Thanks to my talented friend Melissa Smith for today’s post, which contains affiliate links.
I think I’m still having Downton Abbey withdrawal. I’m missing the witty quips, the scandals, the romance, the history and of course, the stunningly aristocratic and thoroughly British country house setting. Somewhere inside this thoroughly American woman resides just a bit of wistful longing to ring the bell, call the Butler and fete my guests with an afternoon cup of tea. Alas, such is not to be. My life more closely resembles Daisy, the Scullery maid than the Dowager Countess. Downstairs it would have been for me!
Enough whining. Let’s just leave it with daydreaming about life in the leisure lane of English Country living. Just after Downton Abbey aired its last episode but before the real withdrawal set in, I received one of those online ads hyping a recommendation for a book I might like. On a whim, I hit the purchase button and ordered it. The Mistresses of Cliveden: Three Centuries of Scandal, Power, and Intrigue in an English Stately Home by Natalie Livingstone arrived just a few days later in the smiling Amazon box. Hard to imagine, but the story of Cliveden House, and the intriguing women who presided over it, really did outshine the fictional drama of Downton. I was hooked!
Welcome to Cliveden
Nestled on a gorgeous hilltop in the Thames River valley just 5 miles outside of London, Cliveden is an honest-to-goodness country estate that has witnessed more than its share of scandal. If you’re a die-hard political wonk and an anglophile, you may recall the Profumo Affair, a salacious scandal from 1961 that involved a swimming pool and a call girl that would eventually bring down a Prime Minister. The swimming pool was at Cliveden House. But that’s not the only item of interest from Cliveden’s three-hundred year history. All the way back to its construction in the 1660s, Cliveden has been at the intersection of power and controversy. Built as a haven for courtesan Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury and paramour of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, it was a duel in which Buckingham killed Anna Maria’s husband, that opened necessity for the construction of Cliveden. By the completion of the house some years later, Anna Maria and the Duke had split largely as a result of the ensuing scandal that rained down in the public square for both of the lovers. In a superbly ironic twist of fate, Cliveden’s first mistress wasn’t Buckingham’s actual mistress, Anna Maria, but his much put-upon wife, Mary. Somehow finding harmony after all these many years, both Anna Maria and Mary’s portraits hang in the great hall, looking across at each other for as long as the house still stands. I wonder what those women would say to one another!
The tale of Cliveden pivots around the women who presided over its fate, inheritors of both its beautiful property and its delicate relationship to love, power and persuasion. Elizabeth, Countess of Orkney, a woman of great intellect, a skillful and formidable power broker, and the long-time mistress of King William III has her likeness carved into the staircase. Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, married to the Prince of Wales was predicted to become Queen. Once at the pinnacle of London society, the hopeful Princess Augusta fell just as quickly from grace once her prospects were dashed with the untimely and unexpected death of her husband. Giving herself only four hours to grieve her husband, Augusta ordered and retrieved all of her personal papers and the personal papers of her husband. A powerful helpmeet and advisor to her husband’s opposition to the reigning King and her husband’s father, she destroyed all the presumably incriminating evidence of their participation in the opposition. The extent to which this royal couple was involved in fomenting dissent will never be known. What can be known is that Augusta had a firm grasp on political realities, preferring to suffer from speculative gossip than allowing hard facts to be discovered.
Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland
The fourth mistress of Cliveden was Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, an accomplished society hostess who turned Cliveden into the social center of London. Close confidant of Queen Victoria, her portrait continues to preside over the Dining Room at Cliveden. Much more conventional, as the Victorians sought to be, Harriet’s story was both personal and political. Through the early years of her marriage, she struggled with the death of a child and a devastating fire at Cliveden. Perhaps, however, politics are in the water at Cliveden. Harriet took up the cause of abolition of slavery and organized a group of very aristocratic and titled women to involve themselves in the American “crisis.” Need I tell you, she was a lightning rod for the controversy that ensued her entanglement with the foreign policy crisis of her day, the American Civil War.
The last powerful, but nonetheless controversial woman of Cliveden was American Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female member of Parliament. Cliveden came under the ownership of Waldorf Astor and his new bride, Virginian divorcee, Nancy, as a wedding gift. Under Waldorf and Nancy’s supervision, Cliveden was turned into a hospital for Canadian soldiers of the Great War, very much like fictional Downton. After the war, quintessential social hostess, Nancy Astor and had a gift for putting together diverse dinner parties that grew increasingly more political and serious. She brought the likes of Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplain, and Chiam Weitzman to the table. During their tenure at Cliveden, and at least partially as a result of their social connections and standing, both Astors, Waldorf and Nancy, took their first steps into the political arena. Nancy first worked tirelessly campaigning for her husband’s run, but by 1919, women were allowed to stand for Parliament and Nancy, ever opinionated and naturally articulate, stood for Parliament on her own. Through the tumultuous years of World War II and afterwards through the Cold War, the Astors continued to hold Cliveden privately, continuing to make and keep it a power center, both socially and politically until their deaths.
In parallel with the histories of these amazing women is the story of the house itself. Built as a residence for a mistress, it became the sanctuary for the spurned wife who tended to the property and its gardens with love. In 1832, a fire at Cliveden which destroyed much of the house and its valuable contents could be seen as far as five miles away at Windsor, where Queen Victoria saw the flames and dispatched fire engines. The house rose from the ashes, the rebuild commencing in 1850. From 1850 through its private ownership under the Astors, the house continued to be a social center, although as life in England changed in the modern era, life in those Country estates became more unaffordable hence less socially relevant. Today, Cliveden lives on as a property in the National Trust, more a remembrance of times past than forward looking.The story of Cliveden, as told by Ms. Livingstone, is one of power gained and loves lost. The women through whose lives we learn about changing times and about the inner and outer lives of the rich and powerful. Perhaps most intriguing, the book challenges what we may believe about the roles of women through history. Although culturally limited, not one of the women of Cliveden were wall-flowers, retiring behind the richly paneled drawing rooms and perfectly manicured gardens. These women were smart and savvy and politically and socially connected. They knew where and how to press their advantages. They were consorts to Kings and Dukes. They threw lavish entertainments in public, and cried soulfully in private. To a woman, they all were powerful at the highest level.
The astonishingly complex lives of five amazing women, all connected to one residence, Cliveden House, read like Downton Abbey on steroids. With full-color portraits of each woman and illustrations of the changing landscape of the house, the book was a fascinating read. Like the house itself built as an escape and a retreat from London society, reading the book was my guilty escape as well. Although my life and the lives of the women at Cliveden couldn’t be more different in geography, social class, wealth, beauty, or influence, I felt a kinship to nearly all these unique women. If you’re longing for the good old days when life was predictable, this isn’t necessarily the story for you because it is not a predictable tale of conventional women living in an ordinary place. If you want a fascinating read, rooted in the history of gender, place, and power, then this book is pay dirt. I hope you’ll take the chance and jump in with both feet. Each chapter had me challenging what I thought I knew about conventional gender roles of the past. This is a story of women who knew how to wield power with subtlety and cunning. They also understood their own feminine charms and their limits. Its all heady stuff and if you’re a Downton lover, the parallels and similarities are obvious. The only difference is that this is history, while Downton is fiction.
So next time you feel inclined to take a stroll through history, if you happen by my country house, feel free to ask me to ring the butler for Tea to be brought up to the library. I’m sure Daisy will scurry to get it ready. In the meantime, long live the sisterhood!
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