Books: Mr Quail Bird and Woodbine Jack Cossacks on the road to Bethlem

Five extraordinary women who effortlessly outshone their menfolk: BY BARBARA TRAPIDO The Langhorne Sisters by James Fox Granta pounds 20

This book gives us a great insight into networking and will be a comfort to those whose families are variously turbulent, controlling, obtuse, brilliant and over-endowed with charisma. Tracing the female line of his own family, Fox has given us a cast that bounces vividly off the page over some 80 years.

The five Langhorne sisters, of whom Nancy Astor became the most famous, were born to a Virginian family impoverished by the Civil War. The family rises to new wealth through Chillie Langhorne's timely collaboration in Yankee railroad construction and he buys Mirador, an estate where he can re-write himself as head of one of Virginia's first families.

He does this, not only through wealth, but through the allure of his daughters, particularly Irene, a southern Belle who receives 65 proposals of marriage. Chillie, a captivating, outrageous rollicking squire, determines that his girls will marry money, which means harnessing them to Yankees. Only two escape. Lizzie, the eldest, predates Chillie's financial resurrection and has already married into the snobbish new poor of old Richmond. Nora, the youngest, escapes by being floaty. She accepts every proposal of marriage on offer and defends herself front her dominating sisters by becoming a compulsive liar and a person of diminished responsibility. Nora is finally propelled, by the managerial Nancy, into a marriage from which she bolts several times. She is so reckless with the family bank account, that, as one participant describes it, it's like "living with a burglar".

Irene makes a lasting marriage with the celebrated society artist, Dana Gibson. She becomes the original "Gibson Girl" and the toast of New York, though Chillie doesn't rate artists highly and complains of Gibson's consuming "my hogs and hominy". Much of the early part of this book reads like the Tatler as scripted by Tom Lehrer, but please read on ...

Nancy's and Phyllis's millionaire marriages fail quickly; Phyllis's to an idler-sportsman called Reggie Brooks, who drinks too much and neglects his wife. "I am much occupied with Mr Quail Bird," as he explains. Nancy's marriage to Robert Shaw fails within the year. Shaw keeps a mistress and Nancy is rumoured to have been got with child only with the aid of chloroform.

The child of this marriage is Bobbie, a wildly attractive character, hopelessly bound to his controlling mother. Bobbie, subsequently half- brother to the maternally tyrannised Astor children, is handsome, enchanting, funny, clever and a brilliant horseman. Turfed out of the Guards and jailed for homosexuality, Bobbie sinks from society and ends up looking like Sid James. He bonds affectionately with the working-class mothers of his boyfriends and is known as Woodbine Jack among the rough trade.

Both Nancy and Phyllis beat a path to England where they make their way via the hunting networks of Market Harborough. Nancy's marital choices are between the 16th Baron Elphinstone and Waldorf Astor, fourth-richest man in the world. She chooses the latter, a decent and liberal-minded man. Inheriting Cliveden from his anglophile, melancholic father, Waldorf opens his purse to Nancy, by which means - along with her extraordinary charm and her ability to cut through pomp and rank - she becomes an unrivalled hostess, combining Lloyd George, Bernard Shaw, Welsh trade unionists, lesbian prison reformers and Christian science bores, with Milner's Kindergarten - that cabal of "schoolboy masters of the world" who were, right then, in the first flush of their success at having cobbled up the Act of Union in South Africa by selling out the Cape's non-racial Franchise.

When Waldorf's father accepts a barony, Waldorf is rendered ineligible to represent Plymouth as MP and is succeeded by Nancy, who becomes the first woman member to sit in the House. She is spirited on the hustings, brave in facing down parliamentary male bigotry, energetic and committed in pressing for social reform. Even at 60, she is game to cartwheel in Plymouth bomb shelters. One of the saddest things is to see her drift away from Waldorf's Tory liberalism, towards appeasement, towards support for Ian Smith in Rhodesia, towards crossing swords with her own son David, editor of the Observer, about the number of "blacks" on the front page.

The picture Fox paints of his grandmother Phyllis's loving second marriage to Bob Brand is touching. The downside is the heavy price Phyllis pays: both children from her first marriage commit suicide. As parents, Phyllis and Nancy are, respectively, obtuse and manipulating to the point of criminality. The most bizarre ingredient in this kaleidoscopic bock is Phyllis's long- distance love affair with a big game hunter who fires off letters of disgruntled far-sightedness on the Irish Question, etcetera, from Mongolian tent and Siberian campfire. As Buck, the only uncrushed Langhorne brother, might have remarked, "I declare 'fore Gracious!"

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