The Lady great reads for June

Blue-bloods, mavericks and misfits. These aristocratic beauties and glamorous eccentrics from a bygone era dazzle in fact and fiction, says lyndsy spence

The Quality of Love: Twin Sisters at the Heart of the Century by Ariane Bankes (Duckworth, £18.99)
The Paget twins, Celia and Mamaine, appear in biographies as friends of wayward girls and lovers of great men. After Celia's death, her daughter Ariane discovered papers detailing their incredible lives and restoring their voices.
Orphaned aged 12 in 1928, the girls lived with their aunt and uncle in an opulent home they called Poverty Hall. The narrative whizzes through their debutante season, reading like a who's who of the inter-war era. Aged 21, they bought a house in Chelsea and travelled through Europe on the eve of the Second World War.
During the war the twins emerged as well-rounded, complex individuals. Celia worked for Cyril Connolly's literary magazine, Horizon; married and divorced the screenwriter Patrick Kirwan, and rejected George Orwell's proposals. Mamaine worked for the Ministry of Economic Warfare and began an affair with the writer Arthur Koestler, a moody alcoholic. Although often separated by circumstance, their twinship always bound them together.
The pivotal moment is Mamaine's illness, unfolding in letters to Celia before her fatal asthma attack. This is a whirlwind of a biography, and far stranger than fiction.

The Other Side of Paradise by Vanessa Beaumont (Magpie, £20)
Scandal, secrets and bloodlines are at the heart of this debut novel. Much historical fiction based on the lives of the aristocracy falls into cliché or misses the mark, with 'non-U' language and muddle about the peerage. Not Beaumont's: she has crafted her story as if channelling a real person.
Jean Buckman is an American debutante in 1920s London, stifled by her bourgeois upbringing and longing for freedom by way of marriage. But money, breeding and a stately pile are not the recipe for happiness, as Jean discovers when she marries Edward Ware, a penniless English lord, and lives to regret it. The character development of the pair is a slow burn, as he reveals his cruelty and she searches for happiness. Longing for love, Jean finds it elsewhere, and her two sons, one by her husband and one by another man, symbolise the sham of keeping up appearances.
A less-skilled writer would have focused on scandal, but Beaumont's confident storytelling allows Jean's story to garner sympathy as she navigates her life and losses. All that glitters is not gold, but as Jean reaches rock bottom she discovers her true resilience. A dazzling period drama for fans of novels like Ian McEwan's Atonement.

Queens of Bohemia: and Other Miss-Fits by Darren Coffield (The History Press, £25)
As the title suggests, there is nothing conventional about the forgotten bohemians in this biography: Kate Meyrick ('Queen of Clubs'), Betty May ('Tiger Woman'), Viva King ('Chelsea Girl'), Nina Hamnett ('Euston Road Venus'), Sonia Orwell and Isabel Rawsthorne, pornographer, artist and spy.
Beginning in 1920s London, it follows the women as they emerge from the shadow of the Great War and gain their freedom years before women's lib, carving their own paths of artistic liberation and self-destruction, leading to poverty, scandal and death.
There is darkness at the heart of the narrative: they are used and abused as muses and mistresses. Famous and badly behaved men - Augustus John, Jacob Epstein, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud - upset the equilibrium of their lives.
Writing in interview format, the author Darren Coffield sets himself up as the narrator before handing the floor to the women.
Their stories have been curated from their many writings, as well as first-hand accounts from the many people who knew them. There are glimpses into lives well-lived - but at what cost?
This insightful book is as brilliant as it is unsettling, but it's not for the faint- hearted.

This feature first appeared in the June 2024 issue of The Lady magazine.
BOOKSHELF with monthly book reviews is edited by Juanita Coulson. In every issue of The Lady magazine, for your local stockist use the store finder on the website.