Splendour & Squalor by Marcus Scriven was published by Atlantic Books. The book offers a kaleidoscopic view of members of the British aristocracy that behaved with anything but noblesse. It’s a treasure trove of stories for friends of the weird, the wacky, and the wonderfully eccentric.
Marcus Scriven piles it on thickly. He recounts the tales of aristocrats who fell from lofty heights to rock bottom. He collected the unpleasant and the plainly unlucky, the eccentric and the weird, and the madmen and the bad apples. It all adds up to a colorful book which appeals to the Schadenfreude crowd as well as to readers who just enjoy real life stories that are hard to believe but true.
Noblesse oblige implies aristocrats’ basic belief in their own worth coupled with an understanding that people less fortunate are worthy of attention and help. It would mean that they themselves are only one in a long line of worthies out to enhance the family’s standing and wealth. This book will abuse readers of that idea and shows the tail end of the coin where personal gratification comes first and foremost.
One of the famous and well known stories is that of Edward FitzGerald, 7th Duke of Leinster, who spent his life on the run from his creditors. Born a younger son without a foreseeable future of becoming Duke one day, he developed an eccentric streak early on. At Eton he kept snakes as pets. Over the years, the pets would become more numerous and exotic. He managed to amass debts of £67,000 by 1920 aged 27 (in today’s money about £16 millions).
FitzGerald contracted a deal with a loan shark who paid off his debts and guaranteed him a yearly fixed income of £1,000 for live. In return, the shark would receive all the income from the estates should he become Duke of Leinster one day. 17 months later, his brother died and he became the 7th Duke, living on £1,000 a year until 1976.
The story of a really unpleasant specimen is recounted with the life of John Hervey, 7th Marquess of Bristol who died in 1999 aged 44. A predatory homosexual, he boasted Rupert Everett among his many lovers. He married hours before his 30th birthday to gain more funds out of his trust fund. The marriage was made in hell, and his wife Francesca Fisher soon left him.
I remember him as an unpleasant and imposing individual. In 1980, I was sitting in a coffee shop on a Central European motorway lay-by reading the local newspaper when somebody plonked down at my table without as much as by your leave. He pushed his business card at me saying: ‘I am the future Marquess of Bristol. Are you ever coming to England on holidays?’ I said that I do from time to time. ‘Good. I like your looks. Call me when you are there. I want to adopt you.’ Then he left to rejoin his companion. Somehow, I was so impressed by him I forgot his card on the table.
His father, Victor Hervey, 6th Marquess of Bristol, was also a creep. He enjoyed setting fire to his room at Eton and would set the door handles under electricity. As a young man, he drove his car into a row of waiting cabs to see if they would fold up like a concertina. He loathed his son and placed an ad into The Times before his son’s marriage to announce that he was unable to attend due to a prior engagement.
Marcus Scriven has collected many more of these stories about wacky aristocrats. While I enjoyed the stories, Marcus Scriven used a rather too rich style in his writing for my taste. But the book was still a good read. The stories told are highly amusing, sometimes astonishing, and just what you need over a hot cup of tea on a rainy afternoon. Even if you don’t go in for the Schadenfreude part, the sheer weirdness will keep you enthralled.