4 St. James's Square, London: 1924. This brief but compelling letter connects two singular early twentieth century luminaries and one of the century’s most anticipated and celebrated works of literature.
The letter is a characteristically cheeky request from Viscountess Nancy Witcher Astor (1879-1964) to Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) for a copy of the famous Subscribers’ edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The letter, typed on a single sheet of Astor’s “4, ST JAMES’ SQUARE, S.W.1.” stationery, is dated “20th March, 1924.” and reads “Dear Colonel Lawrence, I am one of the people who are very wealthy and would like a copy of your book, but I don’t promise to read it. However as that is your wish you won’t mind!” The typed valediction is “Yours sincerely” followed by Astor’s signature “Nancy Astor.” At the lower left in three lines is typed Lawrence’s address “Clouds’ Hill, Moreton, Dorset.” In pencil in two lines at the lower right is written “Answered | 25 3 24”.
Condition is good, the stationery complete, the print, signature, and pencil notation distinct. The chief detraction is a roughly one inch (2.54 cm) circular stain at the lower left edge and attendant tiny brown stains, mostly confined to the lower left, plausibly from coffee. The letter is housed in a removable, archival mylar sleeve within a rigid, crimson cloth folder.
Born Nancy Langhorne in Danville, Virginia, Nancy Astor improbably became both a Viscountess and Britain’s first female member of Parliament. After a disastrous early marriage, Nancy moved to England and “found a much more suitable match in Waldorf Astor” (1879-1952). (ODNB) “Nancy Astor became something of a national institution, known for her wit, her willingness to break social barriers and traditions, and her blunt outspokenness…” (Korda, p.644) She made history in 1919, when her husband, then a Member of Parliament, succeeded to his father’s viscountcy and Nancy became “a stop-gap candidate” in the by-election. (ODNB) She served from 1919-1945, the first woman to sit in the House of Commons.
The same year that Nancy Astor entered Parliament, T. E. Lawrence began drafting Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence had just concluded his remarkable odyssey as instigator, organizer, hero, and tragic figure of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, which he began as an eccentric junior intelligence officer and ended as "Lawrence of Arabia”. He spent much of the rest of his short life struggling to reconcile, recount, reject, and repress this experience through his magnum opus. The sole publication of Seven Pillars during Lawrence’s life was the magnificent 1926 Subscribers’ edition, to which Astor subscribed with this letter.
Astor’s famous wit is on display even though in March 1924 her relationship with Lawrence was no more than “friendly acquaintance”. Lawrence’s official biographer, Jeremy Wilson, speculated “…possibly Lionel Curtis, a mutual friend… invited Nancy Astor to subscribe”. (Correspondence with the Political Elite, p.3)
In 1927 the Astors became friends with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, facilitating social contact between Lawrence and Astor. By mid-1929, there was a friendship; Lawrence called Astor “one of the most naturally impulsive and impulsively natural people” (Letter to Charlotte Shaw, 27 April 1929) and wrote to Astor on 22 July 1929 “I do not know when, or with whom, I have ever maintained for so long so hot a correspondence. Clearly we are soul-mates.” (Wilson, CwtPE, p.13) They corresponded for the rest of Lawrence’s life.
On 7 May 1935 Astor wrote to Lawrence pressing him to be receptive to being “asked to help re-organize the Defence forces” under a new (Baldwin) Government. Lawrence characteristically replied on 8 May “No: wild mares would not at present take me away from Clouds Hill…” (Wilson, Lawrence, p.934) Five days later came the motorcycle crash that claimed Lawrence’s life. Nancy Astor was among those at Lawrence’s funeral at St. Nicholas’ Church in Moreton on 21 May 1935. Item #006267