Posted on 2015-05-06
Young, vivacious and vibrant, not to mention beautiful and rich - Annabelle Carlon seems to have it all. She's distinguished herself in countless jumping events, she's turned into a semi-regular on Loose Women and a few years ago, the only daughter of the Earl of Matlock married long-time family friend Miles, the Earl of Upton, with whom she now breeds and trains champion horses. Now, she even has a book deal under her belt. But is her life really as perfect as it appears? The London Librarian's very own Elizabeth Bennet went to find out more.
Radio Surrey FM (@RadioSurrey): Stay tuned for news of the #royalbaby! You'll hear it first here on Radio Surrey!
I meet Annabelle in her own kitchen on a lazy Saturday morning - a rarity for someone whose weekends are normally taken up by competitions - sharing a cup of coffee with me as we have done quite often. However, these are different circumstances which is why I have to first get in the question of whether this is going to be weird for us.
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): Stupid ~super-important~ phonecalls that wake everyone before 5am.
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): Stupid fiance who sprained his elbow and can't drive.
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): Couldn't sleep anymore so started laundry of all things.
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): Then deep-cleaned the kitchen.
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): What is wrong with me?
"Why," she asks, "because your boyfriend is something like my first cousin twice removed?"
(My boyfriend tells me he's actually her second cousin, but let's not get pedantic here!)
I tell her that I have to wonder if she would have agreed to seeing me for this interview if we weren't practically family, in a loose sense of the word. Annabelle pays me the compliment of saying she loves my work - always nice to hear! - and that she is certain that this will be dealt with very professionally. I assure her I will, but when she says that I as a family member might be nice enough not to mention the dirty dishes in the sink (actually just two coffee mugs from earlier in the day, speaking of the addiction we share) I have to disappoint her.
Caroline Bingley (@CarolineB.): So my boyfriend gets a phonecall waaaay early from his aunt about his brother doing ~super-important~ things.
Caroline Bingley (@CarolineB.): And instead of ignoring it like any sane person - or at least seizing the early hour to gather metaphorical rosebuds #nudgenudgewinkwink
Caroline Bingley (@CarolineB.): He gets up and starts a list of ways how to tease his ~super-important~ brother. Only in this family.
"I might, actually," I say, and of course I have just done so. "I can get kind of ruthless in my profession, you know."
Annabelle laughs, but she is serious when she replies, " That's the only way to go about it."
I wonder if she will expand on that.
"I don't mean, forget all moral principles - of course not - but I don't think you should allow your personal feelings to let you get unprofessional," she says.
I ask her if she has an example.
"Well, first and foremost, I'm a horsewoman - I think we all agree about that -" she says and points through the kitchen window, where we can see stables in the distance. She does not have to mention it, of course, because no one who has talked to Belle for longer than fifteen minutes has not heard her talk about the horses. She recommends a brisk gallop through the fields as a cure for about everything.
Henry Tilney (@whatahenry): I would kill for a good strong frappuchino right now. Where are all my #lindorabble friends when I need them?
Caroline Bingley (@CarolineB.): @whatahenry In bed with a madman. #lindorabble
Anne E. Wentworth (@ACElliot): @whatahenry Travelling through Japan with @CaptainFred for our second book. #lindorabble
Frederick Wentworth (@CaptainFred): @whatahenry Photographing the beauty of @ACElliot and the cherry blossom on Hokkaido. #lindorabble
Emma Woodhouse (@AskMissWoodhouse): @whatahenry Can't believe I'm missing the #royalbaby! Why am I not in England right now??? #lindorabble
George Knightley (@GKnightley): @AskMissWoodhouse Because you're on your honeymoon? I'm sorry I dragged you on a cruise.
Elinor Dashwood-Ferrars (@EDashwood): @whatahenry About three months from my very own #royalbabywatch no. 2, thanks for asking. #lindorabble
F. William Darcy (@thebarracuda): @whatahenry About to dive into the revisions of the chapter on the social changes of the 1980s. #lindorabble
George Knightley (@GKnightley): @AskMissWoodhouse Are you coming back to the cabin any time soon?
Emma Woodhouse (@AskMissWoodhouse): @whatahenry Have a frappuchino for me and keep me updated! I'm gonna be busy :D
Henry Tilney (@whatahenry): Does that mean I'm the only one of the #lindorabble still watching #royalbabies? How pathetic I am.
Kate Morland (@KateausHamburg): @whatahenry Darling, at least you're doing it for Auntie Beeb now.
"So I think I'm not unjustified in calling that my profession," she adds.
