The London flat where Marie Nole Kelly lived spans the top two floors of a pair of houses in Chelsea. There is a dining-room on the lower floor, with a sitting-room beyond it sometimes used for feeding big parties, and on the upper floor a drawing-room commanding a southerly view through the plane-trees to the King's Road. This apartment formed, during the last part of her life, the carefully constructed stage where she entertained as a diplomatic hostess of the old school, a writer, journalist, and materfamilias to an extensive Anglo-Belgian clan.
The drawing-room, an oblong parqueted chamber, she organised in distinct areas between which guests could be shepherded: with a cluster of upright sofa and chairs by the fireplace; a table for taking coffee from; a more relaxed sofa and armchairs under a window. This last area was the focus, directly opposite the entrance, so that an arriving guest could gain an early glimpse of the assembled company. The whole was as elegantly functional as any embassy salon, while the deft manner in which Marie Nole Kelly introduced, encouraged and mixed her guests was a reminder of what an effective ambassadress she had been in Buenos Aires, Ankara, and Moscow.
And the company itself reflected her life's interests: usually one writer or more - perhaps the historian Thomas Pakenham and his writer wife Valerie; in earlier times, Freya Stark or Rebecca West; the Byzantine scholar Sir Steven Runciman; often the Belgian ambassador of the day and his wife; a fresh-faced journalist or two; a grandchild; a young Belgian relation visiting or working in London; and perhaps Sir Frank Roberts a successor of Marie Nole Kelly's husband Sir David Kelly as Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
At the centre of it stood the upright figure of Marie Nole Kelly, a slender, subfusc bird of paradise moving rapidly, almost dancing, around the party; lithe and light on her feet even into her nineties. Cultivated, well-travelled and well-read, she revelled in the banter of highbrow company. At dinner parties, held in the narrow, exotically muralled dining-room, the food was broken into courses in a particularly continental manner; and the conversation regularly switched into French. Indeed, for all her 20 years' service in British embassies and the easy conversational English of her books, Marie Nole Kelly remained determinedly Franco-Belgian and never lost her French accent.
She was born in 1901, the daughter of the Comte de Vaux, one of whose ancestors had conquered Corsica for Louis XV. In her autobiography, Dawn to Dusk (1960), she gives a vivid picture of her strict Jansenist upbringing in various family houses in and around Brussels. The most thrilling material is reserved for the chapter on Petite Somme, a "white elephant" of a chteau which she and her parents visited at the end of each summer. Her father's mother lived there with Ren, the Wicked Uncle, her father's manipulative younger brother, and the whole family was haunted by the unspoken memory of a repressed aunt who had run away to marry the chteau's architect. "This chapter," Rebecca West wrote in an introduction to the book, "could furnish the plot to a Mauriac novel; but Lady Kelly regards what happened as a human fault, not as a teasing test imposed by a disagreeable God."
She was educated at home and later at convents in Brussels and in Haywards Heath, in Sussex. She met her husband, an Anglo-Irish widower in the Foreign Office, a convert to Roman Catholicism with a son and a daughter from his first marriage, at a family party near Waterloo. They were married in 1929, and had two sons. David Kelly's successive diplomatic postings set the pattern of their lives - in Stockholm, Cairo and London; wartime Berne and Buenos Aires (where she was ambassadress and fund-raiser - the British community raised £3m for the war effort); Ankara and Moscow.
The last two postings provided the material for her most remarkable travel books: Turkish Delights (1951) and Mirror to Russia (1952). In Turkey, she had given a series of lectures and she revelled in what she called that country's "bone-stark world of the past". Turkish Delights is the fruit of this interest and a considerable study of Turkish and Byzantine monuments in its own right. The Kellys were posted to Moscow for three years in 1949. In the closing years of Stalinism the British Embassy looked across the river Moskva on an almost lifeless Kremlin. The small garden behind was the only place in the country where the ambassador was not followed by his security escort - and the only place where the Kellys, devout Roman Catholics, could safely have their confession heard by a priest. But, despite the exigencies of the police state, the Kellys travelled widely in European Russia (Southern and Central Asiatic Russia were excluded), staying in small hotels. Escorted by bodyguards, Marie Nole was allowed to take photographs; and these pictures she used to illustrate Mirror to Russia, a pioneering work at a time when the Soviet Union set an aggressively mysterious face to the outside world.
After leaving Moscow in 1951, the Kellys retired to Ireland, to Tara, a Georgian house in Co Wexford, writing their books of memoirs and travelling widely again once David was appointed Chairman of the British Council in 1955. David Kelly's death at Tara in 1959 forms the closing passage of Dawn to Dusk. They had been married for 30 years, and in her widowhood of 36 years Marie Nole Kelly lived close to her sons and their families. She sometimes affected a daffy approach to daily life, not for the effect itself but in order to entertain her young family and friends. But if ever her audience mistook this for genuine puzzlement out would flash a corrective, a sage, acute remark delivered from under arched eyebrows - a reminder of why the written record she leaves behind provides such a clear-sighted, unsentimental view of the century.