Gossipy history of the England’s Spencer dynasty, culminating in a cry-for-Di recap.
To the sagging shelf of Di-and-Charles studies comes this thoughtful, witty account of the Princess of Wales’s most famous and infamous ancestors (first published in Britain in 1999). Beginning with Robert Spencer, a thrifty, generous 16th-century sheep farmer whose “fearsome fortune” inspired a knighthood from Henry VIII, we meet his son, Henry, who bought himself into the aristocracy and became the first Earl of Sunderland (who, although he didn’t care for Charles I, died in battle defending him). Brother Robert, the “shameless” Sunderland, switched religions twice as he tried to preserve his fortune, his country estate, his collections of books and paintings, and his head during England’s dizzy counter-reformation. Joined to the Marlboroughs by marriage (Winston Churchill was a distant descendant), the Spencers fluttered about the monarchy as critics, courtiers, ministers, and confidantes: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, became the richest woman in the realm (acquiring, among other estates, the grounds of Wimbledon) by draining the nation’s treasury while enduring what might have been a lesbian relationship with Queen Anne. The family had its share of noble souls (George Spencer became a Catholic priest, swore a vow of poverty, and is on the Vatican’s waiting list for sainthood), party animals (Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire’s wild parties hosted the Whig opposition to George III), and spendthrift incompetents (Lord Balfour found in John Poyntz, the fifth Earl, “an amazing example . . . of what can be done in this country by a noble presence, a great hereditary position, and a fine personal record, assisted by no intellectual parts of any kind”). Pearson (Painfully Rich, 1995, etc.) is less assured with contemporary subjects, especially when arguing that the marriage of Diana Spencer to Prince Charles went sour as a result of too much history and contrary genes.
A funny, frustrating, and ultimately bitter footnote to the House of Windsor’s most ignoble affair. (15 b&w photos)