The Proud Tower, Barbara W. Tuchman's collection of essays on the world before the Great War, is an excellent book. The essays are brilliant, self-contained, and endlessly re-readable. As a book it's less coherent than A Distant Mirror or The Guns of August, but it's full of wonderful details and insights. You can it online here. For the purposes of D&D I'm going to stick to selections from chapters 1 and 7.
One of Tuchman's gifts is sketching a person or event from a few well-chosen details or anecdotes, and the aristocrats of Great Britain provided endless material.
The last government in the Western world to possess all the attributes of aristocracy in working condition took office in England in June of 1895. Great Britain was at the zenith of empire when the Conservatives won the General Election of that year, and the Cabinet they formed was her superb and resplendent image. Its members represented the greater landowners of the country who had been accustomed to govern for generations. As its superior citizens they felt they owed a duty to the State to guard its interests and manage its affairs. They governed from duty, heritage and habit—and, as they saw it, from right.
The Prime Minister was a Marquess and lineal descendant of the father and son who had been chief ministers to Queen Elizabeth and James I. The Secretary for War was another Marquess who traced his inferior title of Baron back to the year 1181, whose great-grandfather had been Prime Minister under George III and whose grandfather had served in six cabinets under three reigns. The Lord President of the Council was a Duke who owned 186,000 acres in eleven counties, whose ancestors had served in government since the Fourteenth Century, who had himself served thirty-four years in the House of Commons and three times refused to be Prime Minister. The Secretary for India was the son of another Duke whose family seat was received in 1315 by grant from Robert the Bruce and who had four sons serving in Parliament at the same time. The President of the Local Government Board was a pre-eminent country squire who had a Duke for brother-in-law, a Marquess for son-in-law, an ancestor who had been Lord Mayor of London in the reign of Charles II, and who had himself been a Member of Parliament for twenty-seven years. The Lord Chancellor bore a family name brought to England by a Norman follower of William the Conqueror and maintained thereafter over eight centuries without a title. The Lord Lieutenant for Ireland was an Earl, a grandnephew of the Duke of Wellington and a hereditary trustee of the British Museum. The Cabinet also included a Viscount, three Barons and two Baronets. Of its six commoners, one was a director of the Bank of England, one was a squire whose family had represented the same county in Parliament since the Sixteenth Century, one—who acted as Leader of the House of Commons—was the Prime Minister’s nephew and inheritor of a Scottish fortune of £4,000,000, and one, a notable and disturbing cuckoo in the nest, was a Birmingham manufacturer widely regarded as the most successful man in England.
Besides riches, rank, broad acres and ancient lineage, the new Government also possessed, to the regret of the Liberal Opposition and in the words of one of them, “an almost embarrassing wealth of talent and capacity.” Secure in authority, resting comfortably on their electoral majority in the House of Commons and on a permanent majority in the House of Lords, of whom four-fifths were Conservatives, they were in a position, admitted the same opponent, “of unassailable strength.”
Lord Salisbury was both the epitome of his class and uncharacteristic of it—except insofar as the freedom to be different was a class characteristic. He was six feet four inches tall, and as a young man had been thin, ungainly, stooping and shortsighted, with hair unusually black for an Englishman. Now sixty-five, his youthful lankiness had turned to bulk, his shoulders had grown massive and more stooped than ever, and his heavy bald head with full curly gray beard rested on them as if weighted down. Melancholy, intensely intellectual, subject to sleepwalking and fits of depression which he called “nerve storms,” caustic, tactless, absent-minded, bored by society and fond of solitude, with a penetrating, skeptical, questioning mind, he had been called the Hamlet of English politics. He was above the conventions and refused to live in Downing Street. His devotion was to religion, his interest in science. In his own home he attended private chapel every morning before breakfast, and had fitted up a chemical laboratory where he conducted solitary experiments. He harnessed the river at Hatfield for an electric power plant on his estate and strung up along the old beams of his home one of England’s first electric light systems, at which his family threw cushions when the wires sparked and sputtered while they went on talking and arguing, a customary occupation of the Cecils.
Lord Salisbury cared nothing for sport and little for people. His aloofness was enhanced by shortsightedness so intense that he once failed to recognize a member of his own Cabinet, and once, his own butler. At the close of the Boer War he picked up a signed photograph of King Edward and, gazing at it pensively, remarked, “Poor Buller [referring to the Commander-in-Chief at the start of the war], what a mess he made of it.” On another occasion he was seen in prolonged military conversation with a minor peer under the impression that he was talking to Field Marshal Lord Roberts.
[...]His acquaintance with games was confined to tennis, but when elderly he invented his own form of exercise, which consisted in riding a tricycle through St. James’s Park in the early mornings or along paths cemented for the purpose in the park of his estate at Hatfield. Wearing for the occasion a kind of sombrero hat and a short sleeveless cloak with a hole in the middle in which he resembled a monk, he would be accompanied by a young coachman to push him up the hills. At the downhill slopes, the young man would be told to “jump on behind,” and the Prime Minister, with the coachman’s hands on his shoulders, would roll away, cloak flying and pedals whirring.
