Saturday, November 01, 2008


Our book today is Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard, a pleasant and entirely diverting look at nearly a century in the lives of the vain, shallow, clever, artful, silly, and mostly sincere world of the Lennox family, whose distaff noble line descends from Louise de Keroualle, a snub-nosed buxom-breasted slut who never took her eyes off the prize while she was one of Charles II’s mistresses. In exchange for services rendered, the dear little oaf was made Duchess of Portsmouth, and the bastard she gave her bastard of a lover was made Duke of Richmond, Earl of March, Duke of Lennox, and a baker’s dozen other things, all to overcompensate for the bar sinister.

Tillyard follows the ups and downs of the Duchess’ darling descendants in the Lennox line, mainly the sisters Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah, from 1740 to 1832, and the resultant book, Aristocrats shouldn’t be dismissed just because it sparkles like fine champagne. It does sparkle, Tillyard has worked hard to make it the splendid, effortless read it is … but there’s a lot of research here too, and a positively dismaying amount of digging through mounds of Lennox family letters and documents. Tillyard must have known the great story she could fashion from such materials (and she might have had some accurate foresight as to how well it would sell to a perpetually glamour-starved reading public), otherwise the tedium of the spadework would have sent her running from the archives.

She stuck with it, however, and we readers are the better for it. She introduces her four central sisters amidst the splendor of the British and Scottish uppercrust in the Hanoverian age, and page after page gleams with gigantic family manors, important state functions (the sisters were related by blood or marriage to a whole slew of movers and shakers in government and royal circles), and, thanks to Tillyard’s considerable skill, memorable character-sketches. For instance, she quotes Caroline’s estimate of her own inner state of mind:

“Living alone suits my disposition best, at least passing a good deal of my time so. I love to saunter about the gardens, looking at the plants etc by myself or being shut up in my dressing room reading or writing.”

But Tillyard has read everything about Caroline and cannot be deceived by such claims – indeed, she might be said to know Caroline better than Caroline knew herself:

There was another side to this intelligent, worried, poised, and slightly pedantic young woman – an irresistible pull towards those things she professed to dislike: wit, recklessness, bustle, and ambition. … wit fascinated her, and so did excess, that quality of her grandfather’s which her father had worked so hard to suppress in himself and his family.

So thorough has been Tillyard’s research that readers may occasionally feel swamped by all the names and bloodlines, like being force-fed Burke’s Peerage with a cement-mixer. Usually Tillyard keeps this under control, but every so often there’s a deafening blast of breeding that reads more like an extract from Debbie’s Diaries than a passage from sober history:

Several of Emily’s or Sarah’s children married within the family, or within the family circle, and with these weddings came a sense of time coming round again. Lord Henry Fitzgerald married Charlotte, Baroness de Rof, the granddaughter of Henry Fox’s faithful friend Charles Hanbury Williams. Mimi Ogilvie also married into the Holland House circle. Her husband was Charles Beauclerk, son of the notorious Topham Beauclerk and his saintly wife, Lady Di. Sarah’s fifth son, Henry, married his cousin Caroline Bennett, one of the Duke of Richmond’s illegitimate daughters. William Napier married Caroline Amelia Fox, daughter of General Henry Fox, Caroline’s “little Harry.” Richard Napier married into the extended Conolly family. The most unlikely circle was completed several years after Sarah’s death when her daughter Emily married Sir Henry Bunbury, nephew and heir of her first husband, Sir Charles Bunbury.


But such passages are anomalies in an otherwise nearly flawless book that dances the reader through a century of changing social tides and violent, often engrossing family feuds (the source of many of those feuds was the Duke of Richmond buried in that above paragraph, Charles Lennox, the brother of these Lennox sisters, the inheritor of mind-bogglingly vast estates and wealth who in later life ossified into a moron but who was, in his youth, the most startlingly handsome teen who ever rod-and-sceptre’d a barmaid and who, his whole life long, cherished an affection for dogs far, far deeper than that which he ever felt for any fellow human being)(a fact which successive generations of portrait-painters, as you can see, took pains to commemorate).

In any study like this one, the British aristocracy can’t help but come off as a bit of a paradox – a bunch of sniveling ninnies who nevertheless did a rather good job of running a country – and Tillyard makes no attempt in Aristocrats to resolve that paradox. But once you’ve spent the whole book under her spell, you won’t care if she does or not – you’ll be fascinated by these glittering creatures, and you’ll want to stay in their world. Fortunately, Aristocrats will always be right there on your shelf, ready to take you there.

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