Not London, England. On the eve of Prince William’s wedding I am reminded of the last book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, concerned as it is with the marriages of titled people to commoners.

Among other things The Duke’s Children is a book about the barriers of class, and the reasons for those barriers, and the reasons why those barriers might be breached; the middle-class Mr. Trollope is greatly interested in both nobility of degree and nobility of education and character. My Anglophilia is more Shakespearean than Windsorian, and my social circle is aristocrat-free. But the ideal of an aristocracy in the hands of a good novelist is well worth reading.

The Duke is grieved when his only daughter, Lady Mary, gives her heart to the younger son of an old English family, a prepossessing but penniless young man who loves her but who also intends to keep her in the luxury to which she is acccustomed by living on her money. The Duke is grieved again when his elder son and heir, Lord Silverbridge, wants to marry a wealthy and beautiful American, who has charming manners and a learned father but whose pedigree is two generations removed from the docks.

Omnium is a political Liberal whose honest intentions to improve the education and aspirations of the common man do not extend to lowering the social connections of his children. But, loving those children, in the end he gives in and sets himself to love the people they love, as Trollope assures us from the beginning he must.

Along the way there is much discussion about the necessary obedience and obligation within families, of the difference between personal friends and public acquaintances, and of the need to hold to standards of behavior that are well above what any law can require—in other words, the proper way for any of us to act in private and in society, and in particular the aspirations and obligations (not always met, in any age) of an aristocracy.

Here in the New World in the 21st century we idealize meritocracy, even though our meritocracy at times conspicuously lacks merit. And so to some modern minds the standards of an aristocracy of both class and character might seem not so much antique as a relief. After all, an aristocracy is supposed to be a meritocracy maintained over time, preserved within certain families, which hold to certain high standards of behavior and patriotism.

Speaking ideally. Perhaps the romance of that ideal is one good reason to be watching,  early Friday morning.

photo by DG Jones

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Katherine Dalton
Katherine Dalton has worked as a magazine editor, freelance feature writer and book editor.  She started in journalism in college, working at The Yale Literary Magazine during most of its controversial few years as a national magazine of opinion based at Yale.  She then worked briefly at Harper's magazine in New York, and more extensively at Chronicles magazine in Illinois, where she was a contributing editor for many years.  She has has written for various publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the University Bookman, and was a contributor to Jason Peters' volume Wendell Berry: Life and Work and Morris Grubbs' collection of interviews Conversations with Wendell Berry.  She lives in her native Kentucky.

6 COMMENTS

  1. “After all, an aristocracy is supposed to be a meritocracy maintained over time, preserved within certain families, which hold to certain high standards of behavior and patriotism.”

    This is a point which cannot be overemphasized. Anybody who believes in the importance of family & kin has to endorse aristocracy in some sense. If a man possesses virtue & talent then one of his highest priorities will be to establish a privileged place in the community for his children.

    The rich will always be with us; so we might as well demand of them that they acquire proper manners and learn how to look good on a horse.

    As to the royals, I think it was Orwell who observed that the British bluebloods were at least morally sound, given the number of them who volunteered & died in the world wars. Not chickenhawks, unlike our technocrat intelligentsia.

  2. Re: After all, an aristocracy is supposed to be a meritocracy maintained over time, preserved within certain families, which hold to certain high standards of behavior and patriotism.

    Well, except for the practical problem that Lady Nature doesn’t cooperate in the endeavor and all too often good old families end up producing idiots, drunks, floozies and assorted other miscreants. Merit simply does not reproduce well. And worse, when children are given All The Advantages all too often they turn into worthless drones since they’ve never had to achieve anything on their own.

  3. An entitled class without essential merit nor moral imperative is no entitlement at all. It is a charade, a ruse to offer the peasantry, relieving them, for the moment from the nagging idea that their station is accelerating past the first floor and into the basement.

    We can all enjoy the fairy tale of Britain’s denatured monarchy and it’s latest bit of expensive theatre but to think that there is merit involved in the current global swindle is to think that there is merit in the steam-baths of Moscow. We are all totalitarians now. Willing or not.

  4. I’m reminded, inevitably, of things that Chesterton said: That the rich “in every country are the scum of the earth,” and that aristocracy “isn’t a form of government; it’s a riot.” Anyone who cares about family and kin is, or ought to be, an enemy of aristocracy. Does anyone remember Edward VIII giving the Hitler salute? Orwell’s point about the moral soundness of the English aristocracy was that it was a relative soundness, in comparison to the vileness of the French aristocracy.

    Of course, to contradict my own Republican sentiment, I recall that Samuel Johnson was a Tory, and the political judgment of a moral intelligence of his stature is not to be despised. Johnson, it will be remembered, toasted the success of the slave insurrections in the West Indies and asked why it was he heard the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves.

  5. A real weakness in aristocracy that was exploited by the forces of revolutionary ideology was the way privilege and excellence tended to be hoarded, rather than cultivated with the aim of giving those goods in shared life with the commoners. That the preservation of goods requires such hoarding is a pernicious temptation, often seeming quite reasonable, but ultimately leading to perdition for all.

    I find a good example in classical music. When the gift of classical music is recognized as a superior musical form but kept only for the few in exclusion of the many, we have an example of the destructive kind of elitism. But when the recognition and appreciation of the superiority of classical music (or Western dentistry, fine dining, etc.) is for us all, then it is an occasion for rejoicing.

  6. I’ve always thought that monarchy and a republic, in the old sense of Res Publica or a government that rules in the interest of all the people both as a mass and in their natural associations, are not mutually exclusive. Disraeli does not put it in such terms but he basically makes the same argument. A monarchical government may rule for ‘the people'(not just the masses.) as well as a non-monarchical government.

    There is more to it than even this however. All good governments are a balance between monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. The monarchy is the united executive and the moral unity and example of the nation(see Bonald for an excellent defense of monarchy on such principles.), the aristocracy is the rule of the best and the democracy is the rule for and accountability to the people.

    Anton, I like Chesterton as much as the next man, but I think he was not totally correct in his sheer passion for populism and his contempt for aristocracy. There will always be aristocrats, as John Adams knew, there will always be those who can command the ‘votes’ of others. There also should as often as possible be the places for those who are most competent to rule. Aristocracy, as in the great magnates are perhaps usually a negative, but I think that melding a sort of squirarchy with a distributist system is a positive move.

    I find it interesting Katherine brings up Shakespeare. Shakespeare is perhaps one of the most eloquent defenders of monarchy. Unlike some of his fellows he did not show the same sort of devotion to particular royal persons, nor did he have quite the absolutist streak, but he defends the office of royalty in a way few others have. I think it was either Martin Lings or Dover Wilson who pointed out that Shakespeare still lived in the world of Plato and St.Augustine and for him royalty was divine, it was supposed to be the Priest-King or Philosopher(remember Plato’s idea of the philosopher has little to do with the so called modern philosophers and is far more religious and spiritual.) -King.

    I’m an Englishmen and I have other reasons, like tradition and culture, for supporting monarchy but I think these are enough to go on with. To remove the monarchy would be terrible for Britain.

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