David Cannadine

David Cannadine is the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London and chairman of the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery. His most recent books are Mellon: An American Life and National Portrait Gallery: A Brief History.

Last Night Fever: The Proms

David Cannadine, 6 September 2007

Like many ostensibly ancient British rituals, the Promenade Concerts were founded towards the close of the 19th century, shortly after the Queen’s Hall opened as a new musical venue in 1893. As such, they may be regarded as a classic instance of what is sometimes called ‘invented tradition’, where venerable antiquity is less in evidence than is often popularly supposed; and...

Downsize, Your Majesty

David Cannadine, 16 October 1997

‘A family on the throne,’ observed Walter Bagehot, in one of those honeyed phrases which may mean more or less than they seem to, ‘is an interesting idea.’ Indeed, it is. But during the past two hundred years of British royal history, it is an idea which has embodied itself in two very different human forms. The first version, which has generally been preponderant, has been the ‘happy family on the throne’. Think of George III and Charlotte, with their large, playful, gurgling brood, immortalised in Zoffany’s delightful conversation pieces. Think of Victoria and Albert, happily ensconced at Osborne, all Gemütlichkeit and Christmas trees, with Landseer and Winterhalter conveniently to hand to paint them. Think of George V and Queen Mary, an inseparable couple, who did so much to uphold decent family values in the rackety era of the Bright Young Things. Think of George VI, Elizabeth and the two young princesses, ‘we four’, as the King observed with characteristic precision, ‘the royal family.’ And think of Elizabeth and Philip, whose domestic felicity was proclaimed to the world in the BBC documentary which was inevitably entitled Royal Family.

Social Workers

David Cannadine, 5 October 1995

The second chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew records the most celebrated example of royal generosity in human history, as the Three Kings, atop their camels, and guided by the star in the east, bear their gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem. As this story makes plain, monarchs are customarily supposed to be vastly richer than ordinary mortals, and to give with truly regal generosity to those many unfortunates huddled at the opposite end of the wealth, power and status spectrum. But there was more to this mangered and magical moment than supererogatory royal beneficence. Even in the cosy, impromptu confines of the Christmas stable, the gift relationship was more subtle, complex and ambiguous. For there was also in it an implicit challenge, and a reciprocal presumption, that such exceptional presents, which were hardly of immediate relevance or practical utility, would eventually be matched by exceptional behaviour on the part of the recipient. And while those who offered these gifts were themselves only reputedly royal, the infant to whom they were given was unquestionably so, being none other than the future King of Kings himself. Monarchs, this story reminds us, not only make benefactions they also receive them – which adds a suggestively majestic connotation to the otherwise plebeian notion of ‘give and take’.’

What Is He Supposed To Do?

David Cannadine, 8 December 1994

The Prince of Wales was in his mid-forties, with his youth long since behind him, and his throne still many distant, tantalising year away. His childhood and schooldays had been lonely and unhappy, and they were made harder to bear by his distant mother, his disappointed father, and his more robust and much-preferred sister. He had married a woman renowned for her beauty rather than her brains, largely because he had been told it was his duty to do so. By her he had promptly fathered two healthy sons, after which he soon sought comfort, consolation and companionship elsewhere. There was criticism in the press of his wayward and unfocused life, but the idea that he should be given serious employment such as a proconsular posting did not secure the necessary approval. At his country house and in London, the Prince set up what was virtually an alternative court in waiting. The trouble was that his mother remained in excellent health, with every prospect of celebrating both her Golden and her Diamond Jubilees. The most the Prince could realistically look forward to was that he would inherit the throne as an old man, and reign for a few tired, belated, sunset years. But there were some who feared, and others who hoped, that the Queen might outlive her eldest son, so that he would never become king at all.

