If you know the name Charles Spencer at all, it is likely as the brother of the late Princess Diana. If you did not draw the connection before, reading this book will let the reader know more about the Spencers and their palatial family home of Althorp (it’s not pronounced all-thorp like one might expect) than most readers would have ever imagined. Rather than being a vanity project from the current leader of one of England’s most privileged noble houses, which this easily could have been, it is the sort of engaging and very touching book, full of quirky personal details and stories, that makes Charles Spencer and his family appear human, in all their eccentricities and foibles, and that brings their house to life, demonstrating how the family was able to keep their house despite changes every generation and the economic pressures on English aristocratic houses with declining rents and a lack of ready cash. This is the sort of book that not only enlightens the reader on a great English house, but also provides an additional cash source for English noble families—possibly in the future virtual tours of such houses will improve to the level where families can profit from it. Perhaps what this book does could be done for other such houses, like the Herberts’ Wilton . When a book gives ideas for further books of the same line, it has done a good job.
The contents of this book are mostly chronological, as the author, through a variety of photos and discussion, winds his way through the early history of the Spencer family, how they acquired the house, and how it was remade and cared for despite difficulties like a long economic crisis for the family that lasted several generations, how the desire for authenticity and to draw enough people to visit to allow for upkeep to be made on the house as a living museum but not too many to overwhelm the security and well-being of the home and the populace. Whether looking at architecture, landscapes, servants, art, or books, the author manages to simultaneously convey a family with a rich and noble tradition worth maintaining and also the sort of resilience and resourcefulness that allowed the family and its house to long endure past the peak of noble families and their estates. The author shows himself to be an apt student of a tradition he admits he did not know a great deal about at the time he succeeded to the earldom. The book also contains a lot of information, much of it rather melancholy, about the family’s efforts to preserve the legacy of their famous princess.
So, what works about this book? For one, the author himself writes with deeply personal and honest prose, including his ambivalence towards the duties and responsibilities of being a part of the high nobility and his equally evident longing to be worthy of the name which he has. Even if few of us come from the social class of the author, or have so many nice things, Earl Spencer manages to convey the sense of having a family legacy that is both lengthy and heavy, something that one would be tempted both to revel in as well as run away from. It is the fact that the reader can both appreciate the art and architecture and landscaping of the Spencers’ country manse house and also simultaneously relate and empathize with the struggles of the family that owns it that makes this book work. At a short 160-something pages, this book delivers the goods in an awesome house and does not overstay its welcome. Let us hope that Charles Spencer has other books in mind to write that are as well-written as this one.
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