Magazine article The Spectator

Allgravity, No Levity

Magazine article The Spectator

Allgravity, No Levity

Article excerpt

A VERY BRITISH FAMILY : THE TREVELYANS IN THEIR WORLD by Laura Trevelyan I. B. Tauris, £18.99, pp. 264, ISBN 1860649467 . £15.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The oddest thing about this book is its title. A Very British Family surely suggests that the Trevelyans were quintessentially British, yet it is clear from this book that they were not so, nor for that matter quintessentially American or German.

They were quintessentially Trevelyans.

To be a Trevelyan in the 20th century was to bear a burden of almost intolerable expectation. Trevelyans, it was taken for granted, were intellectually superior to the generality of mankind. They were destined to succeed -- they could do so effortlessly if they thought fit, but they preferred to exert themselves with unremitting application. They were ineffably right-minded even when they were at their most wrong-headed. They took themselves with extreme seriousness and bore the burden of the world upon their shoulders. 'No Trevelyan was allowed to be ill, ' remarked A.L. Rowse;

nor were they allowed to be idle, frivolous or dilatory. They were almost entirely humourless. Britain was the better for their existence, but one such family was enough.

This book concentrates on five members of the family, who span 150 years.

First comes Charles, whom Trollope satirised as Gregory Hardlines, chief clerk of the Department of Weights and Measures: 'To be widely different from others was Mr Hardlines' glory . . . .

Great ideas opened themselves to his mind as he walked to and from his office daily.' His brother-in-law, Macaulay, thought Charles a man of genius, honour, rigid integrity and kind heart, but something of a bore. The author convinces one that he was unimaginative rather than callous in his handling of the Irish potato famine, but it is by this catastrophe that he is remembered rather than by the stalwart work he did in creating a modern civil service.

His son, George Otto, threatened to stray from the family tradition. His uncle, Macaulay, suspected him of most un-Trevelyan-like levity: 'I am anxious about George. He has spoken at the Union with éclat. He is fêted and asked to parties and is wild with spirits . . . I shall see him on Monday and give him some advice.' The advice was heeded and George got as far as a seat in Gladstone's Cabinet, but his heart was always more in history than politics. His happiest years were spent writing away at the family stately home of Wallington. …

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