Some like it posh

Lords, ladies, stable boys, wrinkled retainers - and if the story involves a stately home as well then readers will devour Toff Lit as if the aristocracy were going out of style. But hold your horses, says Peter Stanford, there's more to this than meets the eye - our needs have changed every bit as much as theirs have...
Click to follow

You used only to see them in National Trust bookshops, as you tried to leave after a tour round a stately home: big glossy books with titles like Before the Hoi Polloi Ruined It: Memoirs of the Golden Age of the Grand House, Flower Arranging Without Florists or How to Host the Perfect Weekend Pa rty. They were penned by duchesses, countesses and marchionesses and were being lovingly fingered by elderly women in anoraks, sensible shoes and rain-hoods. Deference lived - but only just.

You used only to see them in National Trust bookshops, as you tried to leave after a tour round a stately home: big glossy books with titles like Before the Hoi Polloi Ruined It: Memoirs of the Golden Age of the Grand House, Flower Arranging Without Florists or How to Host the Perfect Weekend Pa rty. They were penned by duchesses, countesses and marchionesses and were being lovingly fingered by elderly women in anoraks, sensible shoes and rain-hoods. Deference lived - but only just.

The lifestyles of the upper crust had until recently all but ceased to be of wider public interest. The class war was over and we could all get on with reading books or watching films and television programmes about people like ourselves. Or people who were worse off than us. But the nobs? No one cared about them anymore. They were history. For aspirational purposes we could look to a new aristocracy - the Beckhams, Madonna and Guy, Anthea and Grant and the survivors of reality game shows.

Expelled from its last bastion of power, the House of Lords, and marginalised by a monarchy anxious to be seen to be earning its keep, the aristocracy wasn't even good for satire any more. Without the semblence of residual power over our lives, they barely registered as targets.

Yet all of a sudden those with blue blood coursing through their veins are the subject of successful books, enjoying a renaissance of interest in their strange ways, their unusual perspectives and, crucially, their terrible suffering. It's hard to move in the giftshop of our cultural lives without tripping over a book, a film or a TV adaptation intent on showing us that being born with a silver spoon in one's mouth means having to deal with more grievous problems than a spot of choking.

As she was writing Hunting Unicorns, her novel about an eccentric aristocratic family and its struggle to hold on to its stately home, the fashion designer-turned-novelist Bella Pollen had severe doubts that the manuscript would see the light of day. "I kept thinking who on earth is really going to be interested in this stuff. Why is it relevant? Who wants to know? I believed it was just me who found the fate of this dying breed fascinating."

She has been proved spectacularly wrong. Hunting Unicorns has become that most noble of publishing success stories - a word-of-mouth triumph. After a slow start on publication in 2003, it caught the collective imagination of book clubs and sales swept past 50,000. Now a film deal has been agreed, with a director in place, and Hunting Unicorns has just landed potentially the biggest commercial prize of all: a slot on the six-strong short-list for Richard and Judy's Summer Read. Appearing on the list has pushed sales up to 6,000 copies a week.

The king and queen of the TV studio sofa are pushing Hunting Unicorns precisely because they can see that a market for this kind of thing exists. Or that at least is the message conveyed by their choice of celebrity guests sent out to discuss it with "ordinary" readers, live on Channel 4 on Wednesday. They've plumped for Jenny Bond, former royal correspondent of the BBC (and Queen Mother wannabe), and Julian Fellowes, Oscar-winning screenwriter of the smart country-house caper, Gosford Park, and gentleman author of another current best-seller, Snobs, a tale of social climbing that seeks to entertain by dabbling in Debrett's.

While Snobs was savaged by most reviewers, Fellowes spent more than three hours signing copies after his talk at the Hay Festival. Other, more acclaimed writers of gritty, new-century social realism hung around adjoining tables for barely 20 minutes after their own events, hardly having to use their Parkers at all.

This new wave of interest in the upper echelons is being likened to the early 1980s, when the film Privileged starring Hughie (as he then was) Grant made it seem amusing, even interesting, to be posh. What inspired that generation of foppish young men was the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Brideshead is soon to be with us again. That doyen of contemporary screenwriters, Andrew Davies, is working on a new adaptation of this tale of how the other half lives, albeit, he promises, in "a darker, more heterosexual version" than John Mortimer's earlier script.

