In the early 1980s, the English writer James Fox was shown a large trunk at his grandfather’s house in Northamptonshire covered in Cunard and White Star steamship stickers. On inspection it turned out to contain thousands of letters between the Langhorne sisters, as well as other correspondence, carefully collected and preserved by his grandfather, Robert Brand, who had married one of them. It was a collection, Fox writes, made possible by two or three posts a day and the convention of returning letters to their senders “in time of grief.” That first encounter with the trunk has led to his absorbing chronicle of a Virginian family which sprang to prominence on both sides of the Atlantic at the turn of the last century, but paid a heavy price for fame and fortune in the wrecked lives of their children.
It was a clever idea to use family history to write about social and political history. James Fox is not the first to do it, but he does it differently. He does not use family history to illustrate some thesis—like the subordination of women in a patriarchal society—but to tell personal histories on which public events impinge as byproducts. The historian will be interested in how the marriage market had started to work to heal the rifts between North and South after the American Civil War and, beyond that, to create the “special relationship” between England and the United States. But this is not the focus of attention; certainly not the subject of a hypothesis.
Nor, with the partial exception of Nancy Astor, are the Langhorne sisters important public figures in their own right. It was the marriages which two of them made—Nancy to Waldorf Astor, “the richest man in the world,” and Phyllis to Robert Brand, “the Wisest Man in the Empire”—that enables Fox to write about momentous public events; for these men and their networks were close to the heart of British policymaking in the era that opened with the Boer War and closed with the Second World War. Although Nancy Astor became, unexpectedly, the first woman member of Parliament in 1919, her true genius was as a political hostess, particularly at Cliveden, the Astors’ massive country house, which became for thirty years “a hothouse of political power [and] Anglo-American intrigue.”
Had Fox merely used the Langhorne sisters as a peg on which to hang the story of the decline of the British aristocracy, or Empire, or both, it would still have been a book of remarkable interest. But what gives his chronicle its special quality is the sensitivity with which he captures the personalities and portrays the private lives and passions of the sisters. We are back in an age when adults, especially as lovers and parents, had almost no insight into their own motives, or into the effects of their behavior on others. The legacy the Langhornes bequeathed to their children was too much money, too little demonstrative love, too little to do, and torn loyalties…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.