The Contessa’s Last Dance tells the story of Julie MacFarlane, who goes to stay in the country house of the ageing Contessa when she begins a history of art course at university as a mature student after the breakdown of her relationship. The novel also features a dashing American academic and a princess, the Contessa’s companion who lives in a crumbling castle (really a hunting lodge) in Austria. It explores the sense of loss the Contessa’s generation feels as the ‘electronic age takes over fair play, aspiration and good manners’.
An endearing historical romance, the contessa is crafted on Dame Barbara Cartland, a friend of Irene Panter’s. Striving for the highest good , she sets out to make Cupid do his duty by two of her paying guests; Julie and the American, as she searches for an English gentleman whilst remaining loyal to her lifelong friend, the princess, despite being hampered by her as a result of her excessive jealousy.
Set against the backdrop of Austria and England, only her amorous paying guests don t give her future bequests a thought. But who will become heir to the bluebells and country house in England? After all, those from her past all seem to have designs on her fortune. But are any of them actually genuine in giving of their friendship? Will it be the solicitor, her friend, the accountant, those in her employ, her stepson … or none of these? And what becomes of the true English gent the contessa has been searching for, despite the fact he is American?
London author Irene Panter based the protagonist of her novel,The Contessa’s Last Dance, on none other than the late Dame Barbara Cartland, after having tea with her.
Ten years ago, Irene ghost-wrote a biography of a London businessman, “He’d been the director of a building firm in Mayfair and knew all these society people, Mountbatten and all those, and I met Dame Barbara through him and she invited me for tea. I was in touch with her quite a lot while I was writing that book,” relates Irene.
For the novel, Irene also drew on the history of art degree that she studied for at Birkbeck University in Bloomsbury under Nikolaus Pevsner, a course which Julie enrols on in the novel.“She represents the older generation that has seen England slip away into the computer age,“ says Irene. “It’s not going to stop, is it, but I think it’s terribly difficult for a lot of older people. The book is really a lament for England, Robert Browning’s ‘Oh to be in England’ sort of thing. That’s what Dame Barbara was in mourning for, she was a traditionalist.“
Irene first had a novel published 50 years ago by Hodder and Stoughton, called Must I Remember, but decided to concentrate on a career in personnel management and teaching instead. But, now she has The Contessa’s Last Dance under her belt, she already has an idea for another fictional outing.
“I think I could write a fictional account of my grandmother who lived in Hampstead,“ muses Irene. “She had a very traumatic life, having been foolish enough to fall in love with Lord Mansfield of Kenwood House’s boot boy, even though she was married to his gardener.“