of their lives, they were mocked for it.

Nobody ever dared threaten Diana Evenlode’s marriage again, and when she gave birth to a son seven months later, nobody wished to.

Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule (in which Diana Evenlode reappears as a grandmother) was published on July 2 by Little,Brown £16.99