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'You should study the peerage," says a character in Oscar Wilde's play A Woman of No Importance, "it is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done." Lawrence James is a kindlier soul than Oscar. Mr. James's great, sweeping survey of the ups and downs of the British aristocracy begins by taking seriously the myth of chivalry that underpins it. . .

The myth of chivalry has been forgotten, but it did exist for a time during the struggle for Magna Carta and the rebellion of Montfort and the bachelor knights , which led to the creation of Parliament.

The good, the glamorous and the bad are the subjects of James's book. More of the latter have made an impression. The word aristocrats, which we've taken from the Greek, means rule by the best. That will raise a dry laugh. One of the problems we have today is that self-anointed aristocrats think they are the best and feel and act superior to all of us, but their political and social decisions have been awful. It's almost as if people who decide they know best automatically lose their common sense. But of course, they had lost common sense before arriving at such a nonsensical idea.

There were British aristocrats who insisted on reigning in the power of the king in the 17th century. Others proposed and implemented major electoral and social reforms in the 19th century. And like their countrymen, they fought on World War One and Second World War battlefields in large numbers and with great gallantry.

Still the word aristocrat rankles me, and never more so than when self-aggrandizing American aristos, such as the Clintons, spend millions on a wedding. Curmudgeonly? The idea that political operatives such as Clinton and Blair are making millions after leaving public office is deeply disquieting.

Comments (1)


Speaking only for myself, and doing violence to the prose of Jonathan Swift: We Yahoos find it difficult to appreciate the Houhnyms in their stately progress and down-the-nose attitude. Those who do appreciate them are probably not the ones who follow them down the street with a shovel.

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