Monday, 27 July 2015

The Mistresses of Cliveden - Reviewed

The Mistresses of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone is a historical journey through the history of a building which gives a peek into the lives of the aristocracy and royalty who at various points lived there.

It is an easy read and it took just three days to work my way through to page 436, where the volume’s text ends. The end notes which show the historical research which went into this book continue for another 49 pages.
The reason I think it maintains attention is that within what appears to be a weighty tome are actually five smaller sections and each is like a book within its own right. Collectively they take you through from 1642 to 1964 on a journey which on the surface appears to be full of intrigue, scandal and indiscretion.

Yet this is not a scandalous book, the writer is a regular contributor to titles such as Tatler and Harper’s Bazaar as well as being the wife of the current owner of the building. Thus, this is a measured volume which exposes only what is generally known and on occasion seeks to reinforce the positive aspects of British aristocracy and royal family, almost excusing away or minimising their misdemeanours.

The key point the author appears to be making is that these women’s stories have to be seen in the contexts of the times they were living in.

Firstly, there is Anna Maria, who lived in the aftermath of the Civil War and puritan Commonwealth. In Restoration Britain duels and women living as mistresses of men they were not married to was more normal than we would perhaps like to think. Anna Maria was a woman living in a hedonist environment where there were double standards enshrined in the higher echelons of national life. Livingstone’s tale of her life shows how the lives of wives and mistresses in this set up differed and how they also at points overlapped.

As with most of the stories in the book the description of Anna Maria’s life also explains clearly how the system of royal patronage works. This is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the book because we tend to think of this system as more important in Tudor times and before. Yet, we see through a range of precarious financial situations and personal relationships how important this system was to the highest echelons of society.

Next we have the story of Elizabeth Villiers, a woman whose story is most interesting as a result of her ongoing competition with Sarah, wife of the Duke of Marlborough. The competition between the women who had much to do with designing and building two of the most well known stately homes of the time is fascinating as it shows how power dynamics worked. This chapter is also interesting because it starts to give an insight into the way in which the death of a child had a devastating impact on many of these women.

Then we get to Augusta whose life from 1719 to 1772 gives us a fascinating into the rifts within the Georgian royal family. Augusta was the Princess of Wales and by the time we get to her mistress has very much changed meaning in this book. She is clearly the head of the household and a woman of integrity but not beyond working politically when needed. Indeed the political understanding and operating of these women is an interesting subtext within the book.

Of all the women in the book Augusta is perhaps my favourite, although her story is not the most interesting.

Next we get to Harriet whose story was, for me, the most engaging and the most disturbing. Being more recent and a close confidant of Queen Victoria there appears to be more material on Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland. Her story is one which is infused with politics, particularly through her friendship with Gladstone and links with royalty through her professional and personal links to Queen Victoria.

Indeed the most moving part of the book is when both Harriet and Victoria’s bereavements take place close to each other and their impacts are discussed.

What I found perhaps most difficult with this section of the book was reading so soon after watching the recent BBC Two programme Britain’sForgotten Slave Owners. This programme gave a picture of wealth at this time which often came from compensation claims. Whilst Harriet was shown to be an abolitionist advocate with regards to slavery in the USA I was conscious of the complex world in which she lived in. It is a world which history has often sought to sanitise somewhat and with that  in mind I had a mixture of feelings about this women. This uncomfortable aspect of nineteenth century history is picked up through reference to another chapter of British History which we may like to sweep under the carpet, the Highland Clearances. To be fair to the author she does pick this up but comes to no conclusion on the matter. Rather it comes across as an unfortunate aspect of history which needs to be acknowledged but not dwelt upon.

Finally we pick up on the story of Nancy Astor, first female MP to sit in the House of Commons. The anecdotes about her seem to come from a range of sources and as throughout this book material is taken from achieves and published sources but somehow there is a different feel to this part of the book. It seems that this is more sanitised and that there were less surprises found amongst the archives when it came to Astor. Perhaps this is not surprising, after all this was a media owning family who sought to control their image, at some times more successfully than at others. The key point within this chapter appears to be scorching the myth that there was a Cliveden set which was linked to Nazi Germany and the ideology of that regime. On one hand Livingstone does this successfully but on the other she highlights how the relationship between the upper echelons of society and Germany at that time was more complex than we might like to think in post-war society. As the recent pictures of the Queen from 1933 illustrate the picture was much more complex.

There is at the end of the book a description of the Profumo  Affair which involved the house and Nancy’s son.

What is missing is the writer herself. We know from the book something of her religious identity but beyond that nothing. Yet as current mistress of the house her story needs to be included, even if there was a gap between her Astor and her occupancy. I hope any revised version will include that.

Overall a book I would recommend but I would probably say wait until it comes out in paperback as £25 is somewhat high a price for this tale of five remarkable women. That said the hardback has one of the most beautiful book jackets I’ve seen. It looks and feels wonderful.

What I would add about this book is I hope BBC 4 pick it up and do a six part series (I say six part as I would like the author and current incarnation of the house included). Each woman does deserve her own programme and visually this would make a fascinating work.
I also now have somewhere else I hope to visit as this book is very much about place as much as people.

The Mistresses of Cliveden Three Centuries of Scandal, Power and Intrigue by Natalie Livingstone is published by Hutchinson. ISBN – 978-0 091-95452-9

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