Monday, 25 May 2020

Book review: The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters, Anne de Courcy (2000)

My copy of the book used to belong to my father, and there is a bookmark I found sitting at page 157 – less than halfway through the volume, a point at which Oswald Mosley, Cynthia Curzon’s husband, sets up a right-wing political party in the UK – with, stamped on it with blue ink, the date of my birth. The bookmark had been made by a library and the date was when a book mum or dad had borrowed – not this book, mind you – was due to be returned. By that year, it is certain, dad’s memory had started to decline in efficacity, so was possibly one of the last books he read. The three Curzon sisters belonged to his mother’s generation.

The book tells a story that can have global significance and while it contains a lot of information about the three Curzon sisters, links to the contemporary zeitgeist aren’t deeply explored until about page 150. Cynthia Mosley, the middle sister, became a Labour member of Parliament but little room is given over to exploring her ideas as they related to the issues of the day until Tom – her husband and also a member of Parliament – split off from Labour to found the New Party. For the first 150 pages of the book, de Courcy restricts herself to examining personal correspondence, and neglects to highlight for the reader such things as books that the women might have read or newspapers they might have subscribed to. What were formative influences on them, apart from family and friends, growing up?

Tom (Oswald) Mosley’s defection from Labour was prompted by his desire for the government – of which he was a part – to adopt Keynesian economic policies, and invest in infrastructure so as to boost employment (unemployment rose after 1929 as a result of the drop in the value of traded equities known as the stock market “crash”, and preceded what would later be known as the Great Depression). We know, now, how right Mosley was because governments in 2020, all around the world, have been pouring money into the pockets of consumers as a result of the novel coronavirus. That Tom subsequently became a fascist is indicative of how, at the time, ideas that related to such things as equality and equity were fluid and shifting but it appears from available records – in this case a diary note that reflects what his sister-in-law was thinking in September 1939 – Mosley’s politics stemmed partly from a concern for the welfare of the working class. As in the case of Mussolini, Tom’s shift was from the left to the extreme right. Irene, the eldest Curzon sister, wrote in her diary in that month:
I asked [Tom] his views on Hitler etc and he said he was only out for Britain and a safe place for her, but I think he sees in himself a potential smasher-up of all our capitalist systems when the disruption of communism creeps over Europe and toward us, and with anti-Semitism as his pillar of hate he will arise from the ashes of conservatism and profitmaking.
Problems faced by the working class would become apparent to the women during the war as a result of children being evacuated from London to the country. The independently wealthy Curzon sisters – children of a viceroy of India, who by now was dead – at this point in time saw children who had been physically and emotionally stunted due to the circumstances of their upbringing, and this experience would affect the three of them deeply.

There is a lacuna partly veiling how their political views were formed in childhood. For this part of the girls’ lives, the effect produced resembles watching a silent film without any text. I risk being a touch over-critical in talking about these ellipses, since de Courcy goes into a lot of detail once the girls are grown and have entered into the world independently but, early on, there is rarely mention of literature, music, paintings, or the media. Itemising such things can be useful, just as it’s pertinent for the reader to know that the girls’ father, Lord Curzon, when he first met Tom, thought he was Jewish because of the size of his nose or that, at the beginning of WWII, Tom tried to get Irene (the eldest Curzon sister, and his sister-in-law) to pay with her own cash for the upkeep of one of his houses.

De Courcy uses a very wide array of material from private correspondence and other documents. That she was able to secure access to them is a tribute to her character or, at least, is an index of her personal standing in the community. If she had not been a credible witness – and had not been able to convince people that she would be a reliable chronicler – it is hardly likely that living relatives of the women in question would have allowed her to read – and quote from – letters and diaries they controlled.

As well as covering in strenuous detail such tonic events as the abdication of Edward VIII – Alexandra (Baba) Metcalfe (the youngest Curzon sister) was the wife of the king’s closest friend – de Courcy’s story reveals how different, compared to now, people of my grandmother’s generation were. I sometimes have problems with how the past is depicted in fiction – I panned Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘The Favourite’ and had a mixed reaction to Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring up the Bodies’. Part of it is due to something that is evident when reading de Courcy’s book, which seems to show why religion was so central, in times past, in people’s lives. Even for people growing up as recently as the beginning of last century a personal God was necessary for many reasons. Medicine was far more basic then. The law was different, especially inasmuch as it affected people’s intimate relationships; divorce was a very different type of thing 100 years ago and homosexual acts were, in Britain at least, illegal. There seems to have been more emotional lability generally; people would break down crying for no apparent reason, women would faint suddenly when in company. Tempers flared, endangering close personal ties that were, in the days before governments started to take more responsibility for people’s welfare, so important for individual survival. In this world of multiplying secrets and lies, religion helped maintain community, providing guides to conduct that went above and beyond the whims of people living in the world. So, a higher power could serve to moderate aberrant and capricious behaviour on the part of powerful men and women. It also provided a living vernacular of values that helped frame events, and make them manageable when they might otherwise seem arbitrary and confusing.

Two generations ago the gap between private and public realms was wider than it is now, and what de Courcy has done to illustrate this fact is stupefying in its broad remit. The depth of the undertaking is almost surreal in its focus on specifics, tiny scraps resuscitated from oblivion – words on pages kept for decades among family papers by one person or another – and given new life in a strong narrative. It’s a stunning memento of the 20th century, and remains – because of the direction in which that politics, in pluralistic democracies around the world, has veered in recent years – strikingly relevant in the 21st.

Perhaps de Courcy could see how things were likely to go, even as far back as the 1990s when, it is evident, she was working on her book. Nothing could have alerted her to 9/11, but possibly trends had begun to emerge in her world that were heralds for Donald Trump, or the conservative political leaders who have appeared in countries as diverse as Hungary and the Philippines.

While showing an aspect of British history that is rarely discerned, the book also allows us to examine what is valuable in its culture. Churchill’s concern for habeus corpus must be noted in respect of Tom, and it’s remarkable how the Curzon sisters’ early flirting with fascism failed to restrict their later access to society. During WWII Baba was close friends with a man who was the UK’s ambassador to the US, and Irene would go on to be elevated to the peerage on account of her many community activities. She was tireless in support of a wide range of causes (Baba would be awarded an OBE on account of her work for Save the Children, a major undertaking that occupied her time after the war). This ability of British society to accommodate diversity is quite striking, it seems to me, and if anything can serve as an emblem of the book, this is it.

Whatever gave de Courcy the idea to realise her vision, it is wonderful that she did so as it has allowed generations living now – and will allow those that are yet to be born – to examine in forensic detail aspects of a political movement central to the 20th century, that was born there, but that didn’t die.

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