Odd Union

David Cannadine, 20 October 1994

The task of rescuing women from the chauvinistic condescension of male posterity has thus far been unevenly undertaken and incompletely accomplished. Writers and actresses, suffragettes and nuns, servants and prostitutes, have fared relatively well. But upperclass women – Clio’s own sisters, cousins and aunts – have received much less attention. Studies of aristocratic ladies are few and far between; feminist biographies of queens and princesses are in conspicuously short supply; and royal mistresses have rarely been emancipated from the boudoired and bodiced banalities of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. Yet from the Restoration in 1660 until the early 20th century, the only English monarch who was both male and monogamous was probably King George III. Put the other way, this means that from Nell Gwyn to Mrs Keppel (and beyond), the courtesan was an integral part of royal history. But while much is known about such women as the Duchess of Portsmouth, Elizabeth Villiers, Henrietta Howard and the Countess of Warwick, no serious attempt has yet been made to write that alternative version of royal history which their lives and loves collectively constitute.’

Something to Do

David Cannadine, 23 September 1993

Few reputations are so fragile or ephemeral as those of minor modern royalty – the brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, younger sons and daughters, cousins and more distant relatives of big daddy and the queen bee. By birth and by definition, they are lifelong occupants of the substitutes’ bench, permanent understudies for the starring roles which rarely if ever come their way, too near the throne to be ordinary people, too far removed to be right royally important. For the most part, their lives are a bizarre and unhappy amalgam of cosseted privilege, unostentatious dutifulness, peripheral appeal, honorific marginality, wearying ceremonial, resentful disappointment, embittered loneliness and – if they are lucky – occasional scandal. In death the best they can hope for is to be instantly forgotten, with no realistic prospect of later rediscovery. Who, today, knows anything about such defunct dynasts as the Duke of Cambridge, the Marquess of Carisbrooke or the Earl of Athlone?’

Queen Croesus

David Cannadine, 13 February 1992

In 1871, when Queen Victoria was in the tenth year of her widowhood, and when even the great British public was becoming increasingly irritated by her continued seclusion at Windsor, Osborne and Balmoral, a young, clever, radical MP named George Otto Trevelyan published a pamphlet which had the effrontery to ask: ‘What does she do with it?’ Where, Trevelyan wanted to know, was all the money going which the Queen was paid by the Government for the sole purpose of maintaining the duties and dignities of her position as head of state? Instead of being spent as it should have been, on court ceremonial, public appearances and regal display, he believed it was being improperly applied to the creation of a new and essentially private royal fortune. Like everyone else, Trevelyan could only guess at the true extent of the Queen’s recently accumulated wealth. ‘In the absence of authentic information,’ he observed, ‘it must not be a matter of wonder that statements which are probably great exaggerations should find belief.’ But whatever its extent, Trevelyan had no doubt that the amassing of great personal wealth by the monarch was ‘unconstitutional and most objectionable’. As far as both the history and the size of this royal nest-egg were concerned, he believed that ‘the people of England have a right to be informed.’

The Ruling Exception

David Cannadine, 16 August 1990

Ever since Disraeli made Queen Victoria Empress of India in 1876, the Conservative Party has been one of the lion-supporters of the British Crown, and to this day, the monstrous regiment of Tory women, and the blimpish cohorts of retired colonels, are among the most loyal and devoted of Her Majesty’s subjects. But for all that, the true-blue-rinse Thatcher years have not been a happy or an easy time for the House of Windsor. In public, the Prime Minister professes respect and admiration for her sovereign lady and the whole royal family. But it is difficult to believe that in private she offers the same unstinted ‘devotion’ that Disraeli lavished so fulsomely (and so calculatingly) on his ‘faery queen’. As the visible embodiment of stultifying tradition, obscurantist snobbery, unearned riches, hereditary privilege, vested interests, paternalistic decency and patrician wetness, the crown and its court exemplify many of the attitudes which Mrs Thatcher most vehemently detests. And as the successful leader of the nation in arms (remember the Falklands?), and the most long-serving occupant of 10 Downing Street this century, the Prime Minister has in many quarters displaced the monarchy as the most potent symbol of national identity. ‘No wonder,’ she has reputedly remarked of the Windsors, ‘they stand on ceremony: what else have they got?’


