'And yet, could the age of the conquering bourgeoisie flourish, when large tracts of the bourgeoisie itself found themselves so little engaged in the generation of wealth, and drifting so rapidly and so far away from the puritan ethic, the values of work and effort, accumulation through abstention, duty and moral earnestness, which had given them their identity, pride and ferocious energy? ... The fear - nay, the shame - of a future of parasites haunted them.' These sentences, from the Marxist historian E.J. Hobsbawm's The Age of Empire, 1875-1914, would make the perfect epitaph for Simon Blow's history of his maternal grandmother's family, the Tennants. Or for a Thatcherite tract on Britain's decline from Victorian values. Or for a great novel like Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. The rise and fall of a mercantile dynasty is a rich old subject, and can be approached from several angles. Which will Simon Blow's be? 'If I was more Tennant than anything else,' he writes, 'I began to wonder who the Tennants were. Should I be proud, worried or ashamed? What influence was this blood likely to have over my destiny?' It sounds like another search for identity - 'the curse of the age', as E.S. Turner recently remarked à propos of Gloria Vanderbilt's autobiography.
LRB 10 December 1987 | PDF Download