I associate the National Trust with many things – history, beautiful gardens, hill farming, scones and jam. But not so much with views on unconventional sexuality.
Yet in their latest members’ magazine that’s exactly what they’re doing, with a fascinating piece called ‘Prejudice and Pride’ on the less conventional people to have lived in their properties over the centuries.
There’s an initial, more general article by author Sarah Waters which explains how a better understanding of the challenges facing some former residents helps us to understand the places themselves. And that’s followed by a series of mini biographies of some of the more unconventional figures themselves, linking them to the various National Trust properties where they lived and loved.
As you might expect, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West loom large, not least because the National Trust now owns several of the properties (Sissinghurst, Knole, Monk’s House) they were associated with. But there are also some less well-known figures, such as actress Ellen Terry’s daughter Edy (Smallhythe Place), 19th century MP William Bankes (Kingston Lacy), and theatrical designer Oliver Messel (Nymans). More of a cop-out is Henry Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, who seems to have been labelled as gay (both at the time, and now) simply because his marriage failed and he enjoyed dressing up.
However, apart from that it’s an intriguing exploration of a subject that’s too often swept under the carpet. I particularly liked Ms Waters’ comments about the many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of servants living and working in these properties over the years, who struggled to hide their own unconventional relationships. Overall, hats off to the National Trust for a sensitive and unsensational article.