Toffs behaving badly

It's a story of vanity, of wealth amassed for doing nothing, of a 13-year-old daughter given away to settle a debt - no wonder it's a bestseller and a TV series. Why do we so enjoy watching the aristocracy at play? By John Walsh

Dusk. Two figures run to the french windows of a grand house. They mean no good. The film jumps through images of destruction and violence, as a mob starts to trash the noble dwelling. Gun butts pulverise family portraits. Rough sans-culotte cries echo from the noble walls. Flames lick the edges of the room. Short of having a burst of the "Marseillaise" in the background, this is the simplest filmic shorthand for Revolution. A voice intones, in a once-posh-now-60-a-day-Marianne-Faithfull delivery, a mournful elegy: "A new age has been born, out of rebellion and bloodshed. But I was raised in another time" - and we're off into a world of carriages, periwigs, tiaras and candlelit intrigue.

This is the pre-credits sequence of Aristocrats, a six-part drama about the lives of the four daughters of the second Duke of Richmond that amounts to a social history of the 18th century. The first episode, concerning the traumatic marriages of the two eldest sisters, Caroline and Emily, goes out on BBC1 this Sunday at 9pm in a whirl of sea-green taffeta and neo-classical busts. Filmed entirely in Ireland, it appears, at first glance, to be an utterly standard piece of aristo-porn, as the camera lingers like an elderly connoisseur on the sumptuous drawing-rooms and gorgeous costumes, the peacock headdresses and gem-crusted extremities ("That," breathes the Earl of Kildare, fondling Emily's size three shoe with frankly indecent interest, "is the most beautiful foot I have seen in my life"), or hangs respectfully about the doorways of vast houses, eavesdropping on the 18th-century melee, the tittered badinage, the jockeying for political influence and royal patronage.

But Aristocrats is about more than that. The original multiple biography of the Lennox family, by Stella Tillyard, was a best-seller when first published in 1994, for reasons that go beyond National Trust nostalgia. It was subversive of its titular subject, while celebrating the resilience of its noble quartet of sisters. And the different emphases in the book and the TV production say a lot about our shifting perceptions of The Nobs.

The British do still love a lord. The imminent cull of hereditary peers may be defended as a logical, democratic reform in a super-modern, meritocratic society; but the British aren't convinced so easily. Our fondness for the honours system, our apparent love-affair with toff-and-manservant relationships (from Jeeves to Baldrick, via The Remains of the Day), and our indulgence of quasi-aristocratic eccentricity (from Lord Weymouth to the late Lord Sutch) are testimony to our essentially feudal sense of worth. We look at modern families with vast wealth and land, and see only dynasties based on trade (the Guinnesses, the Glenconners) or aristocrats of mile-long lineage but doomed genes (Jamie Blandford, Johnny Bristol). Naturally, we look for a time when aristocrats seemed to be "the best", the Crown's staunchest allies, finest minds, truest hearts.

Tillyard's book appears to deal with one such family, complete with the domestic paraphernalia of 18th-century social history. But, instead, it amounts to an indictment of the concept of "aristocracy". It shows the "best" of British families as grasping, conceited, snobbish and hypocritical, their origins low, their morals bankrupt and their self-preserving impulses paramount.

She reveals that the Lennox fortune came from sex and coal. The sisters' great-grandfather was King Charles II, true: but their grandfather was the king's illegitimate son by Louise de Keroualle, a courtier of Louis XIV. The son was given the name Lennox and, to bury his illegitimacy, a slew of fancy titles. As a bonus, the king gave the family a slice of the Crown's tax revenue on coal; as coal manufacture increased, the family raked in more income for doing nothing. Contemporaries marvelled at this blithe stockpiling of wealth: "The Duke of Richmond," wrote Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man, "takes away as much for himself as would maintain 2,000 poor and aged persons."

From the original cash-for-sex deal, everything else flowed: money, power, land, houses, empire-building. The family was hugely influential. The four sisters had a knack for attracting men with colossal leverage: Caroline eloped with Henry Fox, a politician, atheist and serial Lothario by whom she bore Charles James Fox, the most famous opposition MP of the 18th century. Emily married the Earl of Kildare, with 67,000 acres of Irish land, bore him 18 children (they sometimes failed to recognise their offspring on returning from visits to England); when the earl died, Emily had four more babies by the children's tutor. One of her children was Edward Fitzgerald, who led the Irish rising of 1798.

Sarah, the third sister, was presented at 16 to the Prince of Wales, who fell spectacularly in love with her. When he ascended the throne as George III, it required that he marry a German princess, so Sarah settled for an MP called Bunbury. She soon decamped to Paris and threw herself into drinking, gambling and sex. She got pregnant, was divorced by her husband and condemned by society, and turned to the silent contemplation of her shame... then, at 36, met George Napier, an Army captain, married him and gave birth to three future generals.

Tillyard's primary source material was the 4,000 letters that passed between the sisters. Her explicit agenda is to suggest the power, the go-getting resilience, the sisterly fondness and mutual support that drove these women in a man's world; it's a glowing tapestry of family chat, secrets, gossip and celebration. But her secondary concern is to point up the callousness of the grand families, the combination of heartlessness and financial pragmatism that made the first Duke of Richmond offer his 18-year-old son's hand in marriage to the Earl of Cadogan's daughter (aged 13) to pay off a gambling debt. She shows how a connection at court could pay dividends: how Emily and Louisa, despite the irregularities of their marriages, picked up houses, pensions and reputations for virtue through their closeness to the king.

Tillyard also underlines the sanctimoniousness of the breathtakingly rich. In a haunting prologue, she describes the founding of a Foundling Hospital in London in 1741, where 30 wretchedly poor mothers came to hand over their children for ever. Four days later, a gang of wealthy patrons (including the Duke and Duchess of Richmond) descended on the hospital and lent the nameless babies their names for a christening. Suddenly there was a second "Charles Lennox", a pathetic namesake for the wealthy Duke of Richmond, as there was another "Sarah Cadogan" alongside his wife. They never knew what became of the infants. "Secure in their names, the rich and the mighty bestowed them on little children," writes Tillyard, "sending them forth, watered with greatness. Their impoverished, orphaned little doubles would, as long as they lived, reflect the importance of their patrons."

It's the kind of detail that gets lost in TV adaptations. You just can't capture Tillyard's condemnatory tone. Nor can the BBC drama effectively express the ambiguity of the family's position. When the girls' father makes a speech about duty ("It is the light that has guided my life, it is the quality that can sustain happiness in the face of adversity, it is the rock on which our lives are built") the camera pans along the respectful faces of the daughters as if we were to take it all seriously; but Tillyard in the book has explained to us on what "rock" of decency the family fortune was built, and we take the Duke's words for the vainglorious nonsense they are. If only Roger Michell (who directed Jane Austen's Persuasion) had got his hands on this project, instead of Notting Hill, what a masterpiece of Georgian hypocrisy he might have made. As it is, watch Aristocrats for the bonnets and the rolling Irish acres; but read the book for the real thing.

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