Unfinished history

The Devonshires: The Story of a Family and a Nation by Roy Hattersley, Chatto & Windus, RRP£25, 496 pages

Roy Hattersley is a born storyteller, and to tell the story of England over 400 years through the history of the Dukes of Devonshire must have been an irresistible challenge. As a boy growing up in Sheffield, he writes in the preface, days out at the family seat of Chatsworth were a regular part of his summers; much later, as a venerable Labour peer, he would befriend the 11th duke and his Mitford-born wife.

The result is an enjoyable romp that begins with Bess of Hardwick, seething with jealousy at Mary Queen of Scots, who had captured the heart of her husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury. After the Restoration the Cavendishes, Earls of Devonshire, advanced in wealth and glory. Their Whiggery was at its height when the fifth Duke met Georgiana Spencer, and so began a dramatic marriage that turned into a ménage à trois with Lord Bristol’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Foster. Many will be familiar with the story – obsessive gambling, mad sex, radical politics and all – but Hattersley handles the material well.

William Cavendish, the sixth, “Bachelor Duke”, wasn’t gay. With those parents, he just – understandably – ran shy of marriage. But he was busy enough, and his love of art, his patronage of the sculptor Antonio Canova, and his ever-more grandiose schemes to improve the park at Chatsworth with the services of the genius-gardener Joseph Paxton left an enduring legacy. As is well known, Chatsworth boasted the most magnificent glasshouses, of Paxton’s design. Paxton and the sixth Duke put on a stupendous pyrotechnic display for the visit of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. And it was Paxton who came to the rescue of the Great Exhibition in 1851, designing the miraculous Crystal Palace in which the artefacts of industrial Britain and the benefits of free trade were so triumphantly on show.

We then enter a dullish patch. Because the sixth duke never married, his successor came from a distant cadet branch of the family. The seventh duke, pious, earnest and deadly boring, fathered a man who was even duller than he was. “Harty-Tarty” was so-called because he entered politics when his title was still Lord Hartington (as the heirs to the dukedom are always known). He was for some years leader of the Liberal party and, because Queen Victoria so loathed Mr Gladstone, she was always begging Harty-Tarty to form a government rather than have the return of the Grand Old Man. Harty-Tarty was reluctant, and eventually parted with Gladstone over the matter of Ireland. Devonshire, as he was by then, was a Unionist.

Interesting as the Victorian political world was – and Hattersley evokes it with brio – Harty-Tarty was not interesting in himself, and ploughing through his story the reader longs for the 20th century to dawn. Then, surely, we’ll read about the Cavendishes in the second world war, of the then Lord Hartington marrying Kick Kennedy, daughter of the awful old American ambassador and sister of the future president. And we will also have pen portraits of two people Hattersley knew well – the 11th Duke, Andrew Cavendish, and his wife Debo Mitford, who together saved Chatsworth. With friends ranging from Lucian Freud to the Kennedys, they played host to some truly wonderful conjunctions.

Alas, the book ends with the unlamented death of Harty-Tarty and the really interesting part of the story is left out. Did Hattersley run out of puff, or did the present duke tell him he could only rummage about in the archive on condition that he did not tell the story of his parents? It makes for a rather unsatisfactory book. We knew all the other stuff already, but here was a good writer, a local boy, and a friend of the family, who could have told the story sensitively and intelligently. A missed opportunity.

AN Wilson is author of ‘The Victorians’ (Arrow)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.