THE GENTRY takes a sequence of twelve individual gentry families, each at a particular crisis in their lives, and lines them up like a series of organ pipes, to make a history of England stretching over the last six hundred years.
Each family has fifty-odd years in the spotlight, usually an arc of three generations: parents, the protagonists and their children. Nearly all are lessons in survival: how to keep going when the world wants to do you down; how to make the best of the opportunities that are on offer; how to manipulate others; how to make government and the law work in your favour; how to resist or destroy your enemies. One or two are lessons in defeat: how to get it wrong, what happens when resolution fails, or more importantly, when a family loses its grip on the nature of reality. Together, they make a self-portrait of England, or at least of its central and culture-forming class.
Manipulative Yorkshire knight, Sir William Plumpton, throws his family into turmoil by fathering two sets of children on two different wives and leaving his entire estate to both. The descendants then go to war.
Honourable Sir George Throckmorton, a staunch Warwickshire Catholic, finds himself caught in the terrifying coils of high Tudor religious politics. He escapes with his life—just—but finds his family split down the middle, four sons fiercely Protestant, three sons revolutionary Catholics. The family becomes the seedbed of the Gunpowder Plot.
Sir John Thynne, a man on the make who has been conducting a multi-generational feud with his Wiltshire neighbours the Mervyns, finds himself caught out: the Mervyns kidnap his son, get him drunk and marry him in the middle of the night to their beautiful daughter Maria. A rolling family crisis erupts.
Sir John Oglander thinks of himself as part of the natural ruling class. He manages his estates in the Isle of Wight with diligence and in a way he hopes his ancestors might have approved of. He writes his whole life down in a series of large account books. But the idyllic scene breaks, first when Sir John’s beloved son dies and then as England tumbles into civil war.
A network of related and friendly gentry families spreads across the lanes, woods and into the manor houses of east Kent. Harry Oxinden, a minor littératteur, keeps everything, all their letters, drafts of his own, detailing the account of his head-over-heels love affair with a yeoman’s daughter and his disastrous falling into debt and poverty.
Oliver le Neve is part high Tory, huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ Norfolk squire, part descended from a family of London drapers, with commercial property in London. He has a foot in the old world of the gentry and a foot in the new world of commerce. And the two halves of him don’t co-habit too easily. When a Norfolk grandee challenges him to a duel, the question of Oliver’s honour, of his status as a man of arms, comes to the fore.
Stemming from old Yorkshire gentry stock, the early 18th-century Lascelles plunge into the high-octane world of Atlantic business. Slaves, sugar, credit, government jobs, the manipulation of markets, an unredeemed brutality in business practice: the Lascelles make one of the greatest fortunes England has ever seen.
Struggling with conditions in 1730s Antigua in the Leeward Islands, Colonel Lucas takes his family to South Carolina. Once he is there, he is almost immediately re-summoned to do his duty in the war against Britain’s enemies, leaving his 16-year-old daughter Eliza to run their estates, plantations and slaves.
Ne’er-do-well and rake John Capel, pursued by his creditors, takes his family to Brussels to find a cheaper life. It is 1814 and half of the English beau monde is there. The Capel daughters fall in love with, and are wooed by, one dashing officer after another. Their mother Caroline tries to hold the family together. But Harriet Capel falls for the most treacherous lover of all, the Dutch cavalry officer Baron Ernst Trip.
The third daughter of a poor Anglesey vicar brings as her dowry half of a small sour hill near Amlwch. It turns out to be made of copper, and within a few years of the discovery becomes the richest copper mine in the world. Through three generations, the Hugheses ride the money train, building a vast and echoing château on the north Welsh coast. It is a place designed for gaiety and happiness, but the Hugheses are so unpopular that almost no one ever comes to stay.
The fifteenth Acland baronet, inheriting some 17,000 acres of Somerset and Devon in 1939, decides that private property is the root of all evil and gives it all away to the National Trust. That is the story he promotes to the public anyway. In fact, as private papers reveal, he received a fortune from the National Trust, which he spent on campaigning for his idealistic political ends. And to the detriment of his family.
The Cliffords have been in the beautiful village of Frampton on Severn, amid the lush low dairy pastures of Gloucestershire, since a few years after the Norman Conquest. Rollo Clifford now struggles to maintain a village and estate in an honourable way but things are not so easy. The gravel in the gravel pits has run out, the land-fill site is full, agriculture is not what it was. How does a gentry family move on into the 21st century?