The Viceroy's Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters

The Viceroy's Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters

by Anne de Courcy

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Based on unpublished letters and diaries, The Viceroy's Daughters is a riveting portrait of three spirited and wilful women who were born at the height of British upper-class wealth and privilege.

The oldest, Irene, never married but pursued her passion for foxes, alcohol, and married men. The middle, Cimmie, was a Labour Party activist turned

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Based on unpublished letters and diaries, The Viceroy's Daughters is a riveting portrait of three spirited and wilful women who were born at the height of British upper-class wealth and privilege.

The oldest, Irene, never married but pursued her passion for foxes, alcohol, and married men. The middle, Cimmie, was a Labour Party activist turned Fascist. And Baba, the youngest and most beautiful, possessed an appetite for adultery that was as dangerous as it was outrageous.

As the sisters dance, dine, and romance their way through England's most hallowed halls, we get an intimate look at a country clinging to its history in the midst of war and rapid change. We obtain fresh perspectives on such personalities as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Oswald Mosley, Nancy Astor and the Cliveden Set, and Lord Halifax. And we discover a world of women, impeccably bred and unabashedly wilful, whose passion and spirit were endlessly fascinating.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Don't confuse the Curzon sisters with the Mitfords, whose biography comes out this month (see The Sisters, Forecasts, Nov. 12, 2001), although the fascist Oswald Mosley married one of each. Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, an avowed antifeminist who valued women if they were ornamental, produced three highly decorative daughters: Irene, Cynthia (Cimmie) and Alexandra (Baba). They were to lead largely inconsequential lives, but their wealth and social position put them close to the center of British political power from 1920 until the end of WWII. The eldest, Irene, never married, devoting herself first to the pursuit of foxes and married men, and later to charity work and the bottle. Cimmie had the misfortune to wed Oswald Mosley, a notorious womanizer and founder of the British Union of Fascists. Mosley bedded a string of women, including wife Cimmie's two sisters and her stepmother, until his wartime imprisonment (by then, he'd divorced Cimmie to marry Diana Guinness, n e Mitford). The youngest daughter, Baba, who was married to Fruity Metcalfe, an amiable if rather dim friend of the Duke of Windsor, had a talent for adultery with rich and powerful men that she exercised in the stately homes of England, while her husband occupied himself supporting the duke in his immensely comfortable exile in France. Though this well-researched book teems with political figures (e.g., Chamberlain, Mountbatten, Halifax) during a perilous historical period, we see them not as they decide the fate of nations, but with their trousers down. Their antics make the present crop of royals and members of Parliament look positively staid. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
British journalist de Courcy has written numerous biographies of the British elite as well as one book on etiquette. This time, she focuses on the daughters of the colorful, controversial viceroy of India, Lord Curzon (whose second daughter married fascist Oswald Mosely). All the Curzon sisters entertained and bedded the A-list of the British elite of the last century, and the author uses the sisters as the fulcrum of a story that includes the Windsors, Mitfords, Guinnesses, Astors, and the Dorchester and Clivedon sets, plus many more of that vanishing upper stratum that ruled Britain and influenced the entire 20th century. De Courcy had access to unpublished diaries and correspondence of these toffs, and her acknowledgments are profuse and star-studded. Celebrity lovers will adore this book, which covers all aspects of the lives of this elite group its wealth, manners (both ill bred and upper crust), lusts, and political intrigues. Sadly, the last chapters disappoint; de Courcy simply condenses too many of the last decades of the Curzon sisters' lives into one lump, leaving readers wanting more. Still, this entertaining romp is recommended for all public and academic libraries. Gail Benjafield, St. Catharine's P.L., Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From English journalist de Courcy, an un-thrilling biography of the daughters of Lord Curzon, whose lives seem an exercise in privilege with only a measure of excitement. English statesman and viceroy of India, Lord Curzon was a peer of the realm with a substantial boodle. Chancellor of Cambridge and rector of Glasgow University, with a backbone as supple as reinforced concrete, he was anxious for a male heir but found himself instead with daughters Irene, Cynthia, and Alexandra. Here, he's portrayed as a distant father, aloof and stiff, but unconstrained by the rules of marriage, and his daughters apparently also displayed his gamut of personality types. They were neither milquetoasts nor shrinking violets, fire-breathers nor buckers of the status quo, of which they were happy beneficiaries: they had fat trusts from their maternal grandfather, allowing them a latitude others couldn't dream of. With the death of the girls' mother, Curzon grew even more removed from his daughters, who very much took on lives of their own, and after his remarriage, he became to them "little more than a disappointing presence." One daughter became involved in a forgettable way with the Wallis Simpson affair with Edward VIII, and another devoted her years to charity work, a choice elevating her to near-sainthood in this brood. The third, Baba-Alexandra-had a long, convoluted, and sordid relationship with the dreadful Tom Mosley, a drummer throughout Britain of support for fascism who, says Baba, had "stimulating provocative ideas" and a "sharp-edge wit." There are unexpected glimpses of how easily influenced the policies of English government could be, but there are just as many crises over whether to wear agray or black jacket with striped pants for dinner. Little to keep you absorbed when second-rate palace intrigue is the only thing on the menu.

