Tag Archives: House of Lords

That Missing Curtsey

In Love in a Cold Climate (1949) Nancy Mitford wrote a hilarious account of life in the British aristocracy between the wars.  One of her characters is Lady Montdore, a dedicated royalist.  Before her daughter’s coming-out ball, Lady Montdore held a dinner party for 40, inviting various royals and ex-royals.

Lady Montdore loved anybody royal.  It was a genuine emotion, quite disinterested, since she loved them as much in exile as in power, and the act of curtsying was the consummation of this love.  Her curtsies, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind.  She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow, a strange performance, painful it might be supposed to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied this thought.  Her knees cracked like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.

Curtsies, outside the ballet, are always a bit like this, so I’m quite relieved that Julia Gillard decided again one, when meeting the Queen in Canberra this week.

Thomas Rowlandson

Thomas Rowlandson, The Duchess of Devonshire and the Countess of Bessborough, in Yale Digital Commons

According to Wikipedia (so it must be true) women used to curtsey by placing their feet at an angle to each other (second-position in ballet) and bending their knees in a plie, the back remaining straight.  This looked elegant when all the action took place behind a long and voluminous skirt, but those widespread knees became unacceptable when hemlines rose in the early 20th century, and physically impossible in the narrow skirts of the 1920s.

So a new method had to be developed.

I learned to curtsey at school in preparation for meeting Lady May Abel-Smith, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who presented the prizes at our school in the late 1950s as the wife of the Queensland Governor.

Place one leg behind the other, lock knees together (always important for blossoming schoolgirls), and bend.  It is impossible to descend evenly, since everything tends to bend, not just the knees, so the result is an awkward waddling movement, the shoulders at an angle, and the back and neck jutting forward.

It probably looked quite cute when I did it for Lady May at the age of 12 – but as you get older, Nancy Mitford’s description becomes increasingly accurate.  Maybe earlier generations of older women had knees that cracked like revolver shots, but if so, the noise, like the action, was smothered in their skirts.

No doubt it’s a coincidence, but women’s skirts began to rise at about the same time that the House of Lords lost its ability to veto money bills from the House of Commons, in the 1911 Parliament Act (1&2 Geo. 5. C. 13).  The power and privileges of the House of Lords were by no means over, but in 1911 Prime Minister Lloyd George – and that other George, the new king George V – collaborated to bring the British aristocracy to heel.  Australia rejected the idea of an aristocracy in the 1850s. (See Bunyips)

It’s also striking that most of Lady Montdore’s guests were ex-royals.  Love in a Cold Climate is set between the wars, when various post-World War I revolutions had cut a swathe through the European monarchies.  One of her guests was the cousin of a King who ‘was daily expecting the crown to be blown off his head by a puff of east wind.’

A hundred years on, the curtsey seems entirely obsolete – although there’s a rather similar move in Tai Chi, which is good for the knees, hips and lower back.  Like most things, it is equally good for men and women, and like most things, you may be at a disadvantage in a skirt.

Mistaken Lords

I am currently reading a new book on political prisoners in early Australia, Tony Moore, Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals transported to Australia, 1788-1868 (2010).

It’s a big book, full of rollicking stories about those convicts who were transported to Australia for political crimes.  They were only a small proportion of the total number of convicts, a couple of thousand at most out of 160,000 over 80 years, but their stories are interesting, the writing is engaging, and there is a new generation of readers for whom these stories will be new.

Hogarth, The Judges

William Hogarth, The Judges (1758), from Wikimedia Commons

But one thing has bothered me, which is perhaps why my promised book review is late.  Moore begins the book with the story of a group of Edinburgh radicals who became known as the ‘Scottish martyrs’.  The French Revolution had begun in 1789, and by the early 1790s, everyone was edgy.  Louis XVI was executed in January 1793.  In this heightened atmosphere, the group were tried for sedition.  The judge who sentenced them to transportation was a man whom Moore calls ‘Lord Henry Dundas’.  In fact, the name of the judge was Henry Dundas, Lord Melville.

