I found this book at the charity shop where I volunteer. It’s a great-looking book (or I wouldn’t have set it out on the shelves), and I am, of course, fascinated by the subject matter. It’s not my entirely favourite time period – the girls were still quite young in the Edwardian era that is my twentieth century love, but I’m not opposed to the inter-war era except in a literary analysis way (….modernism). The actual events of the time interest me to some degree, and these women were not influential, but involved in all of the headlines of the day. But more than that, the viceroy of the title is Lord Curzon, one of whose homes was Kedleston Hall. Kedleston is just a few miles from where my godmother lives, and was one of the first stately homes that I ever visited (and, of course, I’ve visited again many times). One of the highlights of a trip to Kedleston is seeing the Indian artifacts that George Curzon brought back from his time there (he’s considered one of the best viceroys), including the Peacock Dress, which was created for his wife, and his daughters’ mother, Mary.
I found the book surprisingly captivating, and kind of raced through it. I’m not sure why: I’m reading a few other books right now that I like better (namely, A Suitable Boy and The Music Instinct). But I couldn’t put this one down. It helped that it had relatively short chapters, especially approaching the end, so the commitment didn’t seem as intense, even if I would spend an hour at a time reading. But, like I say, there are books that I like better.
For one thing, the book is populated by some pretty horrible people. The sisters themselves are not great: regularly unfaithful to their husbands, or incredibly jealous of pretty much anyone especially her sisters, etc. And then there’s Oswald Mosley – known, apparently, as Tom. Seriously, what was his deal? He is a horrible human being: fascist, friend of Hitler, rubs his wife’s nose in the fact that he has affairs even though he knows she doesn’t like it, sleeps with both his wife’s sisters, including a long-term affair with one (after his wife’s death, which is the only semi-redeeming factor there, but the sister was married herself, so not really redeeming at all), secretly marries a divorced woman (also a fascist and friend of Hitler) without telling his children and then cuts the children out of his life because he can’t be bothered with them anymore. And yet this man gets dozens of incredibly beautiful, sought-after women to sleep with him, gets a fair amount of political power (until, you know, people realize that he’s a fascist who sees himself as Supreme Leader)….he must have been incredibly charismatic.
And then there are the Windsors (the Duke and Duchess, formerly Edward VIII). Baba’s husband was one of the Duke’s closest friends, dating back to while he was still the Prince of Wales. And at the beginning, you can see why: they’re very close and true friends. But by the time he’s abdicated, the Duke has all but forgotten Fruity. Fruity is consistently one of the only ones who stands up for and follows the Duke – and the Duke and Duchess abandon him in France with the Germans approaching before the fall of Paris. And then wonder why he and Baba aren’t too fond of them anymore.
The book itself also has flaws. Some of the problem is that it’s not Georgiana. Amanda Foreman has, quite possibly, ruined me for any other biographers. Georgiana was so alive in that book, and everything else has paled in comparison (to the point where I almost don’t want to read Mary S. Lovell’s The Mitford Sisters because her Bess was so pale). The Curzon sisters are fairly real in this book, but they’re not as real as Georgiana was to me.
There are also a few structural problems, at least for me. There are a few characters that are prominent near the beginning (like Gracie, their stepmother) who essentially disappear for the rest of the book. The children also suffer that fate: the Mosley children, who are such an important part of Irene’s life and the sisters’ relationship with Tom, are mentioned as they serve that relationship but Baba’s children are essentially forgotten about. The viceroy himself is hardly mentioned after his death: for a book called “The Viceroy’s Daughters” his influence on their later lives is not made entirely clear.
It’s also a very name-droppy book. To be fair, the sisters did move in some of the highest circles: the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, whatever) was a big part of their lives, as well as most of the socialites and celebrities of the day. But quite a lot of them were mentioned without having been introduced, with the assumption that of course we’ll know who they are and the associations with them. Wikipedia was my friend – somewhat. Like I said, I’m not completely versed in the inter-war period, so some of the gossipy stuff passed me by.
I can’t quite put my finger on what kept me intrigued in this book. It’s not bad, of course, and the time period can be fascinating. And there’s something almost reassuring about the continuity of celebrity obsession, and self-absorbed promiscuous celebrities who are mostly famous for being famous. It’s also interesting to turn celebrities into somewhat real people. Not entirely real people yet, but closer to real people.