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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Farley Snappe–An American Aristocrat

“I hate my name”, Farley Snappe said to her mother. “I hate it.  All the boys in gym always snap their fingers when I shoot the ball.  Mr. Rope, the math teacher says I look snappy when I wear my hair up; and Mrs. Franklin says she likes the way I snap to attention when she takes attendance. Why didn’t you and Daddy change your stupid name?”

“Because he is descended from Gainsborough Snappe, the First Earl of Hereford.  That’s why. He was given his title by Henry VII in 1530…”

“Off with his head”, Farley interrupted.

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Lord Snappe kept his head as well his lands and made a fortune before he was killed fighting the Irish.  The King’s chief adviser,Thomas Cromwell, had advised him on his investments, kept him clear of the greedy hands of Cardinal Wolsey and the Pope, and promoted him at court. The family castle – Gainsborough – is now in the public trust and kept up as part of the national heritage. Farley’s parents had visited the ancestral home a number of times, and members of those families who shared a common genealogical trajectory – i.e. they consorted with the same crowd over the centuries – always invited them for dinner at their homes.

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“You should be proud of your heritage. Don’t even think of changing your name.”

Farley had heard the story of her great whatever a thousand times; and the more she heard it the less she cared about some old ruffled aristocrat who bowed and scraped at the court of the worst king ever.  What she did care about was the constant teasing. “You really snapped that up”, Billy Crandall said every day in the cafeteria.  She wanted to snap his ass like the older boys did to him in the shower.  Her brother told her that it was bad news to turn around because Pete Comings could snap a wet towel like a whip and actually take a piece out of Billy Crandall who was so embarrassed at all the red welts and sores on his ass that he started to wear underwear in the shower.

“Snap to it, little lass”, said Mr. Steege the headmaster of Potter Creek Country Day School.  “Last bell is about to ring.”  Even the headmaster, she thought, was against her.

Of course the teachers meant no harm, and were only trying to be perky and friendly so that the students would like them; but the headmaster should be more professional. “How would he like it if I called him Mr. Stogie or Mr. Stooge?”, Farley thought. “I bet he wouldn’t.”

By the time Farley got to Abbot, she had gotten used to the teasing; but was bound and determined to nip it in the bud just in case. As much as she hated herself for bringing up the stupid Earl of Hereford, she thought that her pedigree might turn some head.  After all Andover and Abbot were exclusive boarding schools for the Eastern Establishment – the sons and daughters of the elite, especially those whose families were of the best stock.  As much as Farley might have poo-pooed her aristocratic heritage, her classmates were very impressed indeed.

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“Your family has a castle in England? Wow!” She never told them that the family money had long ago run out, that the castle was a museum, and that knights, serfs, and ladies were all made up anyway.  “Yes”, she said.  “The Snappes have property.”

At first she felt ashamed at her distortion of the truth; but she was not exactly telling a lie.  There was a Gainsborough Snappe and he was indeed a courtier to Henry VIII, but a lot of water had passed under the bridge since then; and it really wasn’t right to build her reputation on some old, dead, white guy.

By the time she graduated, the story of her family’s heritage and fortune had morphed totally beyond recognition.  She demurred when her friends asked her if she had ever met the Queen, but her shy smile let on that she had. “Then you must have been to Buckingham Palace”, they concluded; and again Farley did nothing to disabuse them. With the acclaim of her classmates and teachers (they, too had been sucked into the fairytale), her natural charm and intelligence, and the good offices of her aunts who had gone to Radcliffe, she was accepted early.

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College was very different from Abbot. Most of the girls at Radcliffe were smart, intense, and studious and had no time for frivolity, especially of storybook kings and queens.  Destiny is a funny thing, Farley thought many years later.  If I hadn’t been born with the name Snappe, had I not been teased at Country Day, and had I not enjoyed the girly princess fantasy at Abbot, I might never have studied English history, moved to Europe, and finally accepted my heritage.

