“I could’ve been a judge, but I never ’ad the Latin. . . . And so I become a miner instead.” So starts the bitterly funny “Miner’s Sketch” from the 1960s revue Beyond the Fringe, which gave Americans a sense of the long, brutal class war in Britain between coal miners and the ruling class. Neither emerged intact.
That antagonism provides the backdrop for Catherine Bailey’s irresistible Black Diamonds, a dual history of the “torrid unraveling” of an aristocratic dynasty, the Earls Fitzwilliam, and the collapse of the Yorkshire coal mining community that provided the family’s wealth.
As she did in The Secret Rooms, her 2013 bestseller about the Dukes of Rutland, Bailey provides proof that a noble title doesn’t always signify noble behavior. In 1902, when Bailey opens her story, the Fitzwilliams were based at the 365-room Wentworth estate. Staggeringly rich from coal, they spent the subsequent decades mistreating their children, betraying their spouses, impregnating village girls and chorus dancers and suing each other. Today, they have lost both Wentworth and their noble title.
Ironically, the one thing the Fitzwilliams did not do was oppress their workers: They were among the best of the mine owners. But they could do nothing about the viciousness of their fellow owners. Bailey writes movingly of the fatal accidents, the miners’ ghastly living conditions and the community solidarity that alleviated the horrors.
Peter, the eighth Earl Fitzwilliam, was a war hero and compulsive adulterer. When he died in a plane crash in 1948 with his lover Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s sister, the grieving families rushed into full cover-up mode. Bailey gives us the real deal, on that and everything else. Downton Abbey’s earl would be appalled, but the dowager countess would love it.