A Flock of Fuliginous Ovines

Black Sheep by Christopher Simon Sykes

285 pp. (Chatto & Windus, 1982)

'Wot larx!' says Joe Gargery in Great Expectations, but the larks he had in mind were not those practised by the black sheep of Christopher Simon Sykes's undemanding but lively book. In their way these wastrels, whoremongers, drinkers and gamblers are just as pathetic, but by no means as sympathetic and had they no aristocratic connections they would have been lost with all hands.

This book is obviously intended for what was once called the common reader, always an inapt description, and it is not easy for an author to judge the amount of knowledge at the disposal of his remote audience. Like many young authors, Mr Sykes is eager to inform, but most readers will have had their fill of Oscar Wilde, and the Cleveland Street Scandal has been done to death. And is there anyone alive today who will actually read extracts from Lord Chesterfield's letters without skipping great slabs of them?

The author is at his best when he has access to primary sources, and the family papers concerning Lord William Paget (born 1803) provide the most interesting chapter of the book, which rightly comes at the beginning of Black Sheep. Paget was a spendthrift on the grotesque scale, and lived a life pursued by duns. Today it is sometimes convenient to go bankrupt; in the nineteenth century the well-to-do could take advantage of the Insolvent Debtors Act, and this Paget did, to the disgust of his long-suffering father who pronounced the decision 'atrociously horrible'. Paget was banished to Pau, but returned to England, where he became MP for Andover, which put him beyond arrest. The well-connected were the privileged class with a vengeance. To an observer a century and a half later it seems to have served Paget right when his wife was unfaithful with Lord Cardigan, witnessed by a private detective from under a sofa. Lord Cardigan, it was observed, did not take his boots off.

Interesting material, and it is rather a pity that there is nothing between 1854, when Paget's father died, and 1873, when Paget died. Wastrels and spendthrifts do not usually live to seventy, and it would be instructive to discover how Paget made out.

In the second chapter we are back in the seventeenth century with sexual high jinks, with servants showing 'their privities' to Lord Castlehaven and his wife Anne, the noble lord commending the largest. Rochester makes a characteristic appearance in this chapter, and then we are on to the boozers, the rakes, and the wild gangs who swarmed through London, roaring boys, bravadoes and ballers, all of whom are odious. The gamblers are a more interesting lot, and in the long run probably did more good than harm by helping in the distribution of massive family fortunes.

Towards the end of the book the Pagets return in the person of Henry Cecil, and how pleased we are to come across him after the oafs and buffoons. He is the nearest thing to a hero the book has, extravagant, capricious, and slightly crackers. 'The Dancing Marquis', theatrical impresario and bejewelled per- former of an exotic 'butterfly dance', finally went broke to the tune of £544,000 in 1904. The sale of his goods at Anglesey Castle took forty days and contained 17,000 lots. This is what an aristocrat should be like.
At times throughout the book Mr Sykes tries to work out why so many, born with all the advantages, went to the bad. Children were swaddled and hung up on hooks like parcels, they were farmed out to wet nurses, and then they were broken in like a horse. Parental deprivation was the rule rather than the exception. When parents died young, it was unusual to have a pair of them alive when the son was in early manhood, though there is not much evidence to suggest that husband and wife were a more caring unit than widow or widower.

If there was a tradition of alienation at home, so there was at school. Behind every corner lurked a Flashman eager and ready to corrupt, a sybaritic master, or a thick-skulled bully. But when all is said, black sheep are by definition in a minority. There were hundreds of aristocratic sons who were swaddled, wet-nursed, beaten silly, and ignored by parents who yet lived quiet decent lives and of whom nothing is known. Such beings, unfortunately, do not appeal to the common reader.

Black Sheep is well-illustrated with many portraits of these ovines, flattered so as to appear almost human. One hopes that Romney and his sycophantic colleagues were welshed on by their sitters. The front end- paper is not by Max Morgan, whoever he may be, but by Matt Morgan, the powerful Victorian graphic artist who did work for the satiric weekly Tomahawk. The most interesting illustration is a photograph of Henry Cecil Paget dressed apparently as Isolde waiting for Tristan.

  • Ronald Pearsall is  the author of Worm in the Bud (1969)
Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5