Susan E. Whyman. Sociability and Power in Late Stuart England. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xiv + 287 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-820719-1.
Reviewed by Victor Stater (Louisiana State University)
Published on H-Albion (April, 2000)
A Gentle Transformation: the Late Stuart Verneys of Claydon
The Verneys of Middle Claydon Buckinghamshire have been the subject of scholarly investigation before, and no wonder, having left an archive of over 30,000 documents for the benefit of posterity. In 1984 Miriam Slater published Family Life in the Seventeenth Century: The Verneys of Claydon House. Slater focused upon the lives of Sir Edmund Verney, Charles I's standard-bearer and a prominent casualty at Edgehill, and his twelve children, particularly his heir Ralph. Susan E. Whyman carries the family's story forward into the eighteenth century. Her principal subjects are, once again, Ralph Verney (1613-96), now grown into an elderly baronet and patriarch, and his son, John (1640-1717), later second baronet and first Viscount Fermanaugh. But Whyman's work is more ambitious than Slater's. She considers both the Verney family -- including a constellation of aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews -- as well as the family's wider social and political networks. The result is a fascinating, and very valuable, picture of the life of an English gentry family over two generations.
Whyman's work is built upon impressive foundations. She has meticulously examined over seven thousand letters in the Verney archive, and constructed a formidable database. Carefully classifying both senders and recipients of these letters enables her to reconstruct the Verney's social and political networks. Further, she catagorizes the types of letters --from acquittances for debt to begging letters to wood sales and workmen's accounts -- and analyzes the contents of each. She notes no less than seventy-nine different subjects in these letters, running the gamut from annuities to women. Not surprisingly the two most common subjects were finances (684 citations) and the intimately related topic of marriage (656 cites)(appendix 2, p. 187).
Yet, as valuable as her statistics are, Whyman does not allow the counting of subjects ("christening," fifty-one citations; "death," 247; "feuds," 115; "love," fifty-seven) to stifle the Verneys' story. She combines her quantifying with a subtle examination of context and enlivens the text with an eye for detail. Dominating the story, as they did the family, were its heads. We see, for example, the skinflint patriarch John, after his inheritance cutting off his dependant relatives' meager pensions and ordering an end to the distribution of charity at Claydon House's gate, announcing "Whatever ...happened before, that's no rule to me." (p.159) But no less fascinating is the cast of lesser characters, such as John's aunt Cary Gardner, a poverty-stricken London widow whose gossipy letters kept the family informed and entertained during its country sojourns.
We learn a great many things from Whyman's book. Some of her findings will come as no surprise to scholars, such as the importance of building and protecting the family estate. In other places Whyman breaks new ground, as in her discussion of the significant role women played as social and political mentors to their menfolk. In essence, Whyman is chronicling the transition of the Verney family from a traditional, country-oriented gentry clan to a more modern, urban-centered one. She does this very effectively by contrasting the lives and worldviews of two heads of the family, Sir Ralph, first baronet, and his heir, Sir John, later first Viscount Fermanaugh. Sir Ralph's generation is epitomized by the ritualized hunt and gifts of venison, the subjects of a fascinating disquisition by Whyman. Sir John's generation is symbolized by the coach and formal city visits.
The hunt was, traditional, male-dominated, and country-oriented; the visit modern, female-dominated, and London-centered. Whyman's account is very persuasive, and fits well with recent work on sociability, such as that of Lawrence Klein. At times, however, she overplays the differences between father and son -- for example, as Slater has shown, London loomed large in the Verney's life well before John inherited. John's grandfather Sir Edmund was spending months in the capital every year as early as the 1620s. And Sir Ralph's was not reluctant to employ ^Ñmodern' methods of estate management in the 1650s--rackrenting and enclosing with abandon.
But even so, the contrast between the two generations is clear. Sir Ralph's honor- and kin-based understanding of gentility was effectively replaced by his son's urbanized, market-oriented one after the old man's death. No doubt this was at least in part the result of John's long experience in the Levant and London as a merchant -- as a second son he did not expect to inherit the estate; his elder brother Edmund, who seems to have been much more committed to traditional ways than John, died leaving no direct heirs in 1688.
John's worldview was better suited to the new political realities of party politics. Whyman's account of the Verneys' political careers shows the family struggling, with only modest success, to understand the rules of the very different game being played in the 1680s. Sir Ralph refused to treat voters in Parliamentary elections and longed for consensus. Sir John, while he always sought to buy votes at the cheapest possible rate, had no compunctions about spreading money around. Whyman shows how important party divisions were in late Stuart society as Whigs and Tories segregated themselves, and ties of kinship were broken by political disagreements. In 1714, John, a dedicated Tory, was not even invited to the funeral of his cousin and former ward, Edmund Denton, a Whig. John's Tory activism earned him an Irish viscountcy, but, as the author points out, thanks to his lack of a base at Court he never achieved the national status of his local rivals the Temples or Whartons.
A larger part of Whyman's story is the importance of younger sons and women in determining the course of a family's destiny. John had a very different outlook upon life than his father and elder brother, shaping the Verney family's responses to the world around them in significant ways. John's three wives, his six aunts, and many female cousins also played an important role, especially as the arbiters of an increasingly pervasive London-dominated and rule-bound civility. These are important insights.
Whyman's consideration of the London marriage market makes clear the importance of both the capital and women in one of the most important aspects of gentry life. As she rightly points out, it is often difficult to see the female hand in marriage negotiations if we focus only upon settlements and the work of attorneys. But the Verney correspondence, with its trove of letters, shows how important women were as brokers and advisors.
Whyman does not claim that the Verneys were typical of the late-Stuart gentry. They were undoubtedly unique in some ways, as every family is. But they do typify the common strategies and assumptions of the gentry, and were, in the end, more successful than many other families--Verneys live in Claydon House to this day. Susan Whyman's superb study reveals a great deal about gentry life and should be read by anyone with an interest in England's transformation to modernity.
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