Sunday, September 14, 2014

A silver spoon and then some

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, childhood, wealth

Anthony Russell isn't the first to write of growing up "catastrophically coddled" in the "monumental luxury" of an aristocratic British family (another recent example is A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth's Castle by Liza Campbell). However, having two grandmothers, who own two castles, raises the stakes a bit, particularly when the primary one is Leeds Castle, frequently referred to as the loveliest castle in England, or in the world. As he writes in Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle, Anthony Russell and his family spent most weekends there until he was ready to move out on his own.

In this panorama from Wikimedia, the original 12th Century castle is on the left, and the "modern", 17th Century and later structures are to the right. If I have figured out the author's descriptions, the more central structure is the Maiden Tower, where the maids in waiting for Catherine of Aragon were housed for the wedding of Henry VIII; it was remodeled and the author's family were moved there when a fourth child was born (Anthony was the third).

There's just a bit of "poor little rich kid" about the book, and not unjustified. He writes of "the castle way", a relic of feudal times maintained by the strong will and management skills of his maternal grandmother, Lady Baillie, whom he dubs Granny B. She had bought the castle for a bit less than a million pounds sterling in the mid 1920s (late in the Downton Abbey era, to fans of the show). That comes to about $55 million in current purchasing power. Its upkeep had been neglected since about 1800, and she quickly took that in hand, restoring its elegance.

I sometimes equate people's station in life with what they collect, and how fervently they do so. My parents and I visited two mansions in Delaware on the same day in 1997. In the morning, the Shipley Manor, and in the afternoon, Winterthur, one of the du Pont homes. Shipley Manor is a lovely, large house, once filled with artworks, though fewer remain at present, on stunning grounds with a substantial collection of plantings, a private arboretum in its day. Half of Shipley Manor would fit into one of the larger rooms of Winterthur, which Henry Francis du Pont built to house his collection of rooms from other mansions, primarily American. Rooms. He or his agents would go to a place, contract for the purchase of one or more rooms, and obtain measurements for a structure to be built to house them. The total is 175 rooms and their furnishings and artworks. At the end of the day, I said to my folks, "Now I know the difference between rich and stinking rich."

In addition to her passion for restoring and living well in Leeds, Granny B collected people. Not too many, but she had her "court" of regulars aristocrats at various levels, who tended to hang out at Leeds, or wherever she was in various seasons, plus an estate manager and a couple of advisers, and the staff of 50 or so who looked after castle affairs, the "below stairs" staff overseen by an impeccable butler.

Granny A, Lady Ampthill, was a different sort of woman. Her Irish castle was smaller, but sumptuous enough! She loved riding and fox hunts. She was just as strong willed as Granny B but had differing interests, and employed only a skeleton staff. The author admits that though visits with her were few, he'd have been better prepared for "life outside" by growing up under her care. Sadly, she and her son could only bear one another in small doses, so her grandchildren saw little of her.

In the early 1920s a scandal about the paternity of Granny A's son, the author's father, was decided favorably, though not to the liking of a younger heir. In the 1960s this heir revived the matter, which was finally decided the same as before. This emphasizes the British style of inheritance, in which the eldest son gets everything, unless there are no sons; only then can a woman inherit. Daughters and younger sons may get trust fund pensions at most. Anthony never mentions that, as the third son, the trust that supported him from age 21 was the most he could expect from his family's estate. He doesn't mention the level of support provided, but I suspect it far exceeds my Social Security!

The castle way was a combination of stiff-upper-lip stoicism amidst amazing luxury and, for the children, the clear understanding that they were to be neither seen nor heard except upon explicit invitation. Anthony and his brothers and younger sister were brought up by Nanny Penney, whom they loved at least as much as their mother. She was their constant companion and guide and mentor. Though the boys might have gained much from the mentorship of "Morg", David Margesson, the administrator for Granny B, who clearly loved the children, contact was quite limited by the castle way.

Anthony was seventeen when his older brother James died in a car accident. This incident and its aftermath pretty much bring the memoir to a close. The two closing chapters mainly serve to hint at the author's gradual success in making a life for himself since about 1970. He never mentions "intimations of mortality", and though the chapter's title is "Heaven and Hell", its focus is on his inner journey to come to terms with bereavement, a nearly silent witness to his parents' grief.

I enjoy touring castles that permit visitors. Now even more than before, I'm glad I don't live in one.

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