The Gentry: Stories of the English
HarperPress, 320 pages
Reviewed by Peter York
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How delicious the notion of the gentry is. How beautifully it shades into every kind of 19th-century fraudulence, into Eric Hobsbawm’s Invention of Tradition. How easily it locks on to the much later and altogether more middle-class idea of the gentleman, with all those Young England Edwardian ideals cooked up by entrepreneurial publishers. A bit like the Sloane Ranger Handbook, really.
The Country Life picture of the gentry life — one invented for rich townie merchants of various kinds — is one of mellow, confident continuity where the answer lies in the soil (lots of it) and gloriously faded, everlasting houses, developed over time, chock full of stuff. These are right-sized houses and estates, from big to very big, but never palaces. Estates that could support the house, the family and more, but not like, say, the great Scottish aristocratic acres — the Atholls, Seafields and Hamiltons — where one family owned great lumps of the nation.
The idea of the gentry — local, community-based, affable and honourable — was so different from the toffs with their half-metropolitan lives and multiple palaces. The gentlemen of England kept to their counties. They were big fish in small and medium-sized ponds, careful but confident.
In this completely marvellous book, Adam Nicolson — himself extremely upper gentry with that link to Knole and the Sackville-Wests through his maternal grandmother Vita — gets behind that pious, clammy 19th-century rhetoric and reconstruction of the gentry’s role (‘like an over-restored church’, as he puts it) to the realities of twelve families over 600 years from 1410 to 2010.
He does it by ‘getting into dead men’s skulls’, with assiduous research into some of the most documented people on earth, forever committing every last detail of their feelings and finances to paper. What emerges is deeply nuanced and contradictory — ‘plaited’ is Nicolson’s word. It’s a picture of a group (a class, if we impose a Marxist framework) that once owned 50 per cent of the nation’s land between them and now owns 1 per cent. A class that once managed between them most of ‘local government’ as what my grandmother’s generation called ‘county’, or more recent commentators described as ‘The Knights of the Shires’, or in old Private Eye speak the ‘Tufton-Buftons’ (‘Tufton-Bufton’ was inspired by the marvellously named late Sir Tufton Beamish, Tory MP for Lewes).
Precise definitions of gentry status are difficult. The character Hugh Bonneville plays in Downton Abbey either is or isn’t the Earl of Grantham, but the gentry role, as Nicolson shows, is altogether more subjectively defined. There had to be land, but that could vary from a few hundred acres to tens of thousands. Anciency and armigerousness were obviously part of the picture, but from the 15th century on, yeomen, artisans and City merchants were being constantly upgraded and marrying in, as they bought land or stole it. And the business of inventing family histories has been going on for ever. Even the Cecils did it.
What really bound the gentry was the idea of family, land — once the solid state of money — and the rhetoric of honour around it. The reality, as we see here, is one long round of paranoia, status anxiety and social climbing. The earliest family here, the Plumptons of Yorkshire, remind one of nothing so much as the life of more recent warlords in Rwanda or Sierra Leone: brutality, opportunism, massacre (Nicolson’s account of the battle of Towton, where 28,000 died on one day, is particularly graphic). Little girls are sold off as child-brides to seal land deals, and endlessly crooked lawyers and New Men from London plunder estates.
Nicolson recognises at every point the contradictions between the ‘gentry code’ of family, community and honour and the underpinning realities. He does his own version of the Gini coefficient and looks at the multiple of servants and masters’ incomes (it’s often thousands), and he shows how the lovely Lascelles (upgraded to the aristocracy as Harewoods, great Robert Adam house, later married into royalty, the heroic music and art-loving last Earl) was built on Caribbean sugar and slavery — and 18th-century banking as opportunistic and brutal as a cage full of hedge-funders.
There’s one family history I know a bit here, the Aclands of Killerton in Devon, at the very top of the gentry pile with 45,000 acres that stretched from coast to coast and a long active national political tradition. The last-but-two baronet, Sir Richard, was something of a household god for me for having given it all up. In my parents’ account of the Aclands’ story, the increasingly radical Christian Socialist Acland gave all those acres to the National Trust to concentrate on his political party Commonwealth during the last war.
The reality, as Nicolson shows, was altogether more ‘plaited’. The Aclands, according to Nicholson, part gave, part sold and negotiated a deal where they stayed and had right of veto on practically everything until they died. Their heir, John, felt aggrieved and unfairly disinherited. They hadn’t asked him. His brother, who succeeded him in the Nineties, is an academic in America and doesn’t use the title.
While Nicolson is unsparing about the realities that underwrite the fatal charm of the gentry, he’s still endlessly romantic about their countryside, houses and produce. As you might expect, he writes wonderfully about landscapes and gardens and the way houses have grown into them.
The gentry — unlike the aristocracy, who adapted and survived through the 20th century in brilliantly ruthless ways — are so over as a power base. Globalism and industrial plutocracy did for them. But they live on in a weird, fictitious half-life — a League of Gentlemen/To the Manor Born story — in the way older Brits still think about the world, and the way the world, egged on by Visit Britain, sees us.