Tuesday, January 24, 2017

REVIEW: Black Diamonds:The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England by Catherine Bailey

Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England
by Catherine Bailey      
Published 12.30.2014
544 pages
Publisher: Penguin
Source: library

From the New York Times–bestselling author of The Secret Rooms, the extraordinary true story of the downfall of one of England’s wealthiest families

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 RoomsBlack 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. (from GoodReads)

REVIEW:  C'mon.  Admit it.  Between Kate Middleton and Downtown Abbey, you have a certain fascination with the Brits' Class System of Current Era and Yesteryear.  

I get it.  You're talking to a girl who's read her way through the Plantegnets, Tudors, most of the Hanoverians, and then moved onto the Romanovs and various French ruling houses.  When I read my fill, I moved on to various aristocrats.

It's interesting stuff, but at times, can make for dense reading.  Catherine Bailey's Black Diamonds is anything but and makes for a terrific balance of family battles and intrigue, class wars and social change, and the consequences the mix brought.  The book covers the following topics in a well-structured, informative way that move in and out of each other smoothly:
  • Wentworrth family history
  • Their ancestral home, Wentworth Wodehouse, including grounds, staff, events and artifacts
  • Coal industry in the United Kingdom, with especial attention to Nothern England and Wentworth collieries
  • Government intervention and regulation thereof
  • To a lesser extent, WWI & WWII

So, this book isn't  just about the Fitzwilliam family, but as the last Earl Fitzwilliam decided to burn 16 tons of family papers and saved correspondence, putting together a comprehensive history of a family shrouded in smoke and ash must have a herculean task.  However, Bailey gets bits and pieces where she can from passed down oral histories, letters saved by other families and interviews with survivors of the era.  While some might be disappointed that the book isn't exclusively focused on the family, I found the information on the coal industry, and specifically, the colieries that the family owned, to be an intergral part of the story to the point where I could not imagine speaking of one without involving the other. 

A few minor complaints stand out.  The bulk of the Wentword family history focused on the 6th, 7th and 8th earls.  The 9th earl apparently was an alcoholic of little note.  However, I don't feel the 10th and last earl got his due.  The bulk of the information on him seemed lacking in comparison to the others, and he seemed to be defined by his legal fight with his older brother for the title, and how that brother was treated by his parents, rather than by his own life.  As a consequence, his personal story is not fleshed out and falls short, and the book ends abruptly.  However, despite this, I enthusiastically recommend this book to any reader who enjoys the subject or loves a good example of nonfiction.  Cheers!