A stubby Pickwickian figure with short legs, red cheeks, white tufts of hair over his ears and a humorous expression, Lord Halsbury, despite his genial manner, was a hard opponent, implacable at the bar, with a relentless memory. He wore a frock coat, a square-topped derby hat, a “true blue” Tory tie and, according to a younger member of the Upper House, “invariably objected on principle to all change.” Owing to meagre family finances, he had been educated at home by his father, a barrister and editor of a high Tory daily paper, the Standard, who gave him lessons in Greek, Latin and Hebrew until 4 A.M. and was so upright that he refused an offer from the Duke of Newcastle, an admirer of his paper, to put his three sons through Oxford.
Spencer Compton Cavendish, eighth Duke of Devonshire, [was] probably the only man in England both secure enough and careless enough to forget an engagement with his sovereign. Edward VII, having informed the Duke that he proposed to dine quietly with him at Devonshire House on a certain day, duly arrived, to the consternation of the household, for the Duke was not at home and had to be hurriedly retrieved from the Turf Club.
...all year the house was open to the public, who tramped through the halls in thousands. The Duke liked to watch them, and thinking his face as unknown to them as theirs to him, would stand, unconscious of being recognized, “wondering why the housemaid who acted as guide and the whole party had suddenly stood still and were staring at him.” Though racehorses were more to him than books, he once astonished his librarian who was showing him his own first edition of Paradise Lost by sitting down and reading it aloud from the first line with simple pleasure, until the Duchess came in and, poking the Duke with her parasol, remarked, “If he reads poetry he will never go for his walk.”
He liked old baggy, casual clothes, never took the slightest trouble with his guests, deliberately ignored those who might prove tiresome, and once, when a speaker in the House of Lords was declaiming on “the greatest moments in life,” the Duke opened his eyes long enough to remark to his neighbor, “My greatest moment was when my pig won first prize at Skipton Fair.”
Arthur Balfour, prince of the Cecil line, nephew of the Prime Minister and his political heir apparent, artist of debate and idol of Society, was the paragon of his party and its official Leader in the House of Commons. He was forty-seven in 1895 and, when his uncle retired in 1902, was to succeed him as Prime Minister. Over six feet tall, he had blue eyes, waving brown hair and moustache, and a soft, bland face that might have seemed vulnerable if it had not been smoothed to an external serenity. His expression was gentle, his figure willowy, his manner nonchalant, but there remained a mystery in his face. No one could tell what banked fires burned behind it or whether they burned or even if they existed. Rarely seen to sit upright, he reclined in indolent attitudes as close to the horizontal as possible, “as if to discover,” wrote Punch’s parliamentary correspondent, “how nearly he could sit on his shoulder blades.”
Balfour was careless of facts, unsafe with figures, and memory was not his strong point, but he surmounted this weakness by a technique that never failed to amuse the House. When dealing with a complicated bill he would take care to be flanked by a knowledgeable minister such as the Home Secretary or Attorney-General, and if he floundered over details his colleague could whisper a correction. As described by Sir Henry Lucy, parliamentary correspondent of Punch, Mr. Balfour would pause, regard the colleague with a friendly glance tinged with gentle admonition, and say, “Exactly.” At the next mistake and whispered correction, he would repeat the performance with a sterner note in his “Exactly,” conveying the impression that there was a limit to toleration in these matters and the colleague could be forgiven once but he really must not go on blundering.
One of Lord Salisbury’s nephews, Cecil Balfour, disappeared to Australia, over an affair of a forged check, and died there, it was said, of drink."Remittance Men" were reasonably common in the history of the region where I grew up, inspiring tall tales, speculation, and endless mirth. A few went on perilous expeditions and maintained legendary unflappable calm in the worst possible conditions. More games should include options for remittance men.
Horses, too, are often overlooked.
Owning a stud and breeding racehorses required an ample fortune. When Lord Rosebery, having married a Rothschild, won the Derby while Prime Minister in 1894, he received a telegram from Chauncey Depew in America, “Only heaven left.” Depew’s telegram proved an underestimate, for Rosebery won the Derby twice more, in 1895 and 1905. The Prince of Wales won it in 1896 with his great lengthy bay Persimmon, bred at his own stud, again in 1900 with Persimmon’s brother Diamond Jubilee, and a third time, as King, in 1909 with Minoru. As the first such victory by a reigning monarch, it was Epsom’s greatest day. When the purple, scarlet and gold of the royal colors came to the front at Tattenham Corner the crowd roared; when Minoru neck and neck with his rival battled it out at a furious pace along the rails they went mad with excitement and wept with delight when he won by a head. They broke through the ropes, patted the King on the back, wrung his hand, and “even policemen were waving their helmets and cheering themselves hoarse.”