As it happens, I’ve worked a bit in late 18th century Scottish history, so I’m one of the very few historians of Australia who would either know or care that there was no Lord Henry Dundas.  It’s an utterly trivial mistake, especially as Death or Liberty is about Australia, not Scotland.  In fact I’m a bit worried about why I am worried.  Getting preoccupied by it feels a bit like entering Gulliver’s Travels, where a Lilliputian war broke out between the big-endians and the little-endians over which way to crack open their boiled eggs.

Perhaps it’s because Lord Monckton, ‘climate change sceptic’, is in the country at the moment, that I’m preoccupied by titles.  Lord Monckton has been his usual controversial self, and the media has lapped it up, with serious articles about whether he is a ‘real’ Lord (yes), whether he sits in the House of Lords (no), if not, why not (see below), and how he should be addressed (not Lord Christopher Monckton, see below).

Given that we Australians rejected the idea of a hereditary nobility more than a century and a half ago [see my post on Bunyips], why on earth are these arcane issues being canvassed in the serious press at present?  And why should someone who can trace his ancestry back through umpteen generations have any greater cachet to talk about climate change, pro or con, than the rest of us?

It’s contradictory then for me to worry about Moore’s misnaming of the first Lord Melville.  Except that in this case, I think it does matter.

As Jane Austen implicitly knew, Lord or Lady Firstname indicates the son or daughter of a Duke, the highest rung of the British aristocracy.  So Lady Catherine de Burgh and her sister, the late Lady Anne Darcy, were the daughters of a Duke, with the pretensions to match.

Lord Henry Dundas implies someone with a whole canteen of silver cutlery in his mouth, whereas Henry Dundas, first Lord Melville, was a rat-cunning Scottish lawyer who clawed his way up the greasy pole of Scottish politics in the late 18th century.  He came from the minor aristocracy, but as the fourth son, he relied on his wits and political instincts to get ahead.  By the 1790s he controlled the political patronage network in Scotland for the Tory Party, and was rewarded with a hereditary title and a seat in the House of Lords – a bit like a safe place on the Senate ticket in return for services to the Party.

The British aristocracy has always needed to renew itself as old families died out and new-made Lords replaced them, sometimes for political services, sometimes by outright bribery.  In the 19th century, so many brewers bought themselves a peerage they were known collectively as the Beerage.  The puzzle is why they even bothered.  Jane Austen knew that money was more important than a title.  Nevertheless, as Gilbert and Sullivan said:

The House of Peers,
Throughout the years,
Did nothing in particular
And did it very well.

Today the House of Lords is trying to make itself relevant, by thinning out the number of hereditary lords, and by recruiting life peers from the intelligentsia – so the novelist P.D.James and the BBC presenter Melvyn Bragg become Baroness James of Holland Park and Baron Bragg of Wigton – but their children won’t inherit these titles.

The hereditary principle came under attack long ago.  In 1776, at the time of the American War of Independence, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, including a chapter Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession:

hereditary succession…claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.

When the conservative intellectual Edmund Burke later deplored the overthrow of the monarchy in the French Revolution, Paine skewered his position in a famous quote: ‘He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.’

We all love the plumage – just think about how many people watched the royal wedding on television – but the monarchy, and its attendant hereditary nobility, seem very nearly dead ducks, at least in Australia.

So why does anyone pay attention to Lord Monckton?  Why should his title lend him greater authority than other voices in this debate?  The problem is that most of us don’t have the scientific knowledge to discuss climate change in scientific terms.  Either we place our trust in the scientists who aren’t very media savvy, or we look for mistakes, and extrapolate from them to condemn the whole intellectual enterprise.  This seems to be the position of many climate sceptics, and as a rhetorical device, it’s pretty effective.  But it’s a lazy form of argument.

No Understanding - from Powerhouse, Brisbane

Tony Moore got Lord Melville’s name wrong, and for me this diminishes his authority as an expert.  But we all get things wrong occasionally.  In one of my books, I typed the ‘Indo-Pacific’ railway (across the Nullarbor) when I meant the ‘Union Pacific’ railroad (across America).  The mistake got through, and to my chagrin all the reviewers mentioned it, although it was only a slip of the fingers on the keyboard.

It looks as if I’ll have to read the whole of Liberty or Death and make the effort to understand the whole argument – not write my review based on the first 17 pages.

And rat-cunning is not an inherited characteristic; you can find it wherever you choose to look.