Two fine book reviews from English 650 Master's Students

I = Wade Newhouse, below
II = Michael Greco, click here.


Wade Newhouse

Dr. Morillo

March 6, 1997

William B. Willcox. The Age of Aristocracy: 1688-1830. Boston: D.C.
Heath and Company, 1966. 237 pp.

This compact little book is Volume III of a series entitled A History of England, edited by Lacey Baldwin Smith, and its inclusion in this series reveals much about its scope and intent. Smith writes in the Preface to the series that "their authors have tried by artistry to step beyond the usual confines of a textbook and conjure up something of the drama of politics, of the wealth of personalities, and even of the pettiness, as well as the greatness, of human motivation." Some of this can be found in The Age of Aristocracy; some of it cannot. William B. Willcox's device for covering the significant people and events of one hundred forty-two years in only two hundred thirty-seven pages is to view them through the lens of the changing power of the oligarchy, and the evolving relationship between Monarch and Parliament. Important military and social events thus become the results of political maneuvering between these governing forces; the book's focus is upon the interdependency of society and event to recreate a sense of what Smith calls "the majestic sweep of history" from 1688 to 1830.

Willcox begins and ends his history with the spoils and applications of revolution. Between the Glorious Revolution and the introduction of the Reform Bill in 1831, Willcox sees the rise and gradual fall of a British aristocracy that "ruled. . . as never before or since" (236), and provided the transition from the world of post-medieval feudalism to the beginnings of the imperialistic British Empire. This is a lot to cover, and Willcox attacks the process by focusing his attention primarily upon the individuals who served as high-ranking ministers in the evolving Cabinet. By explaining the political forces that shaped these men, and then the actions they took in office, Willcox manages to spread his energies fairly evenly between dissecting the mechanisms behind British politics and explaining the world events in which these politics took part.

Willcox does discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the individual monarchs, but for the most part these kings and queens are spectators; Willcox's real interest is in the politicians, and his book works best when he manages to draw concise and important connections between such men as Marlborough, Chesterfield, Walpole, and North, and the social forces that they harnessed to get their jobs done. Lord Chesterfield, for example, is presented as the epitome of the eighteenth-century Gentleman; his letters of advice to his son Philip provide a standard by which Willcox introduces the world of manners and form that provide the background for the rest of the book. "What Chesterfield saw was there," says Willcox, "the love of form and style and the surface of life" (51). Most of these miniature portraits are very effective: Robert Walpole has an entire chapter devoted to his era, and he provides a stable center through which to understand the dizzying political problems of dealing with Hanoverian succession, the creation of British financial empires such as the Bank of England and the South Sea Company, and the intricate relationships between peace, foreign diplomacy, and their effect on British business interests. Two different William Pitts are also well-served, and the Younger is particularly interesting when shown to wrestle with the practical application of Adam Smith's economic innovations. This section, in which Willcox describes Pitt as a man who "as a politician was much less interested in theory than in what would work" (138), is a good illustration of The Age of Aristocracy at its most impressive, giving concrete examples of political and economic theory being applied to a specific time and place. When the economics get too dry, the personalities of the leadership usually keep Willcox's prose from drying up with them.

To keep the pace moving briskly along, Willcox's chapters alternate in focus between the functioning of the social and parliamentary systems and its application to the next political crisis. Two large chapters, "The Structure of the Oligarchy" and "Pause Between Storms," retreat from the macrocosm of British world policy and give Willcox the opportunity to color his history with some detail about daily life, the arts and sciences, and religion. These spheres of influence do not come to play a large role in Willcox's story, and although they provide some background information that might be necessary to understand the motivations of the men in the forefront, they seem to serve primarily as a means of building our interest in the next big world conflict, glimpsed on the horizon of the upcoming chapter. A brief overview of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution in "Pause Between Storms" reminds us how steam engines work and roads and canals are constructed; this information does not strongly influence the story, except to explain why "industry was generating a movement to reform the nation's economic policy" (137). Once this reform is discussed, the earlier information about the industries themselves no longer feels relevant. Still, such episodes are important—there is the sense that perhaps Willcox decided to devote some time to them because they would be expected, rather than because they fit well with his agenda or his style.

