YOU can’t help wanting to like Nancy Astor. She was the first woman to take up her seat in Parliament, fought for women’s rights and championed the underdog in early 20th-century Britain
Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor
by Adrian Fort
Jonathan Cape, 400pp, £25
The trouble is, despite Adrian Fort’s sympathetic, at times hagiographic treatment, she emerges as a prudish snob with a diva complex whose behaviour was often insensitive and occasionally so bizarre you wish Fort had included her medical records.
Not that she would have had many. As a Christian Scientist she kept well away from doctors and psychiatrists, and from Fort’s description of her behaviour you can see why. They would have whipped her into a straitjacket faster than she could say, “But von Ribbentrop has such beautiful manners and was so enthusiastic at post-dinner musical chairs”. We’re left to wonder whether she was a manic depressive, bi-polar, psychotic, or just plain eccentric, and why she would do things like leap the hedges at her country pile of Cliveden like a racehorse while out for a quiet walk with the ageing Admiral Wavell.
Born into a Virginian family who had fallen on hard times as a result of the US Civil War, by the time Nancy was six their fortunes were on the up and she grew up surrounded by the privilege she came to expect throughout her life. A childhood of ponies, colonnaded verandas where Southern belles and their beaux indulged in nostalgia for the halcyon slave-trade era led to marriage to Waldorf Astor, one of the richest men in the world, and a dining table around which were seated the so-called cream of society: writers, politicians, royalty and the celebrities of the day, sauch as TE Lawrence, Bernard Shaw, Churchill, Chamberlain, Roosevelt and von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister.
A born socialiser with an acerbic wit and strident views, it was her fixation with being at the centre of things, despite apparently lacking any coherent political views, that saw her entertaining dictators and their friends, leading to a backlash from which the Cliveden set never really recovered.
In contrast to the first woman actually elected to parliament, Constance Markowitz, who refused to take up her seat because of her Irish republican views, Astor’s politics were pro-Establishment and she entered parliament to represent the people of Plymouth as a Tory on the frock coattails of her husband, since he had to give up his seat on succeeding to his father’s peeerage. Thus the first woman to sit in the House wasn’t a suffragette or radical, but one who sought to defend the status quo, albeit with a soft spot for women and children. That is as long as they weren’t Catholics, Jews, communists, socialists, psychiatrists, “Latins”, French or worked for the Observer, which her husband owned but – to her enduring irritation – wouldn’t let her control.
Often incredibly harsh with her family – her daughters-in-law often left Cliveden in tears, while her poor husband Waldorf got such a severe telling off when he refused to give her some sweets sent for the children of Plymouth to satisfy her life-long sweet tooth, that he had a stroke. Similarly, because of her Christian Scientist views she also refused to let her daughter have any medical treatment after a horse had rolled on her, thereby exacerbating a back injury and weakening a relationship that never quite recovered.
Fort is at pains to tells us how much she did in the war to keep up morale, visiting hospitals where troops from Dunkirk were recovering. Yet the reader can’t help wondering why the appearance of a toff in a fur coat and pearls being terribly jolly would make anyone feel better. Fort suggests people were generally affectionately tolerant towards her and that when she cartwheeled through an air-raid shelter to cheer up the children, their mothers would respond with “Hark at Lady Astor. Well I never … My dear soul … did you ever … look at ‘er. Oh my!” in the overawed tones of the ill-educated but grateful working classes. More likely it deepended their resolve to rid Britain of its mad aristocracy and its outmoded class system as soon as the fighting was over and they could get to the ballot box.
Astor’s life story demonstrates the fundamental flaw with noblesse oblige – that it’s dependent on the goodwill of those who seek to perpetuate their positions of privilege and bestow a little charity on those they deem deserving. Given that Nancy was prudish, teetotal, rigid and given to moralising, it’s no surprise she was eventually drummed out of politics, with even her husband finally refusing to support her any longer.
As a snapshot of everything that was wrong with Britain before and between the wars and Nancy Astor’s personification of this, Fort’s well researched biography is excellent – but I’m not sure this was the view he intended it to provide.