Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort

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Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Lady Astor, the American lady who became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons at Westminster and proved one of the most individual, fearless, outspoken if sometimes exasperating of politicians throughout a quarter of a century on the back benches
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 378 Date: October 2012
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 9780224090162

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Nancy, Lady Astor, the first woman to take her seat as an elected Member of Parliament at Westminster, is one of those characters about whom it is surely impossible for anyone to write a dull biography. A determined character who inspired admiration, respect and exasperation in equal measure from most if not all who had dealings with her, she is well served by this latest in a long line of titles devoted to her.

Fort begins his book by looking in considerable detail at the family and background of Nancy Witcher Langhorne, as she was born in 1879 in Virginia. Her early life in far from affluent surroundings in America was quite a revelation to this reader at least. It was almost a rags to riches tale when she moved to England, putting one shortlived failed marriage behind her, meeting Waldorf Astor to form a very successful personal and professional partnership.

One of the ingredients of a successful biography is that we learn not only what a person did, but what he or she was really like as an individual. This one passes the test admirably. Nancy Astor was small in stature, but certainly not in personality. Her abiding dislike of drink, a legacy of that first marriage and an alcoholic ex-husband, is well-known; perhaps not so familiar are her abiding fear of cats and a rather prudish horror of sex and lust, which she considered a necessary evil – there were to be five sons and a daughter in all – but nothing more. As a motorist who never had to take a driving test, she could be a terror on the roads. A policeman once had to jump out of her way sharply after trying to stop her. Didn’t you see my hand up? he asked her. If you’d known who was drivin’, you’d have put both hands up, she retorted.

Elected to Parliament after Waldorf was raised to the peerage, she represented Plymouth Sutton for twenty-five years, but remained a backbencher. Nobody wanted her as a cabinet (or even a junior) minister, she insisted; I am an agitator, not an administrator. As the only woman in what had always been a man’s club, and an American in a very British institution, she felt very much an outsider, and had to fight to make her presence felt. In previous years she had been a close friend of Winston Churchill, but he rather unsportingly felt unable to accept her as an elected member, and many of their verbal encounters have long since passed into legend.

A diligent attender of debates from the start, and a conscientious constituency member, she was unable or unwilling to master parliamentary etiquette. Any member of the house was liable to be heckled by her while he spoke, told that he didn’t know what he was talking about, or at the least have to put up with her scornful running commentary. While her husband had won praise from all sides for being a placid, conciliatory though still quite left-wing Conservative member, her outspoken views – again, placing her very much to the left of the party – and abrasive manner had made her a less than unanimous choice of the constituency party. Yet she was well placed to take votes from less affluent Plymothians, declaring that it was not the millionaires living on Plymouth Hoe who would send her back to Parliament. Anybody who heckled her at meetings would find her more than a match for them. When one frustrated fellow hurled a cabbage which landed at her feet, she calmly picked it up, waited for the noise to calm down, waved it at the crowd, and shouted at them that someone had just lost his head. It was perhaps significant that among her close friends were men of the left such as the Irish playwrights George Bernard Shaw, with whom she made a much-criticised visit to Stalin’s Russia, and Sean O’Casey.

Like many of their contemporaries, the Astors had regarded the First World War as a catastrophe which was not to be repeated. At first they saw no danger in fascism, but only communism, and the parties at their Cliveden home were branded as one of the temples of British appeasement during the late 1930s, the ‘Cliveden set’. Once Hitler’s intentions became brutally clear, they realised the error of their ways, and their presence in Plymouth throughout the blitz of 1941 and after proved, to quote Churchill, Nancy’s ‘finest hour’.

Inevitably, she later came to pay the price for past errors. Increasingly prejudiced towards the end of her career, she was becoming something of an electoral liability. Waldorf wisely prevented her from standing for Westminster again after the war when she would have surely been heavily defeated, although it was a decision for which it took her time to forgive him. Fort shows us that she was not the easiest of wives to live with, and sometimes a difficult mother – and, just occasionally, the mother-in-law from hell to her sons’ unfortunate wives. She proved indomitable almost to the end. On a visit to America after her retirement from public life, as she set foot on land after the transatlantic voyage, she ‘declared herself to be an extinct volcano’, then proceeded to erupt before the reporters crowding around her.

Lady Astor may never have held ministerial rank, but as her husband said, when he married her he found he had hitched his wagon to a star – which then became a shooting star. She left her mark as a tireless campaigner for improvements in education, conditions for working women and youths, and her political interventions on such subjects as the dangers of smoking, and driving under the influence of alcohol, were well ahead of her time. This is a very lively read about a very lively personality.

If this book appeals then you'll also enjoy Amazing Women: Inspirational Stories by Charles Margerison.

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