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It turned out that Farley was a natural.  She felt very at home with English baronets and peers of the realm, and because of her name had access to their society.  They generously overlooked her American birth and commoner mother. “We’re not Jews”, said Lord Farquhar proudly. “We English pass our heritage down through the patrilineal line”; and even when the British Empire had, because of the laws of succession, elevate a woman to the throne, it happened only infrequently.  “Yes, yes”, Lord Farquhar went on, “I am aware of Victoria and Elizabeth, but they were necessary bumps in a uniquely male line.”

Farley did not take this at all badly, about being a woman and an irregularity in an otherwise smoothly-running system.  She knew history, and she knew that whether Lord Farquhar liked it or not, aristocratic Snappe blood ran through her veins.

It was not until she met the Vicomte de Daumesnil-Chambertin that she really came into her own.  The French aristocracy was even more taken with the British than the English lords were with themselves.  Emmanuel – the Vicomte -  was very proud of his goutte of English blood, even more so than the generous Polish, Russian, and Danish royal red in his veins.  “The English are more civilized”, he said. “We French are more cultured”; and he went on to praise the counts, viscounts, dukes, and dauphins who had been responsible for patronage of the arts, literature, and intellectual enterprise. “There would have been no Descartes”, he said, “without the French aristocracy. Nor Saint-Saëns, Sartre, St. Laurent, or ‘The Little Sparrow’.” On behalf of French royalty, he took credit for everything.  Last but not least, “France is la fille aînée de l'Eglise Catholique. We are the ones who saved Europe from Mohammed’s hordes.”

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Farley was completely taken by the swirl of French society.  The French had so much more style, theatre, and panache than the English. There was a sensuality to Paris. When she ate oysters, foie gras, and caviar at Café Flo beneath the Art Deco ceilings, she was in the care of the maître d’ who had been in service at the Elysees. When she dined in Emmanuel’s private dining room at Bofinger’s, she was as catered to and admired as La Duchesse de Nantes, his forbear, consort to the King of Prussia, and regent of vast lands in France.

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Farley’s mother couldn’t get enough of her daughter’s tales of the well-born. No detail bored her, no genealogical eddy too insignificant, and no surnames – no matter how obscure – were irrelevant.  She loved Farley’s stories of lunches in the grand chateaux of the Loire, the dinners at the hotel particuliers in the 16th, the fashion, the five-star meals, and the teas with Cocteau’s son and Andre Gide’s cousin.

This was all happening, mind you, at a time when the United States and France were going through a period of social turmoil – a populist revolt against established institutions of church and state.  Yet Farley saw none of it; or if she did it was through the darkened window of the limousine of the Secretaire d'état or from the balcony overlooking the garden of the Prime Minister, over the Renaissance towers, and on to the street.

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She missed the Sixties on both continents and was glad of it.  While students from Science Po were throwing cobblestones at police, she was at the Chateau de Nantes at a soiree given by Emmanuel and his Great Aunt.

“The aristocracy will always survive”, said Emmanuel.  “They can’t do without us.” They – the modern day peasantry – were no different from the serfs that worked his family’s property three hundred years ago. “The Grand Inquisitor was right”, he said. “We and the Church give them what they want.  They are in our care.”

“So, noblesse oblige is alive and well, Farley thought, even in 1968”; but after the hoopla died down and the students returned to their carrels, the aristocracy was still there drinking Mouton Rothschild and eating partridge shot in the Versailles woods.

Farley eventually returned to the United States.  It was her native country after all, Lord Snappe notwithstanding.  It would have been easy for her to sniff at Las Vegas, Pop Tarts, happy talk, and the ersatz wannabe McMansions in Potomac; but she didn’t. It was simply fascinating to see what America had become in so short a time.  English and Christian in name only, there was not one trace of Old World myth, morals, or culture.  A few pockets remained – old English redoubts on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket; but these too were losing ground to new money and new ideas.

After twenty years in New York, Farley decided to spend her last years in the south of France where she had a home.  Arles would be where she had been her happiest in her younger years, and it was natural that she should return.

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Her mother was always proud of her, her openness, her confidence, and her absolute belief in the anchored rightness of the aristocracy.  She had come from simple Ohio farming stock; and perhaps because of that background, she had always hoped that Farley would take after her husband’s side of the family.  She did.

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