David Cannadine, 27 July 1989

How should the history of the Jews be written? Ever since the compilation of the Old Testament – a pioneering work of collaborative authorship, sometimes inaccurate and inadequately documented, and biased throughout by teleological distortion – it has been an understandably difficult and daunting task. For the most part, this is because of the diversity and the intensity of the Jewish experience. In one guise, they have been the greatest victims of European history – chosen by God, but rejected by man, and condemned to wander the world in the anguished search for safety and security. But in another, they have been the greatest ornaments of European civilisation – so resilient in their triumphant survival, and so cosmopolitan in their fertile brilliance, as to put plodding, parochial and prejudiced gentiles to shame. A history which culminates (thus far) in the creation of Israel and the barbarism of the Holocaust is neither for the faint-hearted nor the squeamish. Except, perhaps, in the case of English Jewry. For by comparison with these dramatic, momentous and highly-charged happenings, the history of the Jewish communities in Britain is little more than a bland and lukewarm chronicle.

The Macaulay of the Welfare State

David Cannadine, 6 June 1985

Asa Briggs has just produced three new books. This piece of information is made even more remarkable by the fact that he has published 26 already. Admittedly, there are some, like How they lived, 1700-1815 and They saw it happen, 1897-1940, which are largely collections of contemporary documents, and which have merely been awarded Briggs’s benediction. And others, like The 19th Century, which has just been reissued, and Essays in Labour History, are edited volumes, to which he has contributed only a chapter and an introduction. But the majority are authentic works by his own hand: textbooks, like The Age of Improvement; scholarly books, like Victorian People and Victorian Cities; picture books, like The Power of Steam and Ironbridge to Crystal Palace; bestsellers, like A Social History of England; and multi-volume blockbusters, like The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. While lesser historians fiddle over footnotes, Briggs dashes off reviews; while they ruminate over reviews, he completes articles; while they agonise over articles, he manufactures books; and while they bother over books, he produces multi-volume works. As befits his position as the pre-eminent authority on Victorian England, Briggs has often been described as a steam-engine scholar, pounding along the tracks of historical endeavour like an express train at full throttle.


David Cannadine, 21 March 1985

There is a famous photograph of Elgar taken at the moment he completed the orchestral scoring of The Dream of Gerontius. He wears a buttoned-up jacket and a wing collar, and sports a walrus moustache of formidable proportions. In dress and demeanour, he looks stiff, starched and stuffed: Colonel Blimp before his time. And yet the eyes suggest a very different personality: dreamy, passionate, visionary, a man of poetic imagination with his sights set surely on the sublime. Which of these is the real Elgar? It is difficult to be sure. For the picture is not only contradictory, it is also deceptive: a carefully contrived self-image masquerading as a spontaneous and unself-conscious record. The pensive pose, with the left hand on the cheek, and the gaze wistfully directed towards some distant horizon, was deliberately struck by Elgar while a lunchtime visitor went out to get his camera so as to record the moment for posterity. The resulting photograph was Elgar as he wanted to be seen, yet giving away more than he knew: the tradesman’s son trying too hard to conceal the fact.

Divine authority and empirical observation are, by definition, rarely in accord, but they do at least agree on this: that the poor are always with us. Chastity may have gone the way of all flesh, and obedience may have been banished from the marriage service, but poverty – grinding, inexorable, ineradicable – remains: not a state voluntarily embraced on the road to salvation, but a condition unavoidably endured with little prospect of relief. It may well be, as George Bernard Shaw once put it, that ‘the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty,’ but it is easier to express outrage at its existence than to raise hopes as to its eradication. The history of the world is the history of many things, but in most places, at most times, and for most people, it was and is as Thomas Gray described it in 1750: ‘the short and simple annals of the poor’.’

