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.

On the other hand, the authors complain that British aristocratic families with mercantile or industrial origins are more inclined than Continental ones ‘to turn their backs on industry’ and make off to the fields and woods. This is probably true, but one wonders whether the Continental families they have in mind (Krupp? Thyssen? Agnelli?) would all be considered aristocratic in Continental terms, however many titles and even quarterings they may have acquired by now. Families like the Vogüe who own Veuve Clicquot are not in the same category, since they married into champagne instead of owing their status to it.

Which brings us to the Almanach de Gotha. This is the bête noire against which Bence-Jones and Montgomery-Massingberd pit their ideal; or at least, it provides the negative definition of what, to them, the British aristocracy is not. Everyone knows that the British are not obsessed by quarterings and that their nobility is more open and more fluid than its Continental counterpart owing to the paucity of medieval families, to primogeniture, the public schools, and other causes. Not that Bence-Jones and Montgomery-Massingberd spurn genealogy: a large part of their book is devoted to tracing the origins of English aristocratic families (and of Scottish, Irish and Welsh ones) and one of their most striking points is that the new great families founded in the 16th and 17th centuries were often grafted onto side-shoots of declining medieval families. All the same, they are not merely charting the British aristocracy: they are saying that it is better, more virtuous, than any other model.

Nietzsche defined aristocratic virtue as a variant of virtú: it had to be amoral. ‘Morality is the herd instinct of the individual,’ he said, therefore the opposite of aristocratic. Bence-Jones and Montgomery-Massingberd don’t mention Nietzsche, but they make the Continental aristocrat out to be something of a Nietzschean figure, whereas the British aristocrat is conscientious and good. ‘The foreign aristocrat who belonged to a rigidly defined aristocracy, and had a title and 32 quarterings, did not need to worry so much about personal behaviour and “doing the right thing”.’ So ‘whereas the British aristocrat values a decoration, however humble, which is a reward for hard work, he seldom sets much store by an order with “no damned merit about it”, however illustrious and exclusive it may be, unless, of course, it is the Garter, the Thistle, or the Patrick. A foreign aristocrat’s attitude to Orders and decorations would tend to be the opposite: he would regard something like the OBE as beneath his dignity, even though it represented much hard work on his part; while coveting an Order which denoted no particular merit but was conferred only on people of high birth.’ There walks Monsieur de Charlus. But if the British aristocrat is always worrying about ‘doing the right thing’ (which sounds a dreadfully middle-class way of going on), how can he simultaneously manage to be ‘free from an undue sense of shame’, as the authors say he is?

He probably can because he is a creature as mythical as the unicorn. One might agree that the British aristocrat is more public-spirited and less proud and snobbish than his Continental cousin (‘on the Continent snobbery can sometimes appear to be a religion, in Britain it is usually only a game’ – on the Continent the opposite view is more popular). But this gentle, brave, resilient, responsible and concerned being with a touch of sprezzatura (Castiglione’s term is carefully analysed), where is he? The authors might not agree to classing him with the unicorn, but they would certainly put him with the oryx among the endangered species. That, in fact, is the gravamen of their book, and the crucial final chapter is a lament for his decline (librarians will soon need a new shelf-mark for the ‘Things ain’t what they used to be’ section): ‘That an increasing number of young men from Eton and the other major public schools should have done things like photography, interior decoration, or art-dealing in preference to the traditional service careers was to a certain extent the result of Britain’s withdrawal from India and other dependencies overseas … When, after 1960, the British Empire virtually ceased to exist, the landless aristocracy lost its chief support and perhaps also its raison d’être … The loss of their Imperial birthright robbed most of the landless aristocracy of the opportunity to serve and its attendant privileges; both prerequisites of being aristocratic.’ As the landless sink into the middle classes, the gap widens between them and the propertied aristocracy, some of whom regard the barrier as insurmountable, thus becoming more exclusive than their forbears were in a less democratic age’, while others relinquish ‘their own gentlemanly attributes’. Meanwhile the newly-rich no longer seek to take on ‘squirearchical responsibilities with all their overtones of feudalism, paternalism, noblesse oblige and other unfashionable concepts’: instead they ape ‘the life-styles of “showbiz” or the “jet set” ’.

The British Aristocracy is full of unfamiliar information and chock-full of anecdotes. The dire phrase ‘one of the present writers’ ushers in many a personally-experienced example of aristocratic quirkiness told as from the depths of an Athenaeum chair. It is a surprise to discover on the dust-jacket that these two old buffers are not eligible for their pensions, and that one of them is only in his thirties. They bend history a bit in the service of their ideal, which is not so much a vanishing social phenomenon as a romantic construction or a slightly exclusive categorical imperative.

