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Black Sheep

Format: Hardback
Publisher: Vintage Publishing, London, United Kingdom
Imprint: Chatto & Windus
Published: 30th Sep 1982
Dimensions: w 140mm h 220mm
Weight: 618g
ISBN-10: 0701125489
ISBN-13: 9780701125486
Barcode No: 9780701125486

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Kirkus US
Wastrels, rakes, profligates, pederasts, bullies, brutes, ruffians, and other scapegraces from the English aristocracy: a casual but diverting historical survey by the biographer of odd-sorts Nancy Aster and Evelyn Waugh. Sykes starts off rather stodgily with a long chapter on Lord William Paget (1803-73), a contemptible lout whose only talent was for throwing away vast amounts of other people's money. Things liven up, however, when Sykes turns back to the 17th century and true criminals such as Mervyn Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, who died on the scaffold at 37 after repeatedly forcing his wife, daughter, and servants to take part in horrible bisexual orgies; or Frances, countess of Somerset, a ravishing but utterly unprincipled woman who was condemned to be executed for murder, but died instead (as a contemporary wrote) from "an impediment in that very member she had so much delighted in and abused." Sykes paints colorful portraits of the brilliant poete maudit, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester; of the ne'er-do-well Orientalist Edward Wortley Montagu; of George William Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 4th Marquis of Ailesbury, who by the rime he was 28 had debts of (UKP)345,462 - and who "was a snob because he chose deliberately to mix with blackguards, having round that in that class alone he was treated with deference." Sykes' most moving story concerns Jane Elizabeth Digby, Lady Ellenborough (1807-1881), whose only sin was to defy Victorian sexual taboos, and whose adventurous spirit led her into a tragic series of affairs and exotic marriages. (Ultimately, she died in Damascus as the wife of Sheik Medjuel el Mezrab.) Sykes maintains that many of these desperate characters were actually victims - of the grossly unfair system of primogeniture, of parental neglect, sadistic corporal punishment, etc. Readers may wonder if such mitigating factors apply to amusing maniacs like the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, or monsters like John Knatchbull - but that shouldn't lessen their pleasure in a tour through this gallery of vigorous blue-blooded rogues. (Kirkus Reviews)