Meanwhile, in much the same vein, the BBC has been busy pandering to interest in the world of nobility (and its exposure to "real life") with The Inspector Lynley Murders - featuring an odd copper couple comprising a diffident earl and plebby sergeant - and Lucy Gannon's Servants, billed as "the new Upstairs Downstairs". And, in case the latest cool-to-be-posh revival needed a manifesto, last month that doughty old knight, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, published In Defence of Aristocracy, arguing that widespread disappointment with Blairite abuse of democracy has led people to take a fresh look at more patrician forms of government.

In the fiction world, other arguably more complex reflections on the state of the aristocracy can be found than those of Pollen and Fellowes. (Although Pollen has been better treated by critics than Fellowes, she has had to endure being described as "Chick Lit set in a stately home".) Higher up the literary pecking order, for instance, is Paul Murray's An Evening of Long Goodbyes, which was shortlisted last year for the Whitbread first-novel prize. Just out in Penguin paperback it has been praised for its funny but profound account of an other-worldly brother and his more practical sister encumbered with a crumbling ancestral pile in Ireland.

What all these novels have in common is that they take an essentially benign look at a subject that has in recent history either been ignored or sent up: the awkward questions faced by those born into land and privilege. Readers are invited to sympathise with the burden that an accident of birth has brought upon the individual soul.

"Let's face it, there is no longer any power left in aristocracy and there is no glory," says Pollen. "It is, as far as most people are concerned, an outdated concept. But what is engaging, I believe, is the dilemma facing this generation of aristocrats who have inherited large houses and don't quite know what to do with them, especially if they haven't also inherited the wherewithal to look after them. It is about the clash of obligation - to parents, family, children - to look after the houses and what they may want to do with their lives. For some, their inheritance can be a form of imprisonment."

A young-looking 43-year-old mother of four who made her name in the Eighties designing funky tweeds for clients including the Princess of Wales, Pollen describes her own background as classless, a life split between New York, where her father set up a branch of Sotheby's, and northern Scotland. Her second marriage to David Macmillan, grandson of the Tory prime minister, has not, she says, brought with it a châtelaine's role at a country seat. "I am definitely not on the inside track. But I hope I have a feeling for the aristocratic world. I've talked to a lot of people about it and heard a lot of anecdotes, some of which have made their way into Hunting Unicorns."

The novel is populated by a drunken earl who gives his wife a breathalyser as a birthday present and takes his alcohol through a straw for the hit, and a countess who keeps badger pie in the freezer for unexpected guests and tries to make her estate pay by importing an American buffalo in the belief that it will enable her to make mozzarella. Faithful, attic-inhabiting retainers force glasses of milk on adults on the grounds that "nanny knows best". And, of course, a family secret dating back to the war causes a rift with royal cousins. Centre stage, though, is the stately home, Bevan, magnificent and romantic, with its crumbling fabric and absence of hot water.

Yet Pollen believes even such a rich cast and backdrop cannot on their own account for the success of the book. "It's not just about aristocracy," she says, "or people reading it because they aspire to live in a big house. There may be an element of that for Americans who have been brought up in a world where money and success are everything and who therefore are fascinated in a slightly icky way by a different lifestyle. But most of the feedback I have had has been about the themes I explore in the book." Hunting Unicorns is, she believes, principally a novel about displacement - the struggle of the heir to Bevan to work out what he should do with his inheritance.

However persuasive her efforts to expand on the book's aristocratic setting, Pollen's position is part of a long-established writerly pattern - those who write about toffs like to suggest they are concerned with something else. It seems to go back to our complex British relationship with privilege. No one wants to be seen to be openly worshipping at the altar of the hereditary principle.

So Evelyn Waugh argued in a recently revealed 1947 memo to Hollywood bosses planning to adapt Brideshead Revisited that it was "a book about grace and redemption". Likewise, admirers of PG Wodehouse just will not have it that his posh slapstick at Blandings Castle is anything of the sort. "It is Just William for adults," one told me recently, "set in an invented world that has more in common with Terry Pratchett than what really goes on in stately homes." And fans of Anthony Powell's Proustian novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time point out that his world contains just as many figures on the margins of society as toffs.

Only Nancy Mitford, with her 1940s classic Love in a Cold Climate (also recently adapted for television), was shameless about concentrating on what she regarded as the "U" top end of society at the expense of the "Non-U" lower orders. "She wrote about what she knew," says her recent biographer, Laura Thompson. "Her characters may have been innately posh, but they were accessible, real, and flesh and blood. You did not get with Nancy Mitford that sense that there is in Waugh that aristocracy is somehow akin to a poetic notion."

