Love War & Madness in C17th England, Review "The Economist"
- Meet the family Mar 1st 2007
From The Economist print edition
The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England
By Adrian Tinniswood
Jonathan Cape; 570 pages; £25. To be published in America by Riverhead Books in May
THE Verneys popped up everywhere in Stuart England. Sir Edmund rode into battle at Edgehill as Charles I's standard bearer (unfortunately he did not ride out again, dying there instead in one of the civil war's great set pieces). His son, Sir Ralph, was a model country squire and member of Parliament. In the next generation John Verney became a wealthy Levant merchant trading in places that, until recently, had lain at the outer edge of the known world. As Britain's fortunes expanded, contracted, changed shape and took on new colours, then so, inevitably, did those of the Verneys.
Adrian Tinniswood is able to chart the family's activities over such a long period thanks to the extraordinary archive of correspondence, both official and deeply personal, that it left behind. In Claydon House, the handsome Buckinghamshire manor that came to the Verneys in the 1460s, over 100,000 papers were stored in tottering piles. A third of these related to the 17th century alone, the period in which Mr Tinniswood is especially interested. Buried in these bundles you will find not simply a new take on national matters—the civil war, the Great Fire of London, the Protestant invasion from the Netherlands of William and Mary—but also the small, everyday details of cheesemaking, sword-buying and scandal-mongering that constituted gentry life in Stuart England.
The Verneys were a variable lot. Patriarchs such as Sir Edmund and his successor, Sir Ralph, tended to be principled if parochial John Bulls. But the younger sons and the flocks of daughters, nieces and cousins were much more wayward. There was, for instance, Thomas Verney, Ralph's brother, who managed to combine ostentatious Christianity with utter knavery. His speciality was re-interpreting the Gospel to his own advantage. Needing money for a new suit, he reminded Ralph that God had clothed Abraham. Requiring a financial fillip, he mentioned Christ's injunction about brotherly love at the Last Supper. When Thomas finally was forced to flee his creditors and lie low in Wales and Ireland, it was a relief for everyone to be able to put away their Bibles and their purses.
In their own way too the Verney women were just as much trouble. Mun Verney, Ralph's heir, had insisted on marrying his second cousin Mary, whom he described, not especially flatteringly, as "a solid, judicious wench". It soon became clear, however, that the young woman was neither solid nor judicious enough. In fact, she was mad. Whether a modern diagnosis would describe the new Mrs Verney as depressed, bipolar or schizophrenic is unclear. The fact remains that she giggled hysterically when in the company of her in-laws, refused to eat and took to going to bed with her maidservant. None of which was quite what the Verneys had had in mind when they searched for a wealthy brood mare to ensure the continuation of their name and the integrity of their estates.
Other Verney women, too, had difficult lives, which was mostly not their fault. After the parliamentarians triumphed under Oliver Cromwell, Sir Ralph Verney had been obliged to flee to France, from where it was tricky to keep an eye on family matters. Deprived of his fortune, he was unable to provide proper dowries for his sisters, with the result that three of them threw themselves away on a wife beater, jailed debtor and drunkard, respectively. "Not to put too fine a point on it, he was grateful to anyone who would consent to take the girls off his hands," Mr Tinniswood writes. "Perhaps the saddest thing about all of this is that they were too."
"The Verneys" is much more than a wonderful family saga, full of spectacular rows and tearful makings-up, joyful births and tragic early deaths. With enormous flair and skill Mr Tinniswood uses the lives of these ordinary men and women to tell a much larger story about British cultural, political and social life in the 17th century. In doing so he provides a model for how biography and social history—two genres which have tended to remain oddly aloof from one another—can be made to work magnificently together.
Copyright © 2007 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.