Atlantic £25 (448pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Splendour and Squalor, By Marcus Scriven

Marcus Scriven's first book is subtitled "the disgrace and disintegration of three aristocratic dynasties". The four black sheep who brought shame upon their once noble families are, in order of appearance, Edward FitzGerald, seventh Duke of Leinster, who squandered an inheritance estimated at £400 million, and ended his days as plain Mr FitzGerald in a Pimlico bedsit, where he killed himself in March 1976. Victor Frederick Cochrane Hervey, sixth Marquess of Bristol, was a jewel thief, arms dealer and fraudster who managed to get himself declared bankrupt while still in his twenties.

Angus Charles Drogo Montagu, twelfth Duke of Manchester, was an embezzler whose weight rose to 21 stone due to excessive eating and drinking, while Frederick William John Augustus Hervey, seventh Marquess of Bristol and son of the wretched Victor, was known to friends and toadies as John; his craving for expensive rent boys, cocaine, heroin and whatever alcohol was at hand caused him to become HIV positive and die in his forties.

Each of these unlovely additions to the human race was in possession of the dubious quality called charm. Women fell for it, along with financiers, investment brokers and anyone else whose services could prove useful. They were unscrupulous charmers, this Mephistophelean quartet, as Scriven's densely researched narrative makes horribly and sometimes painfully clear. Splendour and Squalor does not have an index. This is an unfortunate omission in view of the supporting cast of conmen, gangsters, loan sharks, minor royalty, drug dealers, fortune hunters, dodgy peers of the realm, wives both nice and nasty and general riff-raff.

Edward FitzGerald, the addictive gambler with a talent for vanishing whenever trouble, marital or financial, loomed on his horizon, was married four times. The first liaison was with May Etheridge, a chorus girl whose mother lived in Brixton and father had been a travelling salesman. Edward's relatives, in particular his aunt Cynthia, were shocked and ashamed. He showered family jewels on his young bride, and treated her callously thereafter, preferring the company of a chimpanzee he had bought for £50.

Some years later, the profligate was rescued from certain ruin by Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley, a former Conservative MP described as either a "charming, rich parvenu" or an "avaricious money-lender". Mallaby-Deeley promised to pay off all Edward's debts, amounting to £67,500, and give him an annual allowance of £1,000 for life in exchange for the income from the estates entailed with the dukedom, as well as the use of his houses in Ireland when Lord Edward succeeded to the title. The deal kept his creditors quiet and allowed him to live for a time in comparative tranquillity. But cards and horses and two more wives led him to money-lenders and, as a consequence, to wandering off into obscurity until things improved.

The impossibly naive and self-centred FitzGerald seems almost attractive compared to Victor Hervey, who took up residence in Wormwood Scrubs in July 1939 before being removed to Camp Hill prison on the outbreak of war. Victor, an inveterate fantasist and liar, rarely spoke about his incarceration. In the 1950s, he was supplying arms to the Batista regime in Cuba, and subsequently held directorships in a series of shady companies.

After his second marriage ended in divorce, Victor proposed to the future biographer Selina Hastings, whom he had employed to look after his ten-year-old son John. Victor was invited to lunch at her parents' Albany apartment. He was seriously drunk on arrival and proceeded to become virtually comatose as. To say that Lord and Lady Huntingdon regarded him as an unsuitable prospect is to put it very mildly. In his last years, plagued by osteomyelitis, Victor's behaviour became ever more violent and unpredictable, especially to John, whose wedding he refused to attend, placing an advertisement in the Times to that effect.

The corpulent Angus Montagu ended up in a flat in Bedford, not far from his stately home, Kimbolton. It was there that he had a heart attack in July 2002. The ambulance team could not carry him down the spiral staircase leading to the front entrance. He was lifted out of the building by crane, courtesy of the local fire brigade. He died in Bedford Hospital that night.

The twelfth Duke of Manchester had led an extraordinary life, working as a car salesman, a crocodile hunter, a cattle-train driver and a Hollywood stuntman. He had spent time in prison in Virginia following an investigation into his financial dealings by the FBI. He had four wives, but his closest relationship was with Kerry Cheeseman, a tart with a heart of brass who had run a business named Aristocats which supplied call-girls to toffs.

Although he liked to remind people they were in the presence of a duke, he sounded more like a navvy - indeed, his best friends were invariably low, in every sense of the word. He entertained lavishly, paid many visits to Kenya, and got mixed up with crooks who were infinitely more astute than him. An ex-pupil of Gordonstoun, Angus could barely read and write. He left debts of £70,000, this unholy fool.

John Hervey had a miserable childhood. He could never please his father, who made his contempt for his firstborn obvious. As Earl Jermyn he lived a raffish existence, inviting pretty young men, including Rupert Everett, to share his four-poster bed with the family coronet above it. His low-life companions were of the posh variety, the nastiest being Nick (Nick-Knack) Somerville, a procurer and full-time toady.

John drove a succession of expensive cars recklessly and piloted a helicopter, often when drunk or stoned or both. According to Scriven, he was the most charming of these charmers, especially when he wanted some action beneath the coronet. His awfulness would have intrigued the Evelyn Waugh of Vile Bodies, but Scriven isn't tempted to satirise what is preposterous enough already. John's brief marriage was disastrous, his wife refusing to bear a child until he kicked his drug habit. He tried to, but didn't succeed. The twinks, or rent boys, must have been delighted when he approached them - one, a stripper, charged £4,000 a night.

The family seat Ickworth, then partly owned by the National Trust, was the setting for drug orgies and deranged shoots, with John firing a gun in the air on days when people paid to see the famous Rotunda. He would scream at the "fucking peasants" as he did so.

This interesting book is too long. Scriven's subjects are essentially trivial men, self-regarding, uneducated. There are pages so crammed with information the reader has to slow down to absorb it. Footnotes, rather than the dozens of endnotes, would have been welcome. Splendour and Squalor makes salutary reading in these cash-strapped times, although the splendour is less in evidence than incessant squalor.

Paul Bailey's 'Uncle Rudolf' is published by Fourth Estate

High and low life: infamous Herveys

Rakish reputations have marked the progress of the Hervey family of Ickworth, Suffolk, since Elizabethan times, when Francis Hervey caroused with the Earl of Essex. In the early 18th-century, the ambivalence of the first Earl of Bristol's son prompted Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to define three types of human: men, women and Herveys. Admiral Augustus won renown for escapades at sea and in the bedroom, while Frederick the "earl-bishop" raced horses and built the Rotunda.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor