Marconi’s love island
Katie Carpenter explains how Brownsea Island’s Florence van Raalte engineered a romance between the inventor of radio and the daughter of an Irish peer
Published in September ’15
After the thirteenth Baron Inchiquin died in 1900, Lady Inchiquin was left with eight problems; daughters she could not keep hidden if she wanted to marry them off, but could not afford to ‘bring them out’. To supplement her income in the large house she took near the Marble Arch in London, she wrote endless articles, always under assumed names, in papers and magazines. She not only noted what she saw at London’s social gatherings for the delectation of her readers, but also dragooned her children into leaving chits under her bedroom door when they came home at night, describing their balls and parties.
One of her daughters, Beatrice, was unsophisticated and young for her age and when she and Lady Inchiquin were visiting Lady Howard de Walden at Chirk Castle, an invitation arrived from Florence Van Raalte, for Beatrice to come to stay at Brownsea Island, which she and her husband Charles had recently bought, in a fine old castle that they had renovated and made luxuriously comfortable.
Almost the first name Beatrice heard from Florence Van Raalte was that of Marconi. She had learned (from her amateur reporting) that he was much in demand during the London season, and that he, Ivor Guinness and Lord Howard de Walden each had a Mercedes that they raced against each other. She had already (with Howard de Walden) run smack into Chirk Castle at the giddy top speed of 15 miles an hour.
Florence pointed out that Marconi often came to lunch in his boat. He was due today and she would like Beatrice to walk down with her through the woods and gardens to meet him at the dock. Why me? Beatrice wondered.
Marconi sounded much too famous and grand to be a friend of hers. Still, there was no way that she could refuse, so she went to her room to change into satin shoes and a satin dress (which she had made herself), which were obviously intended to be worn in the evening and indoors.
Beatrice tripped on the Brownsea pier, and tore a heel off. Marconi, as he came up the steps, was bedazzled by a young lady with high colour and flashing dark eyes under masses of wavy hair.
Over the next days, Marconi came at all hours to the Brownsea home of the hospitable Van Raaltes and, when their houseguest took refuge in tea and games in the school room, he left his hostess and went gravely to the schoolroom, too.
He beseeched Florence for permission to drive her young guest back to London. Whilst Mrs Van Raalte encouraged his suit, this was really going too far. A young girl drive to London with a man? Beatrice, chaperoned by her maid, went home by train. Marconi followed her to London where he succeeded in spending the least possible time at the company offices and as much as possible in the Inchiquins’ house near Marble Arch. At a charity ball, organized by Lady Inchiquin, at the Albert Hall, Marconi hunted for Beatrice frantically through the throng and on finding her, asked her to marry him.
Bea was torn. She was deliriously proud that her suitor was so famous and, her late father had told her, so wonderful a man.
She asked him to give her a few days, so she could talk it over with her sister Lilah. This was a delaying tactic, though; Lilah was in Dresden.
After days had passed, Marconi was suffering from one of his temperamental fevers and deluged her with express letters. Finally she told him that Beatrice O’Brien respectfully declined the hand of Guglielmo Marconi.
Marconi took off for Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, proposing new radio stations which he hoped would link all the corners of the world. Emotionally and physically depleted, he contracted malaria in the Balkans and the summer after Bea and Guglielmo parted ‘forever’, she returned to Brownsea where Mrs Van Raalte promised her solemnly that Marconi would not be told she was there… Florence then wrote to Marconi assuring him of her affection and her grief at his rejection. His beloved would, Florence revealed, be at Brownsea Island and she invited him to come back from abroad as guests of the Van Raaltes. Marconi gratefully and immediately accepted.
Once the initial shock of seeing Guglielmo again was over, Bea, who was genuinely touched by his constancy and contrite at her lack of feeling, drifted into an easy comradeship with him. Together they sailed in the harbour and spent long afternoons rambling around the island. She found herself growing very fond of this serious, intent man. On one of their walks she flung herself down in the warm purple heather where the moor overlooked the dancing sea and, sitting beside her, Guglielmo Marconi again asked Beatrice O’Brien to marry him.
She accepted on condition that Lilah approve. Lilah was still in Dresden, a fact that could no longer be concealed. Marconi pestered Beatrice to write to her. When she was satisfied with her letter and sent it from Brownsea dated Wednesday, 21 December, 1904: ‘I don’t know how to break it to you. I’m not crazy; it’s only this, I’ve settled the most serious thing in my life. Can you guess it? I am engaged to be married to Marconi…’.
She goes on to explain that this is subject to her [Lilah’s] approval. She continued: ‘I do like him so much and enough to marry him I don’t even know how Mamma or any of them will take it and as for you my own darling Luzz, if you don’t like him a little, I shall die…’.
Bea revealed to her sister that ‘He is not staying in the house now as he had to spend most of the day at the Haven just opposite on business. It will be a funny Christmas, won’t it, my last most likely as a spinster . . . and to think I never meant to marry! I had always arranged to be an old maid.’
Bea’s brother Barney arrived the next day and confession of her engagement was made tremulously. Barney was delighted and urged her to tell her mother and her brother Lucius who, as the fourteenth Lord Inchiquin and head of the family, must give his consent before she could marry.
Just as soon as she arrived in London, Marconi bought Bea a tremendous engagement ring and went round to ask her mother for her hand. Lady Inchiquin did not grant it, nor was she encouraging.
Lucius was predictably in complete accord with Lady Inchiquin. Kindly but firmly, Bea was told to break her engagement and send back her glittering ring. Certainly, in the classic tradition of such affairs, her family’s opposition stiffened her desire to marry him. Having plighted her troth, she would keep it with honour. Beatrice arrived at this fiery decision alone.
The man to whom she had promised herself had left for Rome. From there unsettling news drifted back to London. The current Inchiquin governess read in a continental newspaper that Marconi was being seen constantly with Princess Giacinta Ruspoli and immediately tattled to Lady Inchiquin. The following day a gossipy item had it that Marconi had shared a box at the opera with the lady and was engaged to her.
This outrageous behaviour – just what you would expect from a foreigner, according to Bea’s mother – would cure her poor, foolish girl of her ‘infatuation’. Marconi, too, had read the dispatch that claimed he was engaged and, dropping his business, caught the next train for London. His first move after he got there was to calm and reassure her. As soon as he had her comforted and smiling he turned his attack on her family. The speed with which he had come to her side impressed them and when he added his charm and reasonableness (to say nothing of the elegance which spoke for the fact that he was a ‘gentleman’) they were unable to hold out any longer; the engagement was announced in the Court Circular.
After their first differences were past, he made great friends with Lady Inchiquin, whom he found excellent company as he got to know her, and took to calling on her regularly. Once they had acceded to the marriage, they proposed to surround it with every solemnity to make it binding, and to proclaim the family’s solidarity. The wedding was to be in St George’s, Hanover Square, then as now the most fashionable church in London. Brother Lucius would give the bride away and the Italian Ambassador was invited.
Marconi gave his bride two gifts. The first was a coronet of Brazilian diamonds, the second was a bicycle.
They were married on March 16, 1905. Two days earlier, a letter was received saying that the bridegroom would be assassinated as he reached the church. Beatrice’s brother-in-law, was stationed at the portals with detectives to turn back anyone who looked suspicious. In his anxiety, Lucius got Bea to the church half an hour ahead of schedule, much to Bea’s chagrin since Marconi had not yet arrived. No bombs exploded and no shots were fired, but there was a flame burning brightly between Guglielmo Marconi and the one-time Beatrice O’Brien, one which had been sparked, kindled and nurtured by Florence Van Raalte on Brownsea Island. ◗