- - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE MISTRESSES OF CLIVEDEN: THREE CENTURIES OF SCANDAL, POWER, AND INTRIGUE IN AN ENGLISH STATELY HOME

By Natalie Livingstone

Ballantine Books, $32, 495 pages illustrated

Few would argue that the eponymous neo-Italianate Palladian Thames-side stately home, with its magnificent gardens running down to the river, is one of the most splendid in England. Unfortunately, to people living during the middle part of the 20th century, when it was owned by the originally American Astor family, it had two separate rebarbative associations with which its name became synonymous. In the 1930s, Nancy, Viscountess Astor, the first woman member of the Britain’s Parliament, made it the hub of those politicians hell-bent on appeasing Hitler — the notorious Cliveden Set. In the early ‘60s, her son’s unfortunate acquaintances, an explosive mixture of whores and their pimp, the Soviet naval attache, and one of the most prominent and hitherto promising Conservative politicians of the day, Secretary of State for Defense John Profumo, put it at the center of one of Britain’s most sordid political scandals.

Although British journalist Natalie Livingstone’s fascinating history of the house built in 1851 and its predecessors dating back to 1666 begins with prostitute Christine Keeler disporting herself in Cliveden’s swimming pool in 1961, she shows that there is a lot more to the place than the activities which brought it into ill repute. Her portrait of Nancy Astor is as vibrant and pungent as the lady herself. All the ladies of the manor had their idiosyncrasies and peculiarities and if some were more decorous and uncontroversial than its most outspoken and outrageous famous chatelaine, let’s just say that the Profumo affair was not the first scandal rooted there. The cuckolded husbands, duels fought to the death, illicit love affairs and assorted goings-on in days of yore make the 20th-century scandal seem tame by comparison.

This is Ms. Livingstone’a first book, but she writes with an assurance and flair which make one hope for many more. She is as much at ease describing Cliveden’s architectural varieties and beautiful vistas as she is the political crosscurrents of successive centuries. A surprising number of the great issues of the day seem to have intersected with the house long before it was the center of pro-Hitler appeasement, and the author is consistently illuminating in explaining their intricacies. She can bring to life small incidents as well — like the first railway death in England — that enrich her text.

For sheer drama, it is hard to beat the heated love affair conducted between King William III of England (often known as William of Orange for his Dutch origin) and Elizabeth Villiers, Countess of Orkney. Such was the royal ardor that it took guilt over the death of his wife and co-ruler Queen Mary to end the affair. Whether it was a deathbed request from her, the advice of an archbishop or his own conscience is uncertain, but as Ms. Livingstone puts it: “Whatever the specifics, William did indeed break all contact with Elizabeth. But he had no intention of leaving his mistress of fifteen years destitute. He set about fixing a deal that would guarantee her wealth and status beyond her wildest dreams.” Suffice it to say that two years after the queen’s death, Elizabeth took possession of Cliveden: instead of being King William’s, she became its mistress from 1696 to 1733.

Soon the house would become home to actual royalty when Frederick, Prince of Wales and his wife Augusta made it their summer residence for the next 14 years until Frederick’s premature death in 1751. His position as heir to his father King George II, with whom he and his wife were constantly at loggerheads, passed to their 13-year-old son George, making Cliveden the childhood home of the American Revolution’s bogeyman, King George lll. Indeed, a ” ‘machine chair’ was made for the baby prince and his older sister, so that they could take the air in the Cliveden gardens.” This prince and princess of Wales were devoted to one another and to their children, with whom they loved playing in the house’s gorgeous grounds. Ms. Livingstone notes that in establishing his public persona and worthy credentials, Frederick’s “family life with Augusta remained his trump,” but hearkening back, remarks that it is easy to imagine the pride “both former chateleines would have felt knowing that their country estate was finally in the hands of royalty.”

Today, Cliveden is a deluxe hotel where any lucky lady with enough money can fancy herself one of its mistresses for a day. Ms. Livingstone ends with a telling quote from the prime minister who had been toppled from power by the Profumo Scandal: “As Harold Macmillan replied when told the house was to become a hotel: ‘My dear boy, it always has been.’” In the sense that its story is more than that of its owners — with guests ranging from Queen Victoria to Giuseppe Garibaldi, from Charlie Chaplin to George Bernard Shaw — it is an acute piece of analysis. But has any hotel ever reflected its owners as Cliveden has its amazing range of chateleines?

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.


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