Anne De Courcy’s The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters is a biography of three English sisters – Irene Curzon (1896-1966), Cynthia “Cimmie” Curzon Mosley (1898-1933), and Alexandra “Baba” Curzon Metcalfe (1904-1995). Their father, George Curzon, was a brilliant man who was born to the peerage and held a series of important posts in the British government at a time when Great Britain was the most powerful country in the world. He was Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, then Viceroy of India, then Leader of the House of Lords, then member of the War Cabinet during the First World War, then Foreign Secretary, and finally Lord President of the Council – all this in spite of the agonizing pain caused by the curvature of the spine that he suffered, and the necessity of wearing a steel corset. For a wife he chose one of the most beautiful young debutantes in America, Mary Leiter. Though Mary and George did love each other it was not incidental that Mary was also one of America’s richest young debutantes, since George could not have otherwise have afforded such a career. The viceroy’s salary, for instance, did not half finance the lifestyle thought necessary to a viceroy.
As one might expect of those born to such parents the three Curzon sisters were wealthy, titled, beautiful, intelligent, and strong-willed. This book documents their intertwined lives. It was an era when women did not have careers and the three women lived sumptuously on their inheritances all their lives anyway, but they all gave a great deal of time and energy to the public good and excelled at whatever they did. Cimmie was a Member of Parliament. Irene and Baba both did a considerable amount of charitable work, in honour of which Irene was created on of the first four female life peers in 1958, and Baba awarded a CBE in 1975. Cimmie and Baba married and had three children each. Irene never married and had no children, although she essentially raised Cimmie’s children after Cimmie died at the age of 34 from an appendectomy performed in a pre-antibiotic era. Socially they mingled with many of the well-known people of the day, and the index to the book reads like a Who’s Who of the thirties. To give a few examples of their social connections, George Curzon had a long-standing affair with Elinor Glyn, and Glyn, a kind woman, also became a fondly regarded and lifelong friend to the Curzon daughters. Cimmie’s husband was Sir Oswald “Tom” Mosley, a charismatic and power-obsessed politician who founded an alarmingly successful fascist party in England in the thirties. Prince George (later the Duke of Kent) fell in love with Baba, although not she with him. Baba’s husband was the closest male friend the Duke of Windsor ever had, and Baba had affairs with many powerful men – including her brother-in-law, Tom Mosley. Tom Mosley’s second wife was Diana Guinness, who was Unity Mitford’s sister and, like Unity, a friend of Hitler’s.
This book had me musing about the nature of history. If history is not what actually happened but our construction of what happened, why include these three particular women in it? Why was this topic worth the intensive work it must have been to document it? While reading the 454-page book I kept waiting for one of the Curzon sisters to do something to warrant such a biography. I think I must have read several hundred pages before it dawned on me that this was not going to happen. I probably should have taken the hint from the title and subtitle, which define the three women by their biological relationships, or from the four review blurbs on the back of the book, which make use of the term “social history” twice. The Curzon sisters led useful lives that are mildly interesting to the reader, but they were not of historical importance in themselves. This book about them is primarily worth reading for the social and historical context it provides. The Viceroy's Daughters is, therefore, a good book to read if one wants a sense of what life was like in aristocratic English circles during the first half of the twentieth century. One learns that the hunt was a subculture of its own and could be an entire way of life for some, as it was for Irene for a time. There are incidents that speak volumes about the social mores of the era, such as George Curzon’s summary dismissal of a housemaid who had allowed a footman to spend the night in her bed (“I put the wretched little slut out in the street at a moment’s notice.”) He saw no parallel between the housemaid’s actions and his own many affairs, and there is no mention of what happened to the footman. It is related that Baba taught Prince George to drive in a single afternoon – a few hours’ instruction from a friend being standard driver’s education at the time. There is by far the most negative and unflattering account of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s relationship and behaviour towards others that I have ever read. And there is a truly disturbing account of the growth and momentum of Tom Mosley’s British fascist movement, complete with pictures of a moustached, black-shirted Tom exhorting a fervent crowd and the lyrics for a song called “Mosley!” (“Mosley, Leader of thousands!/Hope of our manhood, we proudly hail thee!/Raise we the song of allegiance/For we are sworn and shall not fail thee.”). If the reader has any complacent notion that the threat and allure of fascism was limited to one or two leaders and their countries, or even to one era, he or she will be disabused.
The Curzon sisters have much in common with Princess Diana, and they share her specific relationship to history. They, like her, were born to the aristocracy, wealthy, beautiful, well-dressed, unhappy in their marriages and romances, successful mothers, active in charitable works, and politically unimportant. Not being a part of the royal family, nor mothers to the heir to the throne, they were less well known. And at any rate media coverage in their day, though it covered society events and the lives of the aristocracy, would have had an entirely different tone from that of Diana’s time. If the Curzon sisters had had colonial irrigations or bulimia, it was not breathlessly reported. I doubt that Irene’s excessive drinking was ever generally bruited about. Being famous, however, has always meant that people whom you have never met believe that they know you. So the Curzon sisters, like Diana, would have been objectified and treated as characters in a soap opera rather than as people, and even more idealized. It made me realize that in a hundred years’ time Diana will probably be largely forgotten, or at least have dwindled to the status of a tragic footnote, as has say, Anne Boleyn. In any case I expect her image won’t still be appearing on magazine covers and bus shelters. Because in the case of these celebrity soap opera-like stories, you probably had to be there at the time watching, and have the memories of the unfolding events interwoven with the events of your own life, in order to feel that they have any compelling meaning.