A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Guest review and interview by Kate Macdonald
So much of twentieth-century British fiction written before and after the Second World War is about the decline of the gentry class, about the loss of homes, history and a more leisured way of life. Very often these novels are sad, and sometimes, as in Angela Thirkell’s novels, for example, the reportage of the decline is plain angry. For the nineteenth century, Trollope was the great chronicler of how the gentry classes rose and fell in England. For the eighteenth century, the only novelist that I can think of who wrote about the gentry class is Henry Fielding, but we can also look at the paintings and portraits of the time, as evidence how the English gentry classes were becoming stronger.
Adam Nicolson’s The Gentry: Stories of the English is a big, packed history of England, fed to the reader in easy-to-swallow chunks of story about twelve different families. They are all grappling with a crisis in their lives that is threatening their gentrydom, because they’re either going up, or coming down. Very often the coming down is desperately sad: the stories cover three to four generations in each family, so there are inevitably deaths and losses over time. Nicolson’s clever structuring of the stories pulls us into each very quickly, so before we have got to know their personalities or the background to their predicament, we care a great deal about their lives. Personalising history is the single fastest way to learn facts and chronologies, so if you need a very digestible refresher on the history of England from the Wars of the Roses to the present day, this is the book for you.
We start in the very early fifteenth century, where the wickedness of lawyers strips property and land from the Plumpton family of Yorkshire. The wickedness of lawyers is a repeated motif in the history of the gentry: if they weren’t egged on by Henry VII, they were unleashed by jealous relatives, and eventually they devoured and wasted everything they could find. Equally often the gentry are nervously steering a path between success and disaster: George Throckmorton finally found the courage to outface Henry VIII, and narrowly squeaked out of the Tower of London, but, my word, it was close. The gentry were also constructed of tough women: Maria Touchet who married the kidnapped Thomas Thynne, foremother of the Marquesses of Bath, was a particularly hard nut, but she had the advantage of money and of being the daughter-in-law, with youth and energy on her side, as well as more confidence in her background. Her mother-in-law declined and diminished while Maria triumphed: their letters are a chilling series of class put-downs.
The gentry in this book have a peculiar head-in-the-sand attitude to changing times, of which there were an awful lot. History really happened to these families. They were dogged in enduring their misfortunes, and watching glumly as lands and property disappeared, topped off by terrible personal misery, as in the case of Sir John Oglander of Nunwell. His private notebooks, covered in elegantly sprawling Jacobean script, are heartbreaking to read in quotation, and even more poignant in facsimile: you can see them on the book’s website (www.thegentry.org.uk) with other marvellous illustrations that would have been better in the book.
But not everyone was passive. The brutality and sheer unlikeability of Henry Lascelles evokes very powerfully the primitive energy of the eighteenth century. He lurks behind every nabob and every merchant you’ve ever read about, and is far worse than just a black sheep of the family. He was the founder of the Lascelles fortunes, but also a slave-trader, a bully and hard-driving merchant, no more and no less. There are no portraits of him in the Lascelles possessions, and he killed himself violently at the age of 63: the most horrific episode in the book.
Also a slave-owner, and the person responsible for setting up the indigo trade in the United States, is the redoubtable Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Her story is very widely known in the USA, and Nicolson has drawn on the main historical sources about her, but her chapter doesn’t feel over-familiar, in the sense that, of all the individuals portrayed in the book, she is the one most likely to be known to present-day readers. Her courage and sheer inventiveness in controlling and developing her family’s estate are outstanding, but somehow she misses out on the personal glory that the men in this book seem to attract. The next generation of gentry women make a stronger impression, but for all the wrong reasons. The tragically chaotic lives of Caroline Capel’s unsupervised, uncontrolled daughters in wicked Regency Brussels are coloured with a sense of teetering on the brink of disaster. Did 19 year-old Harriet Capel have sex on a couch with the philandering Baron Trip, or was it only a kiss? The scandal is riveting, and the photographs (only on the website) of Baron Trip’s personal trophy case of different girls’ locks of hair, and their pathetic letters, show that he too was bad, mad (about sex), and dangerous to know. The feverishness of the atmosphere of the Capels’ story is overwhelming: it retells what Georgette Heyer wrote about in An Infamous Army, but with real scandal from real history.
From the whirligig of the Regency, we descend into stodgy, self-important, arrogant, stumping Victorian-ness. Massive houses are built, massive arguments are sustained, and vast numbers of servants and hangers-on are needed to maintain a massive front of pompous gentry status. The ghastly social death in evidence in the Hughes guest book, when no-one wanted to come and stay in their 90-odd-bedroom mansion in north Wales, is another of the personal details that take us straight to the heart of their lives. Nobody liked them, because they wanted to be gentry so badly that they forgot to perform the more benign and altruistic gentry functions, and take responsibility for their position and wealth.
The book ends neatly, with a smiling and cleverly-thought-out conclusion to say that the gentry are being summoned back by the present government to solve the ills of Britain, to heal the excesses of mere money with the acceptance of responsibility. But life isn’t as tidy as that. The single element in this book that evoked the gentry way of life most for me was the list of possessions. The names of Oliver Le Neve’s dogs, and the names of the Pinckney family’s slaves, are the same kind of possession. One was for sport, the other was for exploited labour, and both were essential to the gentry way of life. Not now, obviously. The book ends with the stories of two twentieth-century gentry families, which use interviews rather than fading account books, but immediately we have to ask: what was Nicolson’s relationship to these people, and how did they feel about his gentle interrogation of their lives and personal family history? I asked Adam some questions …
KM: How did the living descendants react to your book? Especially the Aclands and Cliffords, who you write about as people you have met and talked to? Did you feel a sense of constraint as you wrote up your notes, or was there more freedom in being able to talk to living people?
AN: As you suggest, most of the figures in the book are dead too long for anyone to be overtouchy about their memory. I only engaged at all seriously with the descendants of the last three families: the Hughes, the Aclands and the Cliffords. All of them were totally and generously helpful. Dickon Fetherstonhaugh, descendant of the Hugheses who now lives at Kinmel, spent a whole day showing me round the place and getting me into the locked and empty mansion, and dug out all kinds of old albums and documents. With the Aclands it was more sensitive, as Richard Acland had cut such a radical hole in the family history and culture, which had left his sons feeling raw and, you might say, disorientated. But both Henry Acland, Richard’s son, and Dominic, his grandson, talked openly and generously to me, without concealment. With the Cliffords, I think I can say I made friends with the whole family. I hadn’t known them before (nor the others) and so very tentatively I approached them to describe the book and to ask if they would be willing to be part of it. We had lunch at Sissinghurst one day to talk it all through and they submitted. I said I would show them what I had written before it was published but I couldn’t guarantee to change anything they wanted changed. When it came to write the chapters, it felt to me like a form of truth telling. I could tell both families the truths I thought I was discerning in their own stories. And maybe, having already worked my way through five centuries of half-equivalent situations, I did have some kind of perspective on their predicaments. And that is how they both took it, pleased, I think, that a calm un-hostile account had been given of their family. Henry Acland said that what I had written made things clearer for him than they had been. Rollo Clifford did not entirely agree with what I had said but was happy to let it stand. Writing does not, I think, have to be a form of exploitation, although it can so often feel as if it is.
I am not sure if it is easier or harder to describe living people. In a way the relative thinness of information about the dead makes the writer’s task easier. And with access to private letters and journals, which living people might be reluctant to give, you see them in private more convincingly than you see the living. There is something of a fog of self-representation in the living which falls away, or becomes clear as what it is, in the dead.
KM: How did you go about drawing up a list of families to make a shortlist from? Were you influenced by modern research on their history also being available, as well as the extant archives? Or was the process directed/driven by geographical or other intangible connections?
AN: I read a lot of history first to see who historians had already relied on. And that provided me with a first longlist. But I also wanted to distribute them carefully across space and time. They needed good archives. And most important of all they needed a crisis. Many of these families have had editions made of their correspondence, often by Local Record Societies and that was certainly helpful. Alison Wall’s edition of the Thynne letters, published by the Wiltshire Record Society, was what gave me the idea of doing the book in the first place, this sharp and sudden window into very specific predicaments. The Capel letters, edited by Henry Anglesey, was an inspiration towards the other end. So yes, there was quite a reliance, I think, on what had already been done. Clifford Webster’s work on the Oglanders, the published editions of the Oxinden letters and Peter Marshall’s brilliant articles on the Throckmortons were all core resources to me. The Cliffords, Aclands, Hugheses, le Neves all came from other routes. But undoubtedly modern work on the Lascelles and the Pinckneys were also major guideposts.
KM: How did you choose the families, once you had a long list? Or were these the only families who had the original archives, the articulacy, and the ‘sidelight on gentrydom’ you mention in the introduction?
AN: There were of course rejects: the Tennyson d’Eyncourts in nineteenth- century Lincolnshire, the dreadful nineteenth-century Shropshire squire known as Mango, the Plampins in eighteenth-century Suffolk, a marvellous eccentric called Elizabeth Freke in seventeenth-century Norfolk, various merchant-gentlemen from the seventeenth century too. I didn’t want anyone too well known, so I rejected the Verneys, for example. The truth is that you could write this book 40 times over and never repeat yourself.
KM: Your own feelings about the stories are very strong in your writing. The photographs on the website do more than enhance the stories, they pull them off the page and into our own experience. I’m thinking particularly of the locks of different girls’ hair in Baron Tripp’s trophy box. Why could these photographs not be included in the book?
AN: Expense! I do regret that the website is not more prominently advertised in the book, as I think most readers seem to miss it. But I also think that a website is a much better way of illustrating a book than pictures printed in it: much better quality, revisable, addable to, commentable on. I did something of the same with Sea Room.
KM: You use the poetry and the classical ideals of Virgil and Horace throughout as a linking idea behind your understanding of gentrydom. At what stage in the writing (or with whose story) did these occur to you as important for your idea of the gentry as a whole?
AN: I made a couple of radio documentaries for Radio 3 on the history of Arcadian ideas, and their relationship to power, while writing this book, and so these classic texts were in my mind throughout, particularly from the seventeenth century onwards. There is not much Virgil in William Plumpton, or maybe even Throckmorton. But from then on, it was continually striking me how formative these inherited ideas were for these people, how central the classical inheritance was to the education of the gentry in Europe from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, partly as a form of self-justification: Virgil is civilisation, hence if we do Virgilian things, we are civilised.
KM: You mention ‘the decimation of the officer class’ during the First World War, which we understand to have been drawn from the gentry and from the upper classes. David Cannadine says that the aristocracy didn’t suffer anything like as much as is popularly believed in the First World War: four out five heirs to aristocratic houses came home alive. So the gentry must have suffered disproportionately, as you say. Which leads us to the slippery definitions of ‘gentry’, ‘grandees’, ‘aristocracy’, and so on. How did you quantify the losses of a generation within classes?
AN: I am not sure that I did. The end of the gentry, needless to say, is multi-factorial and the land-base of the class was already deep into serious trouble by 1914. The major political change (reflected in changes to taxation) brought about by industrialisation, education and globalisation of agricultural commodities meant that the natural leadership role of the gentry in the counties and nationally was looking shaky before anything like the Western Front was conceived of.
KM: This book couldn’t have been written by an outsider, or by someone who didn’t know gentrydom personally. You show us the gentry’s better qualities in this book, and give us a better understanding of the factors in the class’s survival, which is presumably why you wanted to write it. What did you learn during the research and writing that was new to you, that you hadn’t anticipated?
AN: I didn’t want to write a justification of the gentry. But I did understand that a necklace of private documents could tell a long history of England without losing the vivid realities of the concrete. That is the idea of the book: a long perspective with lived detail. You could have done it with the monarchy or the aristocracy but you couldn’t with any class below the gentry. So the gentry was the most ‘ordinary’ level at which this method would work. I meant it to be a history of ordinariness in many ways, of people getting on with life in the face of all the difficulties that life throws up.
But maybe it is also true that I wanted to write an account of people not unlike my own family which showed them not to be either paragons of virtue or ram-rod stiff ‘gentlemen’ in the clichéd way, an idea of a type, by the way, which is scarcely more than 150 years old. The reality of the gentry is far more supple, difficult and nuanced than that cartoon can allow. Only as the class faded, and its justifications came to seem empty, did that stiffened figure appear, as a rather hollow version of what had come before, perhaps even as a form of defence against a world that was changing so radically around him. It occurs to me now that the ram-rod stiff gentleman is a man terrified into stiffness.
See the illustrations to The Gentry at www.thegentry.org.uk.
While not teaching Flemish students literary history, Kate Macdonald podcasts about the books she really, really likes at www.reallylikethisbook.com.