Review of ‘Stags and Serpents’, by John Pearson

This review is by Julie Bunting, and was published originally in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 26th August 2002, and is reproduced with Julie's kind permission.

by John Pearson
Published by Country Books
ISBN 1-898941-58-0 (2002)

Country Books of Little Longstone have published this revised new edition of Stags & Serpents for the Chatsworth House Trust. The title was first published in 1983 and has proved to be invaluable for its broad and utterly fascinating look at the history of the Cavendish family and the Earls and Dukes of Devonshire.

It is the story of four centuries and fifteen generations of one of the most talented and powerful families in English history, for the Cavendishes have played central roles in politics, architecture, science and the encouragement and patronage of the arts. The present Duke of Devonshire is known for his love of politics and patronage of the arts, so this is a story spanning a miniature history of England from the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth to the second.

Naturally, it begins with Bess of Hardwick and for me the particular pleasure of reading this book is through the engrossing and almost gossipy attention paid to the Cavendish women, from mothers and daughters to wives and mistresses. Take colourful and usually contemporary comments such as 'his ugly, mad Duchess'; 'delightfully vulgar'; 'a tarnished Mayfair milliner'; 'poor old dear, very cheerful and very rouged' and, of a stunning society beauty - 'the blooming, the blythe, the beautiful ...'.

Intriguing as these womenfolk are, they are more than adequately matched by their Cavendish paramours, husbands and lovers. Maybe more than a touch of envy lies behind some of their contemporary descriptions - 'the common bull of Derbyshire and Staffordshire'; 'of a nice honour in everything but the paying of his tradesmen'; 'very clever and very comical'; and the duke who possessed a general 'you-be-damnedness' and who dressed like a 'seedy, shady sailor'.

In his prologue,The Devonshires Today, John Pearson refers to the family as 'a threatened species' but he ends the book on an optimistic note as the dukedom settles into its fourth century. Almost twenty years since publication of the first edition of Stags and Serpents, the final chapter has been thoroughly updated and reminds us how fortunate we are still to have Chatsworth as the 'Palace of the Peak' - in other hands it could all have been so different. The author has had access to papers at Chatsworth, the Historical Manuscripts Commission, the Public Record Office and numerous other sources. He has chosen almost fifty illustrations from cartoons to paintings and photographs of this fascinating and often eccentric family.

The answers to How did the Devonshires get to be where they are? Where did their wealth come from? and How have they managed to hold onto Chatsworth? are all to be found in Stags & Serpents.

Review by Julie Bunting

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