In Britain privilege still means power, but power no longer means class. The British ruling class is long since dead. Its day was over when neoliberal think tanks dethroned liberal-humanist intellectuals and nobody was any longer interested in how to combine Adam Smith with the Bible, or the rule of the many with the wisdom of the few. Yet literature gives back what history has erased. In fact literature – Galsworthy, Woolf, Waugh, Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Compton-Burnett – has made this Victorian hybrid, the ‘ruling class’, so familiar that we forget how brief its existence was. A cross between a gentrified bourgeoisie and a professionalised aristocracy, it ranked as ‘upper-middle’ in the hierarchy of class. Mismanagement of the Crimean War in the 1850s provoked a crisis of confidence in the nation’s leadership, compelling the landed oligarchs to improve their performance and share their power. Politics were gradually democratised; civil service appointments and – eventually – army commissions reserved to merit; the ancient universities opened up to Nonconformists and agnostics. The bourgeoisie took advantage of the opportunities thus created and became a pillar of the establishment. They switched to careers in government service and education; sent their sons to public schools and Oxbridge; patronised the arts and the London Season; and propounded traditional Christian values in highbrow journalism and popular fiction – even when they were racked by religious doubt.
The ruling class ruled because it was clever, because it was well off, and because it hung together. It wore the old school tie, congregated in the Home Counties, kept skeletons in the cupboard and marriage in the family. It covered up Anthony Blunt’s treason just as, a hundred years earlier, it dealt privately with the pederasty of Charles Vaughan. In 1859 Vaughan, headmaster of Harrow, suddenly left in order to accept a much lower-profile job as vicar of Doncaster. Not until 1964, when Phyllis Grosskurth published her biography of John Addington Symonds, was it revealed that Vaughan had resigned in order to avoid prosecution for sexual offences with a pupil. As late as 1955, in his essay ‘The Intellectual Aristocracy’, Noël Annan was writing (probably with a knowing wink at fellow Cambridge dons) that Vaughan had been an exemplary headmaster who had ‘a winning way with boys’. Wide familial networks were created by marriages with cousins, with sisters and brothers of best friends, with sons and daughters of fathers’ friends and associates. Extended families coalesced into clans, the clans coalesced into a class, and for a few generations the class steered British history the way it wanted it to go. Everyone who was anyone seems to have been related in some degree to almost everyone else who was anyone. In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell complained that in certain parts of southern England in the 1930s you couldn’t throw a brick without hitting the niece of a bishop. He might have added that a bishop’s niece couldn’t throw a brick without hitting a great-aunt who was a big noise – or a second cousin who was an even bigger one.
Annan drew attention to this matrimonial bonding among the ‘intellectual aristocracy’ of writers, dons, churchmen, schoolmasters and bureaucrats. Families prominent in public service and intellectual and ecclesiastical life – the Frys, Arnolds, Huxleys, Darwins, Wedgwoods, Thackerays, Vaughans, Stanleys, Macaulays, Trevelyans, Stephens, Duckworths, Symondses and so on – were woven by marriage into networks comparable to the political ‘connections’ that had governed 18th-century Britain. Annan wrote as an insider, so his essay is inconsequential as well as discreet. He admitted that he couldn’t see what it all added up to. He writes, as Adam Kuper aptly puts it in Incest and Influence, like an old-fashioned gossip columnist. Kuper’s treatment, too, is gossipy, but it’s much fuller than Annan’s because it’s about a way of thinking as well as a way of life. The problem is that since much of the book is concerned with multiplying instances of the same phenomenon – family relationships – it leads you into a genealogical jungle of roots, lineages and branches. One family tree is very like another, and it doesn’t take many of them to stop you seeing the wood. Furthermore, when Kuper zooms in for a closer look, he selects areas already well investigated. If you’ve read David Newsome, Annan himself, Michael Holroyd and Hermione Lee on the Wilberforces, Leslie Stephen, Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, you’re likely to know what’s coming before you’ve turned the page – and there’s a limit to the appeal even of Clapham psychodrama and Bloomsbury libido. But some of the literary evidence he’s tracked down – in the novels of Felicia Skene, Dinah Mulock Craik, Geraldine Jewsbury and Eliza Lynn Linton – is much less well known. By zapping between fact and fiction he alleviates the pedigree fatigue and the tedium of déjà vu.
What remains unclear is how far upper-class intermarriage was spontaneous and how far dynastically driven. Annan wrote of elective affinities in a sophisticated but rather unworldly environment. He reckoned that by setting up such institutions as the National Trust, the BBC, the British Council and the Arts Council, the upper-class pundits and mandarins made the humanities job market too big to be monopolised or dominated. Kuper detects the hard-headed strategies of agglomeration and consolidation common to all the bourgeoisies of 19th-century Europe. He argues that the British ruling class favoured intermarriage because it had learned the value of family partnerships from its business experience in the days before limited liability and widespread share ownership. The ruling-class regime undoubtedly stacked the odds against exogamy. Its agenda was the right man in the right place – and the woman in the home. Consequently the public sphere of education, work and organised recreation was a man’s world, where premarital (like extramarital) encounters with the opposite sex were limited to prostitutes and barmaids. The domestic sphere, meanwhile, was sacred to the women. For the adolescent male, confined for most of the year to public school or university, home meant bevies of sisters, cousins and aunts, and furtive fantasy about slippers, stockings, camisoles and stays. Since it wasn’t unusual to have 20 or more cousins of the opposite sex, they came readily to mind when the time came for marriage.
Contrived or not, this habitual endogamy was loaded with grim religious and scientific caveats. The crowded, over-upholstered Victorian domestic interior was, as Kuper reveals in the best parts of his book, a site of constant tension and negotiation between the imperative of marriage and the taboo of incest. The tension was compounded by uncertainty. Everyone knew where incest began, but no one was sure where it ended. The Bible was ambivalent, the churches divided, the law silent. There were no legal prohibitions until 1908, when marriage between close relatives was forbidden. There was no doubt about the criminality of erotic liaisons between siblings. The subject was enveloped in gothic horror, and a tormenting burden of guilt accumulated both where there was such a liaison (as there had been between Byron and his half-sister) and where it seemed dangerously possible (as in the Thackeray and Wordsworth households). In addition, Christian doctrine defined husband and wife as one flesh, and this created theological reservations about marriage with a deceased wife’s sister. These marriages weren’t illegal, and they could be – and were – contracted abroad; but they had no validity in English law before 1907. Until then, the only sister a man might freely marry was the sister of a friend, and it was considered a fraternal duty to invite schoolfriends home with this in mind. In Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh Ernest Pontifex is reproved by his mother for being backward in his duty: ‘A brother can do so much for his sister if he lays himself out to do it … It is a brother’s place to find a suitable partner for his sister.’
We’ve no means of knowing how frequent such marriages were, or how they turned out. The Victorians idealised them because of one that had never taken place. Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a commemoration of his friendship with Arthur Hallam, was the most popular poem of the Victorian age. But the betrothal of Hallam with Tennyson’s sister Emily had been cancelled by the event that inspired the poem – Hallam’s early death. The obvious risk, not only in this case, was that the sister was merely a surrogate for the brother. Fictional treatment of schoolboy friendships – in Tom Brown’s Schooldays for example, and in R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End – makes this clear. How many unhappy marriages originated in the desperate desire of homosexual youths to legitimise their infatuation by rediscovering the schoolfriend in his sister? This was the background to the Vaughan affair, and here there’s an intriguing bridge between fact and fiction. In Thomas Hughes’s autobiographical novel, Tom Brown’s affection for the beautiful Arthur sets him wondering whether Arthur has a sister he might marry. In real life ‘Arthur’ was Arthur Stanley (ultimately dean of Westminster), and his sister Catherine married not Tom Hughes but Charles Vaughan, another of Arthur’s devoted Rugby contemporaries. Charles Darwin married Emma, the sister of his best friend Hensleigh Wedgwood, and the marriage, though passionless, seems to have been unproblematic. But then Emma was not only Hensleigh’s sister, she was also Charles’s cousin – and his brother’s sister-in-law. ‘You’ve none of you ever seen a Darwin who wasn’t mostly Wedgwood,’ one of Darwin’s granddaughters was told by her father. The two families had intermarried for generations.
