Period Pain

Patricia Beer

  • Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard
    Chatto, 462 pp, £20.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 7011 5933 2

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.

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