But let’s not talk about the real-life Baroness Cohen, beyond mentioning that Death’s Bright Angel is one of my all-time favorite mysteries, maybe even in the top three, certainly the top five or ten. I don’t even want to talk about that kind and courteous model of the parfait gentil knyght, the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey. Or the Earl of Grantham from Downton Abbey, who makes a case for landowners like him as responsible for the wellbeing of the land and the people who work it. I want to talk about the meanies. Golden Age and historical mysteries are full of them, as are novels of and TV series about earlier times, when upstairs was upstairs and downstairs was downstairs.
Look at Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt in Pride and Prejudice. She cultivates servility in the
There is a classic meanie in Downton Abbey: Larry, Lord Merton’s son, who doesn’t want his dad to marry the middle class Mrs. Crawley. Her deceased husband was a doctor, her late son a lawyer before becoming heir to Downton, and that’s the end of it. Being grandmother to the present heir can’t make her anything but hopelessly vulgar in his eyes. He’s also scathing in condemning the Irish socialist chauffeur Tom, who had the temerity to marry the Earl’s daughter. He even slips a mickey in Tom’s drink at the dinner table to make him behave badly. There’s well-bred aristocratic manners for you!
So here’s my core question. What do they have to be so proud of? What are their values and virtues? Let’s assume for sake of this rant that we’re talking of the least admirable of the fictional or mythical British aristocratic class, back in the days before the concept of class began to break down. The Edwardian era was probably the last era in which they flourished, though their lands and great estates were falling prey to death duties and general economic and social modernization.
They go to public schools, at which they are introduced to bullying, early sexualization, and a certain amount of physical torture. They’re removed from female influence, so they lack any models for the relational side of psychological growth, ie connecting rather than competing as a way to be with others in the world.
For entertainment, their greatest delight is to be taken to see panto every Christmas. If you’ve never seen it, panto is a broad slapstick rendition of classic fairy tales performed in drag. The “principal boy,” ie the hero, is always played by a woman. The female lead, played for comedy, is always played by a man. Panto has been around since the 18th century and is still popular. I imagine generations of confused children thinking they’re supposed to grow up to be cross-dressers, whether they want to or not. The victim of autoerotic asphyxiation in a ballet tutu in P.D. James comes to mind. (I won’t tell you which novel.) Another feature of panto: the audience shouts, “Look behind you! Look behind you!” to the character who is about to be clobbered. Good training for those public schools and later for the Army, you may say. But the hero never listens and always gets clobbered. What’s the takeaway from that?
Here’s what classic British aristocrats value. Breeding: the one quality they share with their dogs and their horses. No wonder they value their dogs and their horses more than people, especially, if they’re meanies, their families and the people who work for them. Breeding is supposed to give them good qualities, but if so, where does all that rudeness come from? They value not talking about money and despise people who do. You read about it in almost all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, some of which are mysteries. They order expensive outfits to wear once to a fashionable ball and don’t pay for them—just order two more to keep the modiste hooked—but are disgraced if they don’t pay their gambling debts. If they go broke, they have to leave the country. Maybe they should talk about money and take in a little common sense. As I said, they despise “middle class morality” and are endlessly proud of screwing around. Doing it is one thing. Being proud of it? Huh?
And finally we come to the forks. I can think of a lot of deficits in other people that might tempt me to despise them. But if you tell me there’s a group of people to whom the true measure of worth as a human being is being able to distinguish among perhaps twenty different metal utensils, each to be used to eat a different food, I’d say, “How interesting. Where do they live? Is the tribe extinct yet? And did Margaret Mead ever get to study them before they died out?”
Well, they lived in England, some between the pages of a book, some in movies, and some in reality. They’re not extinct yet, but they’re going down fast. And if they want any of them to survive, they’d better get over the forks.