Old Families

Margaret Drabble’s Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Edward Gibbon as coming from “a good family”. The English do not need to have it explained to them what that means; other cultures might need it translated into their terms, so that the Pole could be told that he was a Pan and the Spaniard that he was an hidalgo. However, the way in which the English identify their gentry classes by means of a phrase that sounds as if it ought to mean the opposite of “a bad family” is deeply instructive. “A bad family” might be one where the man drinks, beats his wife, and molests the kids; in that sense a good family might very well be a bad family, without in the least ceasing to be a good family. Of course, the opposite of a Englishman being of “a good family” in Drabble’s sense is that he is “of no family”, which, in much the same manner as the Spanish terminology, replaces moral confusion with biological impossibility.

And then there is the similar business of “old families”; it was typically Chesterton who pungently pointed out that all families are of equal age. Funnily enough, it was a noble lord who best subverted this vocabulary, when he was being unfairly mocked by Harold Wilson for being “the 13th Lord Home”, as if he were thereby self-evidently incompetent to hold office. The Scottish gentleman in question retorted that he supposed that his socialist opponent was “the 13th Mr. Wilson”. Depending on when the surname solidified, he could indeed have been the 13th or the 23rd Mr. Wilson; but reflecting on that fact entirely unravels the aristocratic fiction that commoners are not themselves the latest representative of ancient families but somehow pop up, like mushrooms, whenever the nobleman requires them to do something for him.

Posted on June 7, 2012 at 11:45 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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