Montagu of Beaulieu, Lord. More Equal than Others: The Changing Fortunes of the British and European Aristocracies.

NY: St. Martin, 1970.

With multiple descents from the ninth-century FitzAlans of Brittany (Seneschals of Dol) through the Stewart kings of Scotland and England, the author’s blood is as blue as they come, but, like a surprising number of the more modern among the hereditary peers of lengthy lineage, his attitudes are an interesting combination of aristocratic stewardship and enlightened democratic reform.

(Having been born to privilege and a significant degree of wealth, he and they have had the education and leisure to develop a liberal outlook.) “Whether or not it was, in the past, the desire of the aristocracies the world over to be ‘more equal than others’ recent events have clearly shown that the old myth of ‘peers versus the people’ is now dead. The future may well see the peers lined up with the people as a first line of defence against the over-authoritarian executive whose power grows daily.” He was referring to Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s then-recent proposals in the House of Commons for drastic reform of the House of Lords, and his book was written largely as a rebuttal to those proposals. Forty years later, the Lords are still around and Wilson can’t hold a candle to Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair for authoritarianism from either party. (Though even David Cameron and the Tories haven’t undone the recent overhaul in the makeup of the House of Lords.)

Montagu considers the British brand of aristocracy far superior to its various equivalents on the Continent, with closer links to the land and with more regard for national concerns than for class advantage. The principal practical distinction is that in Britain, most gentlemen, no matter how ancient their families, are not members of the nobility, and titles (and the accompanying estates) passed mostly unbroken to the next generation by primogeniture. In France, Germany, and other nations, all “gentlemen” are by definition nobles and the entire family inherits the right to a title, however impoverished they all might be. The countries under consideration were selected to display the range of European aristocratic systems, from Russia, where the nobility was snuffed out in the Revolution of 1917, to Spain, where aristocrats still control the largest fortunes (and have the lengthiest titles), with France, Italy, and Austria somewhere in the middle. In the last three, a title may still carry social status but confers no political or economic preferment. The British system, on the other hand, always was small — at least until the introduction of life peerages — and exclusive, its influence backed until the 1920s by those huge landholdings. Nor was there in Britain a tradition of conspicuous consumption, as in Mediterranean aristocratic cultures, based perhaps on feelings of insecurity and inferiority. Again, English peers, as a class, are famously selfconfident; where the Russian nobility spoke French and looked to Paris, Brits always have looked only to themselves. Finally, Britain had the luck to be relatively isolated from the Continental powers — escaping casual invasion and entangling alliances with or against neighbors and avoiding the easy importation of revolutionary social sentiments — and also in its monarchy, to which English peers have always been closely connected and which has (generally) avoided the ineptness of the czars, the Habsburgs, and the Bourbons.

The author possesses a spry, crackling style, mixing footnoted history with anecdote, which makes this a very readable volume. The French nobility, he says, “have seldom practised moderation,” especially after their virtual enslavement at court by Louis XIV. The Spanish grandees, with their horror of trade, obsession with rank, and rigid social stratification, are largely the creation of the reconquista, followed a few centuries later by the tide of labor-free wealth from the New World. Because the Habsburg empire included so many different cultures and languages, the Austrian nobility was strikingly cosmopolitan in its origins, though it underwent great internal changes with its near-complete conversion to Protestantism. Until the unification of the Italian peninsula in the 1870s, the noble classes of Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice, and the other city states each had its special characteristics — though nearly all of the families descended from “uncouth, hardly literate, and savage” robber barons of the medieval and Renaissance centuries, and though the later nobility was highly regarded for its generosity and hospitality. Finally, the Russian nobility, drawn from a vast territory on what other Europeans considered the fringes of civilization, adhering to the Orthodox version of Christianity, and speaking a language that had nothing in common with French or German, “was something of a mystery to its western counterparts” — especially after Peter the Great’s “loutish manners and primitive habits” during his tour of the west.

In the later chapters, Lord Montagu investigates and analyzes the presnt-day British peerage, incorporating a number of interviews with his fellows in the House of Lords, many of them of widely disparate opinions. Quoting Lord Arran, “We’re certainly not a clique. Far from it.” The extremely unscientific survey of public opinion regarding the monarchy and the peerage which the author commissioned and which he summarizes at the end, is not very useful, but it’s the only disappointing thing about this book.

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Published in: on 2 February 2012 at 8:50 am  Leave a Comment  
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