Lords of Misrule: Hostility to Aristocracy in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Britain.
As the British government dismantles the historic House of Lords, and traditional pursuits associated with the landed classes such as hunting are abolished or under attack, an examination of the historical background to these events is to be welcomed. Dr Taylor's aim is not so much to write a book about the decline of the British aristocracy as to search out the roots of opposition to them, to fill what he identifies as a significant gap in the historical literature, looking at the contribution of anti-aristocratic politics to popular radical activity in the generation after the failure of Chartism in 1848. This is a territory he knows well, with his interests in the persistence of independent radicalism in the mid-Victorian years and in outbursts of anti-monarchism during this period. Unfortunately, his attempt to appear relevant defeats his more serious historical aim.
He begins with a case study of Colonel Valentine Baker in which aristocratic debauchery is contrasted with working-class virtue to disclose the moral case against aristocracy, especially as developed in the pages of Reynolds's News. Baker was the embodiment of "many of the correct military and social values" (p.20) of his day. In June 1875 he was accused of attempted rape aboard a train from Hampshire to London, but was found guilty only of indecent and common assault, fined [section] 500 and imprisoned for a year. The verdict and sentence produced outrage among radicals who compared such lenient treatment with what those of a lower social class were accustomed to receive for lesser offences. Attention then moves in the next chapter to the influence of Henry George in England in the early 1880s and the appeal of his arguments for land reform to those who had long objected to the land monopoly; support for George's ideas is linked to the wider radical tradition of attacks on the abuses of landlordism. The movement, it is argued, was neither Liberal nor proto-Socialist but ambiguously occupied an independent ground in posing a radical challenge to the economic power of the landed classes. From the vices of the aristocracy and their control of the land, the argument next passes to a consideration of hunting--opposition to which excited yet more moral outrage among anti-aristocratic radicals. Blood sports gave moral offence to many, and produced an unconvincing justification for the landed monopoly's exclusion of the people from thousands of acres of 'waste' moorland in upland Britain, to which access has only recently been 'restored'. Such moral opposition to the economic and social activities of the aristocracy then provides the context for chapter 4 on the campaign against political privilege in the House of Lords. Aristocracy was an essential part of monarchical display and the exercise of power by the few. Yet, although the Liberal governments of 1868 and 1880 took up aspects of land and parliamentary reform, especially in Ireland, Mr Gladstone resolutely refused to legislate against the power of the House of Lords, however obstructive it was to other Liberal measures of reform. Opposition to the Lords was to remain a part of the extra-parliamentary radical movement as it had been throughout much of the century until parliamentary and popular criticisms of the Lords were briefly united in 1910-1911. In the twentieth century, the aristocracy became a plutocracy, but many of the same criticisms remained--the image of the debauched elite persisted even as the old aristocracy lost its economic power, its houses and its land. Between the wars the aristocracy sank in the sands of nostalgia and right-wing politics, only to be revived after the 1945 as custodian of the national heritage, protector not despoiler of the countryside, the symbol not of debauchery but of gracious living and civilisation.
This is a rich and fertile book, full of provocative ideas. And yet it also disappoints. Nowhere is 'aristocracy' actually defined. Are we dealing with the peerage and peerage families alone? Do we include the squirearchy and even farmers? Is aristocracy a system of government, as it was for Aristotle, or a word synonymous with 'the landed interest', or is it merely a term of radical abuse? The lack of a definition for the central concept of the book leaves it reading more like a collection of related essays, a half-developed thesis about hostility to the upper classes as expressed in the words and actions of their radical opponents. Too often the arguments brought forward by such opponents are treated uncritically. They are, it is true, evidence for the existence of anti-aristocratic feeling, but not necessarily evidence for how widespread or significant such opposition was. The Baker case makes a good story but more could have been said to establish the wider case put so much more powerfully by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Similarly, the chapter on hunting would have been more nuanced and convincing had a wider range of views, from Henry Salt's vegetarianism (briefly mentioned) to Charles Bradlaugh's love of fishing, been considered. Above all, the chapter on anti-aristocratic politics needs more research. In his earlier work, Dr Taylor was in danger of mistaking anti-monarchism for republicanism. Here he fails to build on the idea that the republican movement in Britain was essentially about the hereditary principle and the land monopoly, and so much more needed saying in chapter 4 about the republican movement of both the 1870s and 1880s: for example, Charles Bradlaugh collected a quarter of a million signatures on petitions in 1881 against perpetual pensions, which gives some measure of the popular opposition to "outdoor relief for aristocratic families," and he subsequently introduced bills in the Commons on this issue and on the cultivation of 'waste' lands. The Conclusion also disappoints, offering no more than a journalistic attempt to make connections between the present day and past events in a manner that scarcely does justice to this historically important topic.
University of York
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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