There can be no doubt about that. After all, the training of the horses alone must take as much time as any other full-time job. Not to mention the competitions. It may be her passion, but I know from countless visits that the stables are run not only with love, but also under a strict schedule that puts any City firm to shame.
"What I'm getting at," she says, "is that as much as I love you, Lizzy, you know you are a lousy rider, to say the least -"
She is referring to one episode about a year ago when my boyfriend, convinced that I was just trying to be modest when I said I had no aptitude to become a rider, asked Annabelle to coach me. I tried my best, but the fact remains that for all I think them handsome creatures, I simply don't like the idea of sitting on their back, far away from the safe ground and inviting all sorts of accidents and catastrophes. It was a very traumatic experience for Belle and me, and most of all for the poor horse.
"- but let's say that you got over your ridiculous fear and actually managed to become something of a rider, and you decided to start in a competition where I, too, was starting -"
The very thought is abhorrent, but I let her continue.
" - then the fact is that I could beat you blindfolded, on a three-legged mule," she says, which is a tad humiliating but completely accurate. "And of course I would, and no friendship or familial affection could persuade me to let you win, not even if your boyfriend bribed me with enormous gifts."
We bother ponder what sort of bribes my boyfriend might try to offer her.
F. William Darcy (@thebarracuda): Had #bearleek #pesto and #parmiggiano on toasted wheat today! Delicious! Check my #instagram for more pictures!
"I'm exaggerating, of course," she says, "but you know what I mean."
"I do," I say. "No amount of gifts from you or your enormously rich husband, for instance, is going to get me to write a glowing critique of your new book if it can't live up to my exacting standards."
"Oh, but it will," Annabelle says and laughs. "Not that I'm prejudiced, but I think it's probably the best book ever written."
I remember that the book is the reason I am actually here and ask her what it is about.
"Oh, this and that," Annabelle says airily. "Mostly horses, you know."
For those not in the know, Jumping Fences, a compendium of anecdotes from equestrian competitions in which Annabelle took part, is actually full of witty and thought-provoking insights into the industry, in the acerbic and usually self-deprecating style we've come to love from Annabelle's stints on Loose Women. And when I say that, you know it's a professional opinion and not just family courtesy.
"Did you ever think you would write a book?" I ask.
"Not as such," Annabelle admits. "But I always knew there were lots of things I wanted to tell the world - well, you know me, that's why I love twitter so much -"
As if on cue, my phone buzzes yet again. Of course I couldn't switch it off, not on this particular morning - call it an old habit. I want to ignore it, since I'm pretty sure it is just my boyfriend instagramming more of his lunch, but Belle urges me to check what it is.
"Of course, if it is yet another instagram of cheese on bread, I will want to ruthlessly poke fun at it," she adds.
It is, however, not a sandwich, but a tweet from a casual acquaintance (from the days when I was young and needed the measly money you could get as a gossip rag writer) informing the world that the Duchess of Cambridge has ordered a champagne fountain for the birthing suite. I do not even know why I still follow her now that I no longer have to, but Annabelle finds it hilarious.
"I have to retweet this at once," she says, "and of course send it to my brother."
Annabelle Carlon (@crazycatlady): @AshFitz RT Lucy Steele (@JuicyLucy): Champagne fountain for Princess Kate? 10 Luxury items delivered to Lindo Wing this morning! #royalbaby
Annabelle Carlon (@crazycatlady): @AshFitz Did you have to carry it up the stairs yourself? #ashissuperimportant
I take this cue and ask if we can talk about her family for a while.
"Of course," she says, "though I don't know what secrets you can hope to discover when it's all out on twitter anyway."
I tell her that the one thing we're dying to know is what her brother can disclose about the ongoing royal birth.
"Is he doing the security again?" I ask.
Annabelle rolls her eyes.
"Oh, please," she says. "He wouldn't trust his family with such classified information. It's as if we were all strangers."
Richard Fitzwilliam (@ColStudmuffin): @AshFitz Are you busy playing Farmville on your boss's phone again, like last time? #ashissuperimportant
Frederick Fitzwilliam (@lordfreddie): Does anyone still play Farmville these days?
Richard Fitzwilliam (@ColStudmuffin): @lordfreddie Ash totally might. #ashissuperimportant
Frederick Fitzwilliam (@lordfreddie): @ColStudmuffin But would his boss have it on his phone? #ashissuperimportant
Richard Fitzwilliam (@ColStudmuffin): @lordfreddie Maybe if it were organic Farmville? #ashissuperimportant
"I guess your date in the betting pool already passed?" I ask.
