Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty by Catherine Bailey

Rating: ★ ★ ★  ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: May 27, 2013

House of privilege, riches and secrets... Wentworth is today and crumbling and forgotten palace in Yorkshire. Yet just a hundred years ago is was the ancestral pile of the Fitzwilliams - an aristocratic clan whose home and life were fueled by coal mining. Black Diamonds tells of the Fitwilliams' spectacular decline: of inheritance fights; rumors of a changeling and of lunacy; philandering ears; illicit love; war heroism; a tragic connection to the Kennedys; violent death; mining poverty and squalor; and a class war that literally ripped apart the local landscape. The demise of Wentworth and the Fitzwilliams is a riveting account of aristocratic decline and fall, set in the grandest house in England.

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Catherine Bailey's Black Diamonds presents quite a challenge for me as a reviewer. In terms of content this piece is a treasure trove of information, but the formatting and haphazard construction make it an incredibly difficult piece to digest.

For the record Bailey does not cover the rise of the Fitzwilliams. She takes great liberties assuming the reader is already familiar with the family and entirely omits the early chapters of their history without so much as a footnote of explanation. The title was created in 1716, but Bailey's chronicle doesn't begin until 1902 with the death of the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam leaving much of the family, not to mention the origins of their wealth and influence, shrouded in mystery. 

This omission, however, is only the beginning. The biographical preface is followed immediately by an emotionless tour book style introduction illustrating the present day appearance of the house and surrounding grounds. Chapters 1 through 3 see a return to the biographic tone with a focus on William "Billy" Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 7th Earl Fitzwilliam and the legal difficulties he struggled with coming into his inheritance and thoughchapter 4 retains the same voice, it makes an abrupt departure and jumps back to 1839 for the birth William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, Viscount Milton, to examine the life of Billy's father. Much to my annoyance, this erratic timetable is continued throughout the book. 

To make matters worse Bailey seems to have had more than a little trouble determining the exact scope of her work. The description led me to believe this was a family history, but within the text, the personal lives and accomplishments of the Fitzwilliams frequently fell to the way side as Bailey examined the coal mining industry, class conflict and the political upheaval that characterized England in the early and mid 1900s. Though I found the information intensely interesting, I often found myself wondering how the work of a pit pony and his adolescent driver or the breakdown of a coal miner's household budget impacted the inhabitants of Wentworth.

I probably don't need to illustrate my point any further, but the most glaring departure of the book takes place between pages 332 and 379, a span in which Bailey devotes nearly fifty pages to Kathleen Kennedy, sister of future president John F. Kennedy. I understand her appearance here considering her tragic death alongside Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, but these pages aren't about their affair. The two don't even meet until page 380. No, this section details her life as a debutante, as daughter of the American Ambassador, her career with the Red Cross and the personal trials she suffered during her relationship with William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington. It is fun information, but entirely superfluous in the history of the Fitzwilliams.

Do I think the book is a waste? Not at all. Bailey presents a wealth of wonderful material in these pages, much of which I'd never before encountered. In terms of content, I loved this piece, but that being said I would have liked to see more coherency in the final product.

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The story starts at the edge of the void; at the moment when the official history of Wentworth house stops.
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