Badeau, Adam. Aristocracy in England.

NY: Harper & Brothers, 1886.

The author was a U.S. diplomat (and army staff officer, and memoirist of Gen. Grant) who was posted to the Court of St. James between 1869 and 1881 — the heyday of stilted Victorian manners and official behavior at court. He says up front that he makes no pretense to scholarship or to the writing of an “exhaustive treatment” but rather intends to relate his own experiences and observations regarding the royal family and peerage of Britain. With special attention, it should be added, to the “most curious and interesting” bits. Being a self-conscious American, he does this with a frequently raised eyebrow regarding what he perceives as the British need for majesty; every Englishman (he says he was told by a government minister of his acquaintance) “needs something to kow-tow to.”

At the same time, he notes with approval the public uproar when Queen Victoria made known her preference for Disraeli over Gladstone and otherwise attempted to meddle in matters of government policy. (She was only a weak-willed woman, he maintains, having lost the guidance of Prince Albert and being seduced by the attentions of “an oriental foreigner” — a bit of unfortunately commonplace 19th century anti-Semitism one must not be too surprised at.) On the other hand, he attributes the social and political stability of Britain “in this era of revolutions” in large part to the serene and confident character of the queen herself.

He outlines in some detail the levels within the British system of peerage — totaling about six hundred men and women in his day — and the consequences to one’s status (and the status of one’s children) of marrying a commoner. The demands of primogeniture are examined in comparison to inheritance in America, the author being perfectly aware of the need to disallow the division of great estates among a peer’s children, no matter the injustices perpetrated on all but the first-born. This also could create ill-feelings among noble siblings (especially the sisters, who can look forward only to the marriage market), as well as friction between father and son, who are “natural enemies.” Most younger children of the titled seemed to accept the necessity, however. Badeau also comments on the attitudes and jealousies of peers toward those of higher and lower levels within the aristocracy. Life peerages had not yet been invented, but the government often was more willing to make a peer of a great man whose advanced age and lack of children guaranteed the limited duration of the title. But only political and military figures need apply; “no artist, no man of science, and, except Tennyson, no man of purely literary eminence, has ever received a coronet in England. . . . Thus the aristocracy is kept exclusive.” He describes with amusement the iron grip of precedence not only at court but in upper-level English society generally, though he doesn’t ignore the insistence with which some American diplomats demanded their due. At the same time, he notes that the higher the rank of a peer, the more likely a small-D democratic visitor was likely to be treated with great courtesy in matters of private etiquette, an earl presumably having more experience with non-English customs and ways. Public forms, however, were absolutely inviolable in such matters as invitations to royal balls and the prescription of court dress. Happily, many of these strictures now are of only archaeological interest.

Then Badeau gets down to it. He examines the House of Lords, which even then — in fact, since the Reform Act of 1832 — had no political leverage whatever, however much its members railed against Liberal proposals in the Commons. He makes the point, as many others have done before and since, but in detail, that the aristocracy of England had been consistently opposed to extending the suffrage, reforming the military, spreading education, disestablishing the Irish Church, and every other example of progress for a half-century, and had been ignored by the rest of nation — which had gone on increasing its prosperity and expanding the Empire regardless. The Lords were definitely on the wrong side of history and seemed never to know it. But the House of Commons was itself in the control of the aristocracy, though not as much as formerly. The author is seriously outraged at the way the reins of power in Britain are still in the hands of so few people, all of them titled and all of them extremely wealthy, especially as so much of their control was by subterfuge. Working men, especially those in the agricultural sector, were, in effect the British version of serfs, tied permanently to the land, uneducated and unheeded, slowly starving, entirely at the beck of those at the top of the economic heap. The author died in 1895; it’s too bad he never had the opportunity to witness the effect the Labour Party and its largely socialist platform had on stripping the aristocracy of much of its power, especially through death duties, and the expansion of the middle class to take its place.

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Published in: on 30 March 2011 at 11:50 am  Leave a Comment  
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