Rake's progress

Amphibious Thing: the life of Lord Hervey

Lucy Moore<em> Viking, 376pp, £20</em>

ISBN 067089786X

If there is one hereditary quality that the Herveys possess, it is a perpetual ability to entertain the purveyors and consumers of gossip - witness the 7th Marquess of Bristol, who died last year at the age of 44. A married homosexual, like his ancestor, he was known to the tabloids for squandering £7m on drug consumption of heroic proportions, for his two stints in jail as a result, and for his fondness for peppering champagne-filled refrigerators and American house guests at stately Ickworth with gunshot. His schizophrenic half-brother and heir, Lord Nicholas Hervey, hanged himself aged 35, while their father, Victor, the thrice- married 6th Marquess, was notorious for running guns in the Spanish civil war in support of the republicans, whom he later betrayed.

It is clear, from reading Lucy Moore's biography of their ancestor, that the family has always been a bit rum. Moore's Lord Hervey played an important role in England's political and social life: a contemporary of Swift, Fielding, Gay, Hogarth, Pope and the exiled Voltaire, he was the favourite of both the Prince of Wales and Queen Caroline, and enjoyed the role of right-hand man to Britain's first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole. But, like his wastrel successors, he enjoyed a spectacular fall from grace: a married man ultimately destroyed by the flaunting of his ten-year affair with Stephen Fox.

That Hervey's overt homosexuality was tolerated for so long says much about the class system that then prevailed. In 18th-century England, sodomy was punishable by death; and while homosexuality continues to be known in some quarters as "the English disease", it was then deemed to be "this foreign vice". Even in their less debauched moments, Hervey and his contemporaries remained in an all-male world: that of parliament and the clubs and coffee houses of St James's, where, in the absence of women, they could muse on the classical nobility of their homoerotic love.

Nobody would claim that Lord Hervey was anything more than a footnote in history, but in Moore's deft hands he becomes the peg on which to hang a far larger picture, and this excellent book has much of importance to say about the society, politics and attitudes of his day.

Still young, Moore is an exciting historian with a keen eye for the eccentric and the offbeat; and, one or two errors notwithstanding - for instance, Charles James Fox was never prime minister - this is an exemplary work.