MAIL ON SUNDAY (YOU MAGAZINE): 14 September 2003
Interview by Louette Harding


A passion for the extraordinary and the eccentric has been the driving force in Lady Anne Somerset’s life - both personally and in the historical figures she has chosen to write about. Here she talks to Louette Harding

Lady Anne Somerset would like to pretend that growing up at Badminton House in Gloucestershire inspired her to become a historian: the truth, though, ‘is that I was shamefully indifferent to my surroundings’. The daughter of the 11th Duke of Beaufort, she has published five books, the latest of which, The Affair of the Poisons, is an enthralling account of murder and Satanism at the court of Louis XIV. It’s all sex and scandal in satin dresses - history for those who prefer it full-blooded rather than through the filter of desiccated analysis.

Anne Somerset’s instinct - in her career and in her personal life - is to seek out extravagant characters. ‘Good Company’ is her highest expression of praise. She comes from two diverse strains of the English aristocracy. Her father’s family is bucolic and reliable - they hunt and shoot and play host to the royals for the Badminton Horse Trials. Her late mother’s family produce eccentrics. Caroline Somerset was the daughter of the 6th Marquess of Bath; her brother, Alexander, who inherited the title, is notorious for his 70-odd ‘wifelets’ and the risqué murals he has painted on the walls of Longleat House. A predilection for the original would seem to be in Lady Anne’s genes.

The first sign of this comes with a glance at the exterior of her house in an ordinary West London street. Red silk curtains hang in gothic tatters; blinds are fashioned from black bin liners. Inside, the mix of conventional and peculiar continues: above the mantelpiece hangs the traditional ancestral portrait but a painted monkey mask from India has been plonked over its face. ‘My husband [the portrait painter Matthew Carr] wants to obliterate Arthur Somerset’, Lady Anne says cheerfully.

She is 48, with the bouncy charm of the upper-class woman. Why on earth was she nicknamed ‘Monster’ in her youth? There is a squawk from the corner where her daughter, Ella, ten, is sketching and eavesdropping simultaneously: ‘Mummy was a very ugly baby!’

‘Legend has it,’ Says Lady Anne, ‘that my father [a man once dubbed the handsomest in England] peered into my crib and announced, “This one’s a monster”. I’m quite relieved that the nickname has died out. It’s only people who have known me since childhood who use it’.

‘Rose hasn’t known you that long,’ Ella contradicts.

‘Yes, but her dad is my brother.’

‘Mummy, everyone calls you Monster’.

Small wonder, then, that Anne Somerset’s natural manner is one of self-deprecation. Her childhood was happy but, she adds feelingly, ‘I think it’s much better being an adult’. Her position as the only girl in a family of three swaggering boys - older brother Henry (the Marquess of Worcester) and younger brothers Edward and John - was of ‘gang slave’.

‘My brothers were forever saying, “Girls are boring; girls are soppy”, and I was always trying to prove I wasn’t. I think, realising I would do anything to please, they took advantage of this, so I did have his rather servile role,’ she recalls.

The nursery routine was rigid. Freshly scrubbed, the Somerset children were taken by Nanny to see their parents for an hour in the evening. ‘It does seem extraordinarily old-fashioned now’. Although the family lived at Badminton, the house and title then belonged to an elderly, childless cousin. (Her father, David, did not inherit until 1984.) Anne remembers silently yearning for the ‘cosiness’ of a suburban detached house, and when she was eight, her wish virtually came true, in that they moved into a smaller house on the estate. Life instantly lost much of its formality and she grew close to her mother.

Caroline Somerset died in 1995 of pancreatic cancer, still ‘jolly’ during periods of remission, stalwart in pain. She was an intrepid woman who once chased a burglar from Badminton in the middle of the night. ‘My father had told her that if she was alone in the house and the alarm went off, it was probably not a good idea to investigate. Of course, she went down. She was frightfully pleased with her dog which had always been in trouble for biting people. This was the first time its skill had proved useful.’

‘A good person who adored everyone’, Caroline took noblesse oblige seriously. ‘She mentioned to one of her charities that she had been on an Outward Bound course and had abseiled down a cliff. They said “Wonderful! You can abseil down Gloucester Hospital to raise money”. It was quite alarming to watch. At one point, she turned upside down. My brother said, “The next thing we’ll hear is that she’s been fired out of a canon”’.

Anne remembers reading Kings and Queens of Britain with her mother: ‘If you were to ask me about Henry I, for example, the facts that I would immediately be able to tell you would come from that book - how he died of a surfeit of lampreys’. In other ways, her education was as neglected as Caroline’s had once been. Until she was 15, Anne was a weekly boarder at a local school with few expectations of its pupils save marriage. The girl who wanted to be a nurse had to leave in order to study biology. ‘I haven’t had a science lesson in my life,’ Anne says. She was supposed to be transferred to somewhere more challenging ‘but the process rather defeated my mother’. Finally Caroline found a new establishment called Stake Farm. ‘Mum said, “What were your exam results like last year?” and the headmistress replied, “Everyone failed everything”. “Fine,” said my mother. “Anne can come here”’.

