On the 6th September 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales was laid to rest at her ancestral home of Althorp. After the funeral her short and troubled life was scrutinised by commentators who perceived that her passing also symbolised the death of the old England. However this perception is flawed because this version of England will always exist in the fond memories of the nation, in spite of all of the social and political upheavals.
In 1981 Lady Diana Spencer was betrothed to the Prince of Wales. The engagement between an aristocrat’s daughter and the heir to the throne was arranged to ensure that any future heirs would have the necessary bloodline. This arranged marriage seemed anachronistic even then, a reminder of an unenlightened and feudal social order.
However English people are especially prone to nostalgia, and cling to the past when other nations sweep those concerns to the side in anticipation for the future. Foreigners are particularly bemused by our obsession with relics and antiques, when in other cultures anything old is discarded in favour of the new as there is more use for those things.
Similarly the obsession with old families with inherited wealth is part of this compulsion to hang on to the old ways. Dynastic politics is a sublimation of ancient myth, so memorably evoked at the Royal Wedding when the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of it as a fairy tale.
The Spencer family had lived at the vast Althorp Estate since the fifteenth century. The wealth that they accumulated was a consequence of the lucrative wool industry. Other landowning families owed an immense debt to sheep. There seems to be a great irony that the grandeur of their houses derives from something as lowly as a humble animal.
In Evelyn Waugh`s 1945 novel “Brideshead Revisited”, the wealth of the aristocratic Marchmain family was solely down to sheep. In a poignant chapter Lord Marchmain is dying and he speaks wistfully of “the fat days, the days of wool-shearing and the wide corn lands, the days of growth and building, when the marshes were drained and the waste land brought under the plough, when one built the house, his son added the dome, his son spread the wings and dammed the river”.
Coincidentally during the winter of 1981 ITV adapted “Brideshead Revisited”. The opening scene shows an officer stationed at the crumbling Brideshead estate in the midst of the Second World War. Immediately the officer remembers that he had a close friendship with Lord Marchmain`s son at Oxford. The memory is intoxicating and the contrast between the dark destructive forces of war and the innocence of a wide eyed and impressionable young man in the heady days of the twenties is stark and unsettling. The jaded and demoralised Captain then falls into a reverie about his colourful and eventful youth.
The narrative is an elegy for a lost world, a world that changed irrevocably after the Second World War. England emerged from the wreckage physically altered but spiritually the nation was the same, the clamour for the old remained. Even in the midst of the 1980s recession the fervent need for fairy tales had not diminished. It might appear nonsensical and romantic to show reverence for old institutions but it is a part of our culture and civilisation.