Downton Abbey, eat your heart out: Jane

the book:

Jane by Dee Wells

published 1973  chapter 7

[Jane is visiting her aristocratic boyfriend’s ancestral home, and meeting his family, for the first time]
“…Her hands behind her back Jane leaned over a round many-coloured pietra dura table to look at a Book of Hours that lay open on a wooden stand. Anthony turned a page for her and was saying something about it being a slightly earlier one than the Duc de Berri’s when the door opened and two fat smelly spaniels flumped in. Behind them came a tiny kewpie-doll figure in a black side-saddle riding skirt and jacket with a neatly folded white stock at the throat, and on her head a minute bowler that rested on but did not muss her blonde figure-of-eight chignon.

‘Darling Ants!’ The doll figure unpinned the bowler, flung it in a chair, and advanced on them, arms wide open. In her shiny little black boots she stood on tiptoe to kiss Anthony and then grabbed Jane by both hands. ‘My dear can you forgive me? I foolishly told Parkes to meet you and I was determined, absolutely determined, not to be late but these tiresome people from that Italian magazine insisted on picture after picture. Stand here. Stand there. Now one in the ballroom. As if one would be in a ballroom in these ridiculous clothes!’ She laughed a little tinkly laugh…
Jane got her hand free, but the minute Duchess held on to the other one as stubbornly as a ringmaster triumphantly displaying a captured Amazon, and led her towards one of the sofas…”


This Duchess then – is she going to be a lovely potential mother-in-law, a friend to Jane, something like Lady Cora or Lady Violet at Downton, a heart of gold? Well what do you think? A later description has her in a ‘black divided-skirt gaucho suit of very hard-edged chic’ with a big Georgian paste button on the jacket,  over a silk blouse with lace ruffles, accessorized with shiny black boots (again) and a black baby alligator bag – she sounds like Nancy Reagan, at that time a fairly blameless Governor’s wife in California. (‘Baby alligator’? Yes, you were right, she is a baddie.)
Jane, though a bestseller in its day, is a largely forgotten novel from 1973: an old favourite, and one that deserves reprinting. The author’s daughter, Gully Wells, published a memoir last year, The House in France, in which mother and novel feature, so perhaps there might be renewed interest. It’s a book very much of its time: Jane, the heroine, is an American (note kewpie-doll, not an English phrase) living in London who has – daring! – three lovers. They are a lord, a black academic and a burglar. Yes, really. Why does she have three lovers? Because it is 1973, and she can. She is Cosmo girl.
Jane writes film reviews, and lives in Covent Garden – though at a time when it was a fruit and flower market rather than a buzzy area. The England Dee Wells portrays is like that too, on the cusp of a big change: the aristocratic family are ghastly snobs without a clue about the modern world and perhaps irredeemable. At that time the stock of upper class families in the UK was pretty low: a fairly socialist view prevailed of their utter uselessness, and this version would have been seen as unsurprising. Alas (some of us might say) somehow the titled and the rich have morphed into harmless charmers offering us entertainment and getting a pass for that reason. Yes indeed it is tragic if they can no longer keep Old Master paintings for themselves, but have to sell them to pay taxes. Shame. Anthony’s brother in the book sells a Caravaggio but didn’t know it was one – 'he probably would have known except he was too mean to have it cleaned first.’

The photo is of an English equestrian (apparently not of noble birth, and nothing known against), comes from the Library of Congress and is featured on Flickr.