Some time ago, the newspapers reported that the tenth Earl of Shaftesbury had gone missing. Good heavens, this was Anthony, known as Atty, and once upon a time I had been to his gigantic stately home, Wimborne Saint Giles, set in an estate of 9,000 acres of prime country in Dorset. His grandmother, the Countess, I remember, pronounced the word “garage” as if it was French, and dropped the final g from participles, saying “goin’ motorin’” in an immeasurably aristocratic manner. The young Atty was vivacious, a fan of classical music, an early ecologist planting whole forests on his land.
His body was found hidden in a valley in the South of France. He had been brutally murdered. And his life story came out. Poor eager music-loving Atty had fallen low into a world of prostitutes, Viagra and priapism, bars and night-clubs, alcoholism, generally dissipating his fortune and ruining his health. He was in the process of divorcing his third wife, one Jamila M’Barak, Tunisian-born and by her own account a high-class hooker. Apparently he intended to marry one Nadia, from Morocco, whom he’d picked up. So the jealous Jamila paid her brother Mohammed some $200,000 — presumably of Atty’s own money — and they murdered him. Easily detected, they express no remorse. A French court has just sentenced the pair to twenty-five years in prison.
Atty’s direct forebear, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, (1801-1885), is one of the most eminent Victorians. An Evangelical Christian, he could write from the heart, “God had called me to labour among the poor.” In Parliament, he promoted the famous and truly progressive Factory Acts, to prevent exploitation of children. He founded the so-called Ragged Union, to care for and educate homeless children. Florence Nightingale was a friend. He also was one of the first to campaign for the return of Jews to their land.
Atty’s fate is of course a personal tragedy arising from some disintegration of character. Perhaps it isn’t really symbolic. But the difference between the lives of the seventh earl and the tenth seems to signify something important about Britain.