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The Spencers: A Personal History of an English Family Hardcover – September, 2000

4.4 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

That this book would have been less likely without a certain English princess is beyond dispute. Even Charles Spencer won't deny the influence famous sister had in keeping the family image prominent in both the public eye and the marketplace, whether that means books or Althorp guided tours. Yet he avoids capitalizing on Diana's name, and in the process creates a lively history of a powerful family in an age when, as Spencer writes, "the aristocracy ... is most often perceived as an anachronism." The Spencers first came to the fore in the 15th and 16th centuries. Prosperous Northamptonshire sheep farmers who spun wool into gold, their influence in both politics and the military grew steadily until no Cabinet was complete without a Spencer. Their family tree in subsequent centuries featured a few common themes, including patronage of the arts, a liberal Whig sensibility, books and bookmakers, and sons who chose between the ecclesiastical cloth and the gaming cloth. But they were perhaps most interesting for their women, strong-willed, resolute characters like Sarah Marlborough, Lavinia Spencer, and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. While the Spencer men held power, their wives wielded it. And what of the most famous female Spencer of all, Diana? The author wisely deals with her in less than a paragraph, aware of the glut of words already used up on her life. Unfortunately such discipline doesn't extend to the publishers, who include a picture of her on the book's cover and say that its contents put her life into "vivid context." This is to do an injustice to her brother's cause, for his mix of historical research and family legends makes for a readable account in its own right, enlivened rather than spoiled by his engaging and distinctively Spencerian voice. --David Vincent

