It gives me incredible pride as a Jewish woman,” Natalie Livingstone told the JC last year, “that we have taken ownership of a house from a woman for whom the word ‘Jew’ was a pejorative term.”
The woman was the American-born Nancy Astor, the first female MP to sit in the House of Commons. The house is Cliveden, the grand country-seat at the edge of the Chilterns, given to Nancy and her husband in 1906 as a wedding present by her father-in-law, Viscount “Willy” Astor.
For many years, the Cliveden estate has been owned by the National Trust with the house itself being converted into a hotel, the lease to which was purchased by the Livingstone family — Natalie’s husband is the spectacularly successful property developer, Ian Livingstone — in 2012.
The name Cliveden is, of course, irresistibly associated with a notorious sequence of events in the 1960s, flowing from the then War Minister John Profumo’s fatal statement to Parliament that there was “absolutely no impropriety whatsoever” in his relationship with a certain 19-year-old Christine Keeler.
By contrast, next month Cliveden will become, over the course of one weekend, an entirely truthful, literary powerhouse in the shape of the first Cliveden Literary Festival — the brainchild of Natalie Livingstone. And the programme is one that would have given Nancy Astor apoplexy.
For not only does its galactic line-up include Howard Jacobson, Simon Schama and Anne Applebaum, but audiences will also be able to see and listen to the likes of Amanda Foreman, Hannah Rothschild and Simon Sebag Montefiore — all within a two-day Oktoberfest of words unslurred, and views rather than booze.
Not that food and drink will be ignored in such a stately environment; certainly not with the River Café’s Ruth Rogers “talking taste” with Schama.
Rogers, of course, would not have found a place on Nancy Astor’s guest list — among several other festival participants invited by Livingstone. But you don’t have to be Jewish — to coin a phrase that might well have been uttered by Lord Balfour along with his more consequential declaration, the legacy of which Jacobson and Sebag Montefiore will discuss with David Reynolds. Jacobson will also be talking about his satirical novel, Pussy, and Montefiore will be doing a gig with David Bowie biographer Dylan Jones.
Among other entertaining and intellectual attractions, Antonia Fraser will be talking to fellow-historian Andrew Roberts, as will “the greatest editor of the 20th century”, Harry Evans. Michael Gove will appear on two panels, one — on Brexit — chaired by his wife, Sarah Vine. Everyone attending Robert Harris’s session on his novel Munich will receive a free copy. All this plus Sebastian Faulks, Ian McEwan, actor Anton Lesser and more, including Livingstone herself, who, apart from being a first-class Cambridge history graduate, author of The Mistresses of Cliveden and running the show, will, with Daisy Goodwin, talk to Foreman about her “Oscar-winning bodice ripper,” The Duchess.
Cliveden Literary Festival, October 14 and 15. Tickets: firstname.lastname@example.org or 07880934145