Biography of Nancy Astor– the birth of an idea

Adrian Fort is an acclaimed historian and biographer. His new book Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor  tells the remarkable tale of this most fascinating women. Being the first woman elected to Parliament ensured her place in History but she was equally well known for her sharp-tongued quips ‘I married beneath me. All women do.’, her involvement in German appeasement, her friendships with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, her Christian Science beliefs and her stewardship of the magnificent Thames-side stately home Cliveden

Adrian kindly recounts what gave him the idea to write Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor

The idea of writing the story of Lady Astor came to me originally while I was researching for my book on Lord Wavell, the famous WW2 general and Viceroy of India. Studying the approach of WW2 I became intrigued by the attitudes of the many in the upper and influential classes who believed that Britain should make friends with Germany. This view was prominent among Conservative MPS – no touchy-feely soft centres in those days – and echoed in the City. Anything, they felt, was better than another war, which would threaten our wealth and estates, and England as we know it.

I began to read of strange references to ‘The Cliveden Set’, which led me to accounts of the influence of the country’s leading political hostesses, the most prominent being Lady Astor. At countless luxurious parties at Cliveden, her magnificent mansion above the Thames, she entertained leading members of the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments, and the movers and shakers at the German embassy, people like von Ribbentrop, Reinhard Spitzy and Prince Bismarck who, though Nazis, had the beguiling and civilised veneer that went down well with the upper classes – or at least with those who were supposedly pro-German. The fact that much of the talk about the Astors and Cliveden was exaggeration and lies did not stop the mud, especially that slung by ‘The Week’, a Communist rag run by a Communist ragamuffin, the very able Claud Cockburn.

My interest in Nancy Astor grew rapidly once I had looked into her history, heard her on radio, seen her on TV. Her lifetime spanned a period of phenomenal change: she was Virginian, born in the lingering ruins left by the American Civil War, yet when she died, in an unrecognisably different world, the Rolling Stones were playing at gigs in West London, and the Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ was No. 4 in the Hit Parade.

Between those two poles lay the grace and opulence of Britain’s Edwardian Age, the carnage of WW1, the great depression, the years of appeasement, ‘The Cliveden Set’, and the final eclipse of the old world in the ashes of WW2.

In all these passing scenes Nancy played a fascinating and prominent role; partly because she was so rich, and partly because through her dynamic talents and character she became the first woman MP, and then the champion of numerous controversial if moral crusades. Yet the unpopularity for a time heaped upon her was redeemed by her legendary wit and humour, and also particularly by her inspiring courage as Mayoress of Plymouth, her Parliamentary seat, during the devastating German Blitz of 1941, which consumed the old city in a Biblical storm of fire and brimstone.

The more I read of this controversial dynamo, surrounded by glamour and wealth, laughter and luxury, yet nobody’s fool and a pure steel champion of women’s causes, the more I realised what a mark she had made on Britain’s history in perhaps its most enthralling and dramatic period.

Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor has been Radio 4 Book of the Week which can be listened to here


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