Daisy, Daisy

Daisy Pless

I would, after writing Noble Endeavours, have contemplated researching a joint portrait of Daisy Pless and her eldest son, Hansel, had somebody else not have got there first.  Instead (and for anybody who has no time to read the more expansive account in my book), here is a very light-hearted blog about a woman with more spirit in her little finger than in an entire cellarfull of the champagne that Daisy, a teeetotaller, never drank. 

Daisy Cornwallis West grew up in Wales and Hampshire and London. She was planning to become an opera singer when her indomitable mother married her off to one of Germany's richest men. Still in her teens, Daisy was packed off to Silesia, to rule over what amounted to a private kingdom, while producing the required heir and spare.  Leaning German was never a necessity; English servants waited on a family that imported Irish racehorses, wore English clothes and spoke English (as did the Kaiser) more frequently than German.

Daisy's lack of conventional ways caused a few eyebrows to be raised.  Her father-in-law was more charmed than her husband by a girl who sometimes donned a floursack for dinner (to show her scorn for dressing up) and took guests off sledging after supper, before rallying them up for a cakewalk in the Hall.

This sounds frivolous.  Daisy's sterling qualities showed up when she went to work (backed by her admiring father-in-law) on reforming her husband's vast estates.  The thousands of miners who produced the Pless fortunes were given better housing;  water supplies were modernised; wages were raised; money sources were increased by Daisy's enthusiastic support for the Silesian lace-making industry. Adored by the Kaiser (who always put Daisy next to him at meals) and by Edward VII, (who was chatting to Daisy on a sofa in a Berlin drawing-room when he suffered an attack which heralded the imminent end of his life).

Daisy was among those who fought with all her might for peace in 1914 - and failed. When War was announced, she risked unpopularity and being named as a traitor by visiting English Prisoners of War and forwarding their letters through her own diplomatic route. Mother, as her eldest son ruefullyobserved, was Trouble. On her side, however, were her two German brothers-in-law, genial men who had been living in England for years and - forced to return home when their houses and possessions were seized as spoils of war - marched around in their old hunting jackets, singing English hymns and dreaming of the day when they - and Daisy - might return to the land that they adored. Hansel, meanwhile, signed up to fight in his father's regiment and went to war for Germany, together with his two English hunters, Ernest and Malcolm. Both, after three years service in France, returned to Germany unscathed.

Daisy divorced her husband after the war. It had not been a love match and she could not forgive his hatred for her country. Promised a comfortable and independent life, Daisy was already stricken by MS when the Pless fortunes began to be affected by the financial crash, together with the confiscation of property to Poland. Her husband's promises wre not kept.  Daisy would end her days living in extreme poverty, cared for by an old nurse of her mother's who, never having left England before in her life, travelled out to Germany to care for the infirm and isolated princess.

Hansel, Daisy's oldest son, left Germany from disgust at Hitler's politics. (Daisy's optimistic views of the nazis were shaped by her sympathy for the poor, to whom she believed that Hitler would offer aid.) In England when war against Germany was once again announced, Hansel was summoned to advise Churchill about Poland; nine months later, the Prince was imprisoned in Brixton on a trumped up charge.  Hansel was kept in prison for three years, before the error was uncovered.  Daisy had died in Germany in 1943, shortly before her son's release; later, while her faithful carer was murdered by the Russians during her flight towards safe territory, Daisy's grave was vandalised.

Hansel became an English citizen after the war.  Happily married to a charming Irish woman, he cycled around London on his bicycle, called himself Mr Henry Pless and ran a rather unsuccessful lumber-drying business. Thanks to the perseverance of his wife, he recorded the memoirs on which i was able to draw for my account of the family in my book.

Daisy's private rooms at Pless, which she left in 1915, are now on public view. The level of grandeur is jaw-dropping and it makes Daisy's insouciance all the more endearing. A bronze statue of Daisy perches gracefully on a sofa in one of the Pless squares, her face turned towards the invisible visitor: it might be a king, or a kaiser.  It might be one of us.

   Added: Thursday 05 December 2013