What’s it all about?:
In 1919, Nancy Astor became the first female Member of Parliament elected to the House of Commons—she was not what had been expected. Far from a virago who had suffered for the cause of female suffrage, Lady Astor was already near the center of the ruling society that had for so long resisted the political upheavals of the early twentieth century, having married into one of the richest families in the world. She wasn’t even British, but the daughter of a famous Virginian family, and fiercely proud of her expatriate ancestry. But her moral drive was strong, and she would utilize her position of privilege and influence to blow a bracing American wind into what she regarded as the stuffy corners of British politics.
This account charts Nancy Astor’s incredible story, from relative penury in the American South to a world of enormous countryside estates and townhouses, and the most lavish entertainments, peopled by the great figures of the day—Churchill, Chamberlain, FDR, Charlie Chaplin, J. M. Barrie, and Lawrence of Arabia were all part of her social circle. But hers was not to be an easy life of power and pure glamour; it was also defined by principles and bravery, war and sacrifice, love, and the most embittered disputes.
What did I think?:
I knew very little about Nancy Astor before beginning this book, shamefully as I now realise how pivotal a figure she was in British politics, and how influential she became for women’s votes and rights. Her story begins from a very humble background – the grand-daughter of Welsh and Irish immigrants to Virginia, her family was dirt poor and living dangerously on the poverty line until her father had the good fortune to land himself a job building railway lines, something the Americans were desperate for in the aftermath of the Civil War. Things went so well for the family that Nancy became an American socialite, invited to glittering parties and admired by the media. She married, unhappily, but her story really kicks off when she divorces her husband, goes to England and meets her second husband, the heir to a grand fortune, Waldorf Astor.
I really wasn’t sure about this book when I first began, but about halfway through, the personality of Nancy completely drew me in. She was far from perfect – she had a tendency to bully people (her children in particular suffered for this), she had strident views on sex, drink and religion, and her tongue could be as sharp as a knife. But she also had a tremendous wit, the ability to say what she liked without fear of repercussion, and outstanding courage. She was the first woman to become an MP and gain a seat in Parliament which was a tremendous achievement, and her strategies for getting elected were second to none and purely inspiring:
“Listen,” she began as she smiled on them, “you’ve got the choice of three candidates. You can’t get a fighting man out of the other two. So you’d best take a fighting woman. That’s me.”
Being the only woman MP in a “man’s world” was a tough job, but Nancy pulled it off. It was amazing to read about the men’s chauvinistic reactions to a woman, some would completely ignore her, others would jeer and begin inappropriate conversations (about venereal diseases!) to try and embarrass her. Even the media were shameful years down the line when other women began to be elected, describing them as “eight little peaches on eight little perches.” Nancy herself became somewhat 0f a trailblazer for women’s rights and did an awful lot to help the poor and destitute which really made me warm to her. Also, her efforts during the war, which involved helping wounded soldiers in a hospital in the grounds of her house and assisting the re-build of Plymouth after the devastation of multiple bombings. A modern day Florence Nightingale with a bit more bite? Most definitely! I think the author did an amazing job with this biography of a very complex character who has a lot to say for herself but I’ll let Gandhi have the final word – “I have been warned to beware of Lady Astor – perhaps she is a wild woman of God.”
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):