The Quality of Love: Twin Sisters at the Heart of the Century by Ariane Bankes - review by D J Taylor

D J Taylor

Debs’ Disgust

The Quality of Love: Twin Sisters at the Heart of the Century

By

Duckworth 288pp £18.99
 

If the 1920s society journals had the Ruthven twins, Margaret and Alison, to amuse their readers, then their 1930s equivalents had the Pagets, Celia and Mamaine. The Quality of Love reproduces an extraordinary press photo of the pair from March 1935, shortly before they were presented at court, their natural resemblance only emphasised by identical swept-back hairdos, off-the-shoulder wedding-cake dresses and abundant corsage – and also, it has to be said, a faint hint that not everything in this world of luxe and privilege is entirely to their liking. Wringing every last ounce of snob appeal from the proceedings, the letterpress notes that ‘they are relatives of the Marquess of Anglesey’.

In fact, as Ariane Bankes, Celia’s daughter, shows in this deftly written memoir, the twins’ subsequent selection as ‘Debutantes of the Year’ was the reddest of red herrings, heartily disliked and forced on them by circumstance. Brought up in rural Suffolk and orphaned at the tender age of twelve, they spent their adolescence quartered on rich but philistine relatives whose social prescriptions they were obliged to follow. ‘Oh, the boredom,’ Celia would lament as another taxi chugged up to the door to bear them away on the nightly Mayfair carouse. Only the receipt of a providential twenty-first birthday legacy, in September 1937, allowed them to flee the coop to a Fulham studio house and what Bankes calls ‘the literary, musical and artistic world which appeared to be their natural habitat’.

Stephen Spender once wrote of Sonia Brownell, whose wedding lunch after her marriage to George Orwell in October 1949 both women attended, that ‘she had a look of someone always struggling to go beyond herself – to escape from her social class … into some pagan aesthete world of artists

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