Through her job at the automobile club Eleanor met a member named John Walter Edward Montagu-Douglas-Scott. Eventually he would inherit a title and be Lord Montagu. He was handsome, energetic and active in everything from sports to politics. Yet for all things motoring, this man kindled more than just ardent enthusiasm, he burnt with passion, passion still in evidence to this very day. Though Lord Montagu is long dead his passion lives on through his great family estate of Beaulieu which is now a famous car museum.
At the time that Montagu met Eleanor he was in the process of hatching a signature project, a magazine to be called “The Car Illustrated”. At that time in England magazines were very popular. There were hundreds of start-up publications. London was awash with them and competition for readership was fierce. The best magazines set themselves apart from the crowd not only with great articles but with beautiful illustrations. Since Montagu never settled for less than the very best, he roped in Eleanor’s old friend the talented and versatile artist Charles Sykes to do the pictures and make his magazine a run-away success. And since Montagu badly needed a secretary he poached Eleanor herself away from the club. Montagu knew that there was nobody better than Eleanor. He needed her and the club would just have to find somebody else.
Somewhere along the way, Montagu and Eleanor fell in love. It was the real thing, the kind of love to last forever. But there was one giant problem. Montagu was married.
Before passing judgement on the couple I think it is important to keep in mind the norms and atmosphere of the era. This was stuffy, feudal, inflexible England on the cusp of the twentieth century, a time when lives were ruled and divided by class, that ruthless social prison system that determined which particular cage each individual was assigned to at birth.
Montagu was an aristocrat. He had naturally followed the path that was required of him. And marriage was a step on that path because marriage was a duty, something to get done and out of the way so that you could tick the box and move on. For the upper class, marriage was not about love. Marriage was about connections and alliances, the combining and preserving of wealth, land, titles and prestige – and the production of properly pedigreed offspring to ensure the continuity of lineage.
For the upper class, young women were viewed as broodmares, valuable breeding stock – and bargaining chips. Each season a fresh crop of girls came on to the marriage market. They were each presented for approval at Buckingham Palace and then showcased to best advantage with a massive expenditure of money in a mad whirl of lavish balls and parties. All the eligible bachelors could take their pick. Hopefully the girls would be married with a year. They needed to be before the next crop came along or they might be left on the shelf like shopworn merchandise to be marked down.
Certainly love was a desirable ingredient in a union. But love wasn’t really love in the frenetic upper class marriage bazaar. It was usually attraction stoked by the parties, champagne, satin dresses and laughter. Attraction would hopefully evolve into compatibility through the course of marriage. If it didn’t that was just too bad. Love was for fools. Love was common. It could be found and lost anywhere. Wealth and titles were concrete. Since marriages weren’t based on personal feeling, divorce was therefore extremely rare.
The harsh truth is that even if Montagu had still been single when he fell in love with Eleanor he wouldn’t or couldn’t have married her. In any case, he wasn’t single and Eleanor would not have deluded herself with the mistaken idea that Montagu might divorce his wife and marry her. So Eleanor became Montagu’s mistress. Sadly, that was the easy solution to the dilemmas of love. Lots of men kept mistresses and found in them the long-term companionship and support that they lacked in marriage.
Did Montagu’s wife know? It seems that she did. Did she care? Without knowing for sure, probably she didn’t. Why should she? Eleanor was not a threat to her. This mistress in the guise of a “secretary” would never cross paths with her socially. Eleanor was an employee, a compliant underling who could easily be kept in her place.
Viewed from this angle, far from being a homewrecker, stealing someone’s husband and destroying the happiness of a wife, it was Eleanor’s own life and happiness that was at greatest risk. Her position was terribly vulnerable. She was completely at Montagu’s mercy. In becoming his mistress Eleanor had turned her back utterly on respectability. Her reputation was lost forever. Whatever happened she could never reclaim it. Montagu loved her but if that ever changed what would become of her? He was under no obligation. If he got bored with her he could easily dump her and there was nothing she could do about it. All I can say is that she must have trusted him very much.
Thankfully, Montagu proved worthy of Eleanor’s trust. They became an inseparable team. It is fair to speculate that if not for Eleanor, Montagu’s talents might not have flourished as they did. For every one of Montagu’s goals and projects Eleanor provided the practical support. She organized his schedule, took notes, sent letters, took dictation, copied out his articles and speeches and tirelessly encouraged him in everything he did. She acted as sounding board for his thoughts, threw light on confusion and was kind and loyal always. She believed in him.
Perhaps Eleanor, in the bliss of collaboration with her soul-mate, was able to forget the reality of her position. If so, it was not for long. Eleanor became pregnant. Her condition was carefully hidden and when the child was born, a baby girl, it was given to a couple in the country to raise. Eleanor was forced to behave as if nothing had happened, as though she’d never been pregnant and the child didn’t exist Perhaps only then did Eleanor truly understand the extent of the sacrifice she had made. She’d chosen to be with Montagu and because of her choice she’d never have a family of her own. Her precious little daughter was illegitimate, a bastard, an embarrassment to be hidden away, denied and disowned instead of fussed over and celebrated as the crowning joy of two people devoted to each other. It must have broken her heart.
What hurt Eleanor would have hurt Montagu too – and what he felt might, in a strange, oblique way, explain a thing or two about the figurine.
(To be continued…)