'Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses between the Wars', by Sian Evans - Review

By Wilson, Frances | The Spectator, September 10, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses between the Wars', by Sian Evans - Review


Wilson, Frances, The Spectator


A more appropriate subtitle to this homage to the queen bees of the interwar years might have been 'How to Suck Up in Society', for the servility of these six stately galleons simply beggars belief. Each was a mistress of her art, but the oiliest of the lot has to be Mrs Ronnie Greville, the illegitimate spawn of a Scottish distiller who was described by Harold Nicolson as 'a great fat slug filled with venom'. By offering to bequeath her house, Polesdon Lacey, to the stammering Prince Albert, Mrs Greville kept the monarchy buzzing around her hive for years to come.

Queen Bees is a sticky blend of anecdote and social history, in which Sian Evans makes exaggerated claims for the historical significance of her salonnières . These, apart from Mrs Greville, comprise Nancy Astor, first woman MP and mistress of Cliveden; Emerald (née Maud) Cunard, champion of the conductor Thomas Beecham and intimate of Wallis Simpson; Lady Edith Londonderry, grandmother of Annabel Goldsmith; Sybil Colefax, interior decorator; and Laura Mae Corrigan, 'humble' Cleveland waitress turned wife of a steel millionaire.

Ambitious, competitive and snobbish to the bone marrow, each woman, says Evans, exercised a 'profound effect on British history' and helped bring about 'social revolution', be it through her response to the abdication crisis ('How could he do this to me?' wailed Emerald when Edward VIII blew her chances of becoming lady in waiting) or to the Munich agreement (Mrs Greville, Lady Londonderry and Emerald Cunard were enthusiasts for Hitler, and Nancy Astor -- 'the Member for Berlin' -- was pro-appeasement).

Evidently more concerned with self-advancement than social change, the rivalries between the hostesses were a source of constant amusement. Mrs Greville claimed that she was 'never hungry enough' to dine with crude Mrs Corrigan; Mrs Colefax and Mrs Corrigan competed over access to Mrs Simpson, while Lady Astor blamed Lady Cunard for encouraging the pro-Nazi leanings of Edward and Wallis.

It's hard to share Evans's fondness for her subjects, who seem less 'brilliant and extraordinary' than silly and entitled. Today, Evans suggests, they would have been high-ranking executives, which is possibly true. Or they might have been bored wives with rich husbands. Only Nancy Astor and Sibyl Colefax channelled their considerable energies into work; the others, apart from some character-building years between 1939 and 1945, when they pawned jewels and organised committees, spent their time composing guest-lists with poetic concentration, honing away until the line-endings were perfect. …

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