The inhabitants of the British Isles have bequeathed many fabled gifts to civilization – the works of Shakespeare and the Magna Carta come to mind – but no gift keeps giving quite like the antics of aristocrats behaving badly. I speak not of Earls whose addiction to gambling leads them to invent the Sandwich or Dukes who set up a second life as a baker. No, I mean badly; really, epically, occasionally criminally badly. If you want to read about members of the peerage behaving badly on a nuclear scale then in Splendour and Squalor Marcus Scriven has written the book for you.
Alternately hilarious and sad (and sometimes both), the stories of four awesomely awful individuals show exactly what too much money plus zero parental oversight can do to a person. The consequences range from multiple bankruptcies, multiple wives, prison sentences, a "lifelong shriek for attention" and being declared (by a judge) “absurdly stupid.” Alcohol, drugs, excessive spending, adultery, more alcohol, more drugs, sexual experimentation and, above all, consistently bad judgment: it’s like a century long frat party. With family crests on the silver.
Scriven provides a smorgasbord of witticisms about the lunacies he details but some of the best lines are delivered seriously by the participants. Consider the ex-wife (one of many) of the Duke of Manchester who describes her home as an “upholstered sewer outside Melbourne”. (The things they’re doing with waterproof fabric these days!) Or the Marquess of Bristol who declares that he didn’t go to his father’s wedding to his secretary because “I don’t go to office parties.” Or, my favorite, the friend who describes the relative merits of the Marquess’s favorite driver thusly, “being illiterate he couldn’t read the road signs, so not the greatest chauffeur.”
At one point in the festivities the utterly insane Marquess of Bristol joins forces with the equally batty Clint Murchinson Jr (of The Big Rich fame) to invest in oil fields. When John Murchinson suggests that they “saddle up the jet” it’s really anyone’s guess which activity any of them had in mind. One feels a certain kinship with the observer who states, “What I’m wondering is, where are the white sheep in this family?” No where in this book, thankfully.
A fun, fast blissfully witty book. Marcus Scriven writes like the world’s most erudite gossip columnist and for that I love him. Essential reading for anyone who enjoys fabulousness and wit.
Kindle note: there are, tragically, no photographs in the Kindle version despite the index of photos being tauntingly included up front. When one reads of a Duchess who routinely begins notes to friends with the words “Well Kid how is your sex life?” one wants to see what the letter writer looked like.