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The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy Hardcover – October 24, 1990
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From Library Journal
Columbia historian Cannadine offers a detailed study of the decline of the "British landed establishment" from 1880 to the present, due to political, economic, and social changes. Most of his analysis is centered on the period which saw the biggest changes, 1880-1930, and concentrates on England, while touching on Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Intertwined in the overall picture are tidbits about notable families. Cannadine has synthesized a multitude of secondary sources for this work. He includes a detailed index which, however, lacks some names and subjects. His dense book is much too long for the general reader. Primarily for students and specialists working on this topic.
- Kathleen Farago, Lakewood P.L., Ohio
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"A brilliant, multifaceted chronicle of economic and social change." --The New York Times
"No praise can be too high." --The New York Review of Books
"Cannadine has produced a great book, one that is comprehensive in its scope, and of critical importance." --London Review of Books
“This highly entertaining social history, full of fascinating anecdotal material…is the last word on the subject.” --The Washington Post Book World
“An impressive volume that will be cited by writers on the subject for years to come for its immense learning and the care with which the author has organized a mass of material.” --The Wall Street Journal --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
What made this work so indispensable to me was that it showed the actual, very real, background for literary works written during this period: Waugh, Wilde, Wodehouse, Yeats and, of course, the Mitfords. If you want to know the reality of what happened to estates like Waugh's fictional Brideshead, you will learn all about the land devaluation, estate taxes and encumbrances on such estates originally contracted in order to ensure entail and jointures, but now spelling their doom. You will meet many, all too many, real life Lady Marchmains and understand more fully the social backdrop which makes them totally unsuited for the 20th Century.
And, well, let's just take an actual case: Bertrand Russell. Primogeniture ensured that the gentrified earldom in which he came of age passed onto his brother. In previous eras, a generous codicil with annuity would have, nevertheless, granted him lifelong security. Unfortunately, due to land devaluation, his brother went bankrupt and lost everything except the title. Russell, too, lost everything and became a Socialist member of the Labour party, not entirely because of his ideological position and philosophical beliefs, but because of something deeper from which they arose: a visceral animosity to the industrialists and capitalists who now controlled the country. As Cannadine points out, there were really only two extreme positions for such disillusioned, disinherited aristos to take: socialism or fascism. Of course, Russell was a genius who made great advances in the field of mathematics and went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature. But, through most of his life, he had to support himself through lectures and writing; and, until the publication and unexpected popularity of his A History of Western Philosophy, he was almost continuously on the verge of bankruptcy. Even after his brother died and he became Lord Russell, he maintained that the only benefit that accrued from the title was the ability to secure hotel rooms. The point exemplified here, so well explicated by Cannadine, is that, after over seven hundred years of Earls and their ilk being the ruling, moneyed class, they met an end so swiftly and irretrievably at the hands of industrialism and capitalism, that these former members of the ruling class had no recourse in this unfamiliar world than to become quixotic Utopians, or socialists like Russell or quixotic Arcadians, or fascists, like Oswald Moseley.
Cannadine is a wonderful writer, and in spite of the jumble of numerous titled names that pile up in so many paragraphs - Duke This, Duchess That etc. - which he must needs provide along with 8 Appendices and over 3,000 footnotes in order to provide the scholarly underpinnings necessary for the work's credibility, it is all surprisingly readable. In one section, Cannadine larkishly names the chapters after Shakespearean plays: Ireland: A Winter's Tale, The Church: Much Ado About Nothing etc.
My attention was drawn to this work by reviews of a spate of books that have recently come out on this subject. The reviews, almost to a one, compare the new ones to this book, and find them seriously lacking indeed in the juxtaposition. I can only say that Cannadine's ten years spent in the composition of it were extremely well spent.
Finally, there is the question of how one has come to feel about all these once privileged Peers after wading through this meticulous account of the upheavals that led to their downfall. I should say that any reader who has even only slight misgivings about the fast-paced, leisureless, de facto capitalist lives we all live now to some extent can't help but feel a touch of sympathy for these hothouse flowers pushed out into the cold.
Let's allow the scion of a once powerful family to have the last word. Lord Robert Cecil: "I am unfitted for political life, because I have a resigning habit of mind."
The second half of the book tells about what happened to the many offspring who inherited nothing because the family fortune and land was gone. There are a lot of highly recognizable names, such as Rolls as in Rolls Royce, Bertrand Russell, Christopher Isherwood, the Mitford sisters, etc. I thought the second half of the book was easier reading than the first half. There are also some pages devoted to the scandalous behavior of the ex-patriots living and partying in Kenya. Talk about decline and fall ...
One aspect of the book that jumped out at me is the way it shows how the rise of the non-aristocratic plutocrat created a major imbalance of wealth and power, displacing the old upper class system and its responsibilities with the modern, heavy clout of financial might. This is being seen again in the US as a class of super-rich gain unprecedented control of money, assets, and political access. The book is a cautionary tale, the parallels are striking. A lot to think about.