Right, Charlie

The Spencer Family

Charles Spencer <em>Viking, 368pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0670883239

An interesting fellow, the ninth Earl Spencer; and particularly so when the qualities and privileges of our traditional betters have recently been given more of a going over than at any time since his sister, whom you must remember, died. Spencer it was who set the furore further aroar with an angry Abbey eulogy that attacked the Windsors for removing Diana's royal highness and the press for unceasingly questing to bring her down. The crowds outside began spontaneously to applaud; an example taken up, if not quite so enthusiastically, by the establishment within. Here, it seemed, with the clank of armour and the slap of the gauntlet, was a knight of yore, one who talked of "blood family", who saw truth and blame with a fearless, cathartic clarity. A People's Hero to follow the People's Princess.

And then, the next day, we said: hang on a minute. Isn't this bloke a journalist himself? And doesn't he live in South Africa? How's he going to play this determined, close and vital role in his nephews' upbringing from there, then? And didn't he refuse to let his sister have the house she wanted on his estate at Althorp after her divorce? And surely the Windsors are equally the "blood family" of the two young princes? And who wrote the speech anyway?

Interesting. And it didn't stop there. Soon it emerged that he had been campaigning for a privacy law while he and his wife were privately negotiating a large payment to appear in Hello! magazine. Next came his divorce, in which rather more ignoble behaviour than we would care to go into was revealed. But we did ask: why is he letting all this come out? If he had instituted proceedings in London, none of it would have been reportable. And the answer seemed to be: because the divorce wouldn't cost him so much in South Africa.

Interesting. There's quite a lot more like it, too. My own particular favourite is the interview he gave to publicise his first book, about Althorp, in which he revealed his deep fears about excessive trespassing into the lives of his nephews before moving on to discuss in some detail their possible plans for the future.

So: is this man a hypocrite? Daft? Barmy? Or merely displaying the traditional failure of his class to account for itself, to itself or anyone else? I must say I rather subscribe to the last, if least interesting, view. Especially after reading his second book, which isn't interesting in many ways. Pace Tolstoy, most noble family histories are as boring as those of yours or mine; but they go on longer. And the Spencers, in any case, are far from our most interesting noble family. There is the serpentine Earl of Sunderland, the Blackadder of Stuart-Orange Britain, a few promising ne'er-do-wells who died early for obvious reasons, the feisty (if over-exposed) Sarah Marlborough and Georgiana Devonshire: but mostly the Spencers, by this one's account, have been worthy, dull and denied any lasting fame by any overriding ambition for it. When I tell you the best eccentric they can rustle up in 1,000 years is a toss-up between the one who wore big collars and the one who became a Roman Catholic Passionist, you will get the picture.

It is quite interesting, for a bit, to spot the dramatic ironies, as other Spencer women, notably the two above, foreshadowed Diana, but you do have to struggle with the ninth Earl's prose style, which here does not match the liveliness of his famous oration. This, together with the lack of acknowledgements, caused me to telephone his publishers to ask if it was all his own work. Yes, they said: six months' research and three months' writing, which have combined to produce what anyone would acknowledge to be an impressive depth of study and objectivity of account, and, in its treatment of Diana herself, a model of noble restraint.

It would, then, clearly be mean and churlish to ask for a bit more dash and self-edit, but someone's got to do it. This failure to ponder on who, exactly, will want to read quite so much about so many Spencers is another example of that toffy lack of self-awareness.

But, after 368 pages, the Earl (allegedly worth £100 million) does have a bit of a flash: "I suppose the truth is that the aristocracy in Britain is perceived as an anachronism, with a minimal percentage of people able to distinguish between the different ranks of the peerage, and nobody particularly interested in the plight of the dozens of decent men and women who struggle to keep their family heritage together in the face of ever-increasing expense and diminishing reserves - both financial and emotional." Right, Charlie.

Charles Nevin writes the Captain Moonlight column in the "Independent on Sunday"

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser