The English aristocracy have always been a crisis-prone sort. When not nearly rendering themselves extinct in the Wars of the Roses or hand-wringing over a bunch of 18th century peasants rioting across their estates (see my previous post), they were busy envisioning their doom at the hands of the inter-war proletariat. In the end, it wasn’t so much a menacingly Bolshevik working class or any Europe-haunting spectres standing nonchalantly beside a dripping guillotine; it was the war itself and the rise of that ceaselessly aggressive social phenomenon, the middle class.
Having just bankrupted itself by participation in the Second World War, the social winds of Britain changed course irrevocably. A beleagured population, emerging from six years of war and the dawning realisation that Britain was no longer as important, or as rich, as it once was was, was not the same docile beast that faced the aristocratic classes in the inter-war and Edwardian period. For the great mass of the population who had to struggle through the war years, the idea of hereditary wealth no longer fit the national mood, and the long march of decline for the English nobility began at the hands of the middle-classes.
When faced with the grimly determined, Protestant work ethic-fuelled assault of the professional classes, typified by the pre-war, suburban, Orwell character of George Bowling, they stood no chance. George Bowling appears in Orwell’s underrated 1939 book Coming Up For Air, the melancholy story of a middle-class man whose life is defined by mediocrity. He inhabits one of thousands of suburban homes, he thinks little of his family and his job, but merely carries on with his life regardless, escaping for relief into the ecstatic, high jinks memories of his Edwardian youth. George Bowling, or more dynamic versions of him, were precisely the kind of people who, in the post-war atmosphere of shared sacrifice were storming the (faux-Tudor) ramparts of the stately homes of nobility, their entitled and hereditary wealth now an aberration in the national narrative of hard work and sacrifice.
And while George Bowling himself, given over to fatalism as his character is, lacks the capacity to improve his own life any more than he already has, this new middle class, and their ghettos of strip suburban development, had always in reserve a thousand more George Bowlings to take his place. This is the same middle-class that, two months after VE Day, dispensed with the conservative Churchill government and flocked en masse to Labour, awarding them a landslide victory on the promise of full employment and the welfare state. A general levelling took place, not in favour of any idea of working class emancipation, but on the vaguely general principles of ‘the people’, the middle classes and workers, as opposed to the nobility. The times of the idle gentry quietly surveying their lands, or knocking croquet balls on the lawns of Mandalay were over, and their Late Victorian and Edwardian heyday must have seemed a distant memory.
It is this insurgent middle-class that manifests itself in the character of Louis Mazzini in the Ealing Studios classic, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Although set in the Edwardian era, the film was made in 1949, the highpoint of post-war Labour government, and so displays a contradictory setting of being set during the last hurrahs of the English nobility, while displaying fully the politics and sensibilities of the post-war, post-aristocratic era. The politics of 1949 are being played out in 1910.
The film begins with the protagonist’s mother exiled from her inimitably aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes. Having married beneath her station, she finds herself living in a cramped house in Clapham with her young son, her husband having since died. Demeaned and humiliated by her family, she teaches Louis the injustice of their situation, constantly drumming into him the fact that, no matter where he lives or what job he is doing, and despite his mother’s exile, remains a distant heir to the Dukedom of Chalfont.
Despite his heirdom, Louis’ situation is resoundingly middle-class. Having finished school, he further demeans his true station by taking a job as a draper’s assistant, eventually working his way to one promotion after another, thus proving that enduring piece of middle-class folklore that nobody chooses poverty. He becomes the archetypal professional man, all the while becoming more embittered over the injustice of his situation.
After being publicly humiliated in the shop by a distant relative of his and being sacked for his angry response, Louis resolves to murder all the members of the D’Ascoyne family that stand between him and the dukedom, or his birthright, as he puts it.
After doing away with the young playboy who cost him his job, suitably by drowning him and his mistress at the fashionable weekend resort of Maidenhead, he moves on to the others.
He ingratiates himself with his next victim, and proceeds to blow him up while he is developing photographs in his garden shed. Through the course of the film, he goes on to poison a priest, shoot down a hot air balloon, blow someone else up, lure an elderly man into a bear trap and shoot him in the face, rejoice at the news of a relative dying of a stroke and celebrate a pair of infant twins dying of diphtheria. And still, at every point, the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with Louis and cheers him along his rampage through the aristocracy.
The aristocrats he kills off are painted in an entirely unflattering light. The best of them are shown to be nice-but-dim types, while the worst are dinosaurs; callous, lazy, rude, uncaring, dishonest, mean-spirited and completely lacking in feelings or tact. Louis, on the other hand, is hardworking, witty, urbane, displays honour and dignity, and expresses himself in ways that only a modern man would. For instance, when invited to go hunting with the clownish elderly gentleman, Ethelred D’Ascoyne, he refuses to take part in any shooting, claiming that it would contravene his principles. We are clearly supposed to be rooting for the protagonist, even as he takes part in what is, to all purposes, an incredibly brutal, comedic killing spree that resembles something like a comedy of manners version of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes.
Needless to say, Louis avoids any inconvenient investigations into his spree and becomes the 10th Duke of Chalfont, bagging the charming wife of one of his victims along the way. Displaying his modern (read, post-war, 1949) levelling sensibilities, he tells the servants at the D’Ascoyne family home that his first priority will be to ensure them a good life. He is then promptly arrested for a murder he did not commit, and finds his hard-won dukedom, and his life, hanging in the balance.
Louis aspires to become a member of the aristocracy, but once he is there he behaves nothing like them; he is enlightened, and cares for his servants. He perfectly embodies the post-war, ceaseless aspiration of the professional middle-classes, importantly, through hard work and not entitlement, to occupy the position of power previously held by the dying nobility. Many merely yearned for power and wealth, but for every George Bowling, there was always a hundred of his neighbours willing to take his place. But instead of occupying the now unaffordable landed estates of this beaten nobility, now resentfully left open to the public as museums of another age, they moved up the professional ladder, bought homes, and built conservatories. Kind Hearts and Coronets, like the bankrupted post-war nation, is the literal massacre of the nobility.