This is a very enjoyable book, rich with detail, images, and information. I strongly recommend it you want to learn not only about the people who left great properties to the National Trust, but those behind the scenes of the Trust itself.
That said, I offer a caveat: as with every book, what you read may not be true.
For example, the author seems to have had a love/hate relationship with the well-known diarist James Lees-Milne, who is credited with being hugely instrumental in helping to save many Great Houses (by having them donated to the National Trust in its early years, formative years).
The author, Merlin Waterson, devotes a chapter to Lees-Milne. In his last years Lees-Milne reveled in his celebrity. But celebrity can only distort, so I was open to a balanced portrait of the man, and Waterson is highly critical of Lees-Milne. The chapter ends with the question: "But `Saint Jim'?".
I have no issue with criticism of beloved figures. Indeed, accurate criticism is welcome and necessary for history. Among the many supposed faults of Lees-Milne, Waterson is disturbed by Lees-Milne's inaccurate portrayals of other people and house donors.
Waterson, however, does the same thing.
For example, on page 62, the author states that Lees-Milne treated the owner of Attingham Park, Lord Berwick, as an "eccentric figure of fun." Yet, Lees-Milne never did anything as such.
In his book People and Places, Lees-Milne did offer numerous less-than-flattering observations about Berwick. Lees-Milne notes that Berwick was painfully shy, mumbled his responses, seemed afraid of his wife (and visibly shrank in her presence), and only came alive when she was not around. This is a fascinating observation, and as other recollections of Lady Berwick are consistent in depicting an elegant but formidable woman, Lees-Milne might well have been correct.
Regardless of such observations however, Lees-Milne clearly admired Berwick. Deeply. Lees-Milne states flat-out that Lord Berwick "was an extraordinary man" and that "people who mistook him for an amiable fool would make fools of themselves." Later: "Really, he is a delicious man", and: "I think he is one of the most endearing men I have ever met in my life."
At one point the two toured Attingham, and Lees-Milne states: "Once the shyness wore off [and his wife was not present] he elaborated at fascinating length on each room with extraordinary knowledge, understanding, and pride."
Yet, none of these strongly complimentary observations are included in A Noble Thing (there is a long section on Attingham), giving the exact opposite impression of what Lees-Milne thought about Lord Berwick. Waterston quotes Lees-Milne about Berwick: he was "incapable of attending to any to any issue or making up his mind on any business which he found awkward or disagreeable". Waterson then goes on to state that a later search of the Attingham records proved that Berwick was deeply concerned about the care of the great house.
What is so discomforting about this passage is that Waterson wholly missed the point. Lees-Milne never stated, nor apparently believed, that Berwick did not care about the house. Quite the opposite. Lees-Milne's observation is very much about another issue: Berwick shrank from conflict. This is an apple/orange situation but Waterson does not see that.
I write all this because if Waterson is so off the mark about Lees-Milne, what else in the book is distorted?
I also write because from reading A Noble Thing one would never get the idea of how interesting a man Lord Berwick seemed to be. This is only made clear in People and Places by Lees-Milne.