A Society
Marching to its
Certain Ruin

The last government in the Western world to possess all the attributes of aristocracy in working condition took office in England in June of 1895. Great Britain was at the zenith of empire when the Conservatives won the General Election of that year, and the cabinet they formed was her superb and resplendent image. Its members represented the greater landowners of the country who had been accustomed to govern for generations. As its superior citizens they felt they owed a duty to the State to guard its interests and manage its affairs. They governed from duty, heritage and habit --- and, as they saw it, from right.

The Prime Minister was a Marquess and lineal descendent of the father and son who had been chief ministers to Queen Elizabeth 1 and James 1. He was Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Salisbury, ninth Earl and third Marquess of his line. The members of Lord Salisbury's Government, of whom the majority, though not all, enjoyed inherited land, wealth or titles, had not entered government for material advantages. Indeed, from their point of view, it was right and necessary that public affairs should be administered, as Lord Salisbury said, by men unaffected "by the taint of sordid greed." A parliamentary career --- which was of course unsalaried --- conferred, not gain, but distinction. The House of Commons was the center of the capital, of the Empire, of Society; its company was the best in the kingdom. Ambition led men there as well as duty; besides, it was the expected thing to do.

Fathers in parliament were followed by sons, both often serving at the same time. James Lowther, Deputy Speaker of the House from 1895 to 1905 and afterward Speaker, came from a family which had represented Westmorland constituencies more or less continuously over six centuries. His great-grandfather and grandfather each had sat for half a century and his father for twenty-five years. The representative of a county division in Parliament was usually someone whose home was known for seventy miles around as "The House," whose family had been known in the district for several hundred years and the candidate himself since birth.

Since the cost of candidacy and elections and of nursing a constituency afterward was borne by the member himself, the privilege of representing the people in Parliament was a luxury largely confined to the class that could afford it. Of the 670 members of the House of Commons in 1895, 420 were gentlemen of leisure, country squires, officers and barristers. Among them were twenty-three eldest sons of peers, besides their innumerable younger sons, brothers, cousins, nephews and uncles, including Lord Stanley, heir of the sixteenth Earl of Derby, who, after the Dukes, was the richest peer in England.

The ruling class did not grow rulers only. It produced the same proportion as any other class of the unfit and misfit, the bad or merely stupid. Besides prime ministers and empire-builders, it had its bounders and club bores, its effete Reggies and Algies caricatured in Punch discussing their waistcoats and neckwear, its long-legged Guardmen whose conversation was confined to "haw haw," its wastrels who ruined themselves through drink, racing and cards, as well as its normal quota of the mediocre who never did anything noticeable, either good or bad. Even Eton had its "scugs," boys who, in the words of an Etonian, were "simply not good form ... and if not naturally vicious, certainly imbecile, probably degenerate." Though a scug at Eton --- not to be confused with "swat" or grind --- could as often as not turn out to be Privy Councillor thirty years later, some were scugs for life.

Despite such accidents, the ruling families had no doubts of their inborn right to govern and, on the whole, neither did the rest of the country. To be a lord, wrote a particularly picturesque exemplar, Lord Ribblesdale, in 1895, "is still a popular thing." Known as the "Ancestor" because of his Regency appearance, Ribblesdale was so handsome a personification of the patrician that John Singer Sargent, glorifier of the class and type, asked to paint him. Standing at full length in the portrait, dressed as Master of the Queen's Buckhounds in long riding coat, top hat, glistening boots and holding a coiled hunting whip, Sargent's Ribblesdale stared out upon the world in an attitude of such natural arrogance, elegance and self-confidence as no man of a later day would ever achieve.

As he himself wrote of the average nobleman, "the ease of his circumstances from his youth up tends to produce a good-humoured attitude. To be pleased with yourself may be selfish or it may be stupid, but it is seldom actively disagreeable." Despite a tendency of the Liberal press to portray the peerage as characterized "to a melancholy degree by knock-knees and receding foreheads," the peer still retained, Ribblesdale thought, the respect of his country. Identifying himself with its interests and affairs, maintaining mutually kindly relations toward his tenants, cottagers and the tradesmen of his market town, he would have to seriously misconduct himself before he would "outrun the prestige of an old name." Yet, for all this comfortable picture, Ribblesdale too heard the distant rumble and thirty years later chose for the motto of his memoirs the claim of Chateaubriand: "I have guarded the strong love of liberty peculiar to an aristocracy whose last hour has sounded."

§     §     §

With the opening of the grouse season in August, and until the reopening of Parliament in January, the great land-owners engaged in continuous entertainment of each other in week-long house parties of twenty to fifty guests. With each guest bringing his own servant, the host fed as many as a hundred, and on one occasion at Chatsworth, four hundred extra mouths while his house-party lasted. Shooting was the favored pastime and consisted in displaying sufficient stamina and marksmanship, assisted by a loader and three or four guns, to bring down an unlimited bag of small game flushed out of its coverts by an army of beaters. From county to county and back and forth into Scotland, their trail marked by thousands upon thousands of dead birds and hares, the gentry were constantly on the move: for shooting with the Prince at Sandringham, for hunting (in blue and buff instead of scarlet coats) with the Duke of Beaufort's hounds in Wiltshire, for deer stalking amid Scottish lochs and crags and trackless forests ("Keep doon, Squire, keep doon" his ghillie whispered to Mr. Chaplin, forced to crawl into the open to come within shooting distance of his stag), for Christmas parties and coming-of-age parties and occasional time at Homburg and Marienbad to purge satiated stomachs and allow the round to begin again.

Now and then the sound of the distant rumble in the atmosphere caused them vague apprehension of changes coming to spoil the fun. With port after dinner the gentlemen talked about the growth of democracy and the threat of Socialism. Cartoons in newspapers pictured John Bull looking over a fence at a bull called Labour. Most people were aware of problems without seriously imagining any change in the present order of things, but a few were deeply disturbed. ...The year 1895 was prolific of shocks, and one that shook society unpleasantly occurred two months before the Conservatives took office. The trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, for acts of gross indecency between males, destroyed both a brilliant man of letters and the mood of decadence he symbolized.

The presumption of decay had been heavily reinforced two years earlier by Max Nordau in a widely discussed book called Degeneration. Through six hundred pages of mounting hysteria he traced the decay lurking impartially in the realism of Zola, the symbolism of Mallarmé, the mysticism of Maeterlinck, in Wagner's music, Ibsen's dramas, Manet's pictures, Tolstoy's novels, Nietzsche's philosophy, Dr. Jaeger's woolen clothing, in Anarchism, Socialism, women's dress, madness, suicide, nervous diseases, drug addiction, dancing, sexual license, all of which were combining to produce a society without self-control, discipline or shame which was "marching to its certain ruin because it is too worn out and flaccid to perform great tasks."

There were many inside and outside the government who awaited the approaching Twentieth Century with certain illusions lost which were never to be restored. Lady Salisbury, shortly before she died in November, 1899, said to a young relative, "The young generation may criticize us as they like; will they ever provide anything as good as what we have known?"

--- From The Proud Tower
Barbara Tuchman
©1966 Macmillan
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