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Chapter One

Curzon and His Circle

The Curzon daughters were born when the wealth and privilege of the British upper classes were at their zenith. Powdered footmen in brilliant liveries stood behind chairs at dinner parties of ten courses. The pavement outside a grand house was covered with sound-deadening straw if the occupant was ill, or with a red carpet if there was a ball, so that guests in tiaras or tailcoats could proceed in style to a ballroom filled with flowers from the hothouses of the host's country estate. Most of them, born into this tight and exclusive circle threaded through with networks of cousinage, already knew each other, their friendships flowering during the long Saturdays to Mondays spent at one another's country houses.

The grandeur, the sports, the pleasures, the elaborate clothes washed, ironed, mended and packed by lady's maid or valet, the dressing gongs, the carriages, the silver tea things on a white lace cloth beneath a cedar tree on the lawn, were expressions of a society secure in its own power — a power which extended over roughly a quarter of the world and which was, equally securely, held in the hands of its ruling class.

No one epitomized the concept of the Englishman born to rule better than George Nathaniel Curzon. As Lady Cynthia Asquith, the daughter of Curzon's friend, Lady Elcho, tartly observed: "It certainly needed no trained psychologist's eye to diagnose him at a glance as a man who would prefer to be mounted on an elephant rather than a donkey." When his daughters Irene, Cynthia and Alexandrawere born, in 1896, 1898 and 1904 respectively, he was at the height of his powers and influence.

The Honorable George Curzon, the eldest of four brothers and six sisters, was born on January 11, 1859, at Kedleston, the Derbyshire estate that had belonged to the Curzons for more than seven hundred years. The house, a northern palace, was built by Robert Adam with a saloon based on the Pantheon in Rome, and was surrounded by a park. George's father, the fourth Lord Scarsdale, who as a younger son had not expected to inherit the manor, was the village rector. All his life Curzon was passionate about Kedleston and constantly sought to enrich and improve it, a passion that expanded to embrace the other grand houses which he later bought or rented.

Curzon's brilliance and belief in himself were apparent from an early age; the future prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who met him while he was at Eton, was more struck by his self-confidence than by any other quality. Brought up by a sadistic governess, a cold mother, who died when he was sixteen, and a distant, eccentric father, the realization that he could depend only upon himself and on what he could make of his life had come to him early.

Just before his mother died, George had taken a fall while riding in the Kedleston woods, hurt his back badly and spent three days lying in bed in great pain. Like any fifteen-year-old, when he got better he forgot about it. Then, on holiday in France just before going up to Oxford in the autumn of 1878, he was suddenly struck by agonizing pain in the lower back. His right hip, he realized, had altered shape. He went straight back to London where he immediately consulted a specialist, who told him that he was suffering from curvature of the spine and that in future he must wear a corset or brace and avoid violent exercise. From then on, he was in more or less constant pain, often having to take to his bed as the only alleviation. Work provided distraction, consolation and a lifeline out of the self-pity into which he occasionally fell.

The effect of this constant suffering permeated Curzon's character, aggravated by the steel corset he was obliged to wear. This rigid framework made him literally stiff-necked, giving him an appearance of pride verging on self-importance, a man prepared to stand on his dignity on all occasions. And, just as stiffness of body is often reflected in rigidity of mind, so his attitudes and prejudices all too easily became set in stone while his will dominated his emotions.

This did not stop him from becoming the center of a notable group of friends both as an undergraduate at Oxford and after. There was the masculine society of the Crabbet Club — founded by the traveler, poet and womanizer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt at his home in Sussex — which would meet for what Curzon called "bayarnos" (he was under the impression that "beano" was Italian for a festivity) in the first weekend of July, when around twenty members arrived bringing with them presents of wine, cigars and other delicacies. In 1883 he was elected a fellow of All Souls; and three years later ran for Parliament and became the Conservative MP for Southport in Lancashire.

Curzon was also a founder member of the coterie of aristocratic and intellectual men and women known as "the Souls." Though the nude tennis-playing of the Crabbet Club after a long night of talk had no place among the Souls, they were equally impressed by an elegance of intellectual style. They were not afraid of expressing emotion — indeed, they had been christened the Souls by Lord Charles Beresford in 1888 since, as he said, "You all sit and talk about each other's souls"; and the name was confirmed by Curzon's banquet for them of 1889 at the Bachelors' Club, where each guest found on his chair a set of Curzon's verses describing the characteristics of each individual Soul. Their articulateness, freedom of expression and extravagant displays of affection made their conversation the very opposite of the convention and banality that had trickled down from court circles. One favorite after-dinner game was Styles, in which guests were given half an hour to...

The Viceroy's Daughters. Copyright © by Anne de Courcy. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. .

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Meet the Author

Anne de Courcy has written eleven books, including Diana Mosley: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler's Angel; Debs at War; and The Viceroy's Daughters. She lives in London and Gloucestershire.

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