Holland House: A History of London’s Most Celebrated Salon,

Linda Kelly, IB Tauris, 288pp, £25 (hardback)

Nearly two centuries on from the heyday of Holland House – the house itself was destroyed by German bombs in the Second World War – the grounds retain much of their former lofty grandeur. That sense of history is as much a part of Holland Park’s appeal as its ornamental gardens and diverse plant life, and Sir Walter Scott’s elegant paean will resonate with anyone who has had the pleasure of taking a walk there:

The freshness of the air, the singing of the birds, the beautiful aspect of nature, the size of the venerable trees, all gave me a delightful feeling … It seemed there was pleasure in living and breathing, without anything else.

Linda Kelly has written a lively and engaging history of this remarkable nineteenth-century political hub. Its chief protagonists are Henry Vassall Fox, better known as Lord Holland, and his wife, Elizabeth Fox. Intelligent, sharp-tongued and by all accounts more than a little domineering, Elizabeth’s relentless energy was the driving force behind Holland House’s busy social calendar. For the well-travelled Lady Holland, a progressive cosmopolitanism was a crucial ingredient for a healthy intellectual life:

… unless I were active in collecting fresh materials he [Lord Holland] might be too apt to fall into a click [clique], a calamity no abilities can fight against. Ideas get contracted, prejudices strong and the whole mind narrowed … Mankind was made to live together; the more they mix with each other the better able a man is to judge them and conduct himself …

The social mix at Holland House was accordingly eclectic, encompassing politicians, diplomats, poets and wits as well as a colourful array of European exiles. While literary figures like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott flit in and out of the story, Holland House’s primary focus is political – charting, through the prism of Holland House’s social bustle, the trajectory of an emergent liberalism as it carved out a space for itself against a backdrop of reaction at home and abroad.

Kelly’s account begins with the Whigs floundering in the midst of a thirty year period of opposition at the start of the nineteenth-century. Holland House was a gathering place where prestigious Whig aristocracy hobnobbed with the editors of the Edinburgh Review and assorted literati – an alternative locus of political influence at a time when the Whigs’ parliamentary impotence was keenly felt.

The closing phase of the Napoleonic wars put the Hollands in a quandary: they welcomed Napoleon’s defeat in Spain, where the government was nationalist and liberal; but Napoleon’s eventual total defeat – following allied victories in Germany and a disastrous Russian campaign – culminated in the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, a terrible setback for the cause of liberalism in Europe. The doors of Holland House were opened to exiled supporters of Bonaparte, causing unease even among the Hollands’ friends. Napoleon’s demise was a source of great chagrin to Lord and Lady Holland, but the end of the war enabled liberals to breath more freely; it was events at home, rather than developments on the Continent, that would give the Whigs their breakthrough.

Bad harvests in the winter of 1816/17 led to widespread disturbances, prompting the government to suspend Habeas Corpus in February 1817. Lord Holland decried in the strongest terms a measure that would mean ‘a complete surrender and extinction of our laws and liberties.’ Matters worsened in 1819 with the unravelling of the Cato Street Conspiracy, in which a disaffected radical speaker had planned to murder Lord Liverpool and all his Cabinet and set up a revolutionary regime. There was a crackdown on public protests: the conspirators were executed or deported, a number of other radicals were imprisoned and others – like William Cobbett – fled to America.

The emergence of the ‘liberal Tories’ in the 1820s threatened to steal the Whigs’ thunder. William Huskisson became President of the Board of Trade and set about liberalising the system of tariffs and duties that had been hampering free trade; the relatively liberal Lord Canning became Foreign Secretary. Increasingly polarised between ‘ultras’ and ‘liberals’, the Tory party was held together by the unifying influence of Lord Liverpool, whose death in February 1827 would precipitate a parliamentary crisis. Split on the issue of Catholic Emancipation, the Tories imploded: Canning became Prime Minister and turned to the Whigs for support, forming a coalition; Canning himself then died, plunging the party system into paralysis.

