In our first blog of 2020, Susannah O’Brien examines vignettes from Nancy Astor’s letters
It is over fifteen years since I first came across Nancy Astor’s letters in the wonderful archives at the University of Reading. These letters and their owners have remained with me and for the last year I have been writing a novel based on the stories told within them.
Nancy Astor was the first woman to enter the House of Commons. A reluctant MP, she agreed to ‘keep the seat warm’ for her husband who had unwillingly inherited his father’s seat in the Lords. She was an MP for over twenty-five years. It quickly became clear to her that she wasn’t only the Member for Plymouth. Women from all over the UK wrote to her; she was the “Lady MP”. By 1922, she was receiving between 1500-2000 letters a week.
Women wrote to Astor asking for advice on birth control, childcare, poverty and alcohol abuse. The letters reveal so much about Astor; her warmth, her grit, her contradictions, her passion for improving women’s lives confused with a fear of feminism. There is a different side to her too – she could be madly fun, and was hugely devoted to her friends. She became great pals with T E Lawrence and would ride pillion on his motorcycle, much to the horror of contemporary society.
This blog post gives a brief taster of some of my more interesting finds in the Astor archives and shows (I hope!) why they have provided such inspiration for my novel.
“I have had two babies within seventeen months and the thought of having to pass through what I suffered last time is nearly killing me.” Anon woman, quoted in ‘Report for the Society of Provision of Birth Control Clinics’ which was sent to Astor.
Astor was a contradiction. Her humanity and generosity to women in difficult circumstances belied her Conservative politics and strict Christian Scientist outlook. She was an outspoken opponent of divorce, despite being a divorcee herself. The issue of birth control presented her with a moral dilemma. In 1930, Eva Hubback (ex-suffragette and close friend of Eleanor Rathbone) wrote to Astor explaining that a National Birth Control Council was to be set up and inviting her to be a Vice President. “I need not tell you of my interest in Birth Control, as you are already aware of what I think of it,” Astor replied. “But at the same time I really think I would prefer not to accept nomination as a Vice President of the proposed clinic.”
Clare J. Schweizer of Rhondda began her letter (7th July 1933) by thanking Astor for a lovely weekend at Cliveden before moving on to say: “I feel that I want to say once more how much I feel the need here of … women being instructed in birth control … I know from the women that the midwives are not keen to instruct them. It would mean less ‘biological accidents’ and that is bad for midwives’ trade!”
Astor’s opinion changed over time. In 1933, her political secretary was able to state: “Lady Astor is by no means opposed to Birth Control. On the contrary, she supports the establishment of expert clinics when information can be given by qualified people to those married women who desire it. Moreover, she feels that Birth Control is a far less dangerous thing than abortion…”
“Lady Astor has asked me to tell you how sorry she is to hear of your difficulties and to send you the enclosed £2 towards your rent,” Astor’s secretary to Edith Mann, 27th June 1932.
Astor was sympathetic to the plight of women in difficult situations, but she took her responsibilities seriously. She asked her secretary to investigate Mrs Mann’s situation. A local charity replied that Mann was indeed in a very bleak state and Astor subsequently sent some money.
In response to a similarly desperate letter from a Mrs Lottie Clark, Astor wrote: “Remember that all your needs are met not by any effort of yours or your husbands but because God is caring for you all … [and] know that God has a plan for them which is finer than anything you could ever wish.” On this occasion, Mrs. Clark’s prayers were indeed answered because Astor enclosed a cheque for £10 along with these words of wisdom.
“You are a dear … your letters always come when I am feeling ‘down’ to cheer me up”. Ellen Wilkinson MP.
Astor was good friends with Labour firebrand Ellen Wilkinson. In a series of undated letters from Wilkinson we see her congratulating Astor for bravery in the Commons (“Please let me congratulate you on your immense courage as a member for a dockyard town in making that statement”), expressing gratitude for her famous hospitality (“It was the most unforgettable party”), and thanking Astor for her friendship. Wilkinson faced financial difficulty when her sister fell ill and she did not have sufficient funds to pay for medical care. “I know I ought to ask someone on my own side to lend me the money … but that means inevitably giving up some of my independence of action which is the dearest thing in my political life,” Wilkinson wrote. Astor lent Wilkinson money and offered to visit the ailing sister.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of Astor’s importance to women is the support and admiration she received from other women. “Heartiest congratulations to you dear Lady Astor,” wrote Millicent Fawcett in 1923 upon Astor’s re-election, “both on your own success and on your going back into the House of Commons with seven other women … We have a lasting gratitude to you...”
In the 1920s women were emerging into the public sphere with a voice and a vote for the first time. Yet despite these new freedoms, they were still imprisoned behind societal expectations. We see these contradictions in the letters both sent and received from Astor’s office.
My novel focuses on Tabitha, a recent Oxford graduate and Lady Astor’s Correspondence Secretary. I wanted to portray a clever young woman who, having fought for the suffragettes, was now looking for a way to make her mark on the world. But all her ambitions were flattened when she became pregnant. Tabitha is fictional, but her story embodies the difficulties faced by many women who wrote to Lady Astor.
Since 2017 I have taken two courses with the prestigious Faber Academy to help me develop my manuscript. I am immensely grateful to receive an independent research fellowship from the WHN. With this funding, I plan to return to the Astor archives to look further at the wonderful correspondence and find more letters to add texture and depth to my novel.
As the 100th anniversary of Astor’s entrance to the Commons arrives, there is increased interest in her work. My novel will offer an entertaining insight into her words and deeds, and shine a spotlight onto women’s lives in the 1920s. I can’t wait to share Astor’s and Tabitha’s stories with a wider audience.
Susannah O’Brien is a teacher and writer. She has been fascinated by the works of Lady Astor for many years, having studied women’s political history at Royal Holloway, University of London, St John’s College, Oxford, and Trinity College, Dublin. She is now writing a novel based loosely on Lady Astor’s correspondence. She is a Women’s History Network Independent Research Fellow, 2019-2020.