OBITUARY : Ursula Wyndham

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Ursula Wyndham achieved unlikely celebrity late in life by publishing two volumes of autobiography. Their success was the more unexpected because her books were aristocratic memoirs of an existence even less eventful than is usual in a woman of her background, but the unfashionable genre and the thin story only served to highlight the author's vivid and forceful personality. These were not nostalgic backward glances at a better age but caustic and often witty commentaries on a difficult life by one who thereby triumphed over adverse circumstances, not least her own impulsive nature.

Born into a hugely wealthy aristocratic family, Wyndham might have seemed to outsiders a privileged creature, but, as she later acknowledged, she had few of the qualifications for success in her world, which was narrower than it seemed. Though she took her place in the hunting-field, she was ill suited to the drawing-room and the marriage market. She was never pretty or graceful; her education was neglected, and she suffered until late middle age from a crippling stammer.

Her parents were not sympathetic, and the first volume of her autobiography, Astride the Wall (1988), is a devastating portrait of them which the author freely admitted to be based on the need for revenge. The root of the problem for Colonel and Mrs Wyndham, as Ursula saw it, was less personal than social. She figured as that doubly despised thing, the daughter of a younger son. And although, by a series of freaks, her father eventually inherited the family title, as the fifth Lord Leconfield, and Ursula later gained access to a substantial fortune, both came into their patrimony too late to enjoy it.

This was not the only frustrating circumstance in her life. She was a woman of strong passions with a craving for the love and companionship denied her in childhood, and her second volume, Laughter and the Love of Friends (1989), is the record of a long affair with an older married man who was clearly puzzled by the strength of her feelings. The book is a richly comic account of their misunderstandings etched by a sharp eye in piquant style, though not always in full consciousness of its implications. When her lover's wife became ill, for example, Wyndham - an excellent cook - thoughtfully left a steak-and-kidney pie on her rival's doorstep as an anonymous gift. It was not well received.

The fundamental unhappiness of her life was assuaged in part by many pleasures and interests. During the Second World War she worked in a factory, where for the first time she enjoyed good relationships with ordinary people. This was a revelation. After leaving her parents' home she lived alone in Sussex and bred goats. The activity served a double purpose: being obliged to pasture the animals on verges, she read in the hedgerows while they grazed by the road and thus acquired the education earlier denied her.

Though claiming to despise the conventions of upper-class life, she was fascinated by genealogy and social history. She travelled extensively and wrote several other unpublished books, including a life of Queen Charlotte. She was an expert needlewoman. But, above all, friendship was vitally important to her, especially the friendship of younger people. When her nephew Lord Egremont gave her an 80th-birthday party at Petworth, the average age of the guests was well under 50.

Her interest in others was fed by the success of her memoirs which brought not only fan letters but also a surprising new career as television personality and journalist. For a while she wrote regularly as agony aunt in the Oldie. If she made up the queries herself, that was testimony to her inventiveness and her fondness for giving categorical advice on problems she had meditated for many years.

For, as many of her friends discovered, Ursula Wyndham could be a formidable figure. The daughter, friend and mistress of colonels, it sometimes seemed that she would have made a better colonel than any of them. Her tall, spare figure, military bearing and beetling brows inspired alarm in friends and enemies alike, not least because she so evidently relished the prospect of battle.

Generous and forbearing in peacetime, she could be wild and dangerous when roused. With the manners of a county lady she combined the outlook of a bandit chief. Tongue-tied in youth, she was determined to make herself heard in old age, and the lengthy telephone calls her friends learnt to expect ranged from lively debates to fiery harangues.

Ursula Wyndham's memoirs articulate an authentic voice, crying out often in great pain but always with courage and style. It was an unhappy story she told, but not a sad one.

Peter Washington

Ursula Constance Wyndham, writer: born London 20 September 1913; died Petworth, Sussex 9 October 1995.