The making of books on Lady Astor continues at an alarming rate. They appear to batten on each other. Personal memoirs by her son, her maid, her friends are supplemented by industriously researched works by professional writers, all of them drawing on an inexhaustible store of anecdote, sometimes delightful, sometimes acrimonious, sometimes merely trivial, sometimes (doubtless) apocryphal.
All the biographers seem agreed that there was in Nancy Astor "a flame," as Harold Nicolson put it. Her life had a vitality that was something more than the sum of its often engaging parts. She could enchant even those she exasperated, just as she could outrage those she loved. If there was or is such a thing as "feminine inconsistency," she represented it -- even in the House of Commons, whose sacred maleness she invaded with jaunty self-assurance as the first woman member of Parliament. In the admiring words of A. L. Rowse: "She had a heart of gold, the courage of a lion, and the tongue of a fishwife."
Like earlier biographers, Messrs. Grigg and Masters in their respective ways are frank about their subject's shortcomings while still responding to her evident fascination for them.Of the two, Mr. Grigg shows the warmer sympathy for his subject, even taking the role of frank apologist on occasion, while Mr. Masters's somewhat workaday study relies more heavily on earlier biographies but brings perhaps a little more objective judgment to its story.
Here, in these two latest books, are all the familiar facts, adorned with new anecdotes and supporting material: the beautiful Langhorne sisters of Virginia, the marriage into the huge wealth of the Astors and the upper-class life of the Edwardian afterglow, the stream of great names associated with the fabulous and sometimes maligned hospitality of Clivedon, the political battles, the intimate friendships with Bernard Shaw and T. E. Lawrence and Philip Kerr, the heroic war-time service to the people of Plymouth, the heart-warming generosity and the cruel insensitivities of "a lady unashamed."
On one aspect of their subject the two books differ interestingly. Both authors agree that there was a fund of genuine religious aspiration in Lady Astor, but they differ as to what her espousal of Christian Science meant in her life.
Mr. Grigg makes the curious assumption that it reinforced "her natural tendency to be intolerant of people and ideas that she did not understand" and "deprived her of the opportunity for wide general reading." This assumption would doubtless surprise the thousands of people -- including many readers of The Christian Science Monitor -- who have found that their study of Christian Science has greatly increased the scope of their sympathies with other people and has expanded, not diminished, their intellectual activity.
Mr. Masters, on the other hand, lays the blame on Lady Astor's own shortcomings rather than her religion when he writes: "She used Christian Science to suit her own needs and to boost her own inadequacies. Nevertheless she still kept strongly to the faith that she had contrived and by anyone's lights was definitely both pious and deeply spiritual." To which he adds the words of one of her friends: "Nanny was a devout Christian Scientist, but not a good one. She kept confusing herself with God. She didn't know when to step aside and give God a chance."
It was always hard for her to step aside, as her belated and reluctant withdrawal from politics showed. She often rushed in where angels feared to tread -- but won the love of thousands for her willingness to try.
We are told that the Lord loves a cheerful giver, and Nancy Astor cheerfully gave of herself in innumerable ways of which one is only now learning through these successive biographies. Perhaps the fact that she has won the final affection if not the unqualified approval of such diverse biographers as she has had is a sign of the divine grace she so yearningly, if erratically, sought through her long, impulsive, inconsistent life.