Just what is a Southern belle, anyway? The received definition—a form of womanhood that is dainty, sugary, and demure—begins to totter on its foundations soon after one begins Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia. Lizzie, Irene, Nancy, Phyllis, and Nora Langhorne—whose lives spanned nearly a century, from 1867 to 1964—are renowned as the last of the Southern belles. They were “genealogically obsessed” like most Virginia gentry. They danced at fancy cotillions and racked up marriage proposals by the dozen. We notice, however, as James Fox takes us into the horsy and free-wheeling milieu in which this family grew up after the Civil War, that these women, coming at the end of a tradition, almost casually reshaped it to their liking.

Though it makes sense that the first female ever to fight her way to a seat in the British House of Commons would be an upstart American, it takes some explaining...


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