Thursday, March 05, 2015

Review: Black Diamonds

The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty

Black Diamonds

By Catherine Bailey
Penguin Books, December 2014

About the Book

Fans of Downton Abbey now have a go-to resource for fascinating, real-life stories of the spectacular lives led by England’s aristocrats. With the novelistic flair and knack for historical detail Catherine Bailey displayed in her New York Times bestseller The Secret Rooms, Black Diamonds provides a page-turning chronicle of the Fitzwilliam coal-mining dynasty and their breathtaking Wentworth estate, the largest private home in England.

When the sixth Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1902, he left behind the second largest estate in twentieth-century England, valued at more than £3 billion of today’s money—a lifeline to the tens of thousands of people who worked either in the family’s coal mines or on their expansive estate. The earl also left behind four sons, and the family line seemed assured. But was it?

As Bailey retraces the Fitzwilliam family history, she uncovers a legacy riddled with bitter feuds, scandals (including Peter Fitzwilliam’s ill-fated affair with American heiress Kick Kennedy), and civil unrest as the conflict between the coal industry and its miners came to a head. Once again, Bailey has written an irresistible and brilliant narrative history.

My Review

In a tale very reminiscent of Downton Abbey, readers will get an inside look into a real-life twentieth century noble family in southern Yorkshire, the Fitzwilliams. Owners of Wentworth House, the largest privately owned home in the U.K., the Fitzwilliam family obtained its wealth primarily through the coal and mineral royalties mined from the surrounding property.

The family’s story, not unlike the Crawleys, is riddled with drama, including mental illness (specifically epilepsy), forbidden marriages, illegitimate children, spoiled heirs, and vindictive family feuds, all amidst the backdrop of class warfare and political unrest that preceded and followed World War I. As certain aspects of early twentieth-century life came to light, they precipitated the end of an era: the deplorable working conditions in the mines and factories owned by the rich, the lack of a welfare safety net for families when workers were killed or maimed, the excessive wealth enjoyed by the nobility compared to the abject poverty of many of their employees. It was a time when the aura surrounding the nobility began to fade, when the feudal society that the country had practiced for hundreds of years began to falter.

There is not an aspect to this story that is uninteresting, but unfortunately the telling is rambling The narrative bounces back and forth, airing this branch and that branch of the family’s “dirty laundry” before hopping back to the societal and political goings-on of the day. In one chapter you hear about Toby Fitzwilliam’s spiteful and hypocritical mother, and in another, you read about how 13-year-old boys were hazed when they first began their work in the mines. It’s all intriguing, but some of the tangents seem unnecessary (are all the mining hazing rituals really necessary?) and therefore make the story somewhat disjointed.

Ms. Bailey’s central premise that the house symbolizes the tumultuous lives of the family and of British society in general rings true, but this book feels like three mini subjects crammed into one. I think a more focused account (either of the family or the estate itself) would have been stronger.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

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