Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats has set out from its publishers with claims beyond even what one expects of conventional hype. There is much to admire in the book, particularly the industry that must have gone into its compilation: the examination of huge family archives which contain, apart from what one might expect in the way of letters and journals, everything from death certificates to poems. There is much to enjoy too, as there would be in any lively historical novel, past or present. But the eulogy pronounced by the great Simon Schama, author of Citizens, calls for comment: ‘A dazzling achievement,’ he writes, ‘an extraordinary story told by a phenomenally gifted writer’. This strikes me as over-ecstatic.
The Schama connection is a matter of natural and wholesome professional sympathies. Stella Tillyard is married to historian John Brewer who helped Schama with Citizens, as the author warmly acknowledges in the Introduction; and there is further scholarly harmony in the fact that Tillyard, in her Preface, shows that she agrees with the views of Schama, and, increasingly, others, about the presentation of historical subjects. He decided to put forward his concept of citizenry in the form of narrative, opting ‘to bring a world to life rather than entomb it in erudite discourse’ and emphasising his preference for ‘chaotic authenticity over the commanding neatness of historical convention’. Tillyard has seemingly followed this lead, describing her own work as ‘a marriage of biography and history’, and explaining that she employed narrative ‘so that commentary intrudes as little as possible’.
The subject of aristocracy is of course highly topical. The publication of Aristocrats has more or less coincided with that of David Cannadine’s Aspects of Aristocracy: Grandeur and Decline in Modern Britain, which follows some of the themes of his earlier book, Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. Tillyard’s modishly-titled contribution is an enormous account of four 18th-century female aristocrats, from which we may draw as many inferences about aristocracy as we can or wish to. The women are Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, daughters of the second Duke of Richmond, the grandson of Charles II and his mistress Louise de Kéroualle. The main story starts with the birth of Caroline in 1723 and ends with the death of Sarah in 1826.
About these four sisters and every single thing connected with them, one comes to feel, Aristocrats is relentlessly informative. It is as if the deliberate avoidance of commentary means the space has to be filled up with facts, significant or not. The book is not only a biography-cum-history but becomes an encyclopedia as well. Tillyard seems to think that her readers know absolutely nothing about anything, especially the 18th century, and that they lack the experience and aptitude to have amassed, in however relaxed and piecemeal a way, any store of general knowledge; where as, surely, anybody actively wishing to tackle this book – few people pick up a blockbuster lightly – would be prepared for it by the usual means: stately homes of the appropriate date, novels, biographies and films set in the right period, possibly even schoolwork. They would, for example, almost certainly have a working idea of Bath, perhaps from Jane Austen. Tillyard supplies a four-page passage which starts: ‘At the beginning of the 18th century Bath was still a small town largely dependent on a moribund wool industry. But it had two natural resources’ and goes on to explain about Beau Nash, the Assembly Rooms, the Pump Room and John Wood’s Palladian buildings. It is a competent slice of guide-book but dispensable in this case. After all it is only there to flesh out the fact that one of the characters went to take the waters.
Tillyard’s kind of sustained instruction can have a weird effect. When I was reading her description of the birth of one of Emily’s children, with full details naturally (the accoucheur, the expectant wet-nurse, the caudle the attendants were drinking, with recipe, all kinds of obstetric theory and speculations as to what room the Duke of Leinster, Emily’s husband, might be in, waiting for the news), I could not rid myself of the notion that she was about to tell us where babies come from. Perhaps the high spot of unnecessary information is her account of Sarah’s wedding to Charles Bunbury, in which after letting us know that the chapel in Holland House where it took place ‘was two storeys high with round arched windows down the east side and an Inigo Jones ceiling’, she quotes, entirely verbatim, substantial parts of the marriage service, the best-known parts, including ‘I will.’ There can be few of her readers who are not familiar in some capacity with a traditional Anglican church wedding or have not at least watched one on TV, whose serials so often end with this event, though, to be fair, the cameras sometimes move on after ‘gathered here together in the sight of God’ unless someone is going to forbid the banns or get shot.
