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Oz blogging: The Silver Princess in Oz

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Today's Oz post is about The Silver Princess in Oz, the book that left me depressed, and almost put me off this project entirely.

With that said, if you read no other of my Oz posts from here on out, read this one - and the one about Merry-Go-Round in Oz, coming up last.

I can also assure you that the posts will get merrier from here. Much more so.

Ojo of Oz: It gets painful

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I admit it; one of the reasons I headed out to the movies with my parents today (Oceans, narrated by Pierce Brosman, separate blog post) was because I knew this post was coming up.


I've spent some time trying to sum up what I feel here, and I realize I said most of it already in the post. Go. Read.

And let me assure you, the Oz books by other authors are still and most definitely worth reading.
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I adore great big fat gossipy biographies disguised as "scholarly studies" complete with pages and pages and pages of footnotes, especially when they are a) about people long dead, so no one feels inclined to hold back, b) they contain lots and lots of scandal, by which I mean, relationships, sex, gambling, drinking, and wild adventures gone bad. (Biographies of virtually every person in 18th century England fit this category nicely.) So I was quite eager to read Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia, by James Fox, the grandson of the fourth sister, Phyllis Langhorne Brooks.

Gossipy the biography certainly is. The Langhorne sisters, daughters of a former slaveowner, were born in post-Reconstruction Virginia. Initially impoverished from the Civil War, their father happily engaged in what sound like ethicially challenged financial dealings (mostly glossed over by Fox) allowing the four younger sisters to become true Southern Belles. (The first sister, Lizzie, described as a Puritanical, rather humorless sort, was married before the family upswing in fortune.) The second sister, Irene, entered New York society and married the painter/illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. Her marriage allowed her to introduce her sisters to other well to do men, and although not all of these marriages turned out well (another reminder that contrary to popular opinion, divorce is not a product of the feminist revolution of the 1960s/70s) they did help launch the sisters into positions where they could marry other men or run off with alcoholics improbably named Lefty.

The biography's title is a bit misleading: for the most part, as Fox admits, it focuses on the middle sisters, Nancy and Phyllis. The eldest sister, Lizzie, seems to have led a life of carping and disappointment, which if understandable does not make for good biography, and the wildly exciting life of the youngest sister, Nora, clearly deserves its own book and gets horrifically overshadowed here as Nora disappears for several pages and then flamboyantly returns, then disappears only to return still more flamboyantly. (Although the biography doesn't mention it, she may have been bipolar; some of the incidents described sound much like manic periods.) The second sister, Irene, remains a cipher, dismissed as slower-witted and frequently disappearing from the biography, odd for two reasons: 1) the rest of the sisters gained their fortune, fame, and intimate moments with an extremely alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald through her, and 2) between the lines of even this biography, it becomes clear that Irene was the sister focused on maintaining family connections even after Nancy became the chief source of funds. One would think she would be given a more prominent role, but that is given to the two remaining sisters, Nancy and Phyllis. Of course, Irene's life was happy, and happy lives often make for lousy biographies.

And unquestionably, the most prominent and influential of the sisters was Nancy, who married the exceedingly wealthy Waldorf Astor, eventually becoming Lady Astor and Britain's first woman MP, despite her American birth. (Never say that money can't help with the social climbing.) The fourth sister, Phyllis, married Bob Brand, prominent civil servant and economist, venerated in the book despite his inability to prevent the financial idiocies of the Versailles Treaty and later powerless to do anything but issue warnings about Hitler.

So, society, scandal, politics, pioneering women – what's not to love?

Racism, and more specifically, Fox's attitudes towards it.

It's not remotely surprising that five women growing up in post-Reconstruction Virginia turned out to be unthinking and unrepentant racists. What is surprising is how a biography, published in 2000, can discuss these lives and yet leave this racism completely unexamined. Worse, Fox himself slips into racial stereotypes and language, like this:

"…exotic-looking Ava Astor…had pure white hair, huge dark eyes, and porcelainlike Oriental looks…" (Not really.)

"…he was later described as a 'Chinaman from Hertfordshire'"

several letters containing the n word or containing racially questionable/stereotypical statements or connecting Jews with banking, quoted without comment. (And with a seeming unawareness that the n-word is still considered offensive in most circles.)

