|Roaring through the twenties|
I’ve been on a jag lately of immersing myself in the culture of upper-crust Britain in the decades between the world wars. Though I’ve long been a fan of P.G. Wodehouse and Mrs. Dalloway, now, from re-watching Granada Television’s Brideshead Revisted (oh so good), to reading Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, to tearing through a number of lightweight Georgette Heyer period mysteries, the twilight of the British aristocracy has been on my mind. Ah, the details that no other era can match! Mannish women wearing monocles, the plover eggs at an Oxford luncheon, snobby countesses in tiaras, bathtubs full of newts. Who can forget Poirot in his white spats, or Bertie chasing his cow creamer while his faithful Jeeves rescues him from a dreaded Aunt or two? In this manic world, Cedric and Lady Montford prance together in their jewels, Sebastian laments about the bad mood of his teddy bear Aloysius, and the butler never does it but gets killed instead.
|Lloyd George--no fan of lords|
It’s an odd literary flowering that documents this period of frantic parties and still opulent displays of wealth. The first World War, the great one, had finished this particular group of people off, even if they hadn’t realized it quite yet. But the changes had been raining down for a while, working to erode centuries of privilege stretching from the Middle Ages. One could say it began with the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1846 that allowed cheap grain to be imported into Britain from other countries, lowering domestic agricultural profits. Others might say it was the invention of the spinning jenny and the cotton gin that created a capitalist-mercantile class, a class that spent most of the nineteenth century fighting to expand its wealth and influence at the expense of its more refined brethren. The aristocracy, however, not without a trick or two themselves, fought back and hung on. As late as 1880, these seven thousand families owned four-fifths of the land in Britain. They dominated government and social prestige, controlled the Houses of Parliament, and filled the ranks of the army, church and civil service with their second and third sons. In 1884 another blow was struck with a series of reform measures that allowed nearly 60% of the male population to vote. (Gosh, sounds radical.) And then in 1913 Lloyd George, a Welshman no fan of landlords, pushed through his “Land Campaign” with higher taxes for landowners, government control of rents, and higher wages for laborers. The coffin for the aristocracy had been built and the grave dug, but the body was still kicking. Then came the war.
|The dead left behind in France|
The young men of this class and era, schooled at Eton and Harrow and Cambridge and Oxford, had been groomed to lead and rule, so when war with the Kaiser came, they promptly volunteered to command troops for king and country. But it turned out to be a different kind of war than anyone expected, and in France and Flanders men died or were maimed in horrific numbers. It was a bloodletting that diminished all of Britain but impacted aristocratic young men in disproportionate numbers.
The war also brought an abrupt end to many repressive Victorian mores, and when the armistice finally arrived, the freedom was exhilarating. Still, even in the midst of parties and gaiety and cocktails and flappers, the landed gentry sensed something was wrong. Already financial troubles were knocking at the door even if they did their best not to listen. Already the older generation raged at the assaults on their wealth and prerogatives, or worse, resigned to their fate, sold off millions of acres of inherited land--one of the largest transfers of territory in British history--just to stay afloat. Country houses and London town homes soon followed until the landed class had no land to pass onto their children. With the corpse in the coffin, the twenties and thirties were a glorious two-decade wake.
The final, most undignified blow followed the second war. After a hefty increase in taxes to pay for debt brought on by the war, and a hefty increase in wages for the average worker, no one could afford servants at all. Without chambermaids, valets, gardeners and cooks, estates couldn’t be maintained, dinner parties couldn’t be given, and being an Earl or Duchess grew suddenly irrelevant. It took Hitler and WWII to hammer down the final nails in the British aristocratic coffin, and then that class was buried into obscurity and irrelevance for good.
Though there is art and architecture from these decades that evokes the style and exuberance and wild social change of the era, I think it is literature that captures it best. This is true even if the novel or story was written slightly later and tinted by nostalgia for something that can be revisited in memory but never regained. Was this lost world a paradise? Well, it was certainly nice for those seven thousand families. Should its passing be mourned? A harder question to answer. Yes, something has been lost, and the world is still missing it. But dead bodies have to be buried. No one wants to live with zombies in tiaras and spats.