Anglophobes or egalitarians still looking for confirmation that the English aristocracy is no longer what it was may find Marcus Scriven’s Splendour & Squalor the most satisfying read since whatever it was that Sarah Ferguson last wrote.

These are well-told tales of well-born ruin to savor, complete with grubby interludes, penny ante crises, and tawdry finales that all combine to make a wider, and even more conclusive, point about the decline of the old social order: The aristocratic fiascos of the 20th century are those of a shrunken and shriveled caste. They simply cannot compete with the epic follies of Britain’s gloriously ignoble noble past, tantalizing flickers of which illuminate the introduction of Scriven’s marvelously off-kilter chronicle.

England’s older generation set the bar high, and would, in many ways, have been better suited to Scriven’s wry tastes than the later 20th-century dross to which he has dedicated his efforts. Scriven’s four aristocrats furnish him with squalor, certainly, but not so much in the way of splendor. For an example of the latter we have to turn to the past, making do with glimpses of exotics such as Henry Cyril Paget (1875-1905), the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, the “dancing Marquess” who scandalized an earlier era and brings his own peculiar glamour to Scriven’s introduction. His was a whirling, twirling saga of madness, camp, narcissism, waste, and style. The misfires of the more modern noblemen to whom Scriven’s book is devoted come across, by comparison, as distinctly damp squibs.

Anglesey devoted himself to his wardrobe, walking sticks, jewelry, yachts, cars, and, as his sobriquet would suggest, dancing. He converted the family chapel into a theater and “commissioned .  .  . a production of Aladdin, for which he pioneered ‘the Butterfly Dance,’ a solo which he alone performed,” both in the former chapel and then on tour. He died in Monte Carlo, after running up spectacular debts, a blow to a distinguished lineage made no easier to bear, as Scriven notes, by “doubts over his legitimacy,” a blurred hallmark he shared with Edward FitzGerald (1892-1976), the 7th Duke of Leinster, serial husband and serial bankrupt, who is first of the scapegraces to feature in the main section of Scriven’s roll of dishonor.

Disappointingly, perhaps, for some of his relatives, there were no such worries about the paternity of Angus Charles Drogo Montagu (1938-2002), the eventual 12th Duke of Manchester, and the least interesting of Scriven’s far from fantastic four. The dullard second son of one of the many branches of an ancient family, he had few skills, a demanding sense of entitlement, and a fondness, when he could get it, of the high life and repeat marriage (he managed four wives, equaling Leinster’s haul). This would have been tricky in more capable hands, but when combined with a love of alcohol, a yen for gambling, a nose for a bad deal, and resources that were generally as modest as his talents, the consequences tended to be messy, and included a spell in an American prison after one of his “bits of business”

went wrong.

Scriven, a deft writer, makes what he can of Drogo’s dreary decline. No Icarus, Montagu aimed low, and landed lower, scrabbling for survival while failing to take advantage of the breaks that came his undeserving way. He was a man with little to commend him, and yet, such was the lingering appeal of a title, the mere fact of his persuaded a surprising number of people to throw some bones his way. He was recruited by fraudster and law firm alike to lend the sheen of his forebears to their business. The state chipped in, too. As the senior peer he eventually became, Montagu was entitled to play legislator (which was of no interest) in the House of Lords and to be paid whenever he turned up (which was), facts that may lead some readers to sympathize with Tony Blair’s purge of almost all the hereditary element from Britain’s upper house. That would be a mistake. Manned as of old, the House of Lords was too obviously and indefensibly archaic to be taken seriously. Dominated these days by cronies, stooges, bien-pensant worthies, and burnt-out grandees, it has become a more subtle, and thus more effective, insult to democracy.

But noble birth comes with an old, dangerous magic. Montagu used his to beguile, but was beguiled himself. It gave him both a sense of entitlement, and obligation, too. He could afford neither. No matter. Appearances mattered: “A duke must be seen to behave like a duke.” His tips were generous, his hospitality was lavish, and his pockets were emptied.

