The 9th Duke of Marlborough wasn’t known as Sunny from any special radiance of temperament. Re-reading his wife Consuelo Vanderbilt’s The Glitter and the Gold, I couldn’t but mourn for the swan-necked, 18-year-old American, incarcerated in a cold and echoing palace, without bathrooms, where meals à deux with her gloomy husband felt so intermin-able that she took to knitting.
Instead, he got the nickname from his courtesy title as a child, the Earl of Sunderland. When Marlborough House reverted to the Crown, the Marlboroughs were bereft of a London residence, so Consuelo’s father built a house on Curzon Street in 1905. With less than sparkling royal humour, Edward VII suggested that, backing onto the slum of Shepherd Market, it should be named Malplaquet House. They settled, instead, on Sunderland House.
Before it had been decorated, the marriage had ended, Consuelo having formed an attachment to the future Marquess of Londonderry. Sunderland House became hers, its vast rooms the scene of speeches on female suffrage and ‘sweated women’. Increasingly deaf, she bluffed her way through questions, getting answers ready first for whatever might be asked. The Edwardians may have dwelt in marble halls, but they took life on the chin.