The Magazine

Downhill from Here

The unedifying spectacle of an unruly ruling class.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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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.

Photo of the ‘dancing Marquess’ of Anglesey (ca. 1900)

The ‘dancing Marquess’ of Anglesey (ca. 1900)

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.