William B. Willcox's The Age of Aristocracy
This compact little book is Volume III of a series entitled A History of England, edited by Lacey Baldwin Smith, and its inclusion in this series reveals much about its scope and intent. Smith writes in the Preface to the series that "their authors have tried by artistry to step beyond the usual confines of a textbook and conjure up something of the drama of politics, of the wealth of personalities, and even of the pettiness, as well as the greatness, of human motivation." Some of this can be found in The Age of Aristocracy; some of it cannot. William B. Willcox's device for covering the significant people and events of one hundred forty-two years in only two hundred thirty-seven pages is to view them through the lens of the changing power of the oligarchy, and the evolving relationship between Monarch and Parliament. Important military and social events thus become the results of political maneuvering between these governing forces; the book's focus is upon the interdependency of society and event to recreate a sense of what Smith calls "the majestic sweep of history" from 1688 to 1830.
Willcox begins and ends his history with the spoils and applications of revolution. Between the Glorious Revolution and the introduction of the Reform Bill in 1831, Willcox sees the rise and gradual fall of a British aristocracy that "ruled. . . as never before or since" (236), and provided the transition from the world of post-medieval feudalism to the beginnings of the imperialistic British Empire. This is a lot to cover, and Willcox attacks the process by focusing his attention primarily upon the individuals who served as high-ranking ministers in the evolving Cabinet. By explaining the political forces that shaped these men, and then the actions they took in office, Willcox manages to spread his energies fairly evenly between dissecting the mechanisms behind British politics and explaining the world events in which these politics took part.
Willcox does discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the individual monarchs, but for the most part these kings and queens are spectators; Willcox's real interest is in the politicians, and his book works best when he manages to draw concise and important connections between such men as Marlborough, Chesterfield, Walpole, and North, and the social forces that they harnessed to get their jobs done. Lord Chesterfield, for example, is presented as the epitome of the eighteenth-century Gentleman; his letters of advice to his son Philip provide a standard by which Willcox introduces the world of manners and form that provide the background for the rest of the book. "What Chesterfield saw was there," says Willcox, "the love of form and style and the surface of life" (51). Most of these miniature portraits are very effective: Robert Walpole has an entire chapter devoted to his era, and he provides a stable center through which to understand the dizzying political problems...