Sunday, March 8, 2015

Things I Didn't Know

So, while reading the Christie I mentioned in my previous post, I came across two little bits of information that were new to me

First, in "The Kidnapped Prime Minister", one of the two members of the War Cabinet who come to engage Poirot is described as 'Leader of the House of Commons'. That puzzled me, since I'd always thought the leader of the House of Commons was the Prime Minister. Turns out (thank you, Wikipedia) this is sometimes the case and sometimes not: in recent years, that job has usually been handed off to one of the other major figures in the cabinet. Live and learn.

The other was a different version of a well-known superstition.  At one point in "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat" Poirot observes "It is still regarded as a symbol of good luck if a black cat crosses your path". This was surprising, since I've always heard it the other way round: that it's bad luck when a black cat crosses your path -- which, since I love black cats, I've always considered stuff and nonsense; for me getting to see a new cat is cause for celebration. I wonder if this reversal is a US/UK thing, since I was once surprised, when a bird dropped its business on me when I was out walking with an English friend, to have him say "lucky you". At first I thought he was kidding, but he stuck to his guns, insisting that having a bird poo on you is good luck.

It's sometimes said the English and Americans are one people divided by a common language, but I wonder if it doesn't go a little deeper than that, into unshared superstitions as well.

--John R.
current reading: THE SHADOW (The Mother Goose Murders/Crime Over Casco) [1946]


ATMachine said...

At the time Agatha Christie was writing, it was apparently usual for the title "Leader of the House of Commons" to be held by the PM--if the Prime Minister was a member of the lower house.

But as recently as 1902 (when Lord Salisbury left office), the Prime Minister was in fact a peer sitting in the House of Lords. Given Christie's quite conservative worldview, I suspect this latter scenario is actually what she had in mind.

ATMachine said...

Hmm... looking it up on Wikipedia, I note it's actually just the reverse: Christie's Prime Minister, David MacAdam, sits in the Commons, but her "Leader of the House of Commons" is one Lord Estair.

Having a peer be the "Leader of the Commons" suggests to me that Christie's contempt for popular democracy may have been even greater than I'd implied in my last post.

Either that... or maybe Christie was using a deliberately contradictory official title--to suggest that the people in the story were thinly veiled disguises of real-world politicians.

Magister said...

Then Lord Estair must have been an Irish peer, since they were the only peers who could be elected to the Commons (they just had to stand in a constituency outside Ireland).

Lord Dunsany ran for Parliament under this rule.

David Bratman said...

There's two ways a person with a title of nobility could have sat in the Commons prior to the reforms of 1999.
1) As mentioned, Irish peer (one without an additional British or English title). Real-world example: Lord Palmerston.
2) Courtesy title: son and heir of a peer who holds one of his father's lesser titles by custom. Real-world example: Lord Hartington, founder of the Liberal Unionists in 1886, who later inherited the title Duke of Devonshire and went to the Lords.

Custom of leading the House of Commons - that is, organizing the business of the house and setting the terms of debate in consultation with the Speaker and the Opposition - was up to WWI that the Prime Minister, if in the Commons, did this; if the PM was in the Lords, it was the job of the leading cabinet minister who sat in the Commons.

Lloyd George was the first PM in the Commons who devolved the job on another minister whose main job was just to do that; and since WW2 that has inevitably been the case.

Brer said...

In Robert Graves' "Claudius the God" he has Herod being held a captive when he is befouled by an owl. A British prisoner with him comments that where he comes from this is a sign of the greatest good luck, and indeed Herod is soon released.

John D. Rateliff said...

Thanks all for the interesting comments.

Given that the two actual prime minsters during WWI were H. H. Asquith and Lloyd-George, I'm thinking she must be thinking Lloyd-George insofar as she has any specific model in mind.

Lord Salisbury: that's Lord David Cecil's grandfather, right? It took me quite a while to realize that one of the Inklings was the grandson of a Prime Minister and son of a cabinet member -- something I really think Carpenter shd have told us, had he realized it wasn't something everybody knew.

re. Christie's "quite conservative views" -- yes, the casual jingoism, esp of her early work, can be a bit startling.

