Elizabeth Bennett is one of literature’s sacred cows, ardent admiration, greatest regard, highest esteem the only acceptable reactions to her feisty disposition and steadfast adherence to superior principle. But I have always been slightly suspicious of Miss Bennett, in particular her sudden appreciation for Mr. Darcy, blossoming as it did just after she spied the magnificence of Pemberley… gold–gilt digger (written in a whisper).
Lizzie! Lizzie! Forgive me? Because I too gasped in delight as Pemberley (aka Chatsworth House) emerged from the shade of the approaching elms on a sparkling Derbyshire day. Love at first (£10,000 per annum, 126 rooms, 1000 acres) sight! After the palace’s enchanting appearance Mr Collins would have appeared marriagable, even sexy, rushing through the sixteenth century forecourt to offer up a spot of lake fishing.
Indulging in a spot of “Ohh ‘ow the ovfah ‘arf live!” in the homes of the Upper-uppers is one of the favorite pastimes of the remaining British classes (although perhaps not the Upper middles?). The class system is of course an endless source of research, fascination and debate. The Credit Suisse Research Institute bunches us up annualy into median income bands and according to this measure my Antipodean island home is the most middle class in the world (66%, UK 55%). Other mathematical approaches use the sitting-room-size-divided-by-telly-size ratio. Or there’s the sliding moniker scale – Upper-uppers, name on the building; Middle-middles on a desk; lower-lowers on their shirt.
I confess to a fair amount of bewilderment about the nuances of class in my adopted island home. British born and bred seem instinctively able to pick a upper-lower from a lower-middle. My exposure at Foxtwist in North by North West Worcestershire is limited. I only see the Upper-uppers opening parliament, handing out polo trophies or in brochures delightedly welcoming me to share briefly and from behind the velvet rope their ancestoral good fortune for a mere £25 (second year half price, tea and tat available in the maze/stables/orangerie).
What brought these bastions of civility to let the lowers and middles beyond their (Brussels, 15th century) net curtains? Death taxes, war, labour costs, the South Sea bubble? Sometimes, deliciously, it’s the One. The one stoopid-stoopid heir of the Upper-uppers that managed to stuff things up. It’s usually the fourth Duke or the sixth Earl or, if the family is lucky, they make it all the way down to the tenth or twelfth Lord of the original patriarch before disaster and disgrace fall upon them.
In the case of Great Witley Court, just up the road from Foxtwist, it was Lord Dudley, otherwise known as Lord Balloon, the description based on the excesses of his girth and but which could equally have been ascribed to his profligacy. The Court which once hosted King George and homed the widowed Queen Adelaide, was sold off to cover Balloony’s debts, a scenario so common it could have had its own eighteenth century acronym DUMB (Dimwit Upper-Upper Monetary BlowOuts).
The sixth Marquis of Plas Newdd in Anglesey was the One. He was a cross between Freddie Mercury and Liberace, so the signs were there. With his inheritance, he once bought the entire contents of a Parisian jewellery shop strewing the diamonds, rubies and sapphires onto the body of his prostrate and naked wife. He built a full scale theatre within the family castle taking the lead role in all its productions and at the end of each wowing audiences with the gorgeous self choreographed “fan dance”. Within five years of inheriting he’d blown £35 million pounds, accumulating an additional £35 million debt. And those rolls in the jewel-encrusted hay? Perhaps not as satisfying as they sound. The marriage was annulled.
It’s fair to say that the more modern interior decorating craze for beige by-passed the British Upper-Uppers. The installation of indoor plumbing, electric lights and the next generation of portraits are the only noticeable changes as you shuffle through the red drawing room, painted hall, green drawing room, sculpture gallery and yellow drawing room, attempting to avoid death by laminated information sheet. So it was refreshing at Chatsworth House to be so surprised, moved and beguiled by pieces in the Duke of Devonshire’s modern art collection, including something in beige.
Artist Michael Martin-Craig ignored the tradition for gloomy oils, rendering the Duke’s daughter in law into a mesmerising graphic art portrait with a twist. Every few seconds her skin, lips, shirt and hair colour change, demanding you watch, and watch, and watch. But 40 years will pass before the images cycle through the four million colour combinations, by which time Laura, Countess of Burlington born 1972, will be be 78.
In the family chapel Damien Hirst’s sculpture “Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain” depicts the martyr holding his own skin and as is traditional a scalpel. Hirst, in his piece has included a pair of scissors inspired by Tim Burton’s film “Edward Scissorhands”. The scissors and scalpel evoke the means; the bronze sheen -wet and raw – evoke the end.
But my undoubted favourite was a seemingly plain beige (!) knobbly corridor wall, which emerging from the stream of italianate interiors caused one to initially think the decorators had just given up in kaleidoscopic exhaustion. The wall was split into floor to ceiling panels with rows of small horizontal rods jutting out in uneven columns. At first I scoffed thinking it looked climbing walls sized for Ken and Barbie. But no, at last! a plastic information sheet I didn’t want to share with any other lower-middle punter. Behold the DNA profiles of the Duke of Devonshire, his Duchess, their son, Lord Burlington and the afore mentioned Laura translated into tiny ceramic pieces. Each of the four panels had particular DNA rods glazed to highlight a beloved interest. In the Duke’s case it’s his favorite walk around the palace gardens, the Duchess a, piece of music, their son, his family (couldn’t think of anything more original?!) Laura chose needlework patterns she stitched as a girl with her grandmother (bless). But the reason it enchanted me so much was because I was there, amongst the Upper-uppers in the centre panel. The Everyman profile depicts the 90% of DNA we all share and my face reflected in the highlighted rods made of mirrors.
Travel notes to self
- The handkerchief tree. Flocks of filmy petals flutter as if pegged at one corner in a tree that Enid Blyton might have created. Bodnant Garden, Wales.
- Beddgelert North Wales. Five days of glorious sunshine and blue skies in the prettiest of Snowdonia’s villages. A walk around stunning Lake Ogwen, a kip on a beach, hot chocolate at Borth-y-Gest. Brushing up my Edward I v Wales history at Caernarfon Castle and Beaumaris Anglesea. The Doomsday Book records the last time North Wales was without rain for five days.
- The beginning of the Cotswold Way walk from Chipping Camden towards Broadway along stone walls and wild garlic, with the obligatory sheep.