The two writers were friends and correspondents, but Waugh did not share Mitford's authentic aristocratic background. His origins were humbler, and despite his undoubted gifts as a novelist and interest in profound human dilemmas, many of his books are based on the notion - explicit, as at the end of A Handful of Dust, or implicit - that the aristocracy are better people than most and deserve to be looked up to by the rest of us. It naturally follows that this idea was shared by Waugh's large and enduring readership.

All books, films and television dramas of course explore themes relating to the human condition, themes that are wider and deeper than the simple struggle for (or maintenance of) social status, but these deeper themes are not always necessarily the reason why they appeal to readers and viewers. To take Waugh's own argument about the "grace and redemption" explored in Brideshead Revisited, you could just as easily claim that Superman addresses exactly the same questions - but grace and redemption were not the reasons why people flocked to see the movie Superman and its three sequels, and the spin-off TV series. They did that because they were attracted by the characters, seduced by the setting.

You can, after all, explore grace and redemption on a housing estate in Brixton. Or in a village in the Cotswolds. Both are part of distinct literary and cultural traditions: the first - social realism - stretching back through Dickens to Chaucer; the second - the "Aga saga" - being key to understanding the continuing appeal of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope.

A third tradition, the overtly moral one which explores the struggle of the rich to clamber like camels through the eye of the needle, has been less robust, certainly in recent decades, because the problems intrinsic to being rich and looking after an estate have paled next to other, more pressing, social concerns. To make such remote subject matter work, you need either to write comedy (as Mitford did) or a narrative that is universally engaging, such as the battle for survival against the odds in Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle - yet another "posh" book currently enjoying a revival of interest on the back of a successful film.

Most decent contemporary writers just haven't wanted to be associated with this third strand. "I have always thought that to write about the upper classes would not do my reputation any good," says the novelist, Rachel Billington, herself the daughter of an aristocrat, the prison reformer, Lord Longford. "Certainly in my experience, those writers who do know anything about that world are very iffy about covering it in their work. Most go to great lengths to disguise any personal connection."

Neglect, though, has led to caricature, Pollen believes: over the course of the 20th century, toffs have become shallow stereotypes. And if this new wave is trying to do anything it is to challenge that stereotyping. "Because so few people have access to the real thing," she says, "aristocracy remains to most a mythical world. They don't understand it, they only read about the extremes, and so they have pre-conceived ideas which always concentrate on the snobbish, ridiculous aspects of it. I have tried to show another side." So Hunting Unicorns can also be read as a moving paean to the disinterest of those aristocrats who, almost alone, cling to a concept of duty towards custodianship of the land for the future.

Billington takes a slightly different view. "The decline in numbers and the decline in their power and visibility," she says, "means that any description of the aristocratic world in contemporary novels has stopped being a particular type of social realism and has almost begun to take on the look of escapist historical fiction. What was once seen as either defending or satirising an unjustified bastion of privilege has been transformed into something akin to recording a disappearing world."

All of which invokes the possibility of the aristocracy being integrated into that nostalgic view of a lost, happy England conjured so successfully in the films of Richard Curtis. What were once dinosaurs are now unicorns - attractive, benign creatures of legend. This may be a surface pleasure to the reader, masking deeper themes that lie beneath, but it is a pleasure nonetheless.

There it is: the offer of escape. Wanting to look afresh at a different group of privileged people, says Rachel Billington, could well be a by-product of disillusionment with the new aristocracy of celebrity culture. "There may well be a general fatigue with reading about the antics of the footballers and pop stars who have taken over the large country houses."

Perhaps the skill of Bella Pollen's novel lies in its response to a change of psychological attitude towards the aristocracy, from knee-jerk hostility to cautious appreciation. The second strand of its plot concerns Maggie, a news reporter sent to cover the decline of the aristocracy following their removal from the House of Lords. She doesn't want the assignment, wants to be in the Middle East instead and starts out thinking that any feature she makes on the subject of peers will be a waste of broadcast space. But when she comes into contact with Bevan, her prejudices are challenged and she's hooked. As a metaphor for the aristocracy's new audience, Maggie is just about spot on.

'Hunting Unicorns' by Bella Pollen is published in paperback by Pan at £7.99