There could be a practical reason for this expansiveness: the wish to satisfy markets other than British. But I suspect that the customers of these markets – those among them attracted to the book in the first place, that is – would be quite equal to the occasion and might even know about Bath. There could be an ideological reason as well. I have noticed that writers who share Stella Tillyard’s principles about bringing warmth and accessibility to what they would call academic history (meaning ‘academic’ quite nastily, as people do when talking about a certain type of poetry or painting) often go on record with statements that are recognisably de haut en bas about wanting to reach out to a wider audience whom they manage to make sound educationally deprived; challenged, I mean. Obviously tiros have to start somewhere, and they do, but I think it would not be with Aristocrats, or at least they would not get far.
‘I think many people are more interested in period pains than they are in acts of Parliament.’ Thus spoke Stella Tillyard in an interview at the time of the publication of Aristocrats, enthusiastically stooping to the level of those people who cannot get excited about politics. I had already deduced that this is what she thought, from both the hype which had held the subject of period pains before us as a lure and from the index: ‘Lennox, Caroline and menstruation’ and a similar entry for two of the other sisters. I was rather surprised to see Emily included. Knowing by this time that she had had 22 children and many miscarriages I felt that her experience of period pains must be limited.
Obviously I am not suggesting that a prolix work of 426 pages should be extended; on the contrary. But I do wish that at least some of the exhaustive accounts of domestic life could be exchanged for something less claustrophobic. From the point in the story where Emily and Louisa (who married Tom Conolly, said to be the richest man in Ireland) settled in their new homes, Carton and Castletown respectively, we get reports of everything that went on in these two houses and their parks. Nearly twenty pages are given up to what, in content, could be a talk to the Women’s Institute about the running of a large country house in days of old, but in style is more of a cool textbook providing minutiae of matters from what the staff wore and were paid to what exactly their duties were: not what the butler saw but what he did. Improvements, outdoor and indoor, were constantly taking place at both Carton and Castletown. Emily did up an old cottage on the estate as a shell-house; the Duke improved the park according to the principles of Capability Brown; and both the Duke and the Duchess were involved in redecorating the house itself. At Castletown, Louisa actively directed such drastic alterations to both its structure and its decoration that they took more than two decades to complete. All of this is chronicled with such attention to minute particulars as to be almost obsessional. In the case of Emily and her shell-house, for example, Tillyard gives us a picturesquely-worded list of all the shells that were used: ‘huge conches from tropical seas, corals with a myriad of tentative fingers’ and so on for several paragraphs. The whole of this section of the book sounds as though Private Eye was doing a parody of House and Garden. And all the time, unmentioned, Ireland was boiling up around the aristocrats, with agrarian unrest, complaints from the Catholic tenants about giving tithes to the Church of Ireland and other resentments.
In much of the book the narrative shuttles quite gracefully between the family lives of the sisters and their historical background. But sometimes the marriage between biography and history arranged by Tillyard is not as happy as she planned. As in the chapter just discussed, history does not always get a proper say. But when it does shake itself free from the oppressive paint-and-wallpaper, crib-and-wet-nurse sequences, the interaction between the two genres can be truly enlightening, as in the chapter which deals with the Irish rebellion of 1798. In France, just before the Revolution, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Emily’s son, converted to Republicanism. It was called ‘the levelling movement’ by Lady Emily, the last person one can imagine being levelled, who placidly remarked: ‘I think it charming to hear talked of but I fear they will never realise it.’ This was before Edward came back from the Continent and joined the United Irishmen. His mother’s placidity was quite broken up, as well it might be. Violence took over and poor Edward never got home to see his picture of Tom Paine and the fancy uniform that he had put in a chest ready to wear on the first day of the Irish Republic. Lady Louisa suffered too, apart from her grief at the death of her nephew. She had been roused out of her long dream of improvements and doing good to her dependents and tenants, whom she had treated all her married life with resolute maternalism. When many of them sided with the rebel cause she thought of it as disloyalty, even betrayal. The way in which Tillyard writes about the rebellion recalls Schama’s remark about ‘chaotic authenticity’. I am not qualified to speak of the authenticity of Tillyard’s treatment of the situation but I can vouch for its being chaotic. This is not only in keeping with her principles of no commentary but entirely appropriate to what was happening. With so many diverse, conflicting allegiances in religion, politics, class and family alliances, every person capable of thought or feeling must have been energetically leading a multiple life. It would have been not only impossible but wrong to make order out of it.
