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The Life of Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry
on 5 February 2009
This is a highly readable account of the gilded lives of an aristocratic family from the last quarter of the nineteenth century into the post-war period. It describes very well the life of the privileged in this period - hunting, shooting, house parties, large houses with retinues of servants. However, the author seems to be in awe of the landed aristocracy and my criticism of the book would be that there is no critical analysis of the tremendous sense of entitlement that the Londonderries (and other aristocrats) had nor of their self-serving, self-regarding view of life.
Much of the source material is letters written by or to the Marchioness and therefore you don't expect much critcal analysis there but the author does not challenge anything or make any 'negative' observations about the life & behaviour of the Londonderry family to put matters in context. By way of example, the account of the failure of Stanley Baldwin to appoint Lord Londonderry as Air Minister with a position in the Cabinet does not reflect on why it should be that in the 1920's an aristocrat should assume that he should be in the cabinet, particularly as (although you wouldn't know it from this book) Lord Londonderry's previous government service had not been particularly notable. The account presented is sympathetic to Lord Londonderry and doesn't even attempt to question why he didn't get what he wanted. At another point in the book a rather derogatory comment about Jews was glossed over as being typical of the views held by many other people in his social circle - so that's alright then! With regard to Lady Londonderry, it amazes me that she tolerated her husband's serial philandering and continued to adore him throughout his life - again, there isn't any real analysis of why this might be.
Perhaps not surprisingly in view of its title, the book does not consider the declining position, status & power of the aristocracy during the Marchioness's life. Whilst the Londonderries may have been affected very late owing to their enormous wealth, Lady Londonderry's father, a landed gentleman and long-standing MP, suffered the practical elimination of his fortune & lost his estates. His story demonstrates the changing position, in terms of finances, land-holding & political influence of the landed class from 1870 onwards. There is nothing in the book which demonstrates the very great difference in the position of the aristocracy between the Marchioness's birth and her death.
The book is certainly a very interesting description of aristocratic life & social history - possibly worthy of 5 stars however because of the lack of analysis I have only given it three stars. That said, I enjoyed the book very much but would recommend reading it in conjunction with a more 'leavened' approach to set the story in context, for example David Cannadine's excellent book, "The Decline & Fall of the British Aristocracy".