Sunday, March 5, 2017

Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor

I grew up on Masterpiece Theater, BBC costume dramas with top-level actors and sets which may have cost 35p for all six episodes.  I remember watching and wanting to like "Nancy Astor."  She was the first woman elected to Parliament, and the show was well done.  It didn't grab my attention, though.   Maybe I would have paid more attention if I'd realized Pierce Brosnan played her first husband (two years before "Remington Steele") but probably not because it was a few months before that would matter to me.

36 yeas later, I still didn't know much about Nancy Astor when I opened Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor, and I found her a bit less admirable than I thought I would.   Like many pioneering women in politics, she road her husband's coattails into the House of Commons.  What I didn't realize was that (after a hardscrabble early childhood in the wake of the Civil War), she came from a wealthy and prominent family.   Chillie Langdon may have served on the front lines for a Virginia regiment (records aren't clear), and after some financially tumultuous years selling tobacco found his fortune mustering and managing work crews.  By Nancy's teens, the family owned a large estate and summered at the premiere southern resort.  She and her sisters (including Irene, the original Gibson Girl) had debuts and Nancy spent an unhappy year at a finishing school in New York.

At 18, she married Robert Gould Shaw, soon became pregnant with her son Bobby, and quickly divorced her abusive husband.  Nancy then went to England where she rode with the hunt and eventually married Waldorf Astor.  He was the son of a wealthy American ex-pat (a member of the banking family) and an aspiring politician.  Nancy threw herself into his campaign for Parliament and shared his noblesse oblige style progressivism.  When Waldorf became the 2nd Viscount on the death of his father, Nancy ran for and won his seat, eventually spending 25 years in Parliament.

On the surface, admirable, but I just can't admire the person behind the public figure.  On a personal level, she could be cruel; a bully to her siblings and in later years vicious to her daughters-in-law.  Professionally, she was largely bluster and posturing, often speaking on a point without proper research or even basic knowledge of the topic.  There's also the Cliveden Set she led and which supported appeasement (I felt that Port intentionally glossed over this aspect of her life).  I don't believe in heroes, and I expect pioneers to be a bit more ruthless out of necessity than those who follow them.  Still, Nancy Astor had too few positive and too many negative achievements for me to truly admire her, and a bit too much bland snobbery to be personally compelling.

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