Natalie Livingstone’s The Mistresses of Cliveden is subtitled ‘Three centuries of scandal, power and intrigue’, words almost guaranteed to get a book a place on any popular history bestseller list, alongside the obligatory study of Nazi Germany and David Starkey’s latest royals. Livingstone’s offering also comes with glowing reviews from the writer Amanda Foreman, whose biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1998) remains a holy grail of publishing success for popular history writing.
According to Livingstone, ‘As well as being a story about women and power, this book is also the biography of a house’. She uses Cliveden, a country house in Berkshire, as the anchor for her study of the lives of five otherwise very disparate women: Anna Maria Talbot Countess of Shrewsbury (1642-1702, mistress of the Duke of Buckingham), Elizabeth Villiers (1657-1733, mistress of William III and later Duchess of Hamilton), Augusta, Princess of Wales (1719-1772, the mother of George III), Harriet Leveson-Gower (1806-1868, Countess of Sutherland and Queen Victoria’s Mistress of the Robes) and Nancy Astor (1879-1964, the American-born Viscountess Astor, the first female MP to sit in the House of Commons) with a cumulative life span of 1642 to 1964. This is an interesting premise, and a welcome insight into the longer term history of a house which has largely been overshadowed by its role in twentieth century politics culminating in the notorious 1961 Profumo Affair.
Over a whopping 436 pages (notes not included) Livingstone packs in a lot, linking not only the construction of the house to the lives of the women living in it, but also to major national and international events such as the 1688 Glorious Revolution, the Great Exhibition and the outbreak of the first and second world wars. On the way, she also comments on the changing position of women and female power, both as ‘mistresses’ in the sense of running a household, and as sexual agents influencing both husbands and lovers on the world stage.
The lives of the first three women, Anna Maria Talbot, Elizabeth Villiers and Augusta take place mainly away from Cliveden. These women appeared primarily in sources written by men, and so the reader does not really get a sense of these women’s voices. It is commendable, however, that Livingstone has chosen to highlight women who have been overshadowed in a traditional historiography which focused on the great men in their lives: The Duke of Buckingham, William III and George II and III respectively.
The most compelling chapter is the fourth on Harriet Leveson-Gower, later Countess of Sutherland. Helped by a wealth of letters written by Harriet, Livingstone creates a detailed portrayal of a complicated individual and allows Harriet’s personality to come to the fore. Livingstone explores Harriet’s relationships with Queen Victoria and William Gladstone, as well as her connections to national events such as the Highland Clearances and the American anti-slavery movement. Harriet also rebuilt Cliveden into the house that survives today. As far as I know, no biography has yet been written of Harriet; Livingstone’s evidence would suggest that this is a significant gap in the history of elite Victorian society.
I was most looking forward to the final chapter on Nancy Astor; this could have been the book’s tour de force, particularly due to the sheer amount of available evidence and the continuing relevance of her achievements today as the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament. However, the chapter on Astor jumps forwards and backwards in time, creating a disjointed narrative. This is in part due to the complexity of Astor’s character and the difficulty of condensing this into one chapter, but ultimately, it makes for a less satisfying ending than the source material deserves. Livingstone’s story closes with the conversion of Cliveden into a hotel. Perhaps wisely, she does not comment on the Profumo Affair itself, which has been the subject of many historical and political works.
The book is well written and engaging, as you would expect from a seasoned journalist such as Livingstone. Although she has an undergraduate history degree, this is her first historical book. In scope, the book is rather overambitious in attempting to fit a lot of interesting material into one volume. Writing a biography of one person is difficult enough, but to combine the histories of five women, plus a house, and also engage with complex international events and socio-cultural change is a tall order. In this case Livingstone does not quite succeed. A traditional biography has the advantage of pinning the narrative to one individual, whom the reader gets to know intimately. We lose the complexities of even the well-documented life of Nancy Astor due to the speed at which the book progresses through the three-hundred-year history of the house.
Livingstone’s writing style is really its strength; it is full of detail, such as the eccentric style of dress that the eighteenth century Elizabeth Villiers wore to wander around Cliveden’s gardens. However, reading it with my ‘historian’s hat’ on, I would have liked more clarity of footnoting; for instance, it would have been very useful to know the source of Elizabeth Villier’s wardrobe choices. Although a strong narrative is necessary, particularly when dealing with multiple individuals over a long chronological span, I would also have liked a more nuanced reading of the character’s motivations. However, the book is entertaining, and if it encourages the wider reading public to think more about women’s role in history, then that can only be a good thing.
Kate Gibson is a first year PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield researching illegitimate children in the long eighteenth-century. You can follow her on Twitter on @KateGibson22
The Mistresses of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone is published by Hutchison and is out now.
Image: Cliveden House via Wikicommons