I rashly discarded this book’s dustjacket when I received it, and thus saw only the unlettered cover, a faded photograph of three generations of an aristocratic family, somewhat camera-shy in their silken breeches. Oh I see, I thought, this is one of those books on the foibles of the aristocracy, always an entertaining subject.
How wrong can one be? Instead, it’s a polemic against crats aristo, auto, mono or pluto; and the author apparently yearns for any crat of a different stripe — not just demo and bureau, but mobo, neo and probably ochlo to boot. Naturally I went immediately to the index, to look up my family. It lists just one member, Eric, 10th Earl of Bessborough, who, as Chris Bryant somewhat sarkily puts it, had an ‘enthusiasm for the stage’ — a harmless and rather pantisocratic pursuit one might think.
But of course there’s nothing about Eric’s more substantial forebears, among them the 2nd Earl, an important and admired ambassador to the Sublime Porte; or the 9th, a memorable 20th-century governor general of Canada; let alone the several Ponsonbys who were influential Whig politicians in Ireland; or Sir Fritz and Sir Henry, father and son, between them private secretary to the monarch from Queen Victoria to George V.
Bryant’s theory is that anyone who ever held the crown, power, wealth or position in Britain was a land-grabbing, money-grubbing, rubbing-underlings-noses-in-their-poverty tyrant. And not just your run-of-the-mill Richards and Henrys and Georges. No, no; he starts around the year 700, when surely things were a mite less civilised than they became, and we wade through several chapters on Sigered of Essex and Cenewuf of Mercia, earldormen Odda, Aethelnoth and Oslac and their various wapentake sons, Aelfgar, Wulfheah, Ufegeat and Yffrunts. They are mirthless names to conjure lucidity from, though dear old King Canute (spelt Cnut) is good for a laugh each time he turns up.
Nobles, like most other people, were murdered or died of disease, childbirth or in battle by about the age of 35, so hastily bestowed titles change hands every few pages here: young Warwicks become Hertford or Arundel or Suffolk with mystifying frequency. Each one is portrayed as a more power-crazed brute than the last (though now and again the author lets his class-bashing mask slip, when they’re described as ‘from an illustrious family’). Never is there any suggestion that the less well-born might indulge in even the mildest form of fisticuffs or corruption.
The Middle Ages are all blood and bloody-mindedness, these tyrants ‘littering’ castles all over the land, which at least must have given their ‘thegns’ something to do, even at a minuscule wage, though how many would have been employed building and furnishing exquisite cathedrals and chapels is never contemplated. Just the opposite: in the mid 16th century, Robert Earl of Salisbury’s ‘reckless mania’ in spending £39,000 on an elaborate garden — with a ‘water feature’ embellished with artificial shells, fish and snakes — gets Bryant’s anti-beauty dander up. He also blames the tradition of horse breeding and racing on the aristocracy, which would have come as news to gypsies, and to a populace for whom, before football, races were the main source of recreation.
Many noblemen were deeply religious, and raised massive armies with which to crusade, rightly or wrongly, through seethingly hostile lands to Jerusalem, though such bravura doesn’t stir the author’s bloodless heart. Perhaps he should ponder this: without such men’s faith, had Suleiman conquered Vienna in 1529, within a few decades all of Europe might have become Muslim.
Being constantly bludgeoned with reminders of past sins only serves to set people against one another. I met a high-ranking Indian diplomat recently who said he wished the British press would stop banging on about Partition: ‘We don’t even think about it, its done, over.’ This book has the same determination to exacerbate old wounds, even though the Marxist life-style it advocates was barely a gleam in that Hampstead hero’s eye by the time we get to the last two chapters. It’s hard to believe that all our countrymen have been serially vicious in one echelon and utterly downtrodden in the others.
Back to that cover. It’s the Pembroke family, and I knew the youngest pictured, one of the gentlest of men, given to quiet good works. His son was a film-maker, and his grandson’s role in life is to repair and improve the ravishing house built by their forebears, as it is with many other families. There are now very few brutal or rapacious ‘nobles’ of the grim persuasion described in this book. That baton has been taken up by a different slew of our compatriots.