CHRISTOPHER SIMON SYKES is the third son of a large and rich family that for many generations has handed its great mansion at Sledmere, near Malton in Yorkshire, from eldest son to eldest son under the iniquitous system of primogeniture. It is unusual in these circumstances for a third son to get his hands on a family estate, though I suppose in this particular instance – since neither of Christopher’s elder brothers has succeeded in producing a male heir – he is in with a good chance of one day scooping not just Sledmere and all its lands but a glittering baronetcy as well. Yum yum. This unseemly, perhaps indelicate issue is not broached in The Big House, though I could not help wondering as I read it whether the author would have committed himself to such an exhaustive account of his family seat had he thought that it would never in a month of Sundays be his. ‘This is the house in which my family have [sic] lived for 250 years,’ he explains at the beginning. ‘It is where I was brought up and spent my adolescence. Though I left it when I was eighteen, I still feel attached to it as if by some invisible umbilical cord. I do not live there yet my roots are there. For good, or for bad, it inhabits my soul.’
Christopher now lives (I think) in a castellated grace-and-favour lodge on the Sledrnere estate, so the invisible umbilical link of which he speaks is not required to stretch quite as far as the reader of this passage might be tortured into imagining; but there was a painful moment a few months after his father’s death in 1978 when his elder brother tried to sever the cord completely. ‘Oh by the way,’ Christopher said nonchalantly: ‘I’m coming up for the weekend with a couple of friends.’ ‘Who said you could do that?’ enquired the new heir incumbent. ‘It’s my home now . . . from now on you must ask if you want to come and stay, not just presume you can.’
As so often happens in these circumstances, the most conceited and socially maladroit member of the family – which usually happens to be the eldest son – collars; the lot while his younger, kinder and often more deserving siblings are left to fend for themselves. Time and again this unfortunate pattern repeats itself down the Sykes family line. The author tries hard to describe the brighter sides of his own father – Richard, the 7th baronet – but still one is left with the impression of a twerpish, moody heir, spoiled by privilege. Sir Richard’s father, an ardent Islamist, was perhaps the best of the Sledmere inheritors, but even he was withdrawn and unapproachable. As for the author’s great-grandfather, Sir Tatton Sykes, 5th baronet – well, how do I start to give a fair summary of this odious man? Mean, scared of sex, hypersensitive, depressive, pointlessly religious, half mad, Sir Tatton once ordered the servants to hang his son’s pet terriers by their necks from a tree in order to get at his wife for drinking and spending too much money.
Throughout Christopher Sykes’s shrewd, novel-like narrative the younger brothers (often called Christopher) appear to provide most of the heart, the soul and the flair of a family otherwise dominated by cold and pompous older brothers (invariably called Tatton). Since making their fortune out of shipping in the eighteenth century the Svkeses have had more than their fair share of eccentrics. A younger son called Sykes – who sacrificed his whole adult life to the entertainment of Edward, Prince of Wales – is by far the best value. Prince Edward feasted frequently on -lobster and champagne at Sykes’s house while organising, behind his back, the cruelest practical jokes against him: waking from in the middle of the night; tripping him in the corridor; tricking him into attending a party in a clanging suit of metal armour, then slamming the door in his face; always making an ass of him. In the end Sykes collapsed into a self-pitying heap of dissolution, ill health and bankruptcy. His life is an extraordinary study in loyalty.
Equally pathetic was the author’s great-grandmother Jessie Sykes (née Cavendish Bentinck). Her story reads like an Alice-in-Wonderland mock tragedy. After her marriage to the loathsome Sir Tatton (above), her loneliness at Sledmere and her contempt for her husband led her into an attention-seeking life of drink, lovers and gambling for which she earned herself the nickname in London society of ‘Lady Satin Tights’. Her husband’s response (after hanging the dogs) was to put an advertisement into all the national newspapers:
I, SIR TATTON SYKES, … hereby give notice that I will NOT be RESPONSIBLE for any DEBTS or ENGAGEMENTS which my wife, LADY JESSICA CHRISTINA SYKES, may contract, whether purporting to be on my behalf or by my authority or otherwise.
Jessie Sykes’s story, both moving and disturbing, provides the emotional core of this book. Loved by her servants, hated by her husband, .-. estranged from her son, she ends her pitiful life fizzling out in a miasma of feebleness, still in her fifties. Emerging from the church after her funeral, her husband was overheard to mutter: ‘Remarkable woman, but I rue the day I met her.’
There is a lot of simmering hatred in this book and only a little love, but none of the former emanates from the author himself, who manages, throughout his deft narrative, to remain impressively detached and yet full of an implicit pride and affection for the oddball family into which he was born. Although The Big House gets off to a sluggish start it quickly breaks into a brisk gallop and continues at that pace to the end, offering along its journey an absorbing gawp into the eccentric workings of a minor family of the English aristocracy – a sort of Gosford Park on acid, but this time it’s for real.