Magazine article The Spectator

'The Red Earl: The Extraordinary Life of the 16th Earl of Huntingdon', by Selina Hastings - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Red Earl: The Extraordinary Life of the 16th Earl of Huntingdon', by Selina Hastings - Review

Article excerpt

The Red Earl: The Extraordinary Life of the 16th Earl of Huntingdon Selina Hastings

Bloomsbury, pp.212, £18.99, ISBN: 9781408187364

The lefty hereditary peer has few equals as a figure of fun, in life or literature. The late Tony Benn comes inevitably to mind here, as does the Earl of Westminster -- 'Erry' -- in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time .

As his name would suggest, Francis John Clarence Westenra Plantagenet 'Jack' Hastings, the 16th Earl of Huntingdon, emerged into the world bedecked with promisingly absurd trappings. And for a time it looked as if his life would follow a predictably conventional path. But then everything changed.

After some routine torturing by his nanny -- she branded him with an iron -- he went to Eton. There, he failed to trouble the scorers academically, but scraped into Oxford, where he was a member of both the Bullingdon and another, even more boisterous, drinking club called Loder's, whose toast was 'Long live the King and Foxhunting!'

Proudly clutching his third-class degree, Hastings went off to a dinner at the Savoy, where he met an Italian girl called Cristina Casati. Cristina was the daughter of the Marchesa Casati, a notorious narcissist who was the first, and quite possibly only person to have the whole of St Mark's Square in Venice closed for a private party. The Marquesa made her entrance accompanied by two diamond-collared cheetahs and a pair of naked boys covered in gold paint.

An accomplished ukelele player and keen tango dancer, Cristina had inherited her mother's flair for the dramatic if not her looks -- she had teeth like Bugs Bunny. Hastings was instantly smitten and the two of them eloped to Australia.

However, he soon regretted his impulsiveness. Cristina turned out to have a foul temper, as well as a fondness for writing some of the most glutinously self-obsessed letters ever penned -- 'Cristy is feeling well! Let me know a short time before you return so I can let my nalis [sic] grow in your honour.'

In Australia their arrival was greeted by an ecstatic frenzy of brown-nosing: 'Viscount Hastings is one of the most utterly utter aristocrats who have ever visited these shores.' In time-honoured fashion, he went off to work on a sheep station, while Cristina stayed in Melbourne disconsolately strumming on her ukelele and writing yet more letters: 'Oh pussy I want to be cuddled ever so tight and kissed ever so hard. …

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