At other points, Fox seems completely unaware of the tensions he himself is mentioning. In one incident, Irene Langborne Gibson uncharacteristically lost her temper as the alcoholic Lefty began "…explaining, with photographs, the family trees of the Mirador servants." This could only have caused an outburst if Lefty was explaining just how closely related those black servants (identified as black in other passages, not in this paragraph) were to the Langbornes. Fox ignores this point altogether, instead focusing on Irene's attempts to rally the family against Lefty. (Combined with his tendency to ignore Irene altogether, more may be going on here – including an unsurprising refusal to acknowledge black/biracial relatives.)

The failure to examine the Langbornes' racism is particularly odd for three reasons: 1, as noted, this book was written in 2000, not the early twentieth century; 2, one of its chief characters, Bob Brand (Phyllis' husband), was keenly aware of the dangers of racist thinking (admittedly more out of concern of its long term effects on whites) and wrote several passages against it, and quotations from the sisters' children suggest that they were aware of and concerned about their parents' attitudes, 3, most critically, this cannot simply be dismissed as unimportant ("oh, well, everyone was racist back then, so, whatever") since Nancy Astor's racist beliefs had a profoundly negative effect on both her political and her family life.

Within her family, she quarreled constantly with her son, editor of the Observer, for in her opinion putting too many "black faces" in his paper and rather nastily called her sister's husband "that Jew" (he wasn't, but he was in banking) among several other statements. Politically, she and her husband were accused of being Nazi sympathizers and found their political careers ruined, permanently attached to the derogatory name of "Cliveden Set." (Cliveden was the name of their house.) Fox does attempt, feebly, to defend them from this accusation by saying that the Astors were "clearly none of these things" (i.e., Nazi sympathizers), pointing out that they had lots of guests over, not just Nazi sympathizers (true) and that nearly everybody in England was, like the Astors, for appeasement. Well, sure, most people did feel that one world war had been enough, but this is not the same as a nice clear statement of "I think Hitler's on the wrong track." He does include the little known story of Waldorf Astor telling Hitler that until Hitler changed his policies towards the Jews, they could never have good relations - and adds that after that, the two continued their conversation.

It's more than probable that people willingly believed that Nancy Astor was a Nazi sympathizer not merely because she hosted known Nazi sympathizers in her home, or because she once asked how anyone could take Hitler seriously with the Chaplin moustache, adding, "Tell him he's got to take it off," but because she was known for making racist and anti-Semitic statements that deeply offended people. (The comment – meant as a defense – that she found Jews less objectionable than Catholics – does not improve her image.) And that she continued to make racially charged statements even after the end of the war. (It's not all bad - Nancy Astor could also be highly amusing, unstintingly generous, and very focused on charity work, and was certainly a trailblazer for women in politics.)

This unwillingness to explore the sisters' racism cannot be blamed on a wish to hide unpleasant truths – Fox is quite open about Nancy and Phyllis's terrible parenting, Nora's many affairs and spending sprees, the family dislike for the eldest sister Lillian, various family suicides, divorces, alcoholism and so on. Which makes the unwillingness to discuss racism all that much odder. If the attempt was to defend Nancy Astor, it fails. At best, Fox perhaps felt that the quotations spoke for themselves, but given their juxtaposition with less racially charged statements, and Nancy Astor's involvement in Chamberlain's government, they do not. And given that Fox occasionally quotes from people who did not share these beliefs – or at least less virulently – he cannot even claim ignorance.

There's makings of a fascinating study here: not only the study of how a Virginian woman managed to become a British MP, but also, just how and why Nancy Astor felt the need to cling to her beliefs so strongly. (Her younger sisters come across as considerably less racist, and as noted, her brother-in-law strongly argued against racist attitudes.) Perhaps that story of the servant family trees covered some deeper family trauma; perhaps knowing that her father, far from being a "pure" Virginian "aristocrat," openly dealt with Yankees and war profiteers was a truth she could never quite face. But that study never quite makes it to the surface.

Also, while I'm squawking, men who fall in love with and have sexual relationships with both men and women are bisexual, not homosexual, even if they got arrested for homosexual activities. But more on this in an upcoming review of yet another biography where bisexuality is invisible.


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Mari Ness

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