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Books feature

The Devonshires, by Roy Hattersley - review

Anne Somerset wonders why Roy Hattersley chose to write a history of a family he so clearly disapproves of

4 May 2013

9:00 AM

4 May 2013

9:00 AM

The Devonshires: The Story of a Family and a Nation Roy Hattersley

Chatto, pp.466, £25

Recalling being taken as a teenager on repeated outings to see Chatsworth, Roy Hattersley disarmingly confesses that in those days ‘I was impressed by neither the pictures nor the furniture’. Over the past three years, while working in the Chatsworth archives on this history of its owners, the Cavendish Dukes of Devonshire, Hattersley would break off from research to roam the rooms and reacquaint himself with the house’s treasures. Yet if he is now more appreciative of its contents, he is not completely under the spell of Chatsworth’s past occupants.

The ‘founding mother’ of the Devonshire dynasty was the Tudor virago known as Bess of Hardwick. Aged 20 in 1549 she married her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, a widower in his forties who had made money from the dissolution of the monasteries. Having purchased an estate at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, they started building a house there in 1551. After Sir William’s death Bess remarried twice, both times to rich men, using her husbands’ considerable wealth  to complete work at Chatsworth and to build the magnificent Hardwick Hall nearby. Tough, single-minded and ruthlessly acquisitive, Bess became the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth, laying the foundations of a fortune that not even the extravagance and financial incompetence of many of her descendants could destroy.

Thanks to Bess, and remunerative marriages contracted by subsequent generations, the Cavendishes were established as great territorial magnates whom successive sovereigns automatically appointed Lord Lieutenants of Derbyshire. But it was Bess’s great-great-grandson, William Cavendish fourth Earl of Devonshire, who became the first member of the family to have a major political impact. In 1686 this arrogant, quarrelsome libertine retired to Derbyshire to avoid paying a fine of £30,000 imposed by James II for brawling in the royal presence. He busied himself remodelling Chatsworth and reading progressive political theory, and two years later was one of the ‘immortal seven’ who invited William of Orange to come to England. When William arrived, Devonshire rose up against the King, bringing about the 1688 Glorious Revolution that led to James’s deposition. Once crowned himself, William rewarded his supporter by creating him Duke of Devonshire in 1694.

Until the 20th century the descendants of this ‘true asserter of liberties’ likewise embraced Whig principles. Their political sympathies make the Devonshires more congenial to Hattersley than a dynasty of diehard Tories, even if he regrets that aristocratic Whigs’ zeal for reform was tempered by their determination not to upset what they saw as the proper social order. In 1756 the fourth Duke briefly became prime minister, accepting office on condition he could resign whenever he wanted. When he duly did so within months, nobody was disappointed, as ‘great things had never been expected of him’.

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Hattersley has only harsh words for the fifth Duke and his wife, the celebrated Georgiana. While condemning the Duke as ‘an insensitive and autocratic brute’ he believes that Georgiana’s ‘reputation has been immensely and irrationally improved by accounts of her husband’s failings’. It is undeniable that Georgiana was a frivolous gambling addict who died leaving £110,000 worth of unpaid debts and whose whole life, as Hattersley puts it, ‘stumbled along from excitement to emergency’. He is withering about her ‘innate silliness’, and none of the protagonists emerge with any credit from this book’s depiction of her and the Duke’s menage-à-trois with Lady Elizabeth Foster.

Hattersley states that while Georgiana ‘fascinated the society in which she moved … the causes of that fascination are more difficult to describe’, for ‘she lied, she cheated. She neglected her children and she exploited her friends — sins which history has suggested that her vivacious personality absolved.’ Indisputably Georgiana was deeply flawed, but one reason why Amanda Foreman’s biography of her was so delightful was that, while never glossing over her failings, it also conveyed her loveableness and generosity of spirit. These are virtues that Hattersley does not recognise in her.

While less ‘emotionally incontinent’ than his mother, Georgiana’s son the sixth Duke irritates Hattersley almost as much. He concedes that this self-pitying depressive had ‘undoubted charm’ but castigates him for combining ‘manic self-absorption’ with wild enthusiasms. The Duke ‘claimed to be devoted to Chatsworth’, but often went abroad, and his expensive rebuilding of his numerous properties was ‘not always to the aesthetic advantage of the houses’.

Hattersley’s severest strictures are reserved for the 19th-century Marquis of Hartington, who subsequently became eighth Duke of Devonshire. As Liberal leader, ‘Harty-Tarty’ three times declined requests from Queen Victoria to form a government. It is hard not to find endearing a man who remarked that a speech he delivered in Manchester was ‘exceedingly dull and the audience showed that they thought so’, but Hattersley cannot warm to him. His assertion that Hartington’s ‘profound conviction that men of his rank were under no obligation to conform to the civilities of polite society’, which meant that he ‘regarded making concessions to other people’s wishes and convenience as demeaning’ ignores Hartington’s reputation for decency and common sense.

It maddens Hattersley that Hartington feigned a lordly indifference to high office without being genuinely devoid of political ambition. After the Liberal election victory of 1880, Hartington mildly observed to his father that because the Queen was reluctant to send for Gladstone, ‘it does look a very hopeful prospect for me’. While Hattersley rightly says this shows he wanted to become prime minister, surely this makes Hartington’s part in ultimately persuading Victoria to accept Gladstone as premier all the more honourable?

Hattersley argues that throughout his political career Hartington was ‘the sort of minister whom colleagues find most tedious — one who constantly talks of resigning but never resigns’, yet he acknowledges that Hartington’s hesitancy partly arose from his fear of splitting the Liberal party, as ultimately happened when he seceded over Home Rule. In view of Hartington’s  lengthy affair with the Duchess of Manchester, Hattersley thinks it disgusting that when adultery caused the downfall of the Irish statesman Parnell in 1890, Hartington gloated to Queen Victoria that he ‘never thought anything in politics could give him so much pleasure’. This was scarcely magnanimous, but since Hartington held Parnell partly responsible for whipping up extremist sentiment that had led to his brother Frederick Cavendish’s assassination in Phoenix Park in 1882, his hatred was understandable, if arguably unfair.

No one would expect Roy Hattersley to write an adulatory chronicle of this ducal house, suggesting that everything the Devonshires did was praiseworthy or amusing; but sometimes he is so censorious one is surprised the subject appealed to him. Many readers will find his less than reverential attitude invigorating, but his failure to see any attractive qualities in so many of the individuals who feature here can be somewhat dispiriting. He alludes to the ‘wonderfully Whiggish willingness’ of present-day Cavendishes to ‘describe (admit would be the wrong word) their own and their close relations’ personal foibles and failings’ — a sign, he says, ‘of self-confidence and not humility’.

This weighty and assured survey would have been still more satisfying if Hattersley could have mustered rather more of that Cavendish spirit of affectionate tolerance.

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