Feminism has restored the bloom to Nancy Langhorne Astor, the Virginia-born m'lady who was Britain's first woman M.P....


NANCY ASTOR: A Lady Unashamed

Feminism has restored the bloom to Nancy Langhorne Astor, the Virginia-born m'lady who was Britain's first woman M.P. (1919); later, chatelaine of the allegedly pro-Nazi ""Cliveden Set""; later still, a notorious termagant, Grigg's brief, pictorial biography devolves from a BBC documentary, recently purchased for US showing (probably in 1983); a mid-length pop bio, by Anthony Masters, is reviewed below. Neither approaches Christopher Sykes' 1972 Nancy in scope, depth, or detail, and neither has the flair of Ruth Brandon's portrait of Nancy Astor in The Dollar Princesses (1980). But Grigg's volume is not without its attractions, some of which reflect its origin. The text is terse, threaded with eye-witness quotes, and studded with photos. Here is Nancy the vibrant young huntress; the lady of fashion (and fortune); the out-of-character invalid (before she took up Christian Science); the feisty candidate for husband Waldorf's Plymouth seat (when he succeeded to a peerage); the history-making new M.P., costumed like a Portia--which, in her contentiousness and tactlessness, she'll never be. (Plus some marvelous shots of Nancy ""having it out"" with voters on the hustings.) Grigg doesn't romanticize: she was a harsh, needling mother--at least three of her six children ""were major casualties""; Christian Science reinforced ""her natural tendency to be intolerant"" of anything (or anyone) she didn't understand. And, as a public figure, she was always torn between ""her genuine feminism and her no less genuine reluctance to say goodbye to the traditional role of women."" But: her audacity was such that (in the worlds of Harold Nicholson) ""no subsequent woman member ever felt inferiority when faced with that predominantly male assembly""; she did effectively represent women's interests--in nursery schools and other schemes for social betterment; the ""Cliveden Set"" was a diverse, peace-minded group, not an appeasement-cabal. Still: ""she was out of her depth in the dark and turbulent waters of the 1930s."" Then, after World War II, came the crushing blow: her forced retirement. Her later years might have been less bitter, Grigg remarks, had her well-meaning husband and family allowed her to discover for herself that her day was over. This last gives a certain piquancy and poignance to what is otherwise mostly fastidious--though that is not, in itself, a quality to be despised.

Pub Date: April 3, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1981