Magazine article The Spectator

Cash for Cachet

Magazine article The Spectator

Cash for Cachet

Article excerpt

THEM AND US: THE AMERICAN INVASION OF BRITISH HIGH SOCIETY by Charles Jennings Sutton Publishing, £20, pp. 307, ISBN 9780750943567 £16 (plus £2.45 p+p) 0870 429 6655

A dinner-party hosted by Ch ips Channon at his ostentatious Belgrave Square flat in 1936 frames this book . It is described in the introduction and appears again in the final chapter, for its composition defines what had gradually happened to high society in the previous 50 years .

His guest of honour was Edward VIII, but those invited to dine with the King Emperor proclaimed what the author calls 'the triumph of the outsiders ' : apart from the King's brother and sister-in-law, George and Marina of Kent, they included a rich baronet, a couple of minor parliamentary figures, the squeaky, selfimportant American hostess Emerald Cunard , and the thunderously famous yet scarcely mentioned American divorcée Mrs Simpson, at whose knee the King simpered and grovelled.

What had begun in 1874 as the age of the American heiress had degenerated into the age of the American hostess, and Charles Jennings charts how a fairly innocent invasion of money descended into something 'menacing and , finally , destructive', as a new, giddy and meretricious set overwhelmed the throne and brought down a monarch.

Of course , it has all been told before, dozens of times. There are only two virtues which can validate another stab at the same subject : either the author has access to material not previously used, or he deals with the familiar in a refreshing and exhilarating way . Of the first, there is very little, save some few pickings from the Churchill Papers , a brief glance at the Desborough archives in Hertford County Hall, and quotes from the still unexplored diaries of Ronald Storr in Pembroke College, Cambridge, passed through the filter of other books.

But as regards the second Mr Jennings comes up trumps . He writes with gleeful banter , a sure grasp of the style which enlightens a subject rather than merely stating it, and a sense of historical truth tinged with fun, which makes one long to see what he has to say next. So, despite being old hat, his book is well worth the effort.

Jennings identifies the source of unease among the fabulously rich Americans at the end of the 19th century. They were 'twitchy' about social status, which, exasperatingly, eluded their otherwise cocksure purchasing power, and they envied the British social smartness, founded upon inaccessibility and 'conscientiously banal' manners and conversation. …

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