04 May 2012

James Fox. Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia. New York: Touchstone, 2000.

Watching the wildly popular PBS  period drama Downton Abbey, it may be hard to believe that there could be any connection to Southside Virginia. The outfits! The accents! The architecture! The dichotomy of servants and aristocrats! The stares! MAGGIE SMITH! How could there be any connection to the tobacco fields of early twentieth century Southside Virginia?

As it turns out, the Langhorne sisters of Danville were the real thing. After becoming famous in the United States as Southern Belles, they became acclaimed in England. Their story, written by James Fox (a grandson of Phyllis and great nephew of the others), is extremely intriguing - after all, one of them was the first female in the British House of Commons, another was the Gibson Girl, yet another was the mother of beloved English comedienne Joyce Grenfell.

The five sisters were the daughters of Chiswell Dabney and Nancy Witcher Keene Langhorne (or "Chillie" and "Nanaire") Langhorne of 117 Broad Street (they also had three sons who survived infancy). Although Chillie had an affluent start in Lynchburg, the Civil War depleted his family's wealth. He worked in the tobacco business in Danville as an auctioneer, with his method of chanting becoming part of the "Danville System." Four of the five sisters were born in Danville: Lizzie (1867), Irene (1873), Nancy (1879), and Phyllis (1880). In 1885, the family moved to Richmond, where the family still struggled. In 1889, however, things began to look up. Nora, the fifth sister, was born that year. And in 1890, Chillie got into the railroad business, which was just about to boom. By 1892, Chillie moved the family to Mirador, a Federal-style mansion at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Albemarle County.

Over the years, the girls grew up to be envied for their beauty, poise, personalities, and status. Although all except for Irene (who was married to Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl illustrations) suffered unhappy first marriages, most found strong relationships as they aged. Their story is fascinating throughout the book, but it is also very sad. The sisters were mostly close, but they also knew how to hurt each other. Sons produced by Nancy and Phyllis's first marriages had tragic lives and ends. Nancy, the first female MP - Lady Astor (yes, those Astors), was very powerful in the beginning of her political career, but she fell out of favor during World War II over her perceived sympathy to Nazism.

Although Fox does not mention any returns to Danville after the Langhornes became wealthy again (Mirador was always home to the women), their time in Southside Virginia did influence the women. Remembering the experience of poverty in their early lives, the sisters were always preoccupied with money (even apologetically marrying for it).

That such extraordinary women have a Southside Virginia connection is not surprising, and their story is definitely worth reading.

Find Five Sisters in the Charlotte County Library catalog.

Have you read Five Sisters? Please share your opinion about the book and this summary.

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