Being Geniuses Together
Those Remarkable Cunards, Emerald and Nancy
Nancy Cunard: Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel
Nancy Cunard was a paradigm of the Twenties so assiduously accurate in her ingredients and measurements as to be a parody, and it is not surprising that she served as the model for numerous portraits of girls in the fiction of the period, most notably as Lucy Tantamount in Point Counter Point and Iris March in The Green Hat. By the time she was ready to kick over the traces, her qualifications were in order. The only child of a beautiful and spirited American mother and an English country squire who fancied fox-hounds and topiary, Nancy was brought up in a vast umbrageous house, Nevill Holt, in Northamptonshire. Lady Cunard (who was to change her name from Maud to Emerald) was bored by foxiana and hippoculture and she was bored by motherhood; she evaded the first two by staying indoors reading (she read Surtees as a concession to her husband but would rather have read Zola) and rearranging the furniture; and she dodged the last by consigning her daughter to governesses who were advocates of cold baths and tepid porridge.
Daphne Fielding, in her light and agreeable portrait of the beautiful mother and beautiful daughter, sketches in a background of Victorian domestic style that is both sedate and silly. Lady Cunard, like her fantastic monarch, was a formidable goose. She dressed Nancy in white lawn or in dark velvet with lace at the neck and wrists in the manner of a Velázquez infanta; in this finery, she could not climb trees or penetrate wilderness of brier; she had the company only of grownups, but, in one of them, she found an ally, George Moore, her mother’s star boarder for many years—such was the style of his tenure that it was sometimes proposed that G.M. was, in fact, Nancy’s father; once she forthrightly asked him if he was and he replied, “You must ask your mother, my dear.” When she was still a trammeled child at Nevill Holt, he went with her on tame botanical excursions and entered into her daydreams of escape and vagabondage. They remained close friends until he died and her best piece of work is generally considered to be her book of reminiscences about him.
In 1911, when Nancy was sixteen, Lady Cunard met and was swept off her feet by Sir Thomas Beecham and, needing elbow room for this fling, she quit Sir Bache and quit Nevill Holt and took a house in London where she filled her drawing room with musicians and political luminaries and established herself as a patroness of the arts and an accomplished hostess. Nancy was at first homesick for the country (there was a streak of Colette in her and later on, when she lived in Normandy and in the Dordogne or took houses in the pastoral shires of England, she interested herself in beetles and ferns, in bees and fruit and shells and moss) but she found friends—notably Iris Tree and Lady Diana Manners—and …