The Gentry: Stories of the English

Adam Nicolson, HarperCollins, 2011

If you had to choose an English family you could call “gentry”, you might well go back to the early seventeenth century and seek out the Oglanders of Nunwell on the Isle of Wight, whose meticulous account-books for the years 1620 to 1648 still exist and remain within the family.

 

The Oglanders were not especially wealthy but they were deeply embedded on an estate that could sustain them and in a house that they loved dearly. They had their own supplies of beer and milk and there was a rabbit warren. Their income from rents and their own farmed land was around £800 a year, their spending—about which Sir John Oglander fretted continually—a hundred pounds a year less. They could look beyond their own farms to buy in French wine, cheese from Holland, prawns, lobsters and salmon.

The grander rooms at Nunwell had plastered ceilings, were panelled in oak and there was a broad oak staircase. Sir John knew his classic texts, Virgil and Ovid. A staff of thirteen met the needs of the family and Sir John was blessed with Franck, ‘a most careful thriving wyfe whoe was upp before me every daye’. They had seven surviving children, four boys and three girls. Sir John played his full part in local government and neighbours were freely entertained.

What could go wrong? Sadly, a lot. In 1630 Sir John’s heir, George, died of smallpox while abroad and the ravaged body could not even be brought back for burial. Sir John never recovered from the shock. Then the turn in politics in 1642, as the Parliamentary forces strengthened on the Isle of Wight, saw him lose all his official positions. He even spent some time in prison and died in 1655 an embittered man. He was not to know that in the Royalist recovery, his son William would become a baronet, that there would be good marriages and that the fortunes of the family would be sustained into the late nineteenth century. There are still Oglanders today, and some of their lands remain in the family.

However much we can recognize the Oglanders as “gentry”, Adam Nicolson knows that the class can never be easily pigeon-holed—and that is one reason why his book is a delight. He makes his way through the rogues and stalwarts, feisty women, and profligate heirs. Some eventually reach the nobility, others sink down towards yeomanry or move sideways into other professions. Nicolson shows an acute sense of all the possible gradations of “gentrydom”: who can hunt or dine with whom, what one can expect from richer cousins in times of crisis, where to find a wife who will not only bring in more land but keep the dining table brimming with good fare and the poorly-paid housemaids in order.

While many gentry stayed home, others were ambitious and ruthless. So the Lascelles from Yorkshire are involved in the slave trade and sugar, earning fabulous returns on their estates in Barbados while also siphoning off customs dues from the British Government (deftly using their political contacts to save them when they are found out). Who could not warm to Eliza Lucas, the daughter of the ‘Curtizan’ of her father George in corrupt Antigua? George adores her, educates her back in England and eventually leaves her in charge of the family estates in South Carolina when she is still a teenager. She manages them with total confidence between moments reading the philosophy of John Locke. Having spurned the ‘old gentlemen’ offered by her father, she snaps up a Mr Pinckney, widowed only two months previously, whose own substantial estates give her the social standing her background lacked. Lots of little Pinckneys followed.

Nicolson’s book is as much about Englishness as about stratagems for survival within a world where commerce and imperialist opportunities are providing better opportunities than land. Pitfalls abound, and lawyers, as always, benefit from contested wills or rash disagreements among neighbours, with a duel or two adding to the drama of daily living.  Emotions sometimes subvert everything. So Harry Oxinden, born in 1609, widowed by the age of thirty-four, falls helplessly for Kate, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a yeoman farmer. They do marry happily but then legal disputes erode their meagre capital so that the loved family home, Maydekin, has to be sold and they watch in grief from a small nearby cottage as the house is “gentrified” by its new owners.

The death of the English gentry took place not in the twentieth century but the nineteenth. Half of the families listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry in 1863 were no longer there in the 1914 edition and that was before the First World War cut a swathe through male heirs and taxation diminished their falling agricultural income. By 2000 only one per cent of land belonged to what might be called a member of gentry, now reduced to some 500 families. In his final study, Nicolson returns to the Cliffords, who cannot agree among themselves whether they arrived in Frampton in Gloucestershire in 1080 or 1110. They are still there. There is an elegiac quality to this chapter. Rollo still shows an intense commitment to his neighbourhood, hopes to know exactly who is who, is on the parish council, is a joint Master of the Hunt, and generally oversees the survival, nurturing and very occasional destruction of local wildlife. Like most of these surviving gentry families, the younger generation of Cliffords are torn between the love of the countryside their family has farmed so long and the lucrative lures of jobs which pay or offer more intellectual excitement.