In 1877, 40-year-old Annie Thackeray (William Thackeray’s daughter and Virginia Woolf’s step-aunt, as well as a novelist in her own right) married her nephew Richmond Ritchie, aged 23. Things turned out well, but since the Bible forbade such unions they were very rare and widely regarded as shocking – Leslie Stephen called this one a catastrophe. Marriage between cousins was considered incestuous by Catholics and Quakers, though Quakers sometimes tolerated it and Protestants had no religious reservations. It was therefore the most common form of family marriage. In the upper reaches of Victorian society, more than one marriage in ten was between first or second cousins. Even Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny married his cousin. He and Flopsy ‘had a large family, and … were very improvident and cheerful’.
In actuality these happy bunnies were an endangered species and they knew it. Not only was the logic of history apparently against their political survival, the laws of science were predicting their biological extinction. They were classified as doomed, first by the theory of hereditary degeneration, then by the demography of eugenics. The leading idea in pathology before it was overtaken by the germ theory in the 1880s, degeneration linked cousin marriage with wasting diseases (tuberculosis especially) and congenital defects such as deafness, blindness, idiocy and infertility. When statistical evidence collected by Darwin’s son George demolished this link, there was widespread relief. George was told by Francis Galton (his cousin) that he had ‘exploded most effectually a popular scare’. But then other statistics started another scare. The census returns seemed to confirm what Galton and Herbert Spencer had long been arguing: that in organic nature the rate of reproduction moved inversely to the rate of development.
Between the 1870s and the Second World War the national rate of fertility declined from 34 births per 1000 to under 14. The average number of children per family fell from between five and six to just over two. But the decrease wasn’t evenly distributed. The socially inferior strata were reproducing fast enough to ensure replacement. The superior strata were not. The neo-Malthusians predicted stabilisation or reduction of the population; the eugenicists a decline in the intelligence and ‘efficiency’ of the race. They claimed that the biologically fit were being swamped by the unfit, and proposed state-regulated human breeding to forestall galloping deterioration. Both were proved wrong: the Malthusians by immigration, the eugenicists by Mendelian genetics. Nonetheless, the census figures confirmed that the ruling class was falling apart. As the extended family contracted into the nuclear family, the pool of cousins shrank and the flow of cousin marriages became a trickle. By 1940, first-cousin marriages had declined nationally from one in 20-25 to one in 6000.
Families and even clans were becoming exogamous; and in the process, social and sexual barriers came crashing down. The upper-bourgeois mating game moved away from strictly policed parental territory into the democratic promiscuity of modern student life: discos, nightclubs, pop festivals, parties. The chaperone disappeared, and middle-class British boys finally learned what Pontifex and Annan had never known: how to chat up girls. Behind all this was the female revolt. Middle-class women were shaping a destiny other than motherhood for themselves. They were marrying much later; or marrying and practising contraception; or not marrying at all. In 1891, 44 per cent of all women over 30 had never been married, and among women with university degrees the percentage was much higher. With this in mind, Kuper has decided to end his story with Bloomsbury. The Bloomsbury group were less revolutionary than they liked to think; in several ways, as Kuper reminds us, they looked back, their clannishness, dogmatism, and powerful sense of mission recalling their Clapham-Evangelical antecedents. But their sexless marriages, lack of children and homosexual hedonism all signalled the beginning of the end of the British ruling class; and it’s a Bloomsbury text that has most memorably registered the role of women in the transition from the old world to the new. In To the Lighthouse the artist Lily Briscoe stubbornly resists the summons to marry, defying the ghost of Mrs Ramsay, mother of eight children, who is rebuking her from the end of the long corridor of years.
It looks, then, like a case of suicide. But if the ruling class put an end to itself, it was only because it was too intelligent not to realise that it was ‘done for’, as D.H. Lawrence told Keynes and Bertrand Russell at Cambridge in 1914. The very idea of a ruling class – especially a white one – was obsolete in a country aspiring to become not just democratic but multiracial too. The obituaries have been harsh. The ruling class is accused of having been snobbish, dilettante, nepotistic and, above all, mindful of the ‘quality of life’ at the expense of the ‘industrial spirit’. Its main legacies – the welfare state, a planned economy, public-monopoly broadcasting, selective grammar schools – have now been abandoned or drastically overhauled, and its bungled dismantling of the British Empire remains a tragic witness to its shortcomings. Yet it did oversee a bloodless and almost painless transition from male oligarchy to full democracy, and it did set standards that its critics can’t criticise. Even Margaret Thatcher admired its ‘Victorian values’.