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English cousins, then

January 30, 2011

To say, by the 20th century, that an hereditary upper class was not profoundly in charge of American life is to ignore history books, Hollywood, and two Roosevelt presidents. Although their position was not enshrined in law as in the United Kingdom, our WASP forebears shared much with their English cousins–– including (with the Gilded Age exportation of American heiresses to titled families) blood. Here, in an old review of Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park, Taki makes the case of this blog on behalf of our old-country peers.

True Class

They would, wouldn’t they? Come across as chilly, shallow and grasping (the aristos), while the servants are brimming with passionate humanity?

I am referring of course to Gosford Park, the Robert Altman film that has just opened in dreary old England to rave reviews, as it has, I am told, back in the good old egalitarian U.S. of A. The class system is the defining aspect of Britain and everything British, and, as a result, anything that touches upon this system concentrates the minds of everyone British. For any of you who may have missed it, Gosford Park is a biting social satire, part murder mystery, part dissection of the English class system, set in the magnificent Palladian Wrotham Park, ancestral house of Robert Byng.

Here I have to declare an interest, and do some Hollywood-like namedropping in the process. It was about 20 years ago and we were playing charades. In Gstaad. Prince Nicola Romanov, who today would be head of Russia if in 1917 some commie ruffians had not murdered his ancestor, played Admiral Byng. I knew the story, but the prince had signaled that the person in question was English. I was nonplused. After Nicola revealed his name, I objected. Admiral Byng was French, and had been hanged “Pour encourager les autres,” as it was stated at the time.

“No, dear Taki,” said Nicola, “he was English to the bone, and was hanged for failing to relieve Minorca from the French, rather than for cowardice in the face of battle. The English admiralty used French, as it was the language of diplomacy at the time.”

But back to the movie and the house. It was here, in 1754, that Admiral John Byng decided to leave his mark by commissioning a Palladian mansion. (Admirals back then could do this sort of thing; today it might, er, raise a few eyebrows.) It is an 18-bedroom house, tucked away in Hertfordshire, surrounded by 300 acres of parkland, which in turn form part of a 2500-acre estate. Unlike most historic houses in the green (from constant rain) and deeply unpleasant (socialism and envy) land that England is today, Wrotham Park (pronounced Rootam) is symmetrical, harmonious within its surroundings and has a breathtaking facade and elegant interiors. Its present owner is a 39-year-old former insurance broker, Robert Byng, who inherited the house upon his father’s move to Switzerland in 1993. Like all Palladian houses its interior is, well, how shall I put it, quite small compared to its magnificent exterior. Robert Byng says that the house was “built in order to show off.” (I am sure it did “encourager les autres” trying to make their mark.)

The movie is set in 1932. Back then, in real life, Wrotham Park required at least 13 servants, which was not a particularly large staff, not including gardeners, chefs, pastry cooks, private butlers and so on. Today, Robert Byng employs two butlers–he follows p.c. tradition and calls them house managers–plus a housekeeper and a cleaner. There must be two or three gardeners and tenant farmers who look after the whole property. The house is filled with old masters and priceless furniture.

And now for the class system syndrome that is the lifeline of the movie. The screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, is as blue-blooded as they come. I sit next to him year after year at Claus von Bulow’s annual lunch in my old club in London. He is a hell of a fellow, jolly, good-natured and very talented. Yet he had to stick the knife in where the upper classes are concerned. I imagine his was an impossible task–bit like portraying a soldier, a fireman or a cop in a sympathetic light before Sept. 11. Most Americans, after all, do not suffer inherited privilege gladly. After a while, the haves in close proximity to the have-nots begin to grate. In real life, of course, things are different. Personally, I have never had a problem with staff except once, when a Scots butler of mine tried to strangle one of the maids, and I had the unpleasant duty of letting him go. (He then had a go at me.)

The trouble with the film (otherwise it’s wonderful fun) is basically the message. Back in 1932 people were literally starving, so a job in a grand country house was a godsend. Even today, a nanny or a domestic servant is paid quite a deal more than, say, a teacher or a cop. In my experience, and I’m afraid I’ve got lots of it, domestic servants have always been treated far better by their masters than the latter treated their own children. In the past, the privileged classes might have had their fun, but they were the first to die in battle for their country, and the first to commit to public service, be it in the church, the armed forces or politics. And they did not cheat.

Sure, there have been bibulous and adulterous aristos–after all, what could the poor dears do except get drunk, fuck, shoot, ride and fish, with all that time on their hands. But upper-class etiquette is not about drinking and whoring. It’s about doing all that in a way that does not offend. Today in grotty old England, socialism has ensured a lethargy bordering on indifference even in hospitals and certainly in schools. The result is that England is by far the most violent country in Europe, with the police less likely to come to one’s aid than the muggers are to get you. Pour encourager les autres, perhaps we should revert to the old system. In England, at least.

From the New York Press, February 12, 2002.

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