LONDON — For Anne de Courcy, the non-fiction author and reporter for London’s Daily Mail, the smaller events in history — the love triangles, shooting parties and bickering over inheritance — are the ones that count. Those off-the-record and most often forgotten moments feed her writing, and de Courcy’s latest book, “The Viceroy’s Daughters,” is no exception. A big success in Britain, the book which was recently released in the U.S. by William Morrow, follows the lives of the three Curzon women, daughters of the cold, overbearing and generally unpleasant Lord Curzon, who served as Britain’s viceroy in India at the turn of the last century.
De Courcy said she wrote “The Viceroy’s Daughters” to satisfy her curiosity about Irene, Cynthia (known as Cimmie) and Alexandra, whom everyone called Baba. “Here were three girls growing up at the pinnacle of prewar British society with every possible material advantage, with grand houses and the great old Curzon as their father,” said de Courcy over dinner at an Italian restaurant. “So my question was this: ‘What was it like being a child of such an overwhelming man, and how did these girls develop?’”
Well, Irene became one of Britain’s first women life peers in 1958, while Cimmie married Britain’s fascist leader Sir Oswald “Tom” Mosley and later became a member of Parliament. Baba was awarded the honor of Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her life’s work for the Save the Children Fund.
But that’s not half the story.
De Courcy delves into the sisters’ love affairs: Irene’s penchant for married men and her longing for a family, Cimmie’s loyalty to her philandering husband, Mosley, and Baba’s string of lovers (including Mosley). The girls’ A-list friends and rivals are a whole other source of fascination: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late Queen Mother; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; Earl Mountbatten; Nancy Astor, and, finally, Diana Guinness, the woman who eventually ran off with Mosley and became his second wife (and who Irene and Baba blamed for the death of their dear Cimmie).
The writer culled much of her information from Irene’s daily diary entries, plus stacks of love letters written to Baba and a few living witnesses. Writing the book, de Courcy said, was an exercise in time travel. “I had these masses of physical description, and I would sit down and see the scenes in my mind. I would go into the rooms where the sisters were, and I would describe them. When I write, it’s like I step through a hole in the wall, and go into another world.”
De Courcy, whose eight books include a biography of Diana Mosley (the former Diana Guinness) which will be released after Mosley’s death, is already at work on a new project: researching a book about the English debutantes of 1938-39, who were jolted from their sheltered lives and plunged into war work.
“They represented the most isolated part of British society; they never met anybody, and they were heavily chaperoned,” said de Courcy. “All of a sudden, they were plunged into war work, factory work and living in dormitories. The book is essentially a social history — and one of extremes.””