Everyone's must have, by now.
"17th April," she says and groans. "And I had such a good feeling about it. What did you put?"
"We decided to put all on the 23rd," I say, and add, trying not to sound too smug, "Shakespeare's birthday."
"Oh, good one," Annabelle says. "Wish I'd thought of that. Not that it matters now. Well, at least I won't be as far off as Freddie."
I look at her questioningly and she explains, "31st April."
We both share a moment of bending our mind around the fact that this is the brother who, as rumour has it, will finish his LL.B. with a first-class degree this summer.
"It's funny," Annabelle says, "I always saw him as more of a barrista, but it appears that both Gray's and Lincoln's have already expressed an interest."
I ask Annabelle how important her brothers are for her.
"Tremendously," she says. "Don't let them know, but I'm actually rather fond of all of them, even Richard. I guess he can't help his name, that's all Cassandra's fault."
Intrigued that she would mention this, I probe further about the curious constellation that has Annabelle actually be her elder brother's half-sister by their nanny.
"Nah, no one's thinking of it in these terms," Annabelle says. "I guess we were a big happy patchwork family long before those became popular, and we all love each other."
I raise my eyebrow questioningly, or at least, I try to. Surely it can't all be just rainbows and unicorns?
"What I mean is, there is no hatred," Annabelle clarifies. "Sure, I'm not particularly close to Cassandra - I don't think many people are - but we get along just fine when we happen to meet. It's the same with Ash's ex-wife."
I did not want to bring this up in our interview - even though I was privy to the facts - because the news that Annabelle's oldest brother, the Viscount Ashbourne, was actually married for about thirty minutes at the age of eighteen, and has a teenage son out of that marriage, is still fairly recent and I'm not sure how the family feels about the publicity. Annabelle, however, has no problem talking about it.
Maximilien Kaczmarek (@themaxxiemax): Dad is out being ~super-important~ so I get to spend the morning with my stepmama!
Maximilien Kaczmarek (@themaxxiemax): Omelets yay! And she made French toast too! #bestbreakfastever!
Frederick Fitzwilliam (@lordfreddie): @themaxxiemax Don't let me hear you calling my best girl a stepmama ever again!
Frederick Fitzwilliam (@lordfreddie): @themaxxiemax Also stop posting pictures of the #bestbreakfastever. Others have to make do with cold instant coffee.
"I've maybe seen Melissa half a dozen times in my life," she says, "but we're in contact, you know, facebook, twitter, food pics on instagram -"
She attributes this to the fact that the split from her brother was quick and bloodless, "there's no residual bitterness, you know. I guess if it weren't for Max we'd have long lost contact, but as it is, it works."
Melissa Kaczmarek (@redsoxmelissa): @themaxxiemax Is that a coffee mug? Are you drinking coffee?
Maximilien Kaczmarek (@themaxxiemax): MOOOOOM.
Cassandra Fitzwilliam (@drfitzwilliam): Studies show that minor amounts of caffeine are not harmful even for growing children.
Cassandra Fitzwilliam (@drfitzwilliam): Cholesterol, however, can lead to obesity later in life. I wouldn't eat those omelets, Max.
Max' name comes up time and again, not only in the interview, but also in Annabelle's book, even though it's ostensibly just about horse-jumping.
"I was still a kid when he was born," Annabelle says, "so in a way, he was like another little brother for me, but I don't know, there's something more to it. I'm his only aunt - or at least I was until Richard settled down - and I just always felt I had a unique position in his life, and he in mine."
I wonder if she sometimes has maternal feelings for Max.
"Oh, certainly," she says. "Not in a creepy way, like I want to pretend he is actually mine, but when you've been involved in raising a kid in this way, you can't help but feel protective. I wouldn't say I was any sort of surrogate mother for him, not by a long shot, but maybe I am a little more than just a cool aunt."
She pauses for a moment and ponders her coffee mug.
"A cool aunt who dressed him in a tutu, of course," she adds. "But I don't think it did him any harm."
"Why would it?" I ask back.
"Oh, people have the oddest ideas," Annabelle says and shrugs. "Telling people what heteronormative criteria they should fall into and all those things - whatever nonsense they believe is threatening family values these days."
James Armstrong (@james_not_neil): I just heard my cousin is going to be ~important~ today.
Joćo Armstrong (@JoćoJoćozinho): @james_not_neil How ~important~?
James Armstrong (@james_not_neil): @JoćoJoćozinho Very ~important~!
Joćo Armstrong (@JoćoJoćozinho): @james_not_neil Do you mean like actually ~super-important~?
