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.)
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