Lead­ing ladies

This new book casts a spot­light on the women who led English So­ci­ety at the be­gin­ning of the last cen­tury, says Martin Wil­liams

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

LONDON, it has been said, is a man’s town. One need only think of Sav­ile Row and Jermyn Street, Horse Guards and Club­land, to ap­pre­ci­ate why. So it is per­haps ironic that, for the first few decades of the last cen­tury, the cap­i­tal should have been carved up be­tween the in­domitable hostesses whose ex­ploits are chron­i­cled by Siân evans in her won­der­fully read­able new book.

Of the sex­tet, the most widely known was prob­a­bly nancy As­tor, the first sit­ting fe­male Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, but, in terms of in­flu­ence, she was more than matched by her fel­low Queen Bees: Mrs Ron­nie Gre­ville (Mag­gie), Mrs James Cor­ri­gan (Laura), Lady Cole­fax (Sy­bil), Lady Cu­nard (emer­ald) and the Mar­chioness of Lon­don­derry (edith). At the time, re­porters and com­men­ta­tors were punc­til­ious in call­ing them by their mar­ried names and ti­tles, and it is by those same names and ti­tles that their leg­ends have de­scended.

In vir­tu­ally ev­ery other re­spect, the Queen Bees far out­shone their drone-like hus­bands, reign­ing as the ar­biters of fash­ion and the mak­ers (or break­ers) of ca­reers and rep­u­ta­tions.

english High So­ci­ety has al­ways been per­me­able, ad­mit­ting out­siders of pe­cu­liar tal­ent and tenac­ity. even so, it is as­ton­ish­ing that, in an era so gov­erned by im­plicit be­liefs in class and breed­ing, Miss evans’s pro­tag­o­nists were able to climb to the top of the heap.

Of the six, only Lady Lon­don­derry was aris­to­cratic. Sy­bil Cole­fax was the wife of a bar­ris­ter who was knighted and Mag­gie Gre­ville derived her sub­stan­tial for­tune from her Scot­tish brewer of a fa­ther— who was not mar­ried to her mother, a do­mes­tic ser­vant, at the time of her birth. three weren’t even english: like nancy As­tor,laura Cor­ri­gan and emer­ald Cu­nard were Amer­i­cans and both grew up in im­pe­cu­nious cir­cum­stances.

Read­ing this book, it is abun­dantly clear that con­sid­er­able dex­ter­ity was re­quired by the Queen Bees to sus­tain their roles in their gilded hive. Un­palat­able facts about their an­tecedents were ex­punged, en­e­mies were neu­tralised and al­liances formed. to some de­gree, each was a self­cre­ation. When she was well into mid­dle age, Lady Cu­nard abruptly de­clared that she would no longer an­swer to ‘Maud’, adopt­ing in­stead the more flam­boy­ant moniker of ‘emer­ald’.

When the tra­jec­tory of one Queen Bee crossed with an­other, sparks could fly. Ag­gres­sively pur­su­ing the lat­est ‘lions’ to add lus­tre to their guest lists, their ri­val­ries were in­tense. Vir­ginia Woolf ob­served with wry amuse­ment the look on Lady Cole­fax’s face when a mes­sage ar­rived from Lady Cu­nard, invit­ing the fa­mous au­thor to din­ner. It re­minded her, she said, ‘of a ti­gress when some­body snatches a bone from its paws’.

Ruth­less, snob­bish, cruel and down­right silly, the Queen Bees could be all of those things, yet they sub­scribed whole­heart­edly to the prin­ci­ple of no­blesse oblige and, when war was de­clared in 1939, they more than proved their met­tle.

nancy As­tor worked tire­lessly for the re­lief of her bombed-out con­stituents in Ply­mouth. Draped in jew­els, Mag­gie Gre­ville de­fied the Luft­waffe from her suite at the Dorch­ester (one might as well go out in style, af­ter all). And Mrs Cor­ri­gan spent years flit­ting through france, sell­ing valu­ables to Her­mann Go­er­ing, then us­ing the pro­ceeds to fund the Ré­sis­tance.

Still, old habits die hard. Re­turn­ing to London af­ter many ad­ven­tures, she was spot­ted by noël Cow­ard at a new Year party hosted by Loelia, Duchess of West­min­ster. ‘ev­ery­body was there,’ he later re­ported, ‘from Laura Cor­ri­gan to Laura Cor­ri­gan.’

Ar­biter of taste: Edith, Mar­chioness of Lon­don­derry by Philip de Lás­zló, at Mount Ste­wart House, Co Down

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