The House of Lords has yet again survived reform. ‘We have been discussing this issue for 100 years and it really is time to make progress,’ the Prime Minister said last month in a pleading, exculpatory tone. What then is the trend in popular culture?

Writing for the Times Literary Supplement in 1949, Anthony Powell observed an, ‘ever-widening gap between the popular concept of a peer and the existing reality.’ He found greatest fault with nineteenth century novels and plays, ‘where a lord, silly or sinister, handsome or grotesque, is rarely allowed to strike a balance between extremes of conduct.’  Powell’s nineteenth century examples would certainly have included Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, staged at the Savoy Theatre in 1882.  In this opera, the House of Lords resists reform at the hands of magical fairies. Early in the second act, the following exchange occurs between a fetching sprite and a steadfast Peer of the Realm:

CELIA: You seem annoyed.

LORD MOUNTARARAT: Annoyed! I should think so! Why, this ridiculous protégé of yours is playing the deuce with everything! To-night is the second reading of his Bill to throw the Peerage open to Competitive Examination!

Anthony Trollope, also of the same era, avoided fairies but often featured peers in his stories, though his characters somewhat defy Powell’s extremes. The Palliser series depicts the Upper House not so much as a place of drama or debate but as a reflection of character habits. More action occurs at the Beargarden Club than Westminster Palace.  And even when the political world surfaces, it is essentially impotent. The Duke of Omnium is swept into Government atop a coalition of Whigs and Tories and, as Trollope writes in The Prime Minister, it was known that, ‘coalitions of this kind have been generally feeble, sometimes disastrous, and on occasions even disgraceful.’

While Trollope attempts moral instruction with his third person narrative and neatly closed plots, Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time is more diffused. The protagonist, Nick Jenkins, a writer, aesthete, and dilettante, is a friend of Kenneth Widmerpool, a character who manages to earn a life peerage. Expanding on Trollope’s earlier theme, Widmerpool himself is impotent, afraid of marriage, and unable to answer the kinds of moral questions that beset the Duke of Omnium. Where the Duke worries over the marriage of his son, of maintaining his legacy, Widmerpool is concerned with attaining more status and increasing his power. On the last page of Temporary Kings, the penultimate novel of Dance to the Music of Time, Jenkins meets Widmerpool as he crosses Westminster Bridge, en route to the House. Widmerpool declares that, ‘In the Upper House, [or] wherever else I am called upon to serve the purposes of political truth, I shall continue to assail the limitation of contemporary empiricism, and expose the bankruptcy of cold-war propagandists.’ Jenkins thinks that the peer ‘sounded more than a little unhinged.’ And in a strange foil to Iolanthe, Widmerpool finally moves on from the House to seek greater power in the occult.

C.P. Snow is far graver.  The spectre of nuclear war creates real anxiety for the characters of his Strangers and Brothers series, published in 1964. Corridors of Power, an unironic phrase for Snow, is the novel that focuses closely on Parliament. The protagonist, Lewis Eliot, then a high-ranking civil servant, watches Lord Gilbey, a hereditary peer and former soldier respond to British action in the Suez Crisis of 1956.

‘I have found myself lying awake these last bitter nights wondering whether we can become strong again. That is our only safety. Whatever it costs, whether we have to live like paupers, this country must be able to defend itself. Most of us here, my lords, are coming to the end of our lives. That matters nothing to me, nothing to any of us, if only, at the hour of our death, we can know that our country is safe.’

As with Powell’s Widmerpool, there is something otherworldly about Gilbey, though now this quality is manifest. Eliot’s response is that, ‘As usual with Lord Gilbey, it was ham. As usual with his kind of ham, it was perfectly sincere…’ Even when the House is treated seriously an element of farce remains, as if now the peers possess too much virtue.

Resistance to reform is a theme that runs throughout these works. Gilbert and Sullivan display it with panache and ribaldry, Snow with pause and gravity. Sometimes the enemy is in plain view, as with Powell’s eccentric Widmerpool. Or it is something all too universal, such as Trollope’s continual focus on duty and marriage. But the stakes steadily increase from operatic comedy to diplomatic tragedy. And the greatest warning to the Prime Minister’s recent call for progress is Lord Gilbey’s ‘light, resonant, reedy tenor’ speaking of virtues that his audience can no longer recognise.

Tags: 20th Century, Fiction, House of Lords, Humour, Morality, Politics