- - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BLACK DIAMONDS: THE DOWNFALL OF AN ARISTOCRATIC DYNASTY AND THE FIFTY YEARS THAT CHANGED ENGLAND

By Catherine Bailey

Penguin Books, $16, 518 pages, illustrated

As anyone who has read Catherine Bailey’s “The Secret Rooms” knows, there is nothing that excites her as much as an aristocratic family graced with a beautiful mansion and bedeviled by a secret. Wholesale destruction of archival material and coverups only increase her determination to get to the bottom of why the family was so dedicated to them. In “The Secret Rooms,” a certain tunnel vision sometimes led her to neglect alternative avenues and explorations, so bent was she on hammering home her chosen thesis. Although “Black Diamonds” shares some of the overheated tendencies of “The Secret Rooms” — to say nothing of being a jolly good read — on the whole its narrative is more measured and ultimately more convincingly fascinating.

If the Earls Fiztwilliam, the family in “Black Diamonds,” are a couple of ranks below the Dukes of Rutland in “Secret Rooms,” their mansion Wentworth House is perhaps even grander than Belvoir Castle. Ms. Bailey informs us that “its facade was the longest in Europe. The house had a room for every day of the year and five miles of passageways. Its size is truly extraordinary. Imagine Buckingham Palace: the glorious sweeping East Front at Wentworth is almost twice as long.” When the sixth earl died in 1902, he would leave the second-largest estate of an Englishman in the 20th century and “Wentworth was the largest privately owned house in Britain. It still is today.” Unlike most 21st century grand houses, it is not part of The National Trust and open to the public, but owned by what Ms. Bailey describes as “a reclusive figure about whom little is known.”

By the time, we have heard the twisted family saga involving illegitimacies real or alleged, feuds, assorted cruelties and debaucheries before the peerage became extinct with the death of the 10th earl in 1979, there is a certain fittingness about the house’s status, although one writer has called “its closure to the public a crying shame.” The goingson at Wentworth are inevitably reminiscent of the fictional “Downton Abbey” now in its fifth season on “Masterpiece Theatre,” but they are at once grander, more sordid and generally harder-edged. The king and queen, no less, come to stay in 1912, but their visit, for all its splendor, is marred by an explosion at one of the family’s collieries, resulting in the death of dozens of coal miners and many more injuries. There’s even a connection to American “royalty”: President Kennedy’s oldest and favorite sister Kathleen was eloping with the eighth Earl Fitzwilliam in 1948 when both were killed in a plane crash.

Ms. Bailey is wonderful at describing the splendid meals and lavish living and entertainments, but her story is altogether a much less frivolous one than the cozy “Downton.” The Fitzwilliam fortune was not, like that of so many aristocrats, based on land (although they weren’t short of that, either), but on coal, the eponymous black diamonds. They were generally considered beneficent landlords and employers, although Ms. Bailey points out the iniquities of the system, such as the families of miners killed in accidents losing their homes: cottages tied to actually being employed. The mining even cast its shadow on the house and its magnificent adjacent park surrounded by a nine-mile-long stone wall. There was coal dust everywhere.

As Ms. Bailey writes, “Millions of tons of coal lay under the land, but so rich was the earl that he had no need to mine it. Yet even he could not inure Wentworth from the grime that trespassed inside the boundaries of the park.”

The Fitzwilliams may have had no need to mine in their front-yard, but Britain’s postwar socialist government nationalized the British coal industry, and it not only insisted on digging there but doing so in the manner most calculated to destroy the property’s beauty. Desperate to increase the supply of Britain’s main fuel source, the government minister in charge was Manny Shinwell, smarting from the Tory slogan “Shiver with Shinwell,” and in any case, a hard left-winger with no time for the aristocracy.

A member of the family described his plan as “politically vicious, a vicious spiteful act,” described by Ms. Bailey “as the proposal to mine the formal gardens — a site directly behind the baroque West Front — that threatened to blight Wentworth House. The magnificent 300-year-old beech avenue that ran down the Long Terrace the pink shale path, with its dramatic floral rondels, together with ninety-nine acres of immaculately tended lawns, shrubbery, and luxuriant herbaceous borders were scheduled to be uprooted, scars to the landscape. The overburden from the open-cast mining — top soil, mangled plants and pieces of rubble — was to be piled fifty feet high outside the main entrance to the West Front.”

The decision to mine in this manner, which also despoiled the nearby village, appears to be nothing less than vindictive vandalism, class war revenge in brutal form. The Fitzwilliams had allowed vast quantities of their coal to be mined from outside the park during World War II in return for a guarantee that the area close to the house would be spared. But, as Ms. Bailey writes, Shinwell’s plan was a breach of this promise. In this latest season’s premiere episode, Downton’s earl was spooked by Britain’s first Labor government in 1924, but could he have even dreamed of something like this happening just two decades later?

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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