Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Duchess of Devonshire's Memoirs: On Giving the Old Aristocrats a Bit of Credit

The Idle Historian has been reading Wait For Me!, the memoirs of Deborah Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, still indomitable at 90 years of age. She is the last of the famous Mitford sisters, the youngest sibling of the brood that included Nancy, the writer; Unity, who was enamored of Adolf Hitler and shot herself in the head when war was declared between Britain and Germany; Diana, who married the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley; and Jessica, who veered towards Communism and ran off to Republican Spain to marry the radical writer Esmond Romilly. Given the political extremism of her older siblings it is not surprising that Deborah "Debo" adopted a lifelong affiliation with quiet rural Conservatism. As she states quite straightforwardly, she had more than adequate doses of Communism and Fascism via her colourful sisters.

She discusses a wide variety of subjects in the memoir, including the rapidly changing circumstances that the upper class, her upper class, experienced during the course of the twentieth century -- particularly following the Second World War. The great landed estates suffered dramatically from the extension of death duties under Labour governments. When Deborah's husband Andrew Cavendish inherited the title and property as the 11th Duke of Devonshire the death duties that fell on Chatsworth, the famed family estate, and other properties reached a "dizzying eighty per cent." The full debt, which began accruing when the 10th Duke passed away in 1950, was not fully cleared until 1974. And this was with the deeding of Chatsworth to the National Trust, opening it to a horde of paying visitors, and selling off some of the most precious paintings at auction. As the Duchess writes of her father-in-law: "It seemed strange to me that the family of a man who had given a lifetime of public service should have to pay such a vast fine on his death." [Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, Wait for Me!, p. 139]

[Chatsworth, Derbyshire, the Seat of the Dukes of Devonshire
And, of course, a stand-in for Mr. Darcy's Pemberley in the
2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice]

All this begged a very interesting question. Or, at least, a thought. One may understand the imperatives of (very) old Labour to diminish the power of the aristocracy and redistribute the wealth of the landed classes to fund the NHS or build social housing. For individuals who had grown up with the inequities of the Edwardian (or even Victorian) era fresh in their minds the toff, who breezed from Eton through to Oxford and then to all points of power of prestige along the way, epitomized the height of unfairness and inequality. I do believe, however, that with the intervening years the old aristocracy may be viewed in a somewhat more favourable light. Much as they may have been resented at the time it is also true, as the Duchess suggests, that the aristocracy was also indelibly a part of the fabric of their local communities in a way that the new global superwealthy, who populate the poshest London neighbourhoods today, certainly are not. The new cadre often pay few taxes, owe no allegiance to their communities or the English way of life, and sometimes contribute little more to the economic life of the nation than shopping sprees along Sloane Street and dinners at Nobu (and the employing of the requisite maids for the upkeep of their often empty flats in Eaton Square or Cadogan Gardens). One wonders what the reformers of 1945 would think of the situation, and the fact that they effectively stifled the economic clout of aristos only to have them replaced with a new, more ruthless, plutocracy of the City and global capital.

I have previously blogged about the merits of the old aristocratic way of life in an Eating Like an Edwardian blog post about the film The Shooting Party. The old rural estates represented a world where "people, rich or poor, important or inconsequential, still in some way belonged." Which is not to put too fine a point on the question: It was still a world of great inequalities, and no amount of paternalistic caring at the whim of the "Lord of the Manor" can replace the democratic equality we enjoy today. Most of us would not willingly choose to return to such an existence. Yet we should simultaneously remember some of the stability and strengths of that world. The upper class landowners, much as they gained from the nation, also contributed to it to an unprecedented degree with their sense of noblesse oblige, giving their sons to the cause of government, colonization -- and the flower of the nation's youth that would perish in the World Wars. (Andrew Cavendish only came to the title due to the death of his elder brother William "Billy" Hartington in 1944.*) The ethical issues involved with Empire are beyond the purview of this post, and no doubt many of us would view events in a different light today. But in their time the landed classes epitomized nation and, more importantly, were willing "to pay the ultimate sacrifice" in a way that the new "masters of the universe" are not. For that, at least, they should perhaps be given some retrospective credit.

* Billy Hartington married Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, sister to JFK, shortly before his death and despite their religious differences -- she was Catholic, he, of course, Church of England. She also perished tragically young in an aeroplane crash in 1948.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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