Four great-grand-daughters of Charles II – Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox – flourished in an era that encompassed the French Revolution, rebellion in Ireland and the American War of Independence. They were powerful, wealthy, privileged and radical, lived close to the seat of government, and left behind them a thrilling legacy of letters, diaries, pictures and even autopsy reports, which – in the hands of Stella Tillyard – has produced a history of the Georgian period as exciting as any novel.
Aristocrats is a thorough and engrossing exploration of 18th-century Britain. Caroline Lennox’s son Charles James Fox became the most celebrated – and dangerous – politician of his day. Louisa and Emily married into grand Irish families and became caught up in the deepening political and economic crisis. Scandal and tragedy were never far away: Sarah, whose Napier sons distinguished themselves in the Peninsular War, left her husband for another man; one of Emily’s sons joined the Irish rebellion and died of septicaemia in Dublin Castle jail.
Through all such tribulations the sisters were kept going by letters and by each other. In consequence we learn not just about family life and the sisters’ opinions, but also about the wider world – from the failure of the pyrotechnic display at the first performance of Handel’s ‘Fireworks Music’ to contemporary reaction to the madness of King George III. As Stella Tillyard observes, biography too often gives intimacy without context, while history gives context without human warmth. Here we have both, brilliantly conceived and executed – an irresistible tour de force.