Happy Bunnies

John Pemble

  • Incest and Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England by Adam Kuper
    Harvard, 296 pp, £20.95, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 674 03589 8

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in