Aristocracy and Political Culture at the Fin de Siècle
Nancy W. Ellenberger
Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015
Hardcover. xvi+414. ISBN 978-1783270378. £30
Reviewed by Mark Klobas
Scottsdale Community College (Arizona)
As a politician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Arthur Balfour was a member of an endangered species: the aristocrat who chose a career in the public sphere. That this choice was unusual reflected the changes that were taking place in British society, as men from the business and professional classes increasingly supplanted those from the landed elite in the House of Commons. How Balfour navigated this changing social and cultural environment is the subject of Nancy Ellenberger’s challenging and enlightening study. Focusing on Balfour and some of the prominent members of his social circle – George and Mary Wyndham, Laura and Margot Tennant, and George Herbert, the 13th earl of Pembroke – she provides an examination of their inner worlds while showing how they adjusted to the changing external world in which they lived.
To show the range of effects of these changes on the lives of Balfour’s social circle, Ellenberger creates what she terms a ‘braided narrative’ . In successive chapters, she focuses on two or three members and analyses their lives within a thematic context. Though Balfour himself gets the benefit of a standalone chapter, often he recedes to the background as Ellenberger focuses on the relationships between the others to describe friendships, courtships, romantic relationships, and the changing role of women at that time. Using this approach, Ellenberger compares Balfour and Pembroke to examine the educational experiences of the era for men, Laura and Mary to present the adolescence of privileged girls, Margot and George to see the differing dangers faced by men and women of their class, Margot and Pembroke for insights into the construction of friendship, Mary and Balfour for the means of amusement, and Margot and Balfour for the nature of scandal of that age. It is an approach that yields bountiful dividends, providing studies of the varied opportunities and evolving standards for their time.
The dynamic of change is at the heart of Ellenberger’s analysis. As she demonstrates, the late-Victorian world in which these men and women came of age experienced a number of transformations which altered dramatically the lives of their class. One of the most important of these transformations was the extension of the public sphere, as the increasing role of the broader public – one informed by an expanding popular press – made the public affairs which were previously the purview of a relative few the concern of an increasing percentage of society. Politicians now had to concern themselves with not just winning over the cabinet and Parliament, but the public as well, requiring a greater skill at public relations than had been necessary before then. These changes were parallelled by transformations in gender relations and standards, science and thought, and the role of Britain in the world, all of which created new opportunities and challenges for the members of Balfour’s generation.
What emerges is a sense of how Balfour and his friends defined themselves as elites in a time when their status and role within British society was shifting. As Ellenberger shows, theirs was a world unlike any that their ancestors had known, with not just the men but the women of their class performing on a more public stage. In some ways this continued to bind them to a ‘script’ of gender and cultural expectations, now one that encouraged more open expression of their inner selves, albeit in a manner controlled by the context of private and small-group interactions. As a result, a persona of the reserved, detached individual was adopted by many of them, embodied best by Balfour himself, who made it the hallmark of his public political image.
Ellenberger bases her analysis in an impressively wide range of both archival and published sources. Her incorporation of the cultural context broadens her scope to include literary studies as well, demonstrating the virtue of an inter-disciplinary approach to studying the past. Yet this comes at a price, as her writing is often burdened with jargon that can make her arguments difficult to understand. It requires a closer reading of Ellenberger’s arguments, though in the end such an effort pays considerable rewards in terms of her analysis of Balfour’s social circle and the insights she gleans from their experiences. This is a book that should be read not just by those interested in Balfour and his acquaintances, but by anyone seeking to learn more about late Victorian society and how the young members of its elite adapted to the new demands they faced.
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