Monday, November 28, 2011

Coke of Norfolk and His Friends!

Our book today is a hefty two-volume life of the 1st Earl of Leicester (of Holkham, that is), Thomas William Coke by that unsinkable Edwardian chronicler of the better sort, A.M.W. Stirling. She wrote these two volumes from 1908 to 1912, taking full advantage of her first-name familiarity (in this case, she was the great-granddaughter of her subject) with the top tiers of England's landed gentry, to whom Coke of Norfolk and His Friends is essentially one enormous love-letter. Anna Marie Wilhemina Stirling was fond of country houses and gossip and pearls, a living concordance of stereotypes who was nonetheless an entirely real and surprisingly wonderful person. She wrote earnest letters, sought through drafty country house archives, questioned old servants and farm hands all around Norwich, and in the end she produced these two fat volumes about a man described without embarrassment as "the indefatigable and disinterested friend of mankind."

Coke was a hale, outspoken kinsman of a tight-fisted earl whose wastrel son is viewed with a fishy eye by Stirling, who's not that much keener on the vain, vapid young woman who became that lecherous lord's bride:
Alas for the misguided Duchess! Lady Mary went to the altar playing the part of a weeping reluctant bride, but apparently forgot to pronounce her refusal to marry the man she professed to loathe, and so passed from imaginary into actual persecution. Still with the airs of a tragedy queen, she prepared to submit to the hated caresses of her husband; but Lord Coke promptly informed her that she had little to fear from his affection, and leaving her upon her wedding day, openly rejoined his boon companions, whom he regaled with a graphic description of the incident, making exceedingly merry over the airs of the deserted lady.

As Stirling puts it (without the slightest shred of first-hand experience), "Married life begun under such conditions was not likely to be harmonious."

In rapid succession, both old kinsman and young cousin died, and then Coke's mild-mannered father followed them, leaving Thomas William in possession of vast properties. Coke himself led the normal life of the Georgian landed gentry. He rode to hounds, he fowled, he tramped every inch of his family estates, and while he was still a strapping, handsome young man he did the Grand Tour in high style, bringing along valets, dogs, friends, and a stack of promissory notes for every major banking concern along the way. He's entirely forgotten today, but Americans once knew his name because he was an early and ardent champion in Parliament in favor of American Indpendence and stridently against the bottomless pit of expense represented by the Crown continuously pouring money and manpower into suppressing the American colonies. When Coke lost his seat in Parliament in 1784, he returned to his beautiful estates and to the magnificent splendor of Holkham Hall with its towering marble columns and enormous paintings on every inch of wall space (when young Princess Victoria stayed at Holkham shortly before she became queen, she found herself 'quite overwhelmed' by the ostentation of her rooms). Like many of the landed plutocrats of his day, Coke was an avid agriculturalist, constantly conferring with his tenants, constantly fiddling with ways to improve both his livestock and his land:
He also, like his ancestors, devoted his thought to reclaiming land from the sea. Laboriously, and at enormous cost, he reclaimed seven hundred acres which had previously been covered by the ocean, and began to prepare them for cultivation. Within two years, corn was growing upon soil which had been shingle swept by daily tides.

Stirling is careful to balance her long account; another chronicler of Coke would probably be tempted to slight his rural life in favor of the hurly-burly of his long stints in Parliament and the various excitements he had there (or else in favor of the more lurid aspects of his later life - in his old age he married a much, much younger woman and embarrassed everybody by immediately beginning to father children with her), but that rural life was the main focus and joy of Coke's life - and it was the world Stirling herself knew most closely. She's certainly aware of how transitory it all is - her volumes are full of mentions of how rapidly the world is changing, how increasingly ubiquitous rail travel is annihilating some old traditions and prompting people to forget what was so special about others. For instance, Holkham hosted many annual gala events, none more fun than "the Clippings," a great sheep-shearing festival that could rival just about any other social event - including, in 1821, the upcoming coronation of King George IV, which was briefly upstaged by the forty-third "Clippings" (which was attended by, among many others, the Dukes of Bedford and Norfolk). Stirling does a typically energetic job describing what she saw as a better, vanishing world:
In days when locomotion was slow and expensive, to many this gathering was the one occasion on which they met friends whom otherwise they would have been destined never to see. The greetings which were eagerly exchanged, the excitement of expected or unexpected encounters, the task of discovering and watching the celebrated men who were present, the vast hum of conversation,the whirling wheels and clattering hoofs which momentarily heralded fresh arrivals, the interest of recognising these new-comers thus ceaselessly appearing to swell the crowd - all formed a scene which the genial spirit of good-fellowship that had always constituted the keynote of the meeting was never lost sight of.

Late in his life, in 1837, Coke, called by many "the greatest commoner in England," got the kind of letter most of us will never find in the morning post:
My dear Mr. Coke,

I am very much obliged to you for your letters upon the electioneering prospects in the County of Norfolk; but I have now another matter to write to you upon, and which I have some satisfaction in referring to you. It is unnecessary for me to go into any details of the circumstances which have hitherto prevented that which has been eagerly desired by the Whigs and expected by the whole Country, namely, your elevation to the Peerage. I have now the pleasure of acquainting you that I have Her Majesty's commands to offer you an Earldom and to accompany the offer by every expression of Her Majesty's personal regard and esteem.

If this is agreeable to you, you have nothing to do but to send me back by return of post the titles which you are desirous of taking, and I can only add for myself that, if you accept this honour, it will be to me a source of great pride and satisfaction that it should have been conferred by my advice and under my administration. I beg to be remembered to Lady Anne.

Yours ever faithfully, Melbourne

And so, once again, an earldom of Leicester was created (this one specified as "of Holkham," so as not to confuse it with the other surviving earldom of Leicester), and Stirling is quick to advise us of its historical provenance:
Thus, after having been offered a peerage seven times, Coke was at length created Earl of Leicester. It was a curious coincidence that the first peerage created by Queen Elizabeth was an Earl of Leicester, whose nephew was Sir Philip Sydney, while the first commoner raised to the peerage by Queen Victoria was an Earl of Leicester, whose nephew by marriage was Lord De L'Isle, the representative of Sir Philip Sydney.

The sheer sparkling energy of that snooty clarification never deserts our author, not in close to a thousand pages of highly detailed and copiously footnoted prose. She follows her hero right to his peaceful grave, and she illustrates her book with some stunning old photographs of Holkham Hall and its environs. This is a grand, sweeping biography of a friendly man who was the center of all the world's attention while he was alive. These two volumes - heaven knows where you'd find your own - bring that man to life again in all his laughter and gaffes and generosity, and that's an amazing feat, even if it appears no longer to be grounds to keep a book in print, or reprint it.


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