She scraped two A-levels before moving to a crammer to retake one and add a third; then read history at King’s College, London. After graduating, she worked as a typist and fact-checker for the historian Hugh Thomas and then for Antonia Fraser, who was a family friend. Did Lady Antonia become a mentor? ‘Well, she’s certainly an inspiring example because she combines impeccable research with this huge readership. One’s always aiming to be scholarly but readable’. In fact, many academics are sniffy about Lady Antonia. ‘Jealousy’, says Anne. ‘I look forward to the day when I sell so well that people get sniffy about me’.

As editor of a series on the monarchs of Britain - a grown-up version of the book Anne had loved as a child - Lady Antonia commissioned Anne’s first biography on William IV, a ‘perfect’ first subject because of his ‘colourful private life, with lots of illegitimate children. I found him very endearing, though he could be a bit of a bumbling fool’.

By all accounts, Anne led a racketing social life out of her parents’ house in Eaton Square, London, but secretly she found the bachelor-girl existence a strain. ‘It would probably have been more enjoyable if one had known that ultimately one would marry,’ she confesses. She seems always to have been looking for someone extraordinary and entertaining, a legacy of her Bath blood. She isn’t close to her uncle Alexander, but adored her maternal grandfather, the man who introduced Britain’s first safari park to the grounds of Longleat. ‘He was unpredictable, eccentric in many ways and’ - the crucial accolade - ‘very good company’.

She found what she was searching for in Old Etonian painter Matthew Carr, who had once bragged, ‘I don’t believe in making my behaviour, work or appearance fit into the accepted patterns of normality’. Anne says he is not as self-conscious as you might infer from that. ‘But he is certainly very unusual; he’s not a run-of-the-mill person at all’. They met at a dinner party. ‘I really liked him from the start and he told me later he really liked me’. For years, though, their paths scarcely crossed and she was despairing. She eventually ran into him at another party. ‘It was a hot July evening and he was wearing an enormous fur coat’, she recalls, which only increased her apparently unrequited passion. Finally, when she was 31, ‘we got going’ and they married when Anne was 33.

Is it true that at the launch party for her biography of Elizabeth I, when they had already been married three years, he fell to his knees at her feet and stated his love publicly? ‘There is a photograph as evidence’, she says coyly.

Ella was a ‘longed for’ baby who arrived after Anne was ‘getting anxious about the whole thing. I was quite old, 37, by the time I had her. I lost one baby and then had difficulty getting pregnant again. But once it has worked out, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? By that time I had done everything in the way of a social life, so while she changed the world to a degree one can scarcely imagine, it was not in a restrictive way’.

There is a sense of momentum about both the Carrs, of the overdue arrival of success. Anne’s last book, an investigation of murderous ambition at the court of James I attracted a lot of notice. Matthew, 49, has a solo exhibition this November and as we spoke was in Palermo, Sicily, sketching the mummified remains in the catacombs. ‘His work seems to be completely coming together. I’m slightly nervous he will say that as an artist he can now do whatever he likes,’ she sighs, no doubt imagining further cadavers supplanting the saleable (and powerful) portraits of the living I’d seen elsewhere in the house.

At weekends, all four Somerset siblings and their respective families congregate at Badminton, where both Henry and Edward live. Lady Anne’s father, now 75, remarried three years ago. His second wife, Miranda Morley, 56, had, in fact, been his discreet companion for two decades. ‘The pang I felt [at the remarriage] was because my mother was dead,’ Anne says. ‘But I get on well with my stepmother, and I’m happy for my father. It’s difficult for me to describe him because he’s quite reserved but he’s got fantastic charm and is wonderful company’.

Anne spent five years preparing her latest book about the greatest scandal to rock the court of Louis XIV. Taking her time means she risks being overtaken by rivals, for the field of popular history is increasingly competitive. ‘In academic circles there can be a disapproval of narrative history, of focusing on personalities, but I like writing about love affairs and relationships’, she says. ‘I like the seamier, darker side of history. It’s definitely rather ghoulish’.

I ask her if she had warmed to Madame de Montespan, Louis XIV’s mistress. ‘I absolutely loved her. She had an appalling temper but it was quickly spent and everyone says how funny she was. As for Louis, I’m ambivalent. He had tremendous sex appeal but he had disciplined himself to keep his true character in check. He was somebody who could have been wonderful company’. It is her definitive reprimand.