The Rbt Graves bit does indeed sound like confirmation. Odd, but then so are just about all superstitions, almost by definition.

--John R.

ATMachine said...

The Cecil lineage goes back much, much farther than just to Lord Salisbury (Queen Victoria's last PM). Salisbury himself was a direct descendant of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was the Secretary of State and de facto prime minister of Queen Elizabeth I.

ATMachine said...

Also, if Christie's Lord Estair was the eldest son of a peer, "Estair" would have to be his surname, or one of his father's subsidiary titles.

As I recall, sons of peers were not allowed to use their fathers' primary noble titles until they themselves inherited. However, if a lord had a secondary title, his eldest son could adopt that instead, as a "courtesy title." Failing that, the heir could just use his actual last name, thus: "Lord Surname."

Second sons, however, were stuck with "Lord Firstname Surname" and their children inherited no titles. Thus Lord Randolph Churchill (second son of the Duke of Marlborough) was the father of Winston Churchill, who had to earn his own knighthood.

Accordingly, Wikipedia notes that Lord David Cecil himself was a younger son of a marquess.

David Bratman said...

ATM: As I wrote above, the (eldest) son and heir of a peer uses one of his father's subsidiary titles by custom. Only, however, if that peer has subsidiary titles. (Some lesser peers don't.) Contrary to your assumption, "Lord Surname" is not done in Britain, unless the subsidiary title in question happens to be the same as the surname.

"Lord Firstname" (as in your example, Lord Randolph Churchill; or Lord David Cecil, or Lord Peter Wimsey for that matter) is only for younger sons in the higher peerage, sons of dukes or marquesses. "Lady Firstname" for daughters of dukes, marquesses, or earls. Other children of peers get the prefix "Hon.", but most of them don't habitually use it.

David Bratman said...

John: Yes, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (Prime Minister on 3 occasions between 1885 and 1902) was Lord David Cecil's grandfather. Lord David got to be called Lord because he was the son of the 4th Marquess, also a cabinet minister; so was Lord David's elder brother, the 5th Marquess, who was among other things the key figure in determining that Harold Macmillan would succeed Anthony Eden as Prime Minister in 1957. The 7th and current Marquess is also prominent in Conservative politics.

I suspect Christie had Lloyd George in mind, yes. When was the book published?

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi all.

--Yes, I was aware of the more distant Tudor-era connections, having seen ELIZABETH R. back in the day, but didn't know about Lord David's more immediate ancestry for a long time.

DB: "the (eldest) son and heir of a peer uses one of his father's subsidiary titles by custom. Only, however, if that peer has subsidiary titles. (Some lesser peers don't.)"

--A good example being Lord Dunsany, whose son and heir is I believe simply "the Hon." until such time as he succeeds to the title.

Also DM: "I suspect Christie had Lloyd George in mind, yes. When was the book published?"

--in 1925, with the component stories apparently published in 1923-1924 (and poss. also 1925), so there weren't too many wartime/postwar figures to draw inspiration from.

Thanks for the elucidation, all.
--John R.

David Bratman said...

"A good example being Lord Dunsany"

Yes. This title is a barony, the lowest rank of the peerage, and consequently can have no lower-ranking additional titles attached to it.

"in 1925"

Yes, then if Christie's fictional PM was a member of the Commons, then his having a separate Leader of the House (of Commons) would have to be inspired by the Lloyd George situation, as there weren't yet any others to use.

"more distant Tudor-era connections"

As have many others. Winston Churchill was named for his 17th-century ancestor of the same name, a Royalist soldier and the father of the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

Magister said...

"This title is a barony, the lowest rank of the peerage, and consequently can have no lower-ranking additional titles attached to it."

A special exceptions being Viscounts and Lords of Parliament in the Peerage of Scotland ("Lord of Parliament" is the Scottish equivalent of "Baron", since "Baron" means something completely different in Scotland). The eldest son of a Scottish Viscount or Lord of Parliament has the courtesy title "Master of [father's title]" while all other children have to make do with "the Honourable". Thus the eldest son of "Lord Lovat" is "the Master of Lovat".