This book is a series of essays that Cannadine wrote during the process of writing his Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. Having not read that book, I can only assume that the essays reflect aspects of the larger work, but in themselves they are self-contained and immensely readable.
Cannadine argues that, despite the assertion by the aristocracy itself of its unchanging nature and antiquity, the aristocracy was in fact transformed in the late eighteenth century. Because of a largely unexplained demographic crisis among English noble families at that time, estates were integrated and consolidated into supra-national empires, spanning England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, thus leading to a new apex of super-rich grandees. These were supplemented by self-made merchants, nabobs and industrialists who bought their way in, then established themselves as bona-fide landlords. Public servants, too, fitted themselves out with the accoutrements of landed aristocracy. That bible of gentility, Burkes Peerage, published in 1826 documented this new/old phenomenon, a hold that they maintained by making, in reality, very few concessions.
He picks up on the debate between David Spring and F.M.L. Thompson over aristocratic indebtedness, and especially the received Spring-ian view that the Regency families were spendthrifts, while their mid-Victorian sons moved towards sobriety and solvency in the mid 1800s. Cannadine finds that debt seemed to be an ongoing reality, though its arena changed- e.g. development of money markets with local attorneys and solicitors, banks, insurance companies etc. There was borrowing to maintain and enhance family prestige e.g. to provide settlements for members of the family, to build houses and buy land, but there was also borrowing for profit e.g. improvement of land and investment in non-agricultural enterprises- especially coal mining and transport. He concludes, therefore, that the distinction between early and mid-Victorian debt was overdrawn, and that if there is a pivotal period, rather than the 1840s it is 1870-1880 when declining rentals and agricultural prices led to greater indebtedness. When death duties were introduced in 1894, they were 10% of the property assessed higher than 1 million pounds- ruinous if a property was heavily encumbered.
Cannadine points out that
while biographers are conscious of the things that make their subjects unique, historians are more concerned with seeing individuals in the context of their times and class (p.3)
The rest of the book deals with different dynastic and individual portraits that illustrate his central thesis. Lord Curzon is depicted as a “ceremonial impressario” whose stage-craft embodied and shaped the image and consciousness of empire. Winston Churchill he sees as inherently unrespectable in both his relatives and choice of friends: he was politically suspect and unpredictable, and essentially paternalistic and anti-democratic. The Cozens-Hardy family of Norfolk exemplify the ‘new’ upper class, spreading across trade, the law, local paternalist government and local/antiquarian history. Nicholson/Sackville-West are addressed less as sexual and literary oddities than as exemplars of the snobbish, anachronistic, sheltered and nostalgic twentieth-century upper class.
To prove, eventually, that he has a political purpose, Cannadine closes with a condemnation of country-house worship that embalms what their owners themselves were happy to demolish, and transforms country houses into shrines to private galleries, a risible moral superiority and an unconscionable claim on public money.
Enough of snobbery and nostalgia. Good riddance to ignorant and sentimental deference. It is time we got beyond the country house (p.245)
That’s telling ’em.