Nancy: The Life of Lady Astor
by Christopher Sykes
Harper & Row, 543 pp., $10.00
Christopher Sykes is one of the best biographers in the business in England today, and in tackling Lady Astor he certainly needs to be, if only to justify his opening statement that in her day she was one of the five or six most famous women in the world. The contention is dubious if by famous is meant the number of inches of newsprint published about her doings and utterances: already by her time the movie stars and celebrities were pushing titled Americans off the front page. It is out of the question if by famous is meant the quality which makes a person’s memory glow for generations to come. If history has a scrap album, she would certainly feature in one of the photos, but her achievements do not earn her a footnote in the text. Strength of personality is not itself sufficient to earn a mention unless it is concentrated remorselessly toward achieving some objective.
Lady Astor’s sole claim to that kind of fame was the distinction of being the first woman ever to be elected to Parliament. But her election was not the climax to work in the suffragette movement or among Blue Books. Succeeding to his father’s peerage, her husband had to leave the House of Commons, and she stepped into his shoes in the immediate postwar general election as a coalition candidate. A passionate opponent of drink, she got through a Private Member’s Bill in the early Twenties prohibiting pubs from selling liquor to anyone under the age of eighteen. The rest of her political career was sparklers rather than fireworks.
She may be all the more sympathetic for lacking real political ambition, and Mr. Sykes even spends a chapter denying that the Cliveden set, of which she was supposed to be the animator, existed. None of this substantiates her claim to fame. She was, of course, a redoubtable political hostess but not as influential as Lady Londonderry. Nor was she the mistress of a salon, like Lady Cunard or Lady Colefax. If one looks for a counterpart in the England of her times, the nearest perhaps is Margot Asquith, who had the same unbridled tongue and unpredictable reactions. But Nancy Astor would not have qualified for the Souls.
She had, however, one distinction which in Edwardian society was important. She was American. American women entranced the Edwardians by their directness, humor, gaiety, desire to please, and disregard of asphyxiating social conventions. By comparison most English girls were stupid, bored, snobbish, and staid. Nancy Astor possessed astonishing vitality. She could turn any party into a success just as late in life she could bring to life the bomb-numbed inhabitants of an air raid shelter in Plymouth by turning cartwheels. She was a master of the crack, the retort, the interjection, not exactly witty but often deflating, and her reputation for electioneering was unassailable. Her family might have been ruined in the Civil War, but as a Virginian she thought herself second …