Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines
Title: Lady Lucy Houston DBE: Aviation Champion and Mother of the Spitfire
Author: Miles Macnair
Total Number of Pages: 248
Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent) 8 ½
When delivering his famous monologue in William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, Lord Jacque states: ‘All the World’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts…’ The monologue effectively summarises the life of Lucy, Lady Houston DBE. It could indeed be a fitting epitaph, although, after reading her biography, this reviewer suspects that the Lady’s response would be both unprintable and perhaps a little more abbreviated.
In the Twenty-first Century, Lady Lucy Houston is little known. Her name, if recalled, is invariably linked to the Supermarine Spitfire aircraft via her financing of the British entries 1930’s-era Schneider trophy seaplane races; events which resulted, eventually, in the development of internationally-renowned aircraft and aircraft engines. This contribution is acknowledged in the volume’s sub-title ‘…Mother of the Spitfire’. Yet there is so much more. Lady Houston was the epitome of contradiction. She was a very strong-willed and determined woman, who literally rose from rags to riches via a set of carefully planned marriages and conquests. She was obsessively patriotic, passionate about aviation and contributed large quantities of money to its development. Yet equally, Lady Houston could be simultaneously bossy, manipulative and incredibly loyal. She could also be wilfully-blind about human frailty and became completely besotted by a member of the British Royal family. Yet these were only some small facets of her remarkable life. . There were many, many others. Contradictory certainly, infuriating, definitely, and ‘Eccentric’ in the best ‘English’ tradition. Despite (or perhaps because of) these traits, the subject of this work is ultimately, quite endearing. We will never see her like again.
The author has undertaken extensive research on his subject and has produced a well-written and very readable biography of a remarkable woman. Yet the work is not just about a single individual. The reader is also introduced to other notables of the subject’s era,. Contemporary history is included to both ‘frame’ the larger narrative, and to add colour to it, with the chapter devoted to King Edward VIII being especially interesting. Colour and Monochrome photographs, together with reproductions of relevant documents and cartoons, provide visual assistance to the narrative. Where additional Reference Notes are used, these are End-note in format.
The work contains 21 Chapters and four Appendices, together with a Foreword, an Acknowledgements section and an Introduction. As previously-noted, a List of Illustrations is provided, and within this, separate sections (Figures, Plates-Black and White and Plates-Colour) detail the images that the book contains. A Bibliography, an Index and a Notes section are also provided.
This reviewer was disappointed to find that despite the Mother of the Spitfire subtitle, the Schneider Trophy Races from which the Supermarine Spitfire evolved, form only one chapter of this volume, although their connection with the later aircraft is acknowledged. The races, together with the Mount Everest flights which she also financed, are presented purely in the context of Lady Houston’s life. The numbering of the photographs within the work, (where ([B] for Black and White; [C] was for Colour]), was initially disconcerting, while this reviewer would also have liked to have seen better definition of both the Lowe cartoons and the various printed documents that appear within the work.
This reviewer believes this volume will be of value to those who are interested in both the British aristocracy and the British Monarchy (especially King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson). Historians interested in both European and British politics of the 1930’s, together with those with a more-general interest in that era should also find it of use. Readers seeking additional information about the Schneider Trophy seaplanes and the Supermarine Spitfire may not however, find what they are looking for within its pages. Were that that was not so.
On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I would give it 8 ½.
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