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Must-See Miniseries: Aristocrats

January 13, 2011

Aristocrats, which aired during the 1999 season of PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre, is the story of the decades-long friendship between the fascinating  Lennox sisters.  Taking place in Georgian and Regency England, their tale would span almost 100 years of British history. It is all the more powerful because it is a true story.  The eloquent, charming and graceful letters between the  sisters were the subject of Stella Tillyard’s fascinating biography, Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1826

Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox were the pampered and precious daughters of the 2nd Duke of Richmond.   They were royal by blood, being granddaughters of British King Charles II(albeit illegitimately) through his French mistress, Louise de Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth.  Raised to know their station in life, they were the products of a rare marriage of love and respect.  They, in turn, sought love matches in a time when such notions were unheard of, with varying results.

Stella Tillyard states of the sisters and their stories, “Lives have plots. We narrate them over the telephone and over e-mail. The sisters narrate them in letters. These women are great readers of all kinds of novels, and they see plot lines in their own lives”.

Emily and Jamie, Duke and Duchess of Leinster

The book  and the miniseries are both magnificient, focusing on the events occuring in sisters’ correspondence between the mid-1700s to the mid 1800s.  The voluminous letters and equally beautiful television adaptation both paint a portrait of four fascinating, well-read and interesting women.

  Eldest daughter Caroline would marry the much older politician Henry Fox (Baron Holland), creating a scandal in London society (at the time of their marraige, he was not her social equal).  Eventually, her faith in her husband’s talents was rewarded, as he would become a rising star in Parliament, earning a title and respect from his Whig peers.  Caroline’s son, Charles James Fox, would become a famous Whig politician in his own right.

Emily, the middle sister, would marry one of the most influential peers of Ireland, becoming the Duchess of Leinster.  Her husband would long struggle for the rights of Irish peers in Parliament.  Her second marriage would once again scandalize friends and family.  After the death of the Duke, she married her childrens’ tutor, the Scottish William Ogilvy, who was nine years her junior.  It was a love match based on their mutual love of Rousseau,Voltaire and philosophy, and would last until her death.

the sisters in court dress circa George II's reign

Louisa Lennox married the richest man in Ireland, the amiable but dim-witted Tom Conolly, and lived in the massive Castletown House, a monument to Georgian excess that still exists today in County Kildare.  Her life would be forever scarred by the fact that she could never have children.  It is this which perhaps led her to treat her younger sisters like her own daughters, aiming to launch them into London society and snag them proper husbands.

Yet these minor scandals were nothing compared to the earth-shattering actions of younger sister Sarah Lennox.  In her teenage years, she was a favorite of the future King George III, and many in English society believed Sarah could have become Queen of England.  Alas, George married a foreign princess, and Sarah was devastated.  She entered into an arranged marriage  so unhappy that she sought solace elsewhere, having a child out of wedlock with the handsome but deranged Lord William Gordon.  This led to a divorce and disgrace for Sarah and the Lennox family.  Yet even Sarah would eventually achieve her happy ending, marrying the widowed army officer George Napier and producing a brood of military-minded children.

Overall, Aristocrats has a production value that is incomparable.  The costumes and sets are immaculate and painstakingly accurate.  Filmed mostly on location in Ireland, the sweeping landscapes are like Pre-Raphealite works of art.  As for the emotional and encompassing lives of the sisters themselves, well, they are almost too incredible to be believed.  Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah would stick by each other through times of social triumph, heartbreaking war, and intellectual revolution.  In the end, their struggles and heartaches will stick with you.  I know they have for me.

For more information about Aristocrats, including cast, characters and an interview with author Stella Tillyard, go to:  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/archive/programs/aristocrats/index.html

Main Orchestral Theme from Aristocrats (includes pictures from the series):

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