From Publishers Weekly

In this long-winded saga, Spencer (Althorp: The Story of an English House), the Ninth Earl Spencer and brother to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, guides us through the Spencer family's long history. Supposedly begun by Robert Despenser (steward to William the Conqueror) in 1066, the earliest ancestry of the Spencers remains in disputeAbut there is no doubt that the family line goes at least as far back as the Middle Ages, when a series of wealthy landowners named John Spencer made a fortune herding sheep. Placing biographical portraits of family members against a carefully researched historical background, Spencer goes into the sort of excruciating detail that will interest only those with the most consuming interest in English aristocracy. There are, however, some compelling sections about those Spencers who raised themselves up through scandalous political scheming. Robert Spencer (1641-1702), the Earl of Sunderland, plotted to unseat King James II because the king was a Catholic, but after the scheme failed the unprincipled Robert converted to Roman Catholicism. Sarah Marlborough, related to the Spencers through marriage, had a long, colorful career of aggressively advancing her family's interests. But Spencer provides disappointingly little insight into the most famous Spencer of all time, Princess Diana. And although ably written and extensively researched, this book doesn't have enough of a narrative thread to keep the pages turning. B&w and color photos not seen by PW. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 350 pages
  • Publisher: St Martins Pr; 1st U.S. ed edition (September 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312266499
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312266493
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #615,438 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
What impressed me the most about this book (hence the reason for my review's title) was Charles Spencers' claim that he would write the truth about his ancestors, warts and all. This he succeeded in doing admirably, for the story that followed kept me fascinated in its very history but also in its author's great gift for storytelling, which, to me, is the greatest way to determine whether someone is really a good writer or not. I was naturally amused at the end of the book when Mr. Spencer decided not to publish the details of his recent family's lives, saying that a modicum of privacy was indicated. However, he didn't mind at all "dishing the dirt" on those who came before. That said, Mr. Spencer, or Earl Spencer as he is styled in Great Britain, tells a fascinating story of a family that, rotters and saints, actually helped shape a nation. As I acknowledged before, the author tells an interesting story in a very interesting way. The author also impressed me with an amazing sense of continuity, considering he included collateral branches of his family into the narrative that somehow didn't detract from the rest of the book. Kudos to Charles Spencer for giving us a fascinating history lesson.
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Format: Hardcover
I loved this book. Even though Charles Spencers main claim to fame was his beloved sister Diana, this book barely mentions her and it is just as well. The Spencers are an amazing study in history as well as as interesting as movie or personality today.The tapestry of this family is woven so well, every event comes to life, and the pictures are an added plus.
There are so many levels to this book it was hard to put down. I loved every second of it! If you are a fan of history , especially English history this one is a keeper!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Those of us who remember when Lady Diana Spencer got engaged to Prince Charles may recall news commentators mentioning her baby brother, a college student then nicknamed "Champagne Charlie." Well, Champagne Charlie has grown up and, with the death of his father, he has become Earl Spencer of Althrop. Youthful pranks behind him, he now evidences his fine education and his excellent mind.
Admittedly, it must be easier to be fascinated by a family with a millennium-long and distinguished history when that family is your own. Nor has it ever been disputed that the Spencers have been in England longer than the current royal family, the Windsors, by at least seven centuries. So it turns out that the one link, the most compelling link for contemporary readers, to the much-loved Princess of Wales is only the most recent chapter in an important story. At no moment in the last millennium was there ever an event in English history in which a Spencer did not play a major role, including Sir Winston Churchill, whose family name actually was "Spencer Churchill."
In THE SPENCERS, without ever stating this explicitly, Charles Spencer makes it clear that the Windsors, with their Hanoverian/ Saxe-Coburg/ Battenberg family history, chose poor Diana precisely to provide Prince Charles' offspring, including any future kings he might sire, with a true English heritage.
That being said, anyone buying this book in the hopes of getting some inside information about the late Princess of Wales is going to be disappointed. She is relegated to a single paragraph on the final page. This is much to Earl Spencer's credit; it would be distasteful to see him try to exploit his sister's memory for simple profit. And there are plenty of other books, tawdry books, which do just that.
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Format: Hardcover
The Spencers is without a doubt one of the best books I have read to date. Written by the Ninth Earl Spencer, Charles, this book provides an illuminating glimpse into the history of his and his late sister Diana's antecedents that goes all the way back to the 11th century and one Robert Despenser, steward to William of Normandy.
The thing I like most about this book is that Earl Spencer pulls no punches with regard to the less admirable members of his family, but at the same time, he does not indulge himself in the scandalous gossip-mongering style of writing that seems to be favored by tabloid journalists and tell-all writers the world over. Instead, he gives the reader the plain, unvarnished truth, without according any special treatment to any of his family.
All in all, The Spencers is a very good and refreshingly honest look at the history of one aristocratic family, written by one of their own. I highly recommend this book for any who are interested in studying English nobility.
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Format: Hardcover
The author, brother of the late Princess of Wales, succeeded to the title at his father's death in 1992. The 9th earl has an Oxford degree in modern history and a refreshingly unprotective attitude toward his own forebears (the probable descendants of Tudor sheep-farmers with no claim to a connection with the Le Despensers of Normandy, whatever family tradition says), who included some very iffy characters as well as art patrons, active politicians, and military heroes. Robert, the first Baron Spencer, was perhaps the wealthiest man in England. Henry Spencer, the first earl of Sunderland, gave Charles I the sum of £10,000 on the eve of the Civil War, then died on the battlefield, while his ruthless and over-ambitious son became politically influential but was widely disliked. Georgiana, the celebrated duchess of Devonshire in the 18th century, was a Spencer, but her sister, Lady Caroline Lamb, was Byron's mistress. George John, the second earl, was the patron of Horatio Nelson and built the largest private library in Europe -- but nearly bankrupted his family in the process. Sir Winston Churchill was a Spencer, too. The fifth earl was Viceroy of Ireland and served often in Gladstone's cabinet, but never succeeded in his ambition to become Prime Minister. (Apparently, the less said about the present earl's parents and step-parents, the better; the tabloids pretty much own that subject.) And through the centuries, the family has amassed and managed and conserved its wealth, built fine homes, collected fine art (and sat for Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Sargent), and gone about its business. While the history is anecdotal, not academic (although there's a good selected bibliography), this is a recommended treatment of one of the less-famous (until Diana) titled families in Britain.Read more ›
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