BOOK REVIEW / The past is a Ruritanian theme park: Godfrey Hodgson on David Cannadine's bold and angry new look at the British upper classes
Saturday 30 April 1994
IN The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, David Cannadine established himself in the very front rank of British historians. Broad and at the same time meticulous, full of general perceptions whose obvious rightness tended to conceal how original they actually were, it was a truly magisterial study.
His new book is a collection of papers. All of them bear the marks of his capacity for detailed research and for bold reinterpretation. In the first of them, he has done it again. Using a mass of detailed evidence, he draws attention to a historical development of the first importance in the creation of modern Britain: the forging of a single British aristocracy out of English, Scots, Irish and Welsh landowners, super-rich because of both territorial and industrial income and committed to the British Crown and Empire.
But Cannadine has done more than merely draw attention to this process, which explains so much about the texture, and also the failings, of Victorian and consequently of modern Britain. He shows in detail how the territorial class succeeded in exploiting the two great developments of the 40 years between 1780 and 1820 - the industrial revolution and the Napoleonic wars - to accumulate both unprecedented wealth and also dominant political power over Parliament, the armed services and the expanding institutions of the British state.
In several of the other essays Cannadine pursues particular aspects of the history of the aristocracy in the same patient, judicious tone he maintained in Decline and Fall. In one, he analyses the phenomenon of aristocratic debt, looking at the capitalist fortunes of the 19th-century dukes of Devonshire. He shows that the sixth Duke's highminded insistence on meeting perceived obligations of honour as the major investor in the Furness railway, the Cumbrian iron mines and the Barrow shipyard, may have been more damaging to the family's fortunes than the mistresses and racehorses of his Corinthian father.
In other essays, however, the tone changes. It is as if a mask slips. His essay on Winston Churchill as an 'aristocratic adventurer', while not without value as a corrective against hagiography, is unmistakeably spiteful. The emphasis is on Churchill's failings and on the transformation of his reputation as a result of his achievements as a war-time leader. We are reminded not only that his father died of syphilis, which he did, but also of rumours that Churchill, too, was syphilitic, for which there is no evidence.
We are told that he neglected parliamentary duties to earn money by writing and even by descending to journalism, something to which, of course, professors like Cannadine never sink. On the basis of newspaper articles expressing admiration for Mussolini's achievement, Cannadine argues that Churchill was 'widely suspected' of wishing to become the British Duce. That is surely an overstated and under-sourced claim.
If, in writing of Churchill, Cannadine is less than detached, in another of these essays he is positively waspish. 'Portrait of More than a Marriage', his essay about Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West, has already stung the couple's son, Nigel Nicholson, to angry rebuttal. To the extent that it cuts to ribbons the middle- brow cult of 'Harold and Vita', informed by a gooey melange of snobbery, sexual prurience and commercialism, one can only egg him on.
To point out the ugly side of Nicholson's and Sackville-West's dislike for what they called the 'bedint', meaning those who did not belong to the upper class, is just, even liberating. But the essay's tone is uncomfortably angry and unprofessional. The brief concluding essay suggests that this rhetorical stance is almost as unthinking as the 'Harold and Vitaism' of the middle-brow coffee table publishing trade.
'As the 20th century draws to its close,' Professor Cannadine says, 'the image of Britain which is projected abroad (and at home) becomes ever more that of a Ruritanian theme park.' Image? In whose eyes? While the monarchy 'still occupies the starring part in this deluded pageant of self-indulgent historical backwardness, the cult of the country house follows very close behind.'
Now any of us who have spent much time in the United States have heard similar outbursts around academic dinner tables. Trendy as the 'theme park' metaphor is, there is something in it that I can agree with. It is true that the past has become something of an industry in Britain, true that its popularity reflects an undue, even unhealthy preoccupation with looking backwards - not in itself, I suppose something history professors should deprecate.
This, though, is not far short of rant. For one thing, this is far from the only advanced country where people take shelter from the harsh realities of the present in an imagined past. Has Professor Cannadine visited colonial Williamsburg or Mount Vernon recently, where the realities of slavery are genteelly brushed aside in the interests of marketing a fragrant blend of chauvinism, pewter and pot-pourri?
In the heat of this outburst, too, Professor Cannadine is carried away into some statements that are historically contestable. It is not quite true, as he says, that from Tudor to Victorian times country houses were only seen 'dispassionately as machines to be lived in'. It is plain from Jane Austen, to take a single example, that in her day visiting country houses and being shown round by the housekeeper was an accepted pastime. Nor is it self-evidently wrong that pictures should now be on display at Chatsworth or Petworth rather than in Trafalgar Square or Malibu.
'Enough of snobbery and nostalgia' is Professor Cannadine's peroration. 'Good riddance to ignorant and sentimental deference. It is time we got beyond the country house.' Amen. But good riddance, too, to political agendas and social attitudes of any kind masquerading as history. Like the thirteenth stroke of a crazy clock, they cast doubt on what preceded them. Professor Cannadine's past work is too admirable for his credentials to be put at risk in the cause of thrashing straw men or puncturing inflated images.
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