An Unlikely Countess by Louise Carpenter

From rags to ermine, but this is no fairytale
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The Independent Culture

This story is at first glance classic Catherine Cookson: twice-married chauffeur's daughter spends her life scrubbing floors in grand Scottish houses only to fall for the Earl's difficult son. His family disown him when they marry in secret and accuse her of being nothing more than a common little adventuress. But their love wins out and she is there at his side, adored by his friends, as he takes his seat in the House of Lords.

Well, perhaps not classic, because this is real life and there is no happy ending. Lily Budge may have died in 1999 as the Countess of Galloway and bequeathed the family diamonds to her own grand-daughters, but she never got to be châtelaine of Cumloden, the Stewart family seat in the Borders and she spent all but four of the 23 years of her marriage to the 13th Earl living apart from her husband, often still working as a cleaner and latterly in a tiny room in a retirement home. The love that had prompted this unlikely match defied all its doubters and remained strong, but his violence towards her, culminating in an attempt to strangle her in a hotel room in London in 1980, left her afraid to be left alone with him.

Lily Budge is the central character in this rags to ermine tale, but the more intriguing and sustaining figure is Randolph Stewart, her third husband. He was a troubled child who was parted, as family tradition dictated, from his American heiress mother whom he adored by being sent off to a brutal prep school and then Harrow. He grew into a mentally troubled young man.

Various doctors consulted by Randolph's appalled and embarrassed father offered various diagnoses of his problem which manifested itself in violence, eccentric behaviour and anxiety which became extreme when in company. The one that stuck was schizophrenia and led to a variety of ineffective orthodox and quack "cures" - including insulin coma therapy where sufficient insulin was injected to tip him into a hypoglycaemic coma. "My personality was slowly going to pot," he later wrote, "becoming ever entombed in guilt, with the ever encroaching festoons of gloom entwined about complexes and phobias which had me a spectre's shadow before that term [at Harrow] was up. The guilt was deep and intense, becoming ever more so. I gave up laughing, I dared not even smile, thinking both were wrong."

In 1952, his despairing parents decided to have Randolph lobotomised. At the time it was considered a pioneering therapy for mental illness (in the United States over 18,000 operations were carried out in one year, 1951). It left Randolph little better than a zombie, and he was sent to live out his days with some monks where the simple, outdoor life and routine would, it was hoped, allow him to find some calm.

But the lobotomy had not entirely killed him off and so it was from this half-life that Lily Budge rescued him. They met on an Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage. She believed he had been sent to her by God and that what had caused his problems was lack of love. If she could love him enough, she hoped, he would heal.

The instinct was right and she undoubtedly transformed and enriched his life, but the damage done was too deep seated. Moreover, those who had allowed his brain to be carved up could not face up to the consequences of what they had done and were reluctant for Randolph to escape from where he had been safely out of sight and out of mind. As a result, they could only see Lily as a nuisance preying on him. When he stood up for her, he was formally disinherited of all but his title, which came to him in 1979 on the death of his estranged father.

Louise Carpenter tells this sensational story without ever exaggerating its more eye-catching excesses. She is sensitive to all sides and, though she clearly has a soft-spot for Lily, never avoids showing her vain, foolish, abrasive behaviour in neither its full awfulness, nor the extent to which her long legal campaign to have Randolph's inheritance returned from a distant cousin was partly dictated by self-interest. There was a hint of adventuress in her, after all, but only underneath a genuine good heart.

The subject matter of this book carries with it all sorts of potential pitfalls - too much playing up to the snobbish aspects of aristocracy, too many colourful vignettes of some of the bizarre titled characters Lily encountered in her new world, most of all too much chasing the Catherine Cookson constituency. But Carpenter dodges them all. Her achievement is making what could easily have been an unbelievable, escapist novel or a lengthy magazine article into a serious and profoundly moving book that fully justifies its almost 300 pages.