I’ve been woefully quiet on this blog lately.
Part of that is because I’m using my writing time to write my first novel. First?! Ha! That implies there’ll be more.
It’s on the origin story of the BBC (podcast on that here), and a bit part in that is Nancy Astor. I’m more focused on her secretary, Hilda Matheson, who left Astor (begrudgingly – Astor had to pretty much sack her to make her go) to work for the fledgeling BBC, rising to become the Beeb’s first Director of Talks.
Matheson was the highest-ranking female boss of the company/corporation, and helped invent talk radio as we know it – the ‘Radio 4’ style of clever/interesting/diverse people informing/educating/entertaining. Before her, there were rather dry lectures, but she opened it to include debate and added a conversational style, plus her connections brought Britain’s celebrities of the day to the mic – George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf (Matheson’s own love rival, for the affections of poet Vita Sackville-West). Matheson also worked for MI5 in both World Wars, hired by Lawrence of Arabia during the first one.
I know, right?! What a character. You start writing about the BBC and you end up writing about gay affairs and spying. But then you research Matheson’s pre-BBC boss, Lady Astor… and boy oh boy, keep pulling on that thread.
Nancy Astor was the first MP to take her seat in the House of Commons, so that’s the chapter of the book I’ve chosen to introduce Matheson and Astor. Nancy was an American divorcee, and you may have seen her name in countless quotes, part of a decades-long mud-slinging roast battle with Winston Churchill. eg.
Astor: “Sir, if you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.”
Churchill: “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
After Nancy Astor’s triumphant maiden speech at the Commons (largely to boos, which was not the done thing for maiden speeches), Churchill was heard to say, “I feel as if a woman has just entered my bathroom and I had nothing to defend myself with, not even a sponge.” Astor apparently replied: “Mr Churchill, you are not handsome enough to have worries of that kind.”
Yet before her parliamentary career, Churchill was a friend to Nancy Astor, joining her lavish parties at her vast country home of Cliveden. After she became an MP – only because her husband rose to the House of Lords (he didn’t want to, and hoped Nancy would only babysit his seat while he got the law changed to return to the Commons) – many politicians snubbed her. Churchill was notoriously cruel with it. When he saw her in a Commons corridor, he’d talk loudly about venereal disease and the like, just to embarrass her.
So while the first Astor/Matheson scene in my novel has them at Westminster, I wanted their second chapter to be at Cliveden, the sprawling estate that Nancy loathed, that her husband inherited from his father William Astor.
I’m en route to a stand-up gig tonight, so pulled into a motorway services to do some writing on the novel. Then realised: I’m not that far from Cliveden…
…Cliveden is now a hotel, but the National Trust operate the estate. I sought a tour, and rounded the corner of the house to see a gaggle of tour guides all having their training. What’s the collective noun? A question of tour guides? A gift shop of tour guides? Anyway, there are no tours while the hotel finds its feet again post-lockdown. I left them to their training – early, given there aren’t any till 2022 – and explored the grounds.
It’s not the first time I’ve written part of a book in the place it’s set (although you’ll notice so far I’ve not done much sitting and writing; just some mooching around – still, all helps). When I wrote Hark! The Biography of Christmas, I wrote the chapter on Bracebridge Hall – fictitious English manor house, described by US writer Washington Irving in 1821 as the scene of lost old English Christmases, log fires, carriage rides, games etc – in the same manor house it was based on, Aston Hall near Birmingham. Irving visited Aston Hall as a guest of the Watt family (the lightbulb guy), and was so inspired by their Christmas celebrations that he exaggerated and fictionalised it in his book, which in turn inspired Dickens to write about old Christmas too.
Like Cliveden, Aston Hall is now a place to visit rather than a private property, so I worked on the chapter about its history while sitting in Aston Hall’s very modern cafe – but with a lovely view of the old house, and having just enjoyed an enlightening tour of it.
It really helps get under the skin of what you’re writing if you can visit your setting, let alone be writing about it while you’re there. I’ve read a handful of books and accounts of Cliveden and the Astors, but to visit it and see its scale was quite another thing.
The hotel was for guests only, but I popped my head around the door and glanced at the Cliveden’s entrance hall. It’s not changed much. This was it 100 years ago – the scene that would have greeted Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and various visiting US presidents:
The chapel was open for non-hotel guests like me. It used to be a tearoom in the 1800s, but the Astors turned it into a chapel, not for Sunday worship for somewhere to be buried. It’s quite something:
Nancy Astor was a complex character – heralded as the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament, but better known for what she was anti than what she was pro. Anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-communist – she backed Hitler through the 1930s, and the ‘Cliveden set’ was an upper-class group of appeasement, Nazi-sympathetic toffs who chose the wrong side of history. Nancy regretted her views in 1939, and spent the war trying to atone for her earlier views, helping children and families, just as she had set out to do in Parliament from 1919 onwards – only now she was turning cartwheels and turning her homes into hospitals.
(Some of the above Astor info is from the excellent podcast Gallus Girls and Wayward Women – a great listen.)
Anyway, enough blogging – back to the novel-writing, before I forget all that inspiration and start to write about Lady Astor and Matheson just having a chat in a shop or something. I hope to discover Lady Astor holidayed in Hawaii and had some key plot points happen there – I fancy a trip further afield to write where I’m setting my book…
Nancy Astor and Hilda Matheson are fascinating characters, and I can’t wait to get into them in the novel. If I ever finish it, I’ll let you know all about it here.
In the meantime, my podcast The British Broadcasting Century is telling the BBC origin story – and we’ll get to Hilda Matheson on there… in about 50 episodes time.