Queen Bees: Sian Evans 4 Stars
Author: Sian Evans
Publication date: 13 Sep 2016
Page count: 320
Imprint: Two Roads
Source: Hachette Australia
Publishers Summary (extract)
QUEEN BEES looks at the lives of six remarkable women who made careers out of being society hostesses, including Lady Astor, who went on to become the first female MP, and Mrs Greville, who cultivated relationships with Edward VII, as well as Lady Londonderry, Lady Cunard, Laura Corrigan and Lady Colefax. Written with wit, verve and heart, QUEEN BEES is the story of a form of societal revolution, and the extraordinary women who helped it happen.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the previously strict hierarchies of the British class system were weakened. For a number of ambitious, spirited women, this was the chance they needed to slip through the cracks and take their place at the top of society as the great hostesses of the time.
The lives of the wealthy are fascinating to most of us and, if there is a bit of juicy gossip and some outrageous behaviour thrown in, most of us will want to know more. Added to that is the authors belief that these six society hostesses had a “profound effect on British history". This then is what attracted me to the book.
Beginning with a “Dramatis Personae” as a brief introduction to each woman there follows a broader introduction where the author offers an opinion on the motivating forces that drove them. Venturing a little into the world of pop psychology Evans believes it to be “telling” that each of the women were “driven by a volatile childhood or unhappy experiences”.
The remainder of the book is divided in to time periods beginning just before the Great War and ending with the aftermath of World War 2. Followed by source notes, acknowledgements and an incredibly long index.
The stories of the women are not written separately but alongside each other throughout the time period.
The book is filled with the fascinating anecdotes promised by the back cover but because of the layout I did not find it an easy read. I was expecting a more lightweight account of these woman, which it is, in parts. However, I found it difficult to follow because the author included so very many characters that they just became a convoluted blur and I simply couldn’t keep track, just look at the length of the index! Historians do hate to leave out the smallest detail and that is certainly the case here.
I would have preferred each woman to have had chapters separate to the others, or, better still, as the author likes to include so much detail, separate biographies.
One of the most interesting sections is what these women contributed to society with their war work, Laura Corrigan who was, by all accounts the least likely to shine as a successful society hostess. She is my favourite, because she rose to the top from very humble beginnings without the advantage of beauty or remarkable wit, I have to admire her iron willed determination. She also had the sense to stay clear of Wallis Simpson, this choice eventually served her well with the British aristocracy
For her war work in France she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, Legion of Honour, the Croix de Combattant and The Kings Medal.
Who will enjoy this book?
This book merges rather dry historical fact with the more entertaining reports of the outrageous, outlandish and jolly interesting gossipy bits. It will be of interest to anyone who loves to read about the outrageous antics of high society, and of even more interest to those who love historical facts.
If the layout could be sorted to make the book less meandering and the facts easier to follow then it would surely be a 5 star read, as it is, it is still deserving of 4 stars.
Mini introduction to the Queen Bees:
Lady Nancy Astor: American born, divorced from her first husband. Later married Waldorf Astor. she was the first female to become a Member of Parliament
Sibyl, Lady Colefax: English born to a well known family,
She married Arthur Colefax (later to be Knighted) whose family made their money in “trade”. Later she became a noted interior designer.
Lady Londonderry: Born in Scotland and was granddaughter of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland. The only social hostess of aristocratic birth.
Lady Cunard: American born, married nobility, the 3rd Baronet Cunard
Laura Corrigan: American born, scandalous divorce. later married James Corrigan son of wealthy James Corrigan Snr.
Mrs Ronnie Greville: British born, shady details about her birth.Married Ronald Greville, eldest son of the 2nd Baron Greville
In case you were wondering A Viscount is a British nobleman ranking above a Baron and below an Earl.
Review copy provided by Hachette Australia