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In Memoriam (?): the Gentry

Adam Nicolson, Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class, Harper, 2011, pp. 460

My wife was brought up in a house where the number of people exceeded the number of bedrooms by five. There was no car and no telephone and no prospect of a holiday. She worked hard at school and went on to university, as did four of her brothers. She is proud of her background, of its solidarity and lack of luxury, though not boastfully so. When she was in her early forties she became the head of an old Catholic school in the Northamptonshire countryside; the job interview took place in a house which had been used on television for a Jane Austen adaptation. It was her first acquaintance with the three gentry families which dominated the school governors and it was the start of a fruitful relationship which lasted eleven years. The gentry were entirely loyal to their appointee. They spent no time covering their backsides or nurturing their curriculae vitae and careers and they didn’t manipulate or dissemble. They shared both my wife’s sense of duty and her sense of fun; they thought instinctively about the good of the children rather than about regulations, publicity or politics. I retain a striking image of a school trip to Italy: we had a day at the beach and my vivid memory is of an elderly squirearchical figure of military bearing marching into the sea until he was waist deep and then turning and surveying the twenty three children to make sure they were all safe. Health and safety?: just do it. There were perks, too, to our working relationship with the gentry, including charming lunches in marquees, gifts of game and even a trip to Buckingham Palace.

Adam Nicolson, 5th Baron Carnock, successful farmer, gardener, author and television presenter, needs no praise from me, but he’s going to get it anyway. His book on the gentry is superb, written well and combining breadth of vision with detailed narrative. There is a general account of the rise and fall of the gentry over six hundred years combined with detailed stories where there were sufficient documents to tell the tale. (Imagine the research assessment terror if an academic historian covered six centuries!) The gentry tales extend geographically to France and Belgium, the West Indies and what is now the United States. The gentry here is defined by landholding and is the class below the aristocracy and above the yeomen in the scale of its property. It owes its “peculiarly English” existence to the persistent exclusiveness of the English aristocracy which remained at a fraction of 1% of the population while grade inflation took the French and Russian aristocracies into the teens and the German aristocracy up to about 7% of the population (my figures rather than Nicolson’s).

Thus the gentry was for a long time in pre-industrial and early industrial England the dominant class, owning more land than the aristocracy and populating a parliamentary chamber which soon became more important than the House of Lords. The Civil War was fought between the gentry. The Pyms and the Cromwells were gentry, but so were the hard-drinking, hard-wenching Norfolk cavaliers, from a few miles to their east, whom they fought against. It is thus difficult to talk about the values of the gentry, because at different times and in different places they embraced many different values.

The way of the life of the gentry always seemed precarious to the members of the class, usually because it was. You were dependent on agricultural production and prices. There was every chance of ending up on the wrong side in civil and political conflict: this was the fate of the family in Nicolson’s first story, the Plumptons of Yorkshire, in the Wars of the Roses. Neighbouring gentry were as likely to be your bitter enemies as your allies. There is the tale of the late Tudor feud between the Thynnes and the Mervyns; four centuries on the descendants of the Thynnes, raised to the aristocracy, have their own tourist industry, television programme and much else besides at Longleat while the Mervyns have dissipated. Even when you won a kind of gentry lottery, as the Hughes of Kimmel in Wales did when they found a rich lode of metals on their land, life could be cruel. The Hughes built themselves a really state-of-the-art house and acquired a fine town house as well, but the take-up on their invitations was humiliatingly low. They were known as bores.

Gentry is partly a lament for its subject matter. Nicolson is right to point out that the demise of the aristocracy has been greatly exagerated in that in more than 70% of cases of landowners with more than 10,000 acres in 1860, their descendants are still in situ - a continuity surely unique among the world’s upper classes. Of the gentry, who still then owned 40% of the land, under three per cent have descendants in the old place. The aristocracy had all the strong cards when it came to survival – the scale of their land, the grandeur of their houses and the acceptability of their titles on company notepaper; in many cases they also had great works of art, which turned out to be the best possible assets, as when Lord Brooke’s Canaletto of his castle turned out to be worth more than the castle itself. I remember arriving at Blenheim with a predominantly Indian cricket team and listening to their catalogue of Bollywood films which had featured the palace and celebrities who had married there. By contrast, the squire from an ancient family with a manor house, a couple of thousand acres and six tenants did not possess the ammunition to deal with fluctuating world agricultural markets and unsympathetic tax regimes. So they have largely gone, mostly replaced by yeoman farmers.

And, of course, the gentry often demonstrated a self-destructive degree of unworldliness which contributed to their decline. Sometimes their beliefs in community, tradition and religion generated an anti-commercial and even socialist tendency. This dimension is illustrated in Gentry by the story of Sir Richard Acland who became the effective leader of the opposition during the Second World War as leader of Common Wealth which won bye-elections from the governing Coalition. Sir Richard ( a fifteenth baronet) gave most of the vast territories of “Aclandshire”, stretching over three West Country counties, to the National Trust. But like some Labour Party Lear (he was a Labour MP after the war) he seemed to think he could renounce his property but still remain in charge of it. He fell very precisely into Voltaire’s category of lovers of humanity who detest actual human beings. His concern for the little people co-habited with a fear and loathing of those between them and himself:

Snug little men and women with comfortable little jobs or fortunate little investments which bring them in three or four hundred pounds a year deceive themselves and . . . . disqualify themselves from taking part in the councils of the nation.

(Quoted p. 361)

Do we, indeed? Acland may have got what he deserved (he taught in a comprehensive school), but his wife and children deserved better.

For four hundred years much of the land was owned in England and much of the government was conducted by the gentry. This is no longer the case (the hunting ban is the crude symbol of that), but, of course, it would be very odd if the change had not occurred. But having acknowledged that obvious fact, it must also be remarked that there is both a huge legacy of gentry life and a successor class which Nicolson calls the fantasy gentry. The legacy lies in the transcendent truth, elaborated by my friend Martin Wiener in English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, that English people have been uniquely dissatisfied with the statuses of bourgeois and professional. Our national obsessions with property, with gardening and with animals are surely a legacy of the gentry. The fantasy gentry are those who live out their lives on the land, but funded by pensions, trusts and dividends, indulging in a little shooting, some gardening and some equine connections. Sometimes their interpretation of this role can be surprisingly traditional. While jotting notes for this article I was contacted by one of my oldest friends, a former lawyer and investment banker, a man whose thoughts about spondulicks come with many noughts on the end. Did I want lunch tomorrow? If not tomorrow, then not for a month because it would be lambing time and he would be working all the hours God sends. On this anecdote, I rest my case.

Lincoln Allison