Time, Gentlemen, Please

David Cannadine, 19 July 1984

As someone once said, although we do not know exactly when, time is of the essence. It can be given or taken, saved or spent, borrowed or beaten, kept or killed. There are old timers and egg timers, time bombs and time tables, time signals and time machines. There is half time and full time, short time and over time, standard time and local time, the best of times and the worst of times. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to break down and a time to build up, a time to reap and a time to sow. There is the time of your life and time out of mind; there is peace in our time and there are times of troubles; there is no time like the present and there are times that try men’s souls. Time cures all things yet it corrodes all things; it flies never to return but creeps along with leaden feet; it is on our side although it waits for no man. As Gollum explained to Bilbo in one of the few plausible pages of The Hobbit, there is a lot of it about:

Lord Bounder

David Cannadine, 19 January 1984

‘There is,’ John Lord Campbell observed in his multi-volume, Mid-Victorian Lives of the Lord Chancellors, ‘no office in the history of any nation that has been filled with such a long succession of distinguished and interesting men as the office of Lord Chancellor.’ A roll-call which included such illustrious history-makers as Wolsey, More, Bacon and Clarendon lent some credence to Campbell’s hyperbole. But since then, things have gone rather down hill, and most recent Lord Chancellors have been woolsacked worthies rather than eminent statesmen: grave, wise, sober, learned, venerable – and unmemorable. Names like Herschell, Loreburn, Buckmaster, Finlay, Cave and Caldecot trip off the tongue with about as much familiarity as the batting order of a minor counties cricket eleven. Indeed, during the last hundred years, only two Lord Chancellors have rivalled the renown and repute of Campbell’s greatest hits: W.S. Gilbert’s rich comic creation in Iolanthe, a susceptible insomniac who married a fairy; and F.E. Smith, first Earl of Birkenhead, whose appointment to the Woolsack was denounced by the Morning Post as ‘carrying a joke too far’.–

Rose’s Rex

David Cannadine, 15 September 1983

George V has been as fortunate in his biographers as any monarch could be. Not for him the lachrymose sentimentality which, at the Queen’s behest and with her all-too-active co-operation, Theodore Martin lavished on the Prince Consort; still less the ‘feline skill’ of Sidney Lee who, disregarding the advice of Edward VII, ‘Stick to Shakespeare, Mr Lee, there’s money in Shakespeare,’ produced a double-decker biography of his late majesty; least of all the flippant irreverences of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, which caused George V to erupt with rage. On the contrary, the monarch whom the present Queen delighted to call ‘Grandpapa England’ received the very epitome of grave, tasteful and well-regarded biography. John Gore chronicled the inner man, his tastes, hobbies and friendships; and Harold Nicolson described his public life and times. Nicolson’s book in particular did as much to confirm George’s reputation as a good king as it did to confirm his own reputation as a good writer, and established a model for royal biography successfully followed by Lady Longford on Queen Victoria, Sir Philip Magnus on Edward VII, Lady Donaldson on Edward VIII, James Pope-Hennessy on Queen Mary and Sir John Wheeler-Bennett on George VI.

Homely Virtues

David Cannadine, 4 August 1983

It is almost impossible to say anything completely correct about London; and it is equally difficult to say anything entirely erroneous. Whatever is written about a town so vast and varied, whether by city residents, provincial visitors or foreign observers, is likely to be at least and at best partially valid, which may explain why the literature on London is so lush. By the late 18th century, it was the largest city in the world, unique not only in the number of its inhabitants, but also in the range of its functions. Pace Dr Johnson, there was not in London all that life could afford: but it provided more opportunities for living and buying than all provincial English towns combined. Unfailingly attractive, and inexorably centripetal, London dominated England to an extent not rivalled by any other capital in any other country, drawing to itself the crown, parliament, government, the law, commerce, finance, fashion and culture, thereby concentrating in one swollen metropolis all those diverse urban functions which, in the United States, were divided up between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, and in France were shared by Paris, Versailles, Lyons, Marseilles and Bordeaux. So, as Henry James explained, ‘one has not the alternative of speaking of London as a whole, for the simple reason that there is no whole of it … Rather, it is a collection of many wholes, and of which of them is one to speak?’