The Astors’ failure (in her eyes) to live up to some similar ideal is probably what makes Virginia Cowles sound a bit bad-tempered. She does not love them, and though the American public may have ‘looked upon [them] as their own species of royalty’ they have no glamour for her. They are just a job for her typewriter, which clacks on through facts and figures (especially over the million-dollar line), and anecdotes. The last book about the Astors – as opposed to any one particular Astor – was published in 1968; and perhaps Miss Cowles thinks the family history needs updating every ten years.

Her book falls into three main periods, beginning with the German immigrant John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) who founded the family fortunes in the fur trade. Those engaged in it were prepared to suffer appalling physical hardship in the frozen North and to ruin the Indians and one another as opportunity arose. The first John Jacob occupies roughly the position of the Crusaders in The British Aristocracy, whose authors point out that these predators were far from gentlemanly. When John Jacob had made his pile he shifted it from fur into New York real estate. The farms he bought outside the city at the start of this new career were central urban property by the time he died, so quickly was the city expanding as the immigrants piled in from Europe. He and his son soon owned ‘the largest real-estate operation in the New World’.

From the middle to the end of the 19th century the Astors were the richest family in the States and John Jacob’s granddaughter-in-law, née Caroline Schermerhorn, defined and ruled New York society. The Schermerhorns belonged to the blue blood of America, having arrived from Holland in the 17th century. For Caroline (Mrs William Backhouse Astor Jr) the function of society was to keep other people out. She worked hand in glove with a deplorable-sounding gentleman called Ward McAllister who set himself up as a quasi-professional social arbiter. Between them they devised a number of recurring social occasions, each more exclusive than the other, the most exclusive of all being ‘Mrs Astor’s ball’ for which only 400 invitations were sent out. Mrs Astor found it convenient to take it (as Henry James would have said) from McAllister that great wealth could be a substitute for blue blood: it may have flowed in the veins of some of the 400, but the rest were instant aristocrats.

What were the values of this new aristocracy, which, in the case of the Astors, Miss Cowles says, was founded on the callous exploitation of the poor in the new slum tenements of the city? Apart from the duty to exclude others they consisted in an ostentatious but correct display of wealth. Correctness depended on living in one of the correct streets, or serving the correct sauces in the correct order. Naturally there was also a strict order of precedence, even in the daily carriage parade that took place at the seaside resort of Newport during the season. It reminds one of the Court of Louis XIV – one of the more rebarbative outcrops of a certain conception of the aristocratic ideal. Like the Court at Versailles and in spite of Newport, the 400 families were an urban set: more like sections of the Continental than the British aristocracy, which, according to Bence-Jones and Montgomery-Massingberd, is country-based or at least country-loving.

Miss Cowles does not mention art patronage as a fashionable pursuit among the 400: but it was. And if not de rigueur, it is certainly a possible aristocratic pastime. The Astors – as far as one can tell from this book – do not seem to have gone in for it: they collected estates, mansions, yachts, horses, but not paintings or sculpture.

The turn of the century more or less coincides with the third Astor period and the foundation of the two titled English branches of the family, both descended from William Waldorf Astor, a great-grandson of the first John Jacob. He settled in England in the Nineties and eventually became a viscount. He was the father-in-law of the American Nancy Astor, née Langhorne, the first woman to sit in Parliament. Miss Cowles writes off Lady Astor as a silly, loquacious busybody – brave, ‘but it was sad to think she never really knew what to direct her courage against.’ She was more than that, and the Cliveden set deserves more than three pages even – or especially – if it did not exist; and certainly if Caroline Astor’s social doings rate a whole chapter. (The Cliveden section looks longer in the index, but four of the seven pages in it are photographs.)

By the end of the First World War one branch of the English Astors owned the Times and the other the Observer, and inevitably the sense of public responsibility and service came down heavily upon them. They also began to love the country and generally to be proper British aristocrats. Miss Cowles makes amends for being beastly to the Astors by emphasising how in England the sixth generation – David, John Jacob VII, and Gavin, especially – has made amends for the social callousness of earlier ones, shouldering offices and duties galore (including a Lord-Lieutenancy), all of a kind Bence-Jones and Montgomery-Massingberd would approve. At the same time, she makes cautionary tales of the careers of some 20th-century American Astors, ruined by too much high life. The nearer her story gets to the present, the more perfunctorily she tells it. She seems to know some of her subjects at first hand, so perhaps it is from a sense of embarrassment.