Inside the homes of Britain's modern aristocrats

"An aristocracy in a republic," observed the writer Nancy Mitford, "is like a chicken whose head has been cut off; it may run about in a lively way, but in fact it is dead."

The new book Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats by Vanity Fair contributor James Reginato has ostensibly been created to refute Mitford's claim.

"Though many of these subjects were hardly young," Reginato writes in the book's introduction, "I came to see how modern they were, in fact, as they came to adapt themselves to changing times and changing concepts of country-house ownership."

Open houses

That doesn't quite come across in the book's coverage of 16 magnificent, centuries-old houses and their owners. Reginato recounts struggling scions forced to open their homes to endless tour groups and a woman with more titles than the Queen of England who moved from a Georgian mansion into a farmhouse.

Another homeowner, John Crichton Stuart, the 7th Marquess of Brute, was unable to sustain Dumfries House, an 18th century Palladian villa in Ayrshire, Scotland, in addition to his other estate, a gothic-revival mansion set on 38,000 acres; only the intervention of Charles, Prince of Wales, kept the house and its interiors from hitting the market. "The auction was called off," Reginato writes. "And several truckloads of treasure already en route to London were returned home."

But would that really have been so bad?

Down with Downton

From the perspective of a Downton Abbey-loving public, these lords, ladies, marquesses, and earls are engaged in a noble, perhaps even quixotic struggle to maintain the brilliance and beauty of their families' estates. From a more republican perspective, Reginato has documented a small group of people yoked by their own volition to a collection of unsustainably large mansions.

The majority of the houses Reginato features are in the United Kingdom, and the bulk of those houses' owners belong to a landowning class whose money and power began to wane with the onset of the industrial revolution.

By the time the World War I rolled around and the sons of England's landed gentry were massacred (1157 Eton graduates died in battle from 1914 to 1918), the great houses of UK were in a state of disrepair. Only canny moves such as advantageous marriages kept the houses running (Blenheim, the colossal mansion near Oxford, was "saved" by a loveless marriage between the 9th Duke of Marlborough and the massively wealthy American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt).


Visiting hours

Even the Rothschild family, whose banking interests made them relatively immune to the British economy's changing landscape, gave up Waddesdon Manor, their spectacularly ornate house in Buckinghamshire. "After the Second World War," writes Reginato, "Waddesdon became too much even for a Rothschild to maintain." The house, its contents, and 165 acres were bequeathed to the National Trust.

The list goes on. The Fiennes family, who has owned Broughton Castle since 1377, lives in the "private side" of the house; the rest is open to the public, which pays a 9 pound entrance fee. Members of the family, Reginato writes, occasionally man the cash register at the house's gift shop.

Lord Edward Manners, the second son of the 10th Duke of Rutland, inherited a manor house in Derbyshire; he turned one of its outbuildings into an inn ("The Peacock") and admits tourists into the staterooms of the manor house in the summer. Reginato notes that "while some might see taking over a large and old estate as a burden, Manners calls it 'a wonderful lifetime project."

All these people are aristocrats, in other words, but they are not a reigning class. Hedge fund managers, in contrast, don't have to charge an entrance fee to their living rooms.

Exceptions to the rule

There are some exceptions.

Two homes owned by the immensely wealthy Cavendish family are featured in Great Houses. One of the residences is a relatively modest cottage once occupied by the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who left her 297-room Chatsworth House when her son took over her husband's dukedom. Reginato quotes her as being delighted by the cottages' petite charms.

"The luxury of having everything so small-it's simply amazing!" the Duchess says. The other Cavendish house in the book is Lismore Castle in County Waterford, Ireland, which Reginato euphemistically describes as the family's "extra home."

Perhaps the most magnificent of the Great Houses is owned by royalty of a more recent sort. Dudley House, the London residence of the Qatari Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani, spans about 44,000 square feet and includes 17 bedrooms and a 50-foot-long ballroom; its estimated value is about $400 million.

When Queen Elizabeth visited the residence, she reportedly remarked drily that it "... makes Buckingham Palace look rather dull."

Historic McMansions

And while this might be a backhanded compliment from one royal to another, it speaks to the fundamental truth that the perception of "true" aristocracy in the European mold has come to imply a sort of faded glory, the likes of which is seen in page after glossy page of Reginato's beautiful book.

What is conveniently forgotten, amid this valorisation and nostalgia for an ancient, gracious time gone by, is that when each of the featured homes were constructed, they were the McMansions of their day: gaudy, ostentatious piles meant to telegraph wealth, power, and prestige. Similarly, today's true aristocrats build houses for the same reasons; it's just that our nobility's titles are awarded by a board of directors, not the queen.