For reasons which are obscure. 1989-90 seem to be the years in which mega-books of history, none them less than six hundred pages, have become best-sellers: for example, Simon Schama's Citizens, Roy Foster's Modern Ireland. Jonathan Spence's Search for Modern China. And now here comes another one, 813 pages of it, which is virtually certain also to be a best-seller, at least in Britain. The general outlines of the decline and fall of the British landed establishment from 1880 to the present day have long been apparent. In status, its members have sunk from haughty idols, demanding and getting deferential respect, to tourist guides for the millions who yearly tramp through their houses. In political power, they used to control the countryside as Lords Lieutenant and JPs, formed a solid majority in the House of Commons, composed almost the entire body of the House of Lords, dominated the Cabinet, and virtually hogged the office of Prime Minister. Now they are politically marginalised, both in local government and in the two major parties at Westminster. In wealth, they used to own about 75 per cent of the land of England and Wales, and large areas of urban real estate; today, only a handful of old landed millionaires are left, and every decade they are obliged to sell off more capital assets.
LRB 22 November 1990 | PDF Download