18 December 2012

Review

blackdiamonds
Three things motivated me to read "Black Diamonds" by Catherine Bailey. Firstly, fellow blogger Brian - exiled to Catalonia from his South Yorkshire homeland - had raved about it - mostly because it concerns the Wentworth Woodhouse estate close to his family's home in the former pit and railway village of Elsecar. Secondly, quite recently I went for a lovely country walk around Wentworth, taking in several of the locations mentioned in the book. Thirdly, my maternal grandfather and great grandfather were both coal miners at the New Stubbin colliery that was developed by the Earls of Fitwilliam - who for centuries inhabited the grand country estate where my mother had often rambled as a girl.

It's a book about changing times and the fall of one of the richest and most powerful aristocratic families in England. Though they had many more houses and estates, the mind-bogglingly wealthy Fitzwilliam family's proudest possession was Wentworth Woodhouse with its 365 rooms and the widest frontage of any private home in Europe. The house has never been open to the public and surprisingly, outside South Yorkshire few people have even heard of it.

The Fitwilliams' story is one of intrigue, the hiding of secrets, political and religious battles, blood lines and exploitation. Theirs was a world of foxhunting, race horses, debutantes, lavish dinners, the possession of "old masters" and they moved in the most privileged circles. Nonetheless, before the nationalisation of the country's coal industry they were unusual employers for they enjoyed the affection and respect of their "serfs" - the coal mining  and farming families that relied upon them for work even as they replenished the Fitzwilliams' bulging coffers. They looked after their people.
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Kathleen Kennedy's grave at Chatsworth

American visitors to this humble blog may be interested to learn that in the late nineteen forties the married 8th Earl Fitzwilliam (Peter) had a passionate affair with Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy - sister to John F. Kennedy. Sadly, they died together in an eminently avoidable light plane crash in the South of France in 1948. "Kick" is buried at Chatsworth House - home to the Marquis of Hartington who had been her husband till his death on active duty  in World War II.

I liked "Black Diamonds", mostly because I was motivated to learn more about the subjects it covered . However, Catherine Bailey never seems entirely sure what she is writing. Is it history? Is it a romantic novel? It is a treatise on social injustice? Her attitude towards the aristocratic Fitzwilliam family often seems ambivalent. At times she is in awe of them and at other times she appears to deride their feudal extravagances. Even so the book was very well-researched - both in libraries and in conversations with old people who could recall those vanished times and I am pleased I read it. 

7 comments:

  1. I think my chris would enjoy this.... off to amazon I will go

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  2. Hi YP
    Thanks for your comment. You need to book a tour around the big house - you would love it. The book is fascinating. I went to a talk by Catherine at the Showroom cinema - some of the research she revealed waas so interesting . I know a fair bit of the history of the Fitzwilliams (and I had an Aunt who died with a photo of one of the Earls in her purse! She was a bit of a goer!!) Fascinating xx

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  3. Very interesting. Perhaps a family like this invites both awe and derision at different times...
    Sounds like a great book for Miss N. THanks for sharing!

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  4. Thanks for the review, you've nailed it, as they say. Putting into words just what I thought as I read it ... I was amazed by the amount of anecdotes and "too much like a film to be true" stories that keep coming up, but what really made me (and makes me) think long and hard is this aspect of being "good employers". Without the money, power and initiative of these land owners, how differently would things have turned out for the Yorkshire working class? And the fact that while many rich folk were basically heartless slave drivers, the Fitzwilliams were truly admired or appreciated by their employees. To the point that the workers themselves were often against striking in national strikes, or against the ripping up of the Wentworth estate by the "red" labour government. Throws a whole new light on my "down with the establishment" ideas .... as they say, I suppose, things are never black or white.

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  5. I wonder if Jane Austen knew of this house and family. Her hero in 'P&P' is Fitzwilliam Darcy, Captain Frederick Wentworth is the hero in 'Persuasion', and in 'Emma' the heroine is Emma Woodhouse.
    But maybe it's just a coincidence...

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  6. It sounds interesting, YP. I must look out for it.

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  7. Thanks for the tip YP. I love reading family sagas like this a là Downton Abbey & The Romanovs etc. Amazon here I come...!

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