Sheep into Goats

Gabriele Annan

  • The British Aristocracy by Mark Bence-Jones and Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd
    Constable, 259 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 09 461780 5
  • The Astors by Virginia Cowles
    Weidenfeld, 256 pp, £8.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 297 77624 X
  • Barclay Fox’s Journal edited by R.L. Brett
    Bell and Hyman, 426 pp, £8.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 7135 1865 0

Both authors of The British Aristocracy have been connected with Burke’s Peerage. One doesn’t expect genealogists to be particularly indulgent: their job, after all, is to separate the sheep from the goats. But these two are soft-hearted and broadminded to a fault, or so social historians, as well as some of their subjects, might think. They draw the demarcation-line between the aristocracy and the rest to take in almost the whole middle class except ‘the rag trade, showbiz and property dealing’. They contend (and under the guise of merely purveying scholarly information spiked with quaint anecdotes, this is quite a contentious book, almost a tract) that the term ‘middle class’ has become over-extended: ‘It is understandable that the aristocracy should be called middle-class by its enemies – after all, middle-class is a variant of the Marxist “bourgeoisie” – but there is something particularly absurd about aristocrats speaking of themselves as middle-class, as they frequently do these days.’ So Bence-Jones and Montgomery-Massingberd take the word ‘gentleman’ and make it mean ‘aristocratic’: their definitions define not so much what is as what they think ought to be.

They begin by closing the gap between the terms ‘nobility’ and ‘gentry’: ‘The distinction … is meaningless. Even when Victorian society was at its most rigid, a duke and an Indian army subaltern were equal in class, however different they may have been in rank or wealth.’ And they go on: ‘there is only one essential prerequisite for being counted among the British aristocracy: the right to be called a gentleman … so that anyone who has inherited the gentlemanly values, or for that matter, has acquired these values for himself, can be regarded as noble.’ They are hereditary as far down the social scale as the professional classes, and can (or could) be acquired by marriage; by education at a public school – the public schools having been founded for the purpose of inculcating them; or by service – in the Indian Civil Service when it existed, or in the armed services (even, at a pinch, by National Service). An aristocrat need not have a title, nor wealth, nor land, but if a man has enough land, that in itself can make him an aristocrat. The ‘great commoner’ with vast acres like Coke of Norfolk was a particularly English phenomenon. The authors’ aristocracy includes the intellectual aristocracy en bloc, as well as the great families of banking and industry like the Barings and the Guinnesses. It is all right for an aristocrat to be Jewish, Roman Catholic (very much all right), or Anglican, but not Nonconformist.

The authors face but do not quite satisfactorily solve the problem of the great Quaker families: they maintain that most of them became Anglican, but this seems an exaggeration. And some, while remaining in the Society, held aristocratic values and pursued an aristocratic life-style. At any rate that is the impression one gets from dipping into the Journal (1835-44) of Barclay Fox, which reveals exactly the kind of self-confident, debonair, but caring personality that Bence-Jones and Montgomery-Massingberd would like their British aristocrat to have. They ascribe to him a belief in hard work and merit: surely he owes that to an infiltration of the Nonconformist ethic? It is a pity this is not discussed, because it is one of the main distinctions between the British and the Continental models.

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