“Our mind and heart need to stay open.”
One day in early spring, my mother called me to her bedroom, which was on the east wing of our house in Jersey. It was the dawn of the day and the air was crisp and cold. The green buds of spring were beginning to peep out from the slender twigs of the pussy-willow tree. It was a Sunday morning, so we were all sleeping late. I was still in my nightdress, so I hurriedly put on my dressing gown and walked quietly across the landing to her room and knocked on her door. I looked out of the window, the early morning sky was a pale powder blue, so it seemed as if it was going to be a warm sunny day.
I could hear my mother’s voice telling me to come in. She was sitting up in bed drinking a cup of hot coffee. On her breakfast tray, there was a small basket of croissants, a bunch of grapes, slices of melon and a glass of fresh orange juice. My mother was still only thirty years old and she had already given birth to five children. I was the oldest, as Charlotte my elder sister had died when she was a little baby. I wondered why my mother had called me so early. My heart was beating a little. She had had a party the night before and she usually slept late in the mornings after parties. Most of the time, we were not allowed to enter her bedroom without her permission.
“Darling come in, there is something I need to ask you” she said. I walked into her room and sat down on her large wooden double bed that was painted white with gilded golden edges and was covered with a very soft pink linen quilt.
“It’s time for you to start taking extra lessons to prepare you for your future marriage. You have to marry well, so I think it’s time, for you to learn how to ride a horse!”
When I heard her say ‘horse’, my heart jumped in dismay.
“Oh, no!” I thought, for I was very afraid of getting on horses. My mother told me that she had found a riding school near by, where Charles and I could go and learn how to ride a pony on the weekends.
“Charles seemed quite keen to learn” my mother said, “but how do you feel about it?”
“Mummy, I’m really scared of horses, especially when you have to jump over something like a ditch or a fence. I would much prefer to learn ballet dancing.” I stuttered and started to shake. My mother was against me having ballet lessons. She said it was more important for me to overcome my fear of horses, for one day in the future I would have to take part in fox hunting at local Meets if I lived in the countryside.
“If you want to enter high society one day, you must learn how to ride with the local fox hunt and that is that!” she said, angrily.
After that my mother started to tell me the long history of fox hunting in England. In AD 43, when the Romans invaded Britain, they brought with them a new breed of foxhounds to England. They also brought brown hares and a new species of deer as to hunt. Later on, in I066, when the Normans arrived in England, they brought their own famous Gascon foxhounds to go hunting with. Later still, in 1668, the oldest foxhunt, the Bilsdale Hunt, was founded in Yorkshire. Since that time, the country gentry throughout Britain have enjoyed this sport over the years. My mother used to love riding with the hunt.
“Don't you see, Venetia” she said, “you have to learn to be braver and stronger. You must stop lisping and stuttering when you are nervous darling! Horse riding is really great fun!”
Then she told me another thing: once a week, on Tuesdays after school, I must begin to take elocution lessons.
“From next term you will learn from a special speech trainer how to speak clearly, with out a stutter or a lisp. You have to stop being so nervous and learn how to speak Queens English properly, otherwise no one will ever marry you my darling!” As well as riding lessons on Saturdays?! My heart sank again. My mother’s talk continued.
“It’s also very important that you have an upper class accent, when you enter Heathfield School, the same public school that I went to. This boarding school for girls is not far from Windsor Castle. It has a lovely little castle town built around it. Your brother Charles will probably go to Eton public school, which is very near your school and is close to Ascot and London airport as well. After six years of boarding at that school, I hope you will study hard to pass your A Levels. Finally, you will go to a finishing school somewhere to learn Cordon Bleu cooking and the Fine Arts.”
“By that time, you should be ready to be a debutante and, hopefully, someone who has a title and is rich enough to support you will fall in love with you…., Nothing less than a Duke!” she laughed. For me, at only nine years old, this was all a little difficult to understand.
“Daddy sometimes takes me to see a ballet performance at a theatre, so what I really want to do is to study ballet dancing, for I love to dance” I told her. “My dream is to learn ballet dancing not horse riding” I wailed. My mother frowned at me. “There’s no way, I will let you do that” she growled. She was completely against the idea.
So, in the following spring vacation, we started to have horse riding lessons. My mother bought us some jodhpurs and a hard riding cap to protect our heads. I can still picture in my mind the riding school that we went to. It was quite nearby, in the parish of St. Johns. My mother drove us there every Saturday morning. It wasn’t that I didn’t like horses, but I was always scared that I would fall off my pony. When you learn how to ride a horse, you learn how to grip your knees to stay on the horse, to prevent you from falling off and being injured. On the other hand, when you learn ballet, you learn to turn your legs outwards. Every Saturday I came home looking miserable. My mother started to worry about me. She knew I didn’t like my elocution lessons and she knew that I hated riding. One day she asked me, “If I let you have classical ballet lessons on Saturday afternoons, will you try to look a little happier when you have your riding lessons?” I was overjoyed. “Oh, yes, I’ll do that! I’ll do anything if you let me dance! Thank you Mummy! I promise to smile.”
From that time on, after finishing my riding lesson, I caught a bus to St. Helier, the main town on the Island and went to have a ballet lesson every Saturday afternoon. I loved ballet and dreamed of being a ballet dancer one day. Every day, after I got home from school, and before I went outside to weed the garden, I would practice ballet for an hour. Sometimes I practiced for a ballet performance or for a ballet examination. My dream was to become a famous ballerina one day. I think I studied ballet for about six years, all in all, for I loved it so much. When I was older at boarding school in England, I also studied Greek dancing and ballroom dancing. On the island of Jersey I sometimes took a part in a musical play, and I still remember having a part in the musical ‘The King and I.’ I also danced in many ballet performances on the island.
When I was about twelve years old in Jersey, I was disappointed when my ballet teacher told me that I didn’t have the correct length of toes to be able to become a professional ballet dancer. I refused to believe it, but she shook her head and told me, “You can still dance but you will never become a ballerina.”
For a week or two I was very upset. My dream had been broken. When I returned to boarding school the following term, my form teacher was worried that I seemed to be depressed. She called me into her office and said, “Ballet isn’t everything, you know!” I knew she was right, so I tried to smile and realised that I had to find something else that would make me feel similarly happy to be alive.
After I had entered boarding school, when I was ten years old, my mother allowed me to give up my riding school lessons! “Thank goodness!” I was so relieved. I continued to study elocution, and after a few years, my lisp and stutter disappeared. That made me happy and gave me a lot more confidence in myself. After that I began to study speech training, which helped a lot when I had to make a speech in front of many people.
When I was sixteen years old, I graduated from boarding school and my mother sent me to a day school called Queens Gate in South Kensington, London. There I studied typing, cooking and appreciation of the arts which I was very interested in. Camilla who is now the Duchess of Cornwall, was also there at the same time while I was there.
I wanted to study more and go to university, for I had already passed my A levels in English, History of Art, and General Knowledge. My mother, however, was against it. “If you become too clever no one will want to marry you!” she said. She was determined for me to become a debutante when I became eighteen years old. She sent me to Lucy Claytons modeling school to study good posture, make-up and modeling. After all of that, I took a short Cordon Bleu cooking course. “All these lessons will help you to marry a duke!” My mother would say with a big smile.