It is very natural that Tillyard should be infatuated with the sisters. If all her hard work had not become a labour of love she could hardly have continued with it. But it is misleading to speak of them as exceptional women – which she and the hype do – for they were very much products of their time and, given their heredity and environment, they are exactly what you might expect. It is rhetorical, too, to say that they lived in remarkable times. So did and does everybody. But they certainly move dashingly along their appointed tracks. Their biographer’s enthusiasm makes them glow. Particularly enjoyable is the story of the second marriages of Emily and Sarah, which is a comedy in the best sense of the word. It hangs on the concept of marrying for love rather than by arrangement, which, so people say, was becoming more and more fashionable as the century advanced. As early as 1744, Caroline Lennox had eloped with Henry Fox, later Lord Holland and father of Charles James. It was a sensible move as he was far more exciting than his three future brothers-in-law, one of whom – Mr Conolly as a matter of fact – was so boring that the other two noticed it. There was little scandal; Fox was not a highly unsuitable match, and indeed he became as wealthy and influential as his new relatives. After a display of routine fury on the part of the Duke of Richmond, everything blew over except the marriage, which was a great success. But there was considerable scandal when, some decades later, Emily and Sarah made love matches the bliss of which they never tired of describing. Though by this time the age of Jane Austen was dawning, I do not think we are hearing the middle-class voice of Jane Bennet: ‘Oh, Lizzy, do anything rather than marry without affection.’ It seems to be a more robust voice altogether, as if the high-born sisters were saying to themselves: if in faded middle-age, widowed or disgraced or both, you find an attractive, eager second husband, rejoice. And, engagingly, they did. But of course a love match usually meant that the woman was marrying beneath her; had it been otherwise somebody would have arranged it. Emily and Sarah were afraid (but not very) that these new husbands, though far from boring, would not be acceptable to their family and to society. Sarah’s, a Napier, was at least an officer and a gentleman and though poor the younger son of a baron, but William Ogilvie was the tutor of Emily’s children.
The sisters, however, managed beautifully and with considerable ingenuity raised their husbands up to more or less their own station. Louisa helped by fossicking about and finding, or pretending to find, a peer with an improbable name in Ogilvie’s family tree. Emily, who went on calling herself Duchess of Leinster, invented a new hierarchy, that of learning and scholarship, at the top of which shone William Ogilvie. Sarah posed as a sort of Marianne, a gallant woman who shared with her gallant mate the hardships and perils of a soldier’s life (unspecified and largely imaginary in her case except for a drop in income) and set about convincing society that patriotism and valour in the field should be respected and perhaps emulated by the highest in the land.
Stella Tillyard writes best when she is in her straightforward, unaffected vein. Her heightened style lets her down; she becomes self-indulgent. Some readers may like it, of course.
But as their grief died down, Emily and Caroline, still daughters in their minds, began to hear their parents speak. So began a colloquy that would go on until they in turn left the world to their grieving children. Caroline and Emily joined in the huge mute conversation humanity carries on with the dead that stretches back through the ages as, with silent self-justifications and voiceless wrangles, children whisper to parents and they, children in their turn, lisp confidences to lost mothers and fathers.
Her principles of biographical narrative allow her to include imaginative passages but her flights of fancy (based on strong probability) tend not to turn out well.
Sarah lay in a bath. Her belly rose like an island out of warm water ... Soon afterwards her labour began ... When they said push, she began to push, sinking her mind into her abdomen, becoming a great muscle, forcing the baby out.
Tillyard’s natural verbosity often works against her. She has consulted so many documents that we cannot ever be sure she is giving us particulars she really knows about; for example: ‘The Duke of Richmond slammed the door and hurried back to his library.’ Probably not in this case. It is all part of her individual style to leave nothing to our imagination. ‘Fox sat down to write a letter.’ ‘Caroline sat down in her parlour, dipped her pen into the well of grey-black ink, and began to write.’ This is harmless, though we would hardly have supposed that Caroline and Henry Fox ran about writing letters with dry pens, but she sometimes pushes the habit too far; not as far as the immortal ‘St John of the Cross bit his lip’ but quite near it, surely, with ‘Ogilvie breathed a sigh of relief.’
The book is handsome, with a great many very pretty illustrations. It also has some very irritating spelling mistakes. Its forbidding size can be combated by means of a quick run-through followed by selective reading. It may seem odd to suggest dipping into a blockbuster, but that would bring out the real strength of Aristocrats.