It was said of Mr. Knox, private chaplain to the Duke of Rutland, that he wore boots and spurs under his cassock and surplice and “thought of horses even in the pulpit.” The Duke’s family could always tell by the speed of morning prayers if Mr. Knox were hunting that day or not.
In their luxurious and lavish world, self-indulgence was the natural law. Notable eccentrics like the nocturnal Duke of Portland and bad-tempered autocrats like Sir George Sitwell and Sir William Eden were merely representatives of their class in whom the habit of having their own way had gone to extremes. But for the majority it was easy to be agreeable when everything was done to keep them in comfort and ease and to make life for the great and wealthy as uninterruptedly pleasant as possible.
"Nocturnal" doesn't come close to describing the Duke of Portland. He stripped all the furniture from his ancestral home, painted the walls a specific shade of pink, constructed an enormous underground labyrinth (refusing to speak to or acknowledge the builders), kept a chicken roasting at all hours, fled from visitors and guests, and... well, just read the wiki article.
Sir George Sitwell traveled with an enormous medicine case full of mislabeled cures. He kept seven studies full of disorganized notes, invented all sorts of slightly baffling and unpopular things, and loathed being contradicted. He was so overbearing that his children invented a mythical yacht and pretended to take long sea voyages to avoid his near-daily letters.
Sir William Eden appears to have merely been cantankerous, irritable, and depressive.
Chapter 7 covers the start of an era outside the scope of Magical Industrial Revolution. The facts below are similar but the need to act on them hasn't reached the halls of power.
Investigations and reports appearing all at once after 1900 made harshly visible the fact and the consequences of extreme inequality in possession of material goods. ...Evidence accumulated that the richest country in the world rested on a foundation of one-third of its population living “in chronic poverty, unable to satisfy the primal needs of animal life.” Chiozza Money showed that economic inequality was particularly wide in England. In France, whose population was about the same, there were twice as many small estates between £500 and £10,000 as in England, but in the United Kingdom three times as many large estates over £50,000 and four times as many over £250,000 as in France.
The investigators produced the facts: sleep, diet, sanitation, privacy, even respiratory air, were inadequate for basic human needs. Professor Huxley had calculated that 800 cubic feet of air space per person was the ideal. Even the Poor House provided 300. In the slums people lived three to a bedroom of 700 cubic feet or, with children, eight and nine in a space of 1,200 cubic feet. Vermin lived with them, a piece of paper on the floor served as a toilet, fish on Sundays was the weekly protein for a family of eight, at two and a half ounces per portion. Children were stunted and pale, with rotting teeth, and if they went to school, sat dully at their desks or fell asleep. Ignorance and apathy as much as ill health were poverty’s product; the slums were sloughs of wasted lives. Overcrowding in country villages was often as bad. In an Oxfordshire cottage a family of eight slept in two beds with a pair of thin blankets among them, in a Yorkshire cottage husband and wife and five daughters shared two beds and an attic floor, in Somerset a mother and three children slept in one room, five children of both sexes up to the age of nineteen in another.
For unskilled and unorganized labour, working conditions matched the slums. At the Shawfield Chemical Works in Glasgow in 1897, year of the Diamond Jubilee, workmen received 3d. or 4d. an hour for a twelve-hour day, seven days a week, spent amid poisonous vapors without a lunch-hour rest. They ate lunch standing at the furnaces and if they took Sunday off were fined the next day’s wages. Lord Overtoun, owner of the Works, a philanthropist who gave £10,000 a year to charity, was a leading member of the Sunday Observance and Sunday Rest Societies. In other industries workers could be arrested for taking a day off without permission. If they applied for it, the request could be refused; if they took it anyway they could be, and often were, hauled off to a day in gaol. Skilled workers organized in England’s craft unions, the oldest in Europe, were better off. Numbering about one-fifth of all adult male workers, a larger proportion than in any other country, they had their own insurance and pension systems backed by large funds and they benefited from lower prices in their own cooperatives. Nevertheless, vis-à-vis capital, they were still on the defensive and the dark persistent presence of unemployment at their backs made them vulnerable.
England’s economy since 1900 had recovered from the depression of the nineties and was on the whole prosperous, active and expanding. Shippers and shipbuilders, bankers and millowners were busy, coal mines were operating to capacity, and although in chemical, electrical and other new industries the British were not as enterprising as some foreign competitors, most businesses, despite ups and downs, were doing well. Yet the gap in distribution of profits was growing not less but greater. While the rich lived at an acme of luxury and leisure, the purchasing power of wages was falling and human material deteriorating. The minimum height for recruits for the British Army was lowered from five feet three inches in 1883 to five feet in 1900.
Something was wrong with the system. Somehow the great mechanical and material achievements of the recent past had twisted society out of shape.