In times of economic chaos, everyone wants to think about something safe, nostalgic and comforting. This, I suggest, explains the name of Downton – or “Downturn” – Abbey, the country house period drama that has proved so irresistible to British television audiences this autumn. Nor can it be any accident that we have recently seen such a crop of books about our island story, with everyone from Simon Jenkins (A Short History of England) to Jamie Oliver (Jamie’s Great Britain) getting in on the act.
Adam Nicolson has a new riff on the same theme: the gentry as a distinctively English class of people. On the continent they’ve always had lavish lords and puny peasants. But the gentry, a layer of minor landowners in between, seem peculiar to England. They also seem peculiarly English, if you assume that respectability and mild self-effacement are their watchwords. Nicolson observes the gentry from a ringside seat, being himself a resident of Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and a baron to boot (although he doesn’t use his title).
How unnecessary, you might think, to write a whole book about the comfortably well-off. But The Gentry isn’t a panegyric; it’s as cutting as it is celebratory. Certainly the gentry claim our attention, as Nicolson states, as “the most knowable people that have ever lived”. One of this nebulous group’s characteristics is the urge to record: to extol one’s genealogy, to delineate one’s possessions, to elucidate for the court why one’s neighbour is totally wrong to claim ownership of a certain field.
So The Gentry is a paean to the pleasures of archives. “The unfolding of a letter from an envelope,” Nicolson muses, is “like the opening of time itself.” The families with the strongest, most personal, archives provide him with his most striking stories. Sir John Oglander, of the Isle of Wight, is one character who leaps from the page. In certain passages of his 17th-century diary his very tears have diluted the ink as he records the death of his son. With his regional accent – he writes the words “ferny grounds” as he pronounced them, “vearnie growndes” – Oglander loves his land and advises posterity exactly how to dig, nurture and harvest it. This “Corpulent man of middle stature”, with “his complexion very Sangwine” comes uniquely to life from his wonderful diary. Even the physical description above is his own.
Similarly powerful are the love letters written in the 1810s by the feckless Harriet Capel to the dashing Baron Trip. Her passionate prose suddenly takes us round the corner from Jane Austen to Charlotte Brontë. Unfortunately for Harriet, Trip was showered packets of similar letters from other women, left them all unanswered, and eventually committed suicide.
These are sad stories and many members of the gentry have no cause for smugness. Some lose caste and sink out of sight, while newcomers marry up and take their places. Nothing concerns the gentry so much as status. In 1755 Edward Moore spoofed contemporary aspirations towards upward mobility: “Every tradesman is a merchant, every merchant is a gentleman. We are a nation of gentry … we have no such thing as common people among us: between vanity and gin, the species is utterly destroyed.”
Nicolson is absolutely the perfect person to capture all this. He has a feeling for land and for tradition, while the journalist in him sees right through it all too. Towards the end of the book he even infiltrates a shoot being hosted in the present day by one of his “gentry” families. The position of the Cliffords of Frampton (their family tree goes back to 1080) seems unenviable. Since the landfill site that subsidised their farmland closed, Nicolson sees little future for them beyond attempting honourably to manage the decline of their community.
While I lost myself entirely in many of the stories in The Gentry, it is less absorbing where the archive is weak. The chapter on the Oxindens, for example, confused me with its enormous and indistinguishable cast. Even when Nicolson’s characters are silent, he can extract melodrama from the meanest of material. In the Elizabethan funerary monument of the Throckmortons the touch of the husband and wife’s hands becomes “a secret and everlasting meeting of their fingers”, indicating “the agony which, even then, their family was passing through”. But these are just quibbles; for the most I was willingly swept along by his torrent of overblown romanticism.
The other great strength of the book is the new path it beats through six centuries of English rural history. We experience the Reformation, the civil war, the Industrial Revolution and the National Trust. And, of course, slavery. The book’s most memorable passage comes at the end of the triumphant life of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, determined and devoted châtelaine of estates on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century and an all-round admirable woman.
Yet we’re brought up short at the end of her story with a reminder of the building blocks upon which her success in life was based: a simple long list of her family’s slaves. It’s salutary that Nicolson commemorates all 326 of them, including the inhumanly named “Muddy” and “Lazy”.
The Gentry ends with a pop at David Cameron and his allies for their sentimental view of the hierarchical world of the past. Everything the government has proposed about devolving responsibility back to communities and local decision-makers fits in with what Nicolson calls “a longstanding gentry ideology”. Yet this rosy vision of history overlooks the oppression and extortion that kept the gentry snug for so long in their manor houses.
Clever, moving and put together with expert craftsmanship, The Gentry is the most enjoyable and impressive book I’ve read this year.
Lucy Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces and author of ‘If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home’ (Faber)
The Gentry: Stories of the English, by Adam Nicolson, Harper Press, RRP£25, 320 pages