No British book on hereditary catastrophe would be complete without the Hervey family, long the poster boys for disorderly DNA, and Scriven gives starring roles to two of them, while scrupulously noting that if there was a “bad” gene, it was unusually recessive. The unorthodoxies of various 18th-century Herveys (including

homosexuality, promiscuity, “exhibitionism of a specialist kind,” sadism, murder, and—impressive in a bishop—something close to atheism) were followed by a century in which they were, despite the “discordant” tendency of their Irish cousins to emigrate to Canada, “very nearly the embodiment of aristocratic virtue.”

The same could not be said of the dysfunctional duo at the heart of Scriven’s narrative, Victor Hervey (1915-1985), the 6th Marquess of Bristol, and his son John (1954-99), the 7th. The heir to a vast fortune, Victor went in for conventional aristocratic misbehavior—extravagance, brutal violence, reactionary politics, pathological snobbery, invented Ruritanian uniforms, absurd business ventures, immoderate matrimony, and immoderate drinking​—​with considerable enthusiasm. He then added flourishes that were all his own, including crooked Finnish arms deals, jewel theft, and episodes of fraud.

Of all the wreckage that Victor created, however, the most disastrous was his eldest son, John. Starved of paternal affection and kept away from his mother (Victor had moved on to another wife), this poor little rich boy’s upbringing was doubtless made more confusing by its toxic mixture of neglect, luxury, and frequent reminders of his elevated social status, a cocktail that cannot have left him well-equipped to deal with the temptations that the age of disco put in his way. The money was there, the drugs were there, and in the Dionysian interlude between the waning of traditional sexual morality and the waxing of AIDS (gene or no gene, John was one of the gay Herveys), playtime was what you could make of it.

But John’s was a compulsive hedonism, with not a lot of joy about it, marked by boorish displays of excess, sporadic stints in jail, and the humiliations of addiction. In the end, the money was exhausted, and so was his health. His life ended after only 44 years. It’s hard to believe that it was much fun while it lasted.

And was his aristocratic birth at least partly to blame? John could be a caricature of rampaging nobility—bullying, destructive, and arrogant—yet traces of noblesse oblige hint at a more rounded sense of self. He was kind to his household servants, a kindness that was repaid with devotion. They knew their place, and he knew his. That was in the script, too. He was, or would become, the marquess, and, like his father, he was not shy about proclaiming it with displays of don’t-you-know-who-I-am alien to the patrician restraint that has contributed so much to the survival of the English upper classes. There was a coronet on his bathrobe, his tie-pin, and on the top of his four-poster bed. There were heraldic crests on his slippers and coats of arms on his car.

Perhaps it’s kindest to see John’s doomed, wild ride as containing a strong element of performance. Was this not notably imaginative man, like the hopeless Manchester, merely trying to live up to what he imagined was expected of an aristocrat? Scriven is too disciplined a writer to indulge overmuch in long-distance psychiatry, and doesn’t say. This reticence is a pity: A touch more speculation from this shrewd, perceptive writer would have helped the story along.

In the end, John proved a dud even at debauchery, comfortably outclassed in that respect by the new rock ’n’ roll aristocracy with which he sometimes socialized and probably, at some level, tried to compete. They outdid him in vice, vigor, achievements, and, generally, lifespan. There’s probably some vaguely Darwinian lesson to be drawn from this, but if this book suffers from Scriven’s reluctance to act as a psychiatrist, it gains from his decision not to turn teacher, preacher, or leveler despite the obvious opportunities with which his material has presented him.

The social history that emerges is fascinating, but oblique, only there for those who wish to find it. There are no tiresome leftist tirades against the hereditary principle, no leaden sermons on the need for a sober life; merely dark, but all-too-human tales of privilege and disaster, drolly, drily, and not unsympathetically told, that together conjure up a spectacle as appallingly irresistible as the crash of an extremely expensive car.

Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.

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