Brideshead Revered

David Cannadine, 17 March 1983

‘One of the many contradictory qualities of the British,’ James Lees-Milne rightly notes in his attractive if angry anthology in piam memoriam Bladesover, ‘is to revere, and even lament, the things they are in the process of destroying.’ You cannot, he seems to be saying, have conservation without destruction, or a stay of execution without a sentence. This is not, of course, a universally valid dictum. Even the combined and mellifluous resources of Mark Girouard and Yale University Press have yet to unfurl the full panoply of best-selling nostalgia on behalf of such doomed and dodoed delights as education before the comprehensive (Life in the English Secondary Mod?), arithmetic before the pocket calculator (The Victorian Counting House?), American politics before Watergate (The Return to Camelot?) or British politics before Thatcher (Sweetness and Light?). Many such lost causes pass unlamented – more likely to be powdered into dry-as-dust dissertations than instant coffee-table books. We know too much about them to regard their passing with unequivocal regret.


David Cannadine, 2 December 1982

‘The choice before ex-kings,’ Herbert Morrison remarked in 1937 on the occasion of the Windsors’ characteristically ill-advised visit to Nazi Germany, ‘is either to fade out of the public eye or be a nuisance.’ It has generally been assumed that the Duke came in the second of these categories and, since it is even easier to hit a man when he is dead than when he is down, tilting at Windsor has recently become a popular sport. Some of the jousting has been in dubious taste, with lances forged in malice, aimed in hatred and wielded in spite. But others, more interested in history than in hearsay, have landed some shrewd blows on their target. Chief among these Windsor-wallopers has been Frances Donaldson, whose much-acclaimed biography undermined many of the legends which lingered from his time as Prince of Wales, substantiated most of the criticisms levelled against him as King Edward VIII, and painted a pathetic picture of his later years as Duke of Windsor, the ‘weary, wayward, wandering ghost’, shuffling with rootless opulence from resort to resort, getting ‘more tanned and more tired’.

Lord Cupid proves himself

David Cannadine, 21 October 1982

The history of the world is no longer the biographies of great men. The Victorians, who needed heroes as an addict needs heroin, enshrined their worthies in multitomed tombs. Letters were reproduced verbatim, speeches were quoted at inordinate length, and eulogies were printed in extenso. If the public career was successful, the moral was ponderously pointed; if the private life was suspect, the veil was dutifully drawn. Superstars like Disraeli, Albert and Gladstone were celebrated in six, five and three volumes apiece, and most Cabinet Ministers could usually count on at least two – especially if, like Lord Randolph Churchill, their reputation was safer in their son’s hands than in their own. Although Lytton Strachey assailed such pious pomposity by showing that the slenderest of books could sometimes be the weightiest, and that eminence was not necessarily next to Godliness, these pantheons in print were still being constructed on a lavish scale until the Second World War: four volumes (and still unfinished) for Salisbury, three for Joseph Chamberlain (likewise incomplete) and for Curzon, and a double-decker apiece for Asquith, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman and Rosebery.

Utopia Limited

David Cannadine, 15 July 1982

The Road to Utopia was trodden by many star-struck pilgrims before Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour made their celluloid expedition there in the 1940s. Sir Thomas More, who first wrote of the place, lost his head completely, for non-Utopian reasons, and since then a succession of charismatic cranks, frenzied philosophers and visionary vegetarians have aspired to realise heaven upon earth while more usually anticipating hell. Mighty prophets like Gerrard Winstanley (a bankrupt cloth merchant turned cattle herdsman), Sir Richard Bulkeley (an early 18th-century hunchback virtuoso), William Blake (‘I see so little of Mr Blake now,’ his wife once complained: ‘He is always in Paradise’), and James Pierrepont Greaves (damned by Carlyle as a ‘blockhead’ and an ‘imbecile’), preferred to leave the world rather than to understand or change it, renouncing (inter alia) religion, property, profit or prostitutes, tobacco, alcohol or flesh (sometimes animal, sometimes human).

