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."