Books: Catastrophe strikes the Cliveden Set

War and revolution drove the Anglo-American plutocracy off the rails.

The Langhorne Sisters

by James Fox

Granta, pounds 20, 576pp

COMBINE THE plots of Gone With the Wind and The Remains of the Day, add a dash of Henry James and F Scott Fitzgerald, and you come close to the remarkable mix of family history, political intrigue and high society hauteur that is James Fox's . The sisters in question are the five Southern Belle daughters of "Chillie" and Nancy Langhorne, ante-bellum survivors living out the Confederacy in late 19th-century America, ready to export said daughters across the Atlantic to marry into the English peerage in exchange for a taint of their cultural heritage. To Virginians, going to England was like coming home. Indeed, Nancy Astor's father-in-law left the US altogether, declaring "America is not a fit place for a gentleman to live".

Nancy Astor stands out from her four sisters as heroine and villainess of the book. Marriage to Waldorf meant the translation of tomboyish spirits into political action when her husband's inheritance of a viscountcy disqualified him from standing for Parliament. Nancy stepped into his shoes and a histrionic, celebrated career in the political bearpit that was (and is) the House of Commons.

She became a socialist reformer in Tory clothing, campaigning fearlessly for social justice while fighting a rearguard action with vested male interests. "If I'd known how much men would hate it I never would have dared do it," she said later - without a trace of real regret.

Her exchanges with Winston Churchill are famous. Less well-known sallies include her response to one MP who mused to the chamber "When I was walking in my garden, this is the question asked myself..." "And I bet you got a silly answer," retorted an out-of-order Nancy.

She was out of order all her life; a woman who could not show affection and succeeded in driving away all her children (save one) and her loyal husband, too. Nancy dominates the lives, loves and woes of this transatlantic soap, a period costume fantasy.

All the characters are there: Nancy's sister Phyllis and her drunken first husband Reggie Brooks; her soldier-adventurer lover Henry Tennant, who would die in the Great War; and her second husband, Bob Brand. Brand was an influential member of the Kindergarten: the young Oxonians sent to fix post-Boer War South Africa who ended up trying to fix the rest of the world, from the Treaty of Versailles (when Brand worked with Keynes to lessen German reparations) to Munich (when the "Cliveden Set" around the Astors were widely and, as Fox proves, erroneously held to be pro- appeasement and pro-Nazi).

This pre-Great War generation believed "that they were dealing with a rational, perfectible world". One of the by-products of Fox's book is to cast a new, insider's view on that changing world, as war and social revolution blew it apart.

It also blew apart the lives of the Langhorne Sisters. It claimed their children, three of whom would commit suicide: Phyllis's dandy son Winkie, who threw himself out of New York hotel room; Peter; an aviator, who shot himself; and Bobbie Shaw, Nancy's son by her first marriage, who took an overdose.

For me, Bobbie Shaw's story seems to stand for the dysfunctional second generation. An "extraordinarily handsome" golden boy, Guards officer and show jumper, he was arrested for soliciting guardsmen in 1931 and spent four months in gaol. He lived on in his mother's shadow, devoting himself to working-class boys just as Nancy devoted herself to the working class of her Plymouth constituency - with a very different intent.

Fox contributes a memorable account of Shaw in 1960. Then an ageing Teddy Boy in drape jacket, crepe-soled shoes and greased jet-black hair, he kept his Woodbines in a Faberge cigarette case and was "able to say, apparently with impunity, in what sounded like a cockney accent, `Oh mother, do shut up'".

Few others dared to say the same. Only those who did, intimates Fox, earned Nancy's respect. Like the cast of a Noel Coward play, this was a group of people unable to communicate. Bob Brand declared, when he failed to assemble the trunkful of letters so skilfully used here by his grandson, that "It is only now that I realise intensely the limitations of the common plain Englishman. I have no visual imagination, no power of describing what is perhaps indescribable, only a wound in my heart which never seems to heal."

Fox has succeeded where Brand failed. He reconstructs this world in illuminating detail, from the nuances of the Southern relations with their black servants (regarded virtually as aunts or uncles) to the fetishistic English hunt where women wore chamois leather next to the skin against the cold so as not to spoil the line of their clothes. Much in their world was done for appearance, to keep the side up; and this is what makes Nancy's passions rise above the story of her siblings and relations.

Yet, with her obsessional adherence to Christian Science (which would leave her only daughter permanently damaged when Nancy withheld medical treatment after a riding accident) and her crusades against the world of men, drink and sex, hers was a life which seems perpetually thwarted. She placed a barrier between herself and a comfortable existence.

Perhaps that is what money and class - mixed with her American, outsider quality - did for Nancy and her family. In a memorable phrase, Fox writes that her inability to show affection "laid a gunpowder trail of unhappiness around her".

It was a trail that would only be put out by Bobbie Shaw's sad suicide, six years after his mother's death.

That evening, he rang round his friends and family to say thank you and goodbye, and told the boy he was with that be was going to Fort Augustus, where he had spent child- hood summers with Nancy, "before any siblings disturbed their relationship."

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
arts + entsFor a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past