"I'm the kind of woman I would run from." That was how Nancy Astor described herself and after reading this biography I have no hesitation in congratulating Lady Astor on her self knowledge. First woman in Parliament, worked tirelessly for her constituents, brave and selfless in her aid when Plymouth was so heavily bombed in the Second World War, all this and more but, oh my goodness me, despite all this to her credit my impression at the end of this book was, yes, I would run from meeting you. Didactic, rude, opinionated and an appalling bully, heavily prejudiced in many ways with no reason, and though Adrian Fort tries to see the best of her, in my case he has failed.
'Oh she could laugh at herself'
'Oh if answered back she would respect you'
'Oh she liked if you did not let her bully you' blah blah blah. Well sorry my Lady but I do not particularly care to be with somebody with whom you have to have a running battle before she would give you the time of day. She regularly reduced her daughters in law to tears, was not very nice to her children and her relationship with Bobby, her son by her first marriage, was intense and claustrophobic and caused as much anguish as love.
Nancy's first marriage more or less collapsed on the honeymoon when she discovered she was required to have sex with her husband. Came as a great shock to her and she had an antipathy to this all her life (mind you she managed to have five children with Waldorf Astor so one can assume she managed to overcome this occasionally), she rushed home to her father and though the marriage limped on for a year or two, mainly at the behest of the two families who, not unreasonably, felt that they should try a little longer than a week, it ended in divorce and Nancy came to England.
Here she was a social success and had two men in love with her and vying for her favours who she seemed to treat with a careless disregard for their feelings before finally marrying Waldorf Astor who was desperately in love with her. His letters to her are revealing as he knows that she does not have the same feelings for her and he often accuses her of being cruel and unkind. He loved her all his life and supported her throughout her parliamentary career even to the detriment of his health, to which she was totally indifferent.
"“When I married Nancy,” he said in 1944, the year she would retire from Parliament, “I hitched my wagon to a star … In 1919 when she got into the House I found I had hitched my wagon to a sort of V2 rocket.”
I suppose one should feel a sense of sisterhood to a woman who entered the sacred hallows of Parliament but I am afraid that though she may have been an admirable woman in many ways, in others she was prejudiced, hypocritical and unpleasant and try, as I might, I cannot warm to her.
I followed up after finishing this book by reading My life in Service by Rosina Harrison who was Lady Astor's maid and companion for forty years. The book is very gossipy and of course a lot of it will have been embroidered and mellowed with nostalgia, but still it is unavoidably a portrait of a woman who was a pain in the neck for her servants, treating them with severity or kindness, paying for them to travel with her around the world, but refusing to raise their salaries and incredibly demanding. Seems Rosa was about the only person who could really tell her what she thought of her and early on in her career with Nancy she realised that she was going to have to give as good as she got else her life would be a misery.
Many viewers and fans of Downton Abby have made the comment that the life below stairs was sanitised and that real life service was a miserable existence but reading Rosa's book and comments from the other servants who worked for the Astors, they regarded themselves as 'family' were intensely loyal and brooked no criticism of their employers from anybody else. There was a feeling of 'we are all in this together' and this came across very strongly in this rather charming book.
I was most intrigued to find out that the butler at Cliveden, Lee, a prince among butlers it seems, was the basis for the butler in Ishiguri's Remains of the Day. And of course, the meeting of the great and the good who sought to avoid the Second World War, which appeared in that film, not in a good light, was based on the so called Cliveden Set which came in for a lot of criticism at the time and accusations of treason.
Two completely different books but both equally fascinating.