The Devonshires: The Story of a Family and a Nation by Roy Hattersley

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The Devonshires: The Story of a Family and a Nation by Roy Hattersley

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A chronicle of the Cavendish family, Earls and then Dukes of Devonshire, and of their ancestral home at Chatsworth, from Tudor times to the present day
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 477 Date: May 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099554394

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According to the back of this book, ‘the story of the Devonshires is the story of Britain’. That’s an extravagant claim, but it contains more than a germ of truth. Certainly one would be hard-pushed to find an aristocratic, non-royal British family who has more consistently been central to our history since medieval times, as this detailed chronicle demonstrates. From the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII presided over in part by Sir William Cavendish, father of the first Earl, to the big business that their ancestral home Chatsworth House in Derbyshire has now become, the somewhat inaccurately geographically-named Devonshires have often been, or helped to, contribute to, part of the fabric of Britain’s past and present.

‘Bess of Hardwick’, probably the only non-royal woman of the Elizabethan age whose name can readily be recalled, was in a sense the founding mother of the dynasty. She married well and often, no less than four times, her second husband being the aforementioned loyal Tudor servant Sir William Cavendish. Between them they purchased the Chatsworth estate in 1549 and began building the house three years later. By the time she died in 1608, probably in her eighties, she had left the foundations of an estate and a dynasty which would both endure to the present day. She had almost managed to promote the claims of her granddaughter Lady Arbella Stuart, who could trace her descent to Henry VII as well, as a successor to the throne of the childless Queen Elizabeth.

As a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Hattersley has proved through several of his previous titles that he is fascinated by his country’s past. Notwithstanding his political views, he seems to have something of a love-hate relationship with the aristocracy. He may lack respect for a family which, like so many others, has had its share of black sheep and came into a fortune largely through god luck or what he calls ‘ruthless ambition and flexible principles’, but cannot conceal his admiration at what the best members of the family have done for the country. Even the mightiest of families, he concludes, are swept along on the tide of history. Superficially they may have appeared to be among the most gilded representatives of an aristocracy impossibly set in their privileged ways, while going with the flow and adapting if not eagerly embracing the changes around them. If existence is a case of ‘adapt or die’, the Cavendishes have clearly adapted. The fourth Earl, William, was virtually exiled from court after falling foul of James II and retired to Chatsworth, where he partly remodelled the house, read progressive political theory, and a couple of years later became one of the leading aristocratic rebels against the obstinate King, one of the band who invited William of Orange to come and claim the throne. The latter duly rewarded him by elevating him and his heirs from Earls to Dukes.

Some were better men than others. The fifth Duke, William (do we sense a pattern here), wife of the glamorous Georgiana, was ‘an insensitive and autocratic brute’, and his wife’s reputation was enhanced only by her husband’s failings. She is dismissed as an empty-headed, compulsive gambler who exploited her friends, neglected her children, and evidently enjoyed a ménage à trois with her husband and his lover Lady Elizabeth Foster, though he stops short on speculating on the precise nature of their relationship, as did past generations of historians who were quicker to draw a veil over such matters than we might today. The sixth Duke, William (as if you needed to ask), therefore had a pretty unpromising example to follow. A self-pitying depressive and lifelong bachelor with ‘undoubted charm’, who spent much of his time abroad, he did however have the foresight to appoint Joseph Paxton his head gardener. Between them, they virtually created the modern Chatsworth, the house and grounds, known to many a visitor today. Yet it was his cousin and successor, the seventh Earl, William (no, you didn’t need to ask), who embraced the conscientious Victorian ethic by investing in steelworks, shipbuilding and railways, in the process turning the tiny town of Barrow-in-Furness into a centre of industrial expansion. He was also largely responsible for developing Eastbourne as a residential area and holiday resort. His eldest son, the eighth Earl, Spencer (at last they discovered another name), was for a time Liberal leader and almost became Prime Minister at one stage instead of Gladstone, although at times he seemed almost devoid of any genuine political ambition. Hattersley castigates him for a ‘profound conviction that men of his rank were under no obligation to conform to the civilities of polite society’, a judgment which seems a little unfair.

The severest strictures are reserved for the 19th-century Marquis of Hartington, subsequently eighth Duke of Devonshire. As Liberal leader, ‘Harty-Tarty’ three times declined requests from Queen Victoria to form a government. A self-deprecating character, he once remarked that a speech he delivered in Manchester was ‘exceedingly dull and the audience showed that they thought so’, but in spite of the author’s comments that Hartington ‘regarded making concessions to other people’s wishes and convenience as demeaning’, he had a reputation for decency and common sense, and was well respected by his parliamentary colleagues. He also experienced the greatest tragedy the family had yet to endure when his son Frederick was one of the victims of the Phoenix Park assassinations in Dublin in 1882.

Hattersley is more generous to succeeding generations, observing that Andrew, the eleventh Duke, a nephew by marriage to Harold Macmillan and briefly a minister in his government, was ‘a famously generous man’ with ‘more than a naturally generous disposition’. In his summary, he notes that ‘without power, titles are only an anachronism’, while acknowledging that the family played a major part in changing the history of the nation, as well as finding that it changed them as well.

It is an efficiently researched and written family chronicle which tells the long story well, though I did find the style a little dry and leaden at times. However there is little else with which to find fault. An experienced historian, Hattersley writes critically at times, but with generosity at others. That is the true mark of an even-handed biographer, for in effect this is to some extent a collection of biographies with a common thread.

If this book appeals then you might also appreciate Lancelot 'Capability' Brown: The Omnipotent Magician 1716-1783 by Jane Brown.

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