The most interesting parts of Willcox's narrative are the periods of warfare, but here the scope and breadth of the book come into conflict with the substance of the history. Simply put, there is simply too much information in the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Polish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, the War for American Independence, and the Napoleonic Wars for any of them to assume much life in just over two hundred pages. It is in the chapter devoted to the American Revolution that Willcox's strategy of focusing on prominent men begins to come apart, because British leaders such as Howe, Clinton, and Cornwallis are presented as military men with few definite connections to British national policy. As a result, the story of the war becomes a story of campaigns and strategic blunders carried out in rapid succession, rather than a consideration of the strengths or failures of government. There are some interesting moments here—we are told, for example, that "Generals and admirals were gentlemen even before they were officers, and many of them did not scruple to put their dignity or political opinions ahead of their professional duty" (109)—but too many intriguing possibilities are raised and then discarded. In his overview of the relative strengths and weaknesses of both sides, Willcox proclaims "the notion that rebel Minute Men and militia, fired by the Spirit of '76, could stand up to British regulars in a pitched battle in the open is one of the myths about the war" (107); in later pages, however, we learn that George Washington "destroyed a British force" at Princeton (110). Such a combination of statements is not necessarily contradictory, but turning points such as these make us long for detail, whether of character, strategy, or significance, that too much of this book simply does not provide.

The final portion of the book, following the British reaction to the French Revolution and the seemingly endless war against the new Republic and, eventually, Napoleon, is much better, because the struggle against France is presented as the outgrowth of more fundamental questions about Britain's own changing government. The French Revolution provides a voice to governing principles that "are in striking contrast to the ideas enunciated by Parliament in the Glorious Revolution" (149), and Willcox does an excellent job of analyzing what these different forms of government mean for the rulers, aristocracy, and general population of both nations. Important figures of British literary thought show up in this section: Burke, Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley are quoted and serve to provide a historical voice to back up Willcox's descriptions of life on the besieged island. This is perhaps the most effective portion of the book because specific historical events are discussed in enough detail to allow us to see all the strands of progress (social, political, industrial, military) that Willcox has been struggling to hold together from the beginning. His description of the Battle of the Nile, for example, draws upon earlier analyses of French and British naval innovations, the use of naval power as a tool of British diplomacy and public policy, and concise but colorful descriptions of Napoleon and Horatio Nelson to create a uniquely complete picture of the battle and its consequences, "epochal because it revealed a new approach to naval war" (164). It is an exciting and an enlightening episode, and suggests how Willcox's design might look if he had another hundred pages or so with which to develop his characters.

Napoleon's land campaigns do not get this kind of attention, but Willcox does pause to explain how the French army becomes a type of revolution in its own right. Again Willcox is successful in using a practical historical example to illustrate a pivotal conceptual moment in his gradually dissolving world of aristocracy:

The nature of battle changed to match the changed nature of the fighting

man. The French opposed mass to specialized training, fervor to

discipline, and could afford much heavier losses than the enemy. French

soldiers soon learned how to utilize their advantages on the battlefield,

flowing around the static lines of regulars, and how to turn their

opponents' retreat into a rout. Battle thereupon began to yield them rich dividends.

It ceased to be "the remedy of the desperate," and became the means to winning

a campaign, a province, an empire. The old days of limited war for limited ends were over. (156)

In context, this description of Napoleon's army becomes also a conversation upon the outdated nature of the British aristocracy itself, and it becomes easy to see how the changing tactics on the battlefield reflect changing notions of men and individual responsibility. Willcox's final chapter, describing the collapse of Tory politics, is somewhat anticlimactic. He reverts back to earlier strategies of cataloguing names and dates too hurriedly for us to easily absorb them; such a barrage of information is not as thought-provoking as this line from the final paragraph of the book: "[The British aristocracy] knew by instinct when their power was ebbing, and were able to surrender it with good grace" (237).

The Age of Aristocracy will probably not deepen the understanding of anyone already familiar with the essential names and places of its chronology, but this does not seem to be its goal. Instead, Willcox attempts to remind his readers consistently that government is composed of men who act and react to events and patterns many years in the making. The book's 237-page length is appropriate for such a goal, in order that we might not forget how those patterns began and from what forces they were born. For Willcox, these patterns extend even into our own century, and he is careful to remind us of the similarities between figures such as William Pitt and Winston Churchill while raising the spectre of modern Fascism in "the revolutionary idea of nationalism that the French had sown, particularly in Germany and Italy" (211). Willcox's book hobbles a bit on a few too many legs without enough muscle, but it is unassuming and involving. The British aristocracy, writes Willcox, "did not battle to the death" (237), and neither does his brief study of its twilight.

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