New Nonfiction (with commentary): 23 March 2015
I will never give up my bookshelves.

Each subsequent chapter sadder than the last.

At least, that's sort of the way I felt as I made my way through Catherine Bailey's history book Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years that Changed England.

All Anglophiles and general history readers should check this one out; it's the story of Great Britain's Fitzwilliam dynasty, based at the [unbelievably huge] Wentworth House estate in the Yorkshire region of England. Starting with the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, born in 1815, this book traces the family's intrigues, economics, and, above all, its geneaology, although the bulk of it focuses on the 7th and 8th Earls and their lives in the twentieth century.*

The family was immensely wealthy, and their wealth derived from the vast number of coal mines they owned and ran. So in addition to being a history of the very rich, this is also a history of the very, very poor. I read this one over the course of a few weeks, and whenever I did, I went to bed glad that I am not a coal miner. Holy shit. Dangerous job, unhealthy job, very poorly paid job; and often undertaken for rich families that might or might not be decent employers. I will say this for the Earls Fitzwilliam: particularly in the case of the 7th earl, "Billy," he did try to treat his people somewhat decently (enough so that he was remembered fondly in the neighborhood, and most of his workers never voted for strikes against him).

Although: the lives of the rich people don't sound like a whole lot of fun in this book either. Billy himself was the target of a campaign by his aunts to disinherit him; he was born in Canada and it was alleged that his father, who died before his own father and therefore was never an earl himself, took steps to replace the baby girl that was really born to him with a Canadian baby boy (so that he could inherit the title and wealth). Good lord. The whole "only males can inherit" thing has really messed up a lot of lives.

But I digress. It's an interesting book. Not a great one--it skips around some in time and that makes it a bit tough to follow, particularly when you consider that all the earls are named some variation of William something, and it all gets a bit confusing. But it was an engrossing read; if you're in an area of the country where there's still just a bit of winter left, this might be a good thick book to settle in with by the fire until spring really arrives. (Oh: and be glad you didn't have to dig out the coal to light for your fire.)

Other reviews: The Guardian; Kirkus

*And there's even a bit about one of the earls and his love affair with Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, sister to JFK.