Annabel Goldsmith’s No Invitation Required: The Pelham Cottage Years is the perfect corrective to Julian Fellowes’ Past Imperfect. Annabel — Lady Annabel to you and to me — is one of the truly grand and fascinating figures in English society. The daughter of the Marquess of Londonderry, she grew up at Wynyard in County Durham, a stately pile equipped with three ballrooms. Her mother died of cancer when Annabel was in her teens, her father (who turned to drink) a few years later. At nineteen Annabel married Mark Birley who later named his nightclub “Annabel’s” after her.
So there’s grandeur and glamor and tragedy all woven in together here — and this is before our author gets involved with the financier James Goldsmith. Her love affair with Goldsmith runs for several years before she and Birley split up, then she eventually marries Goldsmith and has three children with him. (That’s in addition to her three Birley children.) No Invitation Required is nominally a memoir of the early years of the Birley marriage but might more properly be called pen-portraits of some of the people she knew in those years. (One of them is her eldest son Rupert, who drowned in the 1980s.)
What’s really striking about it is the sang-froid with which Goldsmith narrates the most hair-raising events. After the birth of her third child in 1961, she comes home from the hospital. “We had lost our au pair at Christmas after she had gone mad and tried to knife me — a very distressing day at Pelham Cottage — and had just employed Irene…” The au pair with the knife is gone, whisked away, no more details forthcoming. Goldsmith is similarly casual about her first husband’s reluctant attitude toward fatherhood, a result of his own mother’s chilliness. “Gradually, however, through our marriage, the arrival of his own children and a sequence of much loved dogs, he began to learn how to show the affection he had been denied as a child.” (The dogs in this book are treated magnificently.)
This off-handedness extends to Goldsmith’s view of marital fidelity. She is very casual about her affair with Goldsmith and other characters’ marital wanderings. Her friend Lord Lambton was a terrible rake whose political career foundered in the 1970s following a sex scandal. “When the photographs of him appeared in the newspaper, I was distressed for him and felt dreadfully sorry for Bindy [his wife], his children and Claire Ward, who had been his close companion for many years.” Gosh, that’s complicated.
Is there something deeply aristocratic about this high-handedness? Perhaps what’s so appealing about Goldsmith’s book is the very fact that she tells you so little. She takes so much for granted about her life that in a way you feel drawn into it. Paradoxically, Fellowes‘ needle-sharp observation, while informative, keeps you forever on the other side of the glass.