Public enthusiasm for aristocrats is at an all-time low, and it’s no use saying that Boris Johnson and David Cameron are going to walk the next election and therefore the aristocracy must be enjoying some sort of revival, because that is just not true. Aristocrats make people cross. They are regarded as idle, feckless, rich and unintelligent, or in the peevish words of New Labour as ‘privileged’ and ‘elite’. Johnson and Cameron will win the election not because they are ‘toffs’ but in spite of it, as the electorate will only vote for Etonians through clenched teeth. No, there is only one type of aristocrat that seems to retain any degree of public affection nowadays, and she is the pretty woman in high heels, a fur coat, a funny hat, sparkling jewels and a 1920s motor car, the Gosford Park or Brideshead Revisited type, with clear, pale skin, a flat chest, and a clipped voice, whose glamorous, modish and aesthetic way of life evokes waves of nostalgia, on which dreams (especially those of the impressionable American middle class) are often and easily made.
It is with an eye to this particular sales opportunity that Lawrence James’s new book seems to be marketed. Black-and-white photographs of exactly the woman I describe adorn both front and back jackets, but from the very first chapter – an artful analysis of the fraught relationship between