In the hands of a lazy writer, The Gentry could easily have degenerated into oft-repeated tales of eccentric squires culled from salacious diaries, but Nicolson is far too fine a historian for that. He has ferreted local archives with a sensitive ear for the worries and joys of those trying to keep an estate afloat and then pass it on to another generation. Some gentry are convivial and loved, others, likes the Hughes of Kinmel, unable even to lure guests to their palatial house built on the proceeds of a copper mine. All his subjects breathe life into an ill-defined class of those between the nobility and the tradesmen, who would like to think they represent the quintessence of what it is to be English.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon link below.

  •  
  • 0 Comment(s)
  •  

Your comment

Notify me when someone adds another comment to this post

back

Latest

Transylvanian Book Festival
Flawless ... and 100 years old
Extreme dairy farming in Sauris
Islamic Art in Florence
The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last
The Wonders of Pontormo
Builders of Budapest
Crowded Times
Good news from Florence
The Heartwarming Middle Ages
Waves of Art Nouveau
Bookshops in Budapest
Budapest at the Biennale
Living with Leonardo
The Zeugma Mosaics Saga
News from Syracuse
Raphael in Bergamo
Titian in Brescia
Comments and Updates on Blue Guide Budapest
Heroism on the Danube
The 'Romanesque Hall' in Budapest
Dürer in Milan
Re-interpreting the Trojan Horse
Charles I: King and Collector
Fleming and Honour Remembered
Pictures from Lake Maggiore
A late Art Nouveau treasure in Budapest
Anna: Female destinies in Transylvania
What’s on in Florence
Art Within Limits
A Time in Rome
Diana Athill, 'A Florence Diary'
Season’s Greetings
Christmas with the Gonzaga
Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum
Collectors in Florence
European rail changes 2018
A people who changed history
Return to 'A Room with a View'
Italian island food
The Scythians at the British Museum
Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook
Ferragamo's Return
Silence of the looms
Grammar and Grace
The Seuso Saga
Giuliano da Sangallo
The Black Fields of Kula
Leonardo's "Adoration of the Magi" restored
Venice before Easter
Selectivity at the Uffizi
Guide to the Via Francigena
What Ariosto could see
News from Florence: Giovanni dal Ponte
More than just the David
The formidable Empress Matilda
Life, Art and Kenneth Clark
Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine
Remarkable Manuscripts
Abstract Expressionism at the RA
Comments on Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old...
Transylvania Launched
Which 50 Sites of Antiquity?
A Treasure in Cagli
The Transylvanian Book Festival
Comments on Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava...
Roman Brixia
The new Museo degli Innocenti
Wine guide wins prize
Jesters at the Court of the Medici
Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics
The Roman Forum Reconstructed
Bernini's Beloved
Blue Guide Paris on Amazon
The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum
Sabbioneta, Cryptic City
Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum
Cutting-edge mosque design in Albania
St Francis in Florence
To Austria’s Lake District by rail
Pilgrimage pathways to and from Rome
Five major London museums
Napoleon and Paris: Dreams of a capital
Whither Tate Britain?
The many lives of Nasreddin Hoca
Lesley Blanch: On the Wilder Shores of Love
The Middle Ages on the Road
Hellenistic bronzes in Florence
Europe by rail - an introduction
Frescoes in a convent of a closed order of nuns
Michelin starred Paris
A Michelangelo discovery?
Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation
The Venus de Milo fights back
Winter in Florence: a new look at Donatello
Tea (or coffee) with the Sultan
Artwork of the Month: January. Medieval stained glass
Which? ranks Blue Guides #2
Giacomo Leopardi: A poet in film
Sassoferrato and the Aion Mosaic
The Aventine and Turner in Rome
Artwork of the Month: December
Rendez-vous with Art
Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age
Giovanni Battista Moroni
London The Information Capital
Changes to European rail services for 2015
Comments on Blue Guide London
Egypt, Greece, & Rome
The Medici Villas of Tuscany and Tourism
Artwork of the Month: November. Reason, Unreason and the...
The first collectors of 'Primitives'
From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town
Artwork of the Month: October. The Arch of Constantine
Sorting out the Uffizi
Waging war with a view
Dull London? Surely a mistake
Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great...
Italian Venice: A History
A tale of three museums
Rissëu
All Aboard the Cheese Train
National Gallery London to allow photography
Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from...
Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence's pious grand...
Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow
Holiday reading
Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc
Budapest to Vienna and Salzburg by Railjet
Marvellous and Macabre: the art of Jacopo Ligozzi
