:: Article

The dung beneath the rosebush

By Max Dunbar.

blacksheeparistocrats

Splendour and Squalor, Marcus Scriven, Atlantic 2009

It’s a political certainty that at some point this coming year the British public will go to the polls and elect a Conservative administration dominated by an aristocratic class that was supposed to have lost its power and influence a century ago. In their different ways Thatcher and the Labour Party were said to have weakened class hierarchies. ‘[W]hoever’s calling the shots in this country,’ said Cherie Blair, ‘it isn’t the people on the grouse moor.’

And yet the aristocrat retains a place in British affection. There’s something about the erudite, moneyed buffoon that warms republican hearts. You see it in our popular culture, from Bertie Wooster to Blackadder‘s amiable morons and Paul Whitehouse’s sophisticated rogue, the 13th Duke of Wymbourne: ‘At three in the morning? With my reputation? What were they thinking of?’ 

After being harangued, ripped off and lied to by the meritocratic class for thirty years the people on the grouse moor suddenly didn’t seem all that bad. In 2008 Londoners elected Boris Johnson as city mayor; he’s a priveliged philanderer who embodies the silliness of the old elite, yet people loved him and he will probably be prime minister someday. In a different context, Marcus Scriven nails the quality that still sends ordinary men and women into flusters of deference: ’a warmth… a trace of theatricality, an acceptance that rules could (and sometimes should) be broken.’

Harry Flashman, a fictional aristocrat who spends his life subverting the rules of Victorian England, sums up his family reputation like this: ‘But for all their moneybags, the Flashmans were never quite the thing – ‘the coarse streak showed through, generation after generation, like dung beneath a rosebush’ as Greville said.’ In Splendour and Squalor, Marcus Scriven concentrates on the dung. The book consists of four hilarious and riveting portraits of black sheep aristocrats.

These are the kind of men who would shoot off a revolver to keep warm on a winter’s day. Their lives span 150 years of scams and excess; they tended to marry infrequently and badly (one recurring scheme was to target American business heiresses easily impressed by titles); in person, they were pompous, erratic and cruel; they died obese, bankrupt, young, drug-ruined and by their own hands. Though often jingoistic and noisily patriotic, they tended to restrict their military service to ‘fire-watching duty, negligently performed’; the closest the 6th Marquess of Bristol came to WW2 action was when the Luftwaffe bombed HMP Camp Hill, where he was doing three years for fraud.

Rather than the grand-sweep method, Scriven uses these four blackguards to chronicle a changing time. But you sense he’s more interested in humanity than society. The first portrait, that of Edward FitzGerald, is played for straight laughs. He manages to squander a £400 million inheritance, single-handedly bringing the family to ruin: ‘a very nice, very, very hopeless man.’ By the time we get to John Hervey, the 7th Marquess and final case study, the tone has become more intense. An alcoholic and drug addict, Hervey’s life was filled with mansion orgies and drunken helicopter rides. But there is a sense that there was something in Hervey that could have been better; also, too, a feeling you get with many extravagant wasters, that they are looking for love and company at any cost.

Beautifully written and compulsively readable, Splendour and Squalor is popular history at its best, and perhaps a taste of what’s in store as we witness the slow reanimation of the old elite.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009.