Magazine article The Spectator

A Bit of a Dog's Dinner

Magazine article The Spectator

A Bit of a Dog's Dinner

Article excerpt


by Lawrence James Little, Brown, £25, pp. 438, ISBN 9780316731898

£20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Every schoolboy knows that the two most delightful breeds of dog are the Working Clumber Spaniel and the Newfoundland.

Any author who dedicates a book to 'Wellesley, a Newfoundland dog' is therefore by definition a man of discernment. Sadly, the dedication is the best thing about the book, which is a perfectly readable, if unoriginal, canter through the English peerage since 1066, with excursions into Scotland and Ireland.

For one thing, it teems with distracting howlers which undermine confidence in the author's broader judgment. Diana Mosley was not Lord Curzon's daughter. She was Lord Redesdale's. This Lord Cobbold is an hereditary, not a life, peer.

Lord John Manners, the 19th-century politician, was not the Duke of Rutland's eldest son. As of today, 92, not 95, hereditary peers continue to sit in the House of Lords. John Churchill, before he became the 1st Duke of Marlborough, was neither the son of a duke nor of a marquess. He therefore should not be styled 'Lord John Churchill'. The same applies to Admiral Lord Cochrane, whom our author refers to as 'Lord Thomas Cochrane'. Lawrence James quotes Lord Mornington on the 'importance of following the proper linguistic forms' in dealing with Indian princes. It is a pity he does not follow Mornington (no doubt a relation of his dog) when addressing his own chosen subject. Instead he merely succeeds in irritating reviewers who, for canine reasons, are initially disposed to be sympathetic.

More importantly, James is confused by his book's title. He is not the first to be stumped by the term 'aristocrat'. It is one of those convenient Lewis Carroll words which means what the user wants it to mean. Some claim that, at least since the 15th century, the British peerage was not an aristocracy at all. The Almanach de Gotha included no references to British peers, except for dukes, who were, according to my grandmother, only included once every four years. The British peerage was not a caste, as in France or Germany. The sons and daughters of British peers are not noble, in spite of their courtesy titles, and they enjoy no greater privilege than anyone else, apart from a place in archaic tables of precedence. Life peers' and, astonishingly, still 92 hereditary peers' remaining privilege is the right to sit in the legislature. …

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