ON this side of the Atlantic, David Cannadine's new book, ``Aspects of Aristocracy: Grandeur and Decline in Modern Britain,'' seems likely to appeal to American Anglophiles nostalgic for the worlds of ``Upstairs Downstairs,'' ``The Pallisers,'' and ``Lord Peter Wimsey.'' In his native England, however, Professor Cannadine's latest study of the British aristocracy in its sunset years has been stirring up controversy.
``Don All Set to Demolish More Toffs,'' ran a headline from an article in London's Evening Standard newspaper comparing Cannadine's attitude toward his upper-class subjects with the grim glee of French Revolutionary tricoteuses contemplating the spectacle of soon-to-be-guillotined nobility.
Meanwhile, in another London journal, the Spectator, Nigel Nicolson leapt to the defense of his parents, diplomat/diarist Harold Nicolson and author/gardener Vita Sackville-West, who are portrayed in the last chapter of Cannadine's book, not as the the bravely unconventional couple seen in their son's remarkably frank 1973 book, ``Portrait of a Marriage,'' but as an all-too-typical pair of class-conscious snobs unable to adjust to the modern world.
One doesn't have to read all that closely between the lines to detect the overtones of class warfare, as Cannadine continues to chronicle the increasing insignificance of a once-powerful peerage in books like this - and its much longer predecessor ``The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy'' (1990) - provoking critics like Nigel Nicolson and Tory pundit Paul Johnson to denounce the Birmingham-born Cannadine as a tin-eared upstart.
While some portraits of individuals and families are rather harsh, ``Aspects of Aristocracy'' is, by and large, an insightful, well-researched, at times even sprightly look at the many ways in which the upper classes adapted to changing circumstances.
The first essay describes the establishment of a ``supra-national'' class of British (as distinct from English, Scottish, Irish, or Welsh) aristocrats in the reactionary years following the American and French Revolutions. This massive consolidation of land, money, titles, and power, however, was at least to some extent based on the nobility's ability to borrow large sums of cash.
In contrast to the generally-held view that Regency rakes racked up debts that were later paid off by more sober Victorian sons, Cannadine argues in the next chapter that changing external conditions (land values, rents, agricultural prices) had more impact on the fortunes of a given family than the wisdom or folly of individual members.
The third chapter, ``Nobility and Mobility in Modern Britain,'' cries out for transformation into a TV documentary. It discusses the long association between aristocrats and horses, and shows how various hard-riding country gentlemen (and ladies) adjusted to inventions like the locomotive, the automobile, and the airplane.
Chapters four through six depict ``Individuals in Context''; a fascinating study of Lord Curzon, who perfected the art of public ceremonial; a more pedestrian but still valuable look at Lord Strickland, who vainly tried to strengthen ties between his beloved Britain and his native Malta; and a rather crude portrait of Winston Churchill as the one redeeming member of a ``declining and degenerate'' dynasty.
Cannadine's chief target - more than the snobbery of aristocrats themselves - is what he calls the cult of nostalgia prevalent among the rest of the populace. He finds it ironic that the same middle-class tourists who enthuse over the gardens at Sissinghurst would have been labeled ``bedint,'' or common, by the gardens' creator, Vita Sackville-West.
It is perhaps even more ironic that Cannadine has made his name writing magisterial studies of aristocratic decline that probably appeal to the very nostalgia he denounces.