The bill for Catholic Emancipation went through in April 1829. Lord Holland complacently expressed his satisfaction that the measure had been granted ‘as a boon and not as an article of capitulation.’ As Kelly reminds us, ‘[Emancipation] had been offered under duress and [the Irish] saw no reason to be grateful.’ Far from placating the Irish Catholics, the reform would trigger a new round of demands. Nonetheless it represented a milestone victory, and with the Tories in disarray the Whigs would find themselves thrust into power in November 1830. At a time of mounting class conflict, the Whig government represented a new settlement:

A rising middle class, rich and well educated, was demanding its share in government; lower down the scale the workers’ associations, suppressed since the Napoleonic Wars, had begun to articulate their claims once more. Economic misery added to the sense of urgency; rick-burning under the auspices of the sinister ‘Captain Swing’ was spreading fear in the rural south, desperate workers were arming and training in the industrial north. The fear of revolution, which had once held back political change, had become the chief reason for bringing it about.

It was in this climate that the Whigs, returned to office with a large majority in 1831, were able to push through the historic Reform Bill in the face of fierce resistance in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The bill was far from revolutionary – the working class remained unenfranchised; as, of course, did women – but the effects were still seismic, amounting to a transfer of political power from the upper to the middle classes, and giving political clout to big industrial cities like Manchester and Birmingham. ‘It would have been impossible,’ notes Kelly, ‘to get anything more radical through Parliament at the time.’

The Reform Act of 1832 would be followed swiftly by the abolition of slavery a year later. Lord Holland would later reflect with some pride that ‘the three bills I had hitherto sat to pass were the abolition of he Slave Trade, the alteration of the Game Laws, and the Reform Bill.’ Holland’s uncle and hero, the Whig doyen Charles James Fox (1749-1806), had made it his life’s purpose to further the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. Fox, venerated by Holland as ‘the best and greatest man of our time’, had proposed the motion for the abolition of the slave trade on his final speech in the House of Commons; it was a source of immense satisfaction to Holland to have helped realise Fox’s vision. Himself the owner of large plantations in Jamaica, Holland had shown, in the words of one contemporary, Lord Brougham, ‘extraordinary disinterestedness’ in throwing his full weight behind the cause of abolitionism.

These were halcyon days for the Whigs. It was now some thirty years since George III had struck Charles James Fox’s name off the Privy Council for daring to toast to ‘the sovereignty of the people’ – things had come a long way. But to imagine the English ruling class benevolently dispensing ‘boons’ is to indulge a dangerous conceit. The country was on its knees in those historic ‘Days of May’ in 1832: there were mass meetings across the country, political unions mobilised and agitating to resist taxes and put up barricades; only with the country apparently on the brink of civil war did parliament succumb. Progressive patricians like Lord Holland deserve credit for their input, but it was the collective effort of a nationwide mass movement that made it possible. That said, Holland House is immune to any charge of Whiggishness because it makes no claim to be a general political history of the period. Despite her evident admiration for Holland and his circle, Kelly never lapses into blind sentimentalism – Holland is appreciated but not lionised.

One of the book’s most interesting asides sees Lady Holland’s estranged son, Henry Fox, registering his disdain for the work of a certain young author named Charles Dickens. Nicholas Nickleby had just been published, and Dickens was taking his place among the great and the good at Holland House. In a letter to his mother, Fox quoted Lady Carlisle:

I know that there are such unfortunate beings as pickpockets and street walkers. I am very sorry for it … but I own I do not much wish to hear what they say to one another.

‘I suspect,’ he added, ‘when the novelty and the fashion of admiring them dies down they will sink to their proper level.’ It is crass philistinism to our ears – as it was to Lady Holland’s at the time – but the attitude was entirely understandable for a man of his time. Henry Fox fils failed to recognise in the new literature the harbinger of a new future. The signal success of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was less than two decades away: writing about common folk was no passing fad. The people would emerge still more fully – in the arts as in politics – in the next century.

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