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Class Dismissed

Being a member of the British aristocracy these days isn't exactly a dog's life, but it's no bed of roses

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Oh, yes, there'll always be a British aristocracy, but its dukes, earls, marquesses and barons may be getting their comeuppance. That's because almost all of Britain's hereditary peers face ouster from the second chamber of Parliament, which their families have occupied by birthright for centuries. Ironically, even as the terms of eviction were being debated recently, a book almost as anachronistic as the House of Lords itself was making its appearance. The 106th edition of Burke's Peerage & Baronetage provides a detailed record of the noble and ignoble ancestors of an aristocracy that is sinking ever deeper into irrelevance and sometimes insolvency.

Although it embodies what has become one of the most politically incorrect ideas of our time — elitism — Burke's remains for many an irresistible source of excellent albeit utterly useless information. "It's a history book made up of families," says one expert in genealogy. Unlike its predecessors, however, the latest Burke's harbors few illusions about its subjects. It reveals such juicy tidbits as which dukes originated with the bastard sons of which kings and which titles were given to the husbands of royal mistresses as sops to look the other way. None of which discourages outsiders from trