Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

Our book today is David Cannadine's meticulous, magisterial magnum opus, "The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy."

You see the challenge right away, the dare: any large work of history whose title starts with 'the decline and fall' intentionally invites comparison with the mother of all historical works, Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

Gibbon's book is longer, smarter, and even now better than almost everything that's followed since on any subject, and don't think serious historians don't ponder that horrifying fact from time to time. Watered-down popular histories - replete with pieties and Polaroid morals - always abound and care not at all about what their more respectable brethren are doing. Middlebrow histories - usually written by third-tier academics with their eyes on the possibility of an unexpected bestseller here or there - are slightly more palatable but still essentially pietistic, essentially written for children. And written for children advisedly, for children still expect all their stories to have happy endings. And as educational standards in the United States have continued their dire downward spiral, more and more adult readers approach the reading of history at the level of children, unaware of the facts, ignorant of virtually all elements of the past that don't directly involve themselves personally. Except these children are investment brokers, actuaries, corporate accountants, federal lawyers, computer systems analysts, biotech workers, and political activists, and Presidents, and many, many others who will be the architects of our future, whether we like it or not.

The publishing industry can hardly be blamed for catering to this burgeoning demography of slack-jawed idiots. That's where the money is, after all, and publishers care about nothing in advance of money.

The net effect, though, is that actually real, serious histories are being written for a rapidly shrinking minority of readers. And it gets worse: serious historians, sensing perhaps how quickly the iceberg on which they're perched is shrinking, increasingly panic in one of two directions: either they clutter their works with impenetrable professional jargon, or worse, much worse, they start dumbing things down in the furtive hope of finding a popular audience. If you examine the history section of your local Barnes & Noble, you'll find a dozen examples of people who should know better writing for people who don't know better. It can get depressing.

Which is why our book today is such a pick-me-up: it's serious, high-minded, heavily researched real history, and if it's not the equal of Gibbon, it's certainly worthy of his company.

Cannadine's subject is that oddest and most storied of societal phenomena, the British aristocracy. Readers of Lord David Cecil's biography of Lord Melbourne (as always when writing about the British gentry, every sentence runs the risk of becoming a parody of itself) will recall his sparkling opening portrait of this set at its pinnacle, with its unhampered fox runs, its palatial country estates, and its dazzling London balls. Lord Cecil pays loving tribute not only to the splendor of those exalted beings but also to their ethos of public service.

Cannadine is largely writing about the early 20th century, when that splendid edifice was showing cracks and crevices all along its spectrum. Readers familiar with history will come to this book already knowing the bullet-points: the grandeur in decline, the encroachment of government in the form of taxation and labor reform, and then the great death-blow of the First World War. This is fine with Cannadine: like all the best historians, he assumes a large amount of knowledge on the part of his readers.

This shouldn't discourage anybody from picking up the book. Rather the opposite: the smooth felicity of Cannadine's prose makes him a wonderful teacher. From Herodotus to Livy to Froissart to Parkman, it's a point worth stressing: all great history is also great writing. If you come to this book knowing something about the waning of the landed gentry (even if it's from reading "Brideshead Revisited")(Hell, even if it's from watching "Brideshead Revisited"), you'll find yourself effortlessly borne along and deeply stimulated. If you come to this book knowing nothing at all on the subject, you'll still be borne along and stimulated, and you'll learn a great deal in the process.

It's a sad process, in our opinion here at Stevereads, for the subject is ultimately a sad one: the societal elite whose decline Cannadine explores, despite its predictable wretched excesses, was a mostly beneficial thing the likes of which may not be seen again. By the beginning of the 20th century, the power and privilege of the aristocracy had begun to fade - but that ethos of public service remained, and it remained in contrast to the ranks of 'new rich' which had arisen all around it:

"For members of the titled and genteel classes, this was the fundamental and most powerful objection against plutocracy: it was neither decent nor disinterested. The justification for government by a landed and leisured class was - as Gladstone had always believed - that they ruled out of a sense of duty and in the national interest. They were not men on the make: the government of the country was to be carried on, not ripped off. But financiers, capitalists, speculators, men who organized government loans and sought government contracts, were by definition not disinterested: they were in politics for what they could get out of it, rather than for what they could bring to it. Moreover, they usually possessed no territorial stake in the country, no feeling of historical association, no loyalty to a locality. Their fortunes, if based in England, were primarily held in highly liquid assets; they kept much (and sometimes most) of their wealth overseas; they moved their millions promiscuously around the world in search of higher profits; and none of them put the majority of their riches into British land. So the plutocrat was doubly dangerous: on the make in Britain, yet not even loyal to it."

One of the books best little bits, quite naturally, is its treatment of that representative of the British landed aristocracy who had the single greatest impact on the 20th century, Winston Churchill. His talent for oratory won him the hearts of all of wartime England, but Cannadine makes it clear that this popularity was the result of Churchill's aristocratic background, not a contradiction of it:

"When Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940, he was the first authentically genteel Prime Minister to hold office since A. J. Balfour. As C.P. Snow has rightly described him, Churchill was 'the last aristocrat to rule - not preside over, rule - this country,' and he did so with a mixture of power and panache, eloquence and magnaminity, which exemplified patrician high-mindedness at its most majestic."

(Since the passage is so good, we'll refrain from quibbling about whether Churchill was ever 'magnanimous' about anything in his entire life)

Cannadine examines all aspects of the gentry's changing world in the years leading up to the First World War and the inter-war years - public service, travels abroad, social life and marriage, etc. - and he does it with such unfailing zest and erudition that the result is uniformly magnificent. (Although the book only mentions Bertie Wooster and Jeeves once, which Jeeves would refer to as 'a singularly unfortunate lacuna')

It's heartbreaking to think the audience for this kind of history-writing is numerically negligible and may be entirely gone in another century.

We here at Stevereads will be finding such works and singing their praises anyway, in the hopes of sending at least one person to at least one of these books. Merely opening them is all that's required: their masterful authors will take it from there.


Jeff E. said...

Man, SteveReads has been a feast lately!
How awesome is that?

steve said...

Yep, I'm cooking with gas! There's only one thing missing, and I know you've all been yearning for it: the very latest picture of ME!

I'll get right on that.

Imani said...

I'm reading a history book about demons that was curiously reviewed by...Sooke was it in the TLS months ago. Wrote that it was full of "academic jargon" and specialised language but I'm three chapters into it and find no such thing, unless "specialised language" means...non-anglicised names of Greek historical figures? Maybe he was reviewing it for the child accountants.

Anyway it's clear that the scholar enjoys writing about his subject, and he does it in such a lucid, affable manner that it breaks my heart that the book will only be ordered by some university libraries and checked out by one or two students a year (if it be so lucky).

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