Thoughts on the New Economic History

David Cannadine, 15 April 1982

The covers of two of these books display very similar views of Manchester, the ‘shock city’ of early 19th-century England. One is for 1836 and the other for 1851, and both embody a familiar picture of the Industrial Revolution: of factories pouring out goods, and chimneys belching forth smoke; of burgeoning exports, spiralling output and rising productivity; and of improved land, unceasing labour, accumulating capital and inspired enterprise. Here is an epic drama: Coketown in the making, the workshop of the world in operation, and the factors of production in fertile fusion. Taken together, these two illustrations project an image of the Industrial Revolution as an heroic happening, characterised by vigour, energy, inventiveness and courage, or (depending on your point of view) by exploitation, cruelty, avarice and shame. Either way, to look at these pictures, to visualise the events which they capture for a moment, and to imagine what is required to render such changes historically comprehensible, is to see at once why Floud and McCloskey claim that ‘economic history is an exciting subject.’

Victorian Piles

David Cannadine, 18 March 1982

The English were not very good at commemorating their great men during the first three-quarters of the 19th century. The competition to select designs for the Nelson memorial was not held until 1838, and another three decades elapsed before the Trafalgar ensemble was completed with the addition of Landseer’s lions. The first major Wellington statue was placed, King Kong-like, atop Decimus Burton’s arch on Constitution Hill in 1846, but was so derided that it was removed in 1883 and consigned to the rustic obscurity of Aldershot’s military scrubland. A second official monument to the Iron Duke had been in the making since 1856, and this protracted process continued, seemingly interminably, until the memorial’s completion in St Paul’s in 1912. In both cases, public subscriptions were slow and insufficient; committees of management were ignorant, philistine and indecisive; competitions were rigged in advance or their results were set aside; architects were petulant, lethargic and unreliable; sculptors were jealous, petty, incompetent and indolent; and contractors were devious, dishonest or went bankrupt. ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,’ runs the Second Commandment: and for much of the 19th century the chaotic circumstances of monument-making in London lent strong (if unintended) support to this divine injunction.

Architect as Hero

David Cannadine, 21 January 1982

Lutyens lives! After three decades in which his reputation has been in ashes, the most esteemed English architect of his time, whose death on New Year’s Day 1944 was mourned as if an emperor had passed, now returns in triumph to his phoenixed pedestal. That is the message of this torrent of books which have recently gushed from the architectural presses, pouring praise on Lutyens and his works. Written primarily by a younger generation of architects and architectural historians, they emphatically reinstate the interpretation eloquently enshrined in the great Lutyens Memorial published in 1950, where Christopher Hussey, in his 600-page biography, and A. S. G. Butler, in his three volumes of plans, plates and commentary, acclaimed our Ned as ‘the greatest artist in building whom Britain has produced’.

British Worthies

David Cannadine, 3 December 1981

‘Mr Stephen is editing a little dictionary,’ a friend explained to a clergyman foolhardy enough to ask whether Leslie ‘did any writing’. The enterprise in question was the DNB, one of those grandiosely-conceived and indefatigably-executed works of late 19th-century self-regard, comparable to the Victoria County Histories and the Survey of London. Year after year, at three-monthly intervals, the volumes plopped from the press, 63 in all, from Jacques Abbadie in 1885 to William Zuylestein in 1900, containing some thirty thousand pages on which 650 contributors recorded the details of 30,000 lives. And, as with the painting of the Forth Bridge, once this great Victorian monument was completed it was time to start all over again. In 1901, a three-volume supplement appeared, repairing important omissions from the original work, and adding in those worthies who had died since its appearance. Ten years later, another three volumes followed, spanning the decade from the death of Victoria to the demise of Edward VII.

Country Life

David Cannadine, 5 November 1981

In 1972, Routledge and Kegan Paul published The Victorian City: Images and Realities, edited by H.J. Dyos and Michael Wolff, a Wagnerian epic in which history went to town in exuberant, zestful and flamboyant fashion. Understandably, the two volumes won immediate and widespread acclaim as a tour de force of entrepreneurial inspiration and editorial skill: ‘a study in superlatives’ was the response of one ecstatic reviewer. Now, nearly a decade later, the old world has been called in to redress the balance of the new, and we can take equal delight in this companion venture. Like its predecessor, it is a brave and sumptuous piece of publishing – carefully designed, handsomely bound and profusely illustrated. Even at £40 the set, it is a bargain.

Down and Out in London

David Cannadine, 16 July 1981

One of the most spectacular examples of embourgeoisement in the 1970s was the transformation of the history workshops held at Ruskin College, Oxford from ephemeral, marginal, near-clandestine activities into a permanent, recognised and well-publicised part of the contemporary historical scene. The most significant evidence of this development was the appearance of the History Workshop Journal, the first issue of which has already become something of a collector’s item, and the launching of the History Workshop Series, of which these books are, respectively, the fifth and seventh to appear. With two such flourishing enterprises under way, with several of its most illustrious comrades established among the ivory towers and high tables of Oxbridge colleges, and with Raphael Samuel providing indefatigable leadership in inimitable style, the history workshop movement seems set fair to follow the path already blazed by that earlier enfant terrible, Past and Present, from mutinous opposition to respectable dissent.

Perpetual Sunshine

David Cannadine, 2 July 1981

With the possible and significant exception of the steam-engine, no artifact in modern England has been the object of such fanciful, romanticised and well-articulated veneration as the country house. Nineteenth-century novelists, like Surtees or Trollope, tended to give minutely-detailed accounts of country-house life, which were more precise than rhapsodic. But during the first half of this century attitudes changed, and one of the most common set-pieces in popular fiction became that magical, glamorous, enchanted moment when the hero or heroine first set eyes upon the mansion which frequently dominated the novel. An early example of this is in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Making of a Marchioness, where Emily comes upon Palstrey Manor and ‘almost wept before the loveliness of it’. More composed, but no less enamoured, was Harriet Wimsey (née Vane), as she visited Denver Ducis for the first time. Lord Peter assures her that the drive is indeed a mile long, that there are deer in the park, and that peacock do strut upon the terrace. As he observed, ‘all the story-book things are there.’

Owning Mayfair

David Cannadine, 2 April 1981

When, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell imagined the terrible spectre of social revolution, she spoke feelingly of ‘acts of violence in Grosvenor Square’. In this, as in her later strictures against ‘the Brighton line’, she demonstrated a sound understanding of the social geography of late 19th-century London. For while Berkeley Square might boast its nightingale, and Belgrave Square was saluted in Iolanthe, neither quite rivalled the cachet of Grosvenor Square, the most glamorous address in London, the social centre and status summit of Mayfair, where the rich, the wellborn and the powerful lived lives of exclusive, glamorous opulence and privileged, aristocratic grandeur. Some indication of Mayfair’s stately, splendid and sumptuous past may be gleaned from the acknowledgements page in this appropriately stately, splendid and sumptuous volume, where names like Abercorn, Derby, Mountbatten, Scarbrough and Wemyss surge before the reader’s eye, in a cascade of coronets.

SIR: How thoughtful Paul Johnson is (Letters, 1 July). He thinks the old economic history is sometimes bad, sometimes good. I agree. He thinks the new economic history is sometimes good, sometimes bad. I agree. He may even find I said as much in my review. Meanwhile, he wishes to ‘explore the epistemological sophistication of the new economic history’. Good luck to him.

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Lawrence Stone, 22 November 1990

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Is it a bird, is it a plane?

Peter Clarke, 18 May 1989

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Urban Humanist

Sydney Checkland, 15 September 1983

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