James Armstrong (@james_not_neil): @ JoćoJoćozinho of course #ashissuperimportant !
Richard Fitzwilliam (@ColStudmuffin): @james_not_neil Words cannot express how much I love you and your husband right now. #ashissuperimportant
I get what she means.
"Did you ever feel as if anyone tried to push you into so-called girly things?" I ask.
Belle takes a moment to think about this question while I quickly check if there are any news from the hospital. Not that I'm curious or anything.
"In a way, yes, perhaps," she says. "I mean, I started riding when I was a kid, and at that age, it's such a stereotype that girls must love horses."
I ask if that is the reason why she took up the sport.
"Oh, no, not at all," she explains. "I can't even recall a time when there were no horses in my life - my mum was an avid rider - still is, as a matter of fact - and I always just wanted to be like her. Way before I figured out that there were supposed to be differences between what girls do and what boys do."
Frederick Fitzwilliam (@lordfreddie): #royalbaby is probably going to be named after my brother. #ashissuperimportant
Richard Fitzwilliam (@ColStudmuffin): @lordfreddie Even if it's a girl? #ashissuperimportant
Frederick Fitzwilliam (@lordfreddie): Especially if it's a girl, @ColStudmuffin! #ashissuperimportant
She helps us both to more coffee and tries to hide the fact that while doing so, she's checking her phone.
"Of course," she then continues, "I did grow up with all those nonsensical stereotypes accompanying me - not from my parents, I want to add, who were always fabulous - but from outside, from society -"
She breaks off. I know what she means. As someone who chose literature degree over a science one just because I happen to like literature better, I've probably been there too.
"It's different when you get to really competitive levels, though," she says. "Actually, that's one of the things I really love about the sport - apart from the fact that I get to spend all my time with horses, of course."
"Actually, I think that was one of the most interesting chapters in your book, where you talk about this," I say. "It's the chapter called Partnership -"
"I loved writing about that," Belle says.
I ask her about the chapter title.
"It's very clever," she laughs. "Or at least I flatter myself so. I guess what I was getting at was that as a rider, if you want to be any good, you really have to be a partner to your animal. There's no point in treating it like sports equipment, or worse, like an enemy."
That makes sense even to a non-rider like me.
"But what I also wanted to point out," she says, "is that riding is one of the very few sports where men and women can actually compete on an equal footing. And they do, frequently."
Is the equestrian world, then, as idyllic a place as the Fitzwilliam family?
"Of course not," Annabelle says. "But maybe it's a little bit better than others? At least, I'm thinking we're on a good way. Certainly Miles and I try not to get bogged down by societal norms when we train young riders."
I have to tell Belle that I cannot but admire her husband for the gracious way in which he never begrudges her the lion's share of the limelight.
"He's the best," she says and her features go soft for a moment. "At the risk of falling back into stereotypes here, but I couldn't have done any of this without him by my side. I can never thank him enough for being in my life, but I hope I have at least occasionally pointed that out in my book."
She has, actually. On every page, Belle's love not only for the sport and her animals, but also for the people with whom she shares her life, is palpable and I tell her so.
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): I love all of you guys, you know that. #clanfitzwilliam.
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): And of course I can't disclose where Ash is right now.
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): However, I think it's fair to let you know that just like 2013, he's incommunicado.
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): He accidentally put his phone into my bag again when I drove him to work this morning.
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): So sorry to see all your efforts go to waste. #ashissuperimportant
Kitty Benton (@KittyCat): Maybe the third time's the charm?
"Oh, dear," she says. "I hope it's not too sappy."
I assure her it's not. Nothing she could write could ever be seen as sappy, I tell her, and on that uplifting idea, we end the interview. I ask if she has any final thoughts about the book she'd like to share - or maybe advice for the new royal mother?
She heartily laughs at that.
"Well, maybe that," she then says, "that no matter whether it's a son or a daughter, the kid should be encouraged to do whatever makes them happy - and that no matter what macho or girly pursuit it is, everything is so much more fun with a partner by your side who supports you, whatever form that partnership might take."
Sage and serious words at the end of such a light-hearted interview, but Belle disagrees.
"It's an important matter," she says, "but that doesn't have to mean it has to be all serious."
And so we end the interview by looking at pictures of Max in a tutu, just as our phones start beeping with the long-awaited news.
Radio Surrey FM (@RadioSurrey): Our own @AskMissMartin is about to report live from the Palace! Stay tuned!
The London Librarian is printing an exclusive excerpt from Jumping Fences in next week's edition - be sure not to miss it!The End