Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor

Written by Adrian Fort
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

This new biography of Nancy, Lady Astor (1879-1964) charts her astonishing life with wit and a lively intelligence. She was born in Virginia to a poverty-stricken family devastated by the American Civil War. Eventually, her father recouped his fortune and Nancy was successfully launched into the cream of English society. Her marriage in 1906 to Waldorf Astor, newspaper tycoon and MP for Plymouth, enabled her to become a brilliant political hostess at Cliveden where she prided herself on inviting a wide range of guests who might otherwise never have met each other. She was, in modern parlance, a facilitator.

After her husband’s retirement from politics in 1919, she stood for his seat in Plymouth and became the first woman to enter Parliament. She did not have an easy ride, meeting a wall of prejudice and, often, downright rudeness and obstruction. Nevertheless, she set herself to make a difference for all women, not just her Plymouth constituents. As Fort puts it, “MPs and the Party Whips seemed suddenly to find in much proposed legislation a women’s side that previously they had not appeared to notice.” During the ´20s and ´30s a raft of legislation affecting women, ranging from pensions and a register for nurses to divorce and property, reached the statute book.

It wasn’t all triumph, however. Nancy had a tendency to bully which could alienate people, and many in Parliament were relieved to see her step down in 1945. However, that fault in no way diminishes her achievements, which were considerable. Well worth reading. I enjoyed it.