David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of...
Artwork of the month: June, Pordenone's Noli me Tangere
Budapest to Serbia by EuroCity Avala
Saving the Great Bear: Trieste's floating crane
News from Florence
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation
Artwork of the month: May. "Flora", Pompeii
Travelling around Britain in style
In praise of plague cakes
Princesses from the Trabzon Empire
Artwork of the month: April. The Seuso Silver
Uffizi selfies come to Budapest
Florentine Mannerists at Palazzo Strozzi
Rome: seasonal stations
Sustainable living in Bolzano
Artwork of the month: March. Murillo's Flower Girl
Tastes change
Francesco Laurana's serene beauty
Being Mithridates
Florence and Buda: two cities of learning
Thoughts on Rome
Copyrighting Heritage
Food is the new Florence
A Grumpy Visit to Westminster Abbey
The Honey Of Hybla
So what is the Turkish Van?
The Pike: by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Smoothly off the buffers
Under Another Sky
'Art under Attack' at Tate Britain
Comments on Smoothly from Harrow
Renaissance art from Florence to Paris and back
Comments on Blue Guide Venice
Hepworth's "Winged Figure": 50th anniversary
Tying the Knot in Urfa
Venice and the Politcs of Washing
Comments on Staten Island: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Short Guide to London 1953
Turin restored and rejuvenated
A palatial art museum in Trieste
The cloisters of Santa Maria Novella
The wonderful Palazzo Grimani, Venice
Pope Benedict: an unorthodox farewell
Obscure St Valentine and his famous Feast Day
Burano in February
The St Agnes lambs
Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” in restoration
Cathedral picks: Exeter
The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?
The joy of Giambattista Tiepolo
Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari”
In praise of Venice’s water transport system
The Red Rooms at the Uffizi
The Blue Rooms at the Uffizi
A trip to the Port of Trajan, outside Rome
Pour l’honneur de la France
An early-morning visit to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Rome
Church of SS Luca e Martina reopens above Roman Forum
How the tide turned at the Milvian Bridge
A compelling reason to visit Trapani province
St Augustine and his mother at Ostia
Visiting St Paul’s in London
Hadrian, Antinoüs and the Christian Fathers
Earliest-known image of a martyrdom
Can’t face the Vatican crowds? Try San Lorenzo
Turin, Pisa and mathematics
Ideal cities are all around us. It’s simply a matter of...
On Canaletto and Guardi and Venetian Light
Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion
Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer
The Amphitheatre of Londinium
Edward Lear and Crete
A handful of favourite things to see in Sicily
The mystery of the veiled virgins
Venice without the crowds
Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards
The Trouble with Snake Goddesses
The tragedy of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico
Oranges, lemons and relic cults: an escape from the queues...
City Picks: Verona
Hitherto unknown language discovered in east Anatolia
Painting of the Day
Museo Barracco: a little-visited gem
Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome
Staten Island: Upcoming Exhibition …
International Gothic at the Uffizi
Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo
Delhi Ghost Trail
Comments on Pilgrim's Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
The Bard of….Messina? Was Shakespeare Sicilian?
Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
Comments on Blue Guide Sicily
Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations
Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
Comments on Blue Guide India
The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Florence
Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
Comments on The Venice Lido: a Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Blue Guide Literary Companions: Rome, London,...
Comments on Blue Guide Italy Food Companion
The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
Comments on Blue Guide Turkey
Comments on Blue Guide Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Hay-on-Wye
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Aegean Islands
Comments on Blue Guide Crete
Comments on Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the...
Comments on Blue Guide Tuscany
Familiar face
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Paris
Comments on Blue Guide New York
Comments on Blue Guide Central Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Southwest France
Blue Guide Northern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino
Comments on Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London
A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
Comments on Blue Guide Southern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Rome
A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
Reading list for Venice
Reading list for Florence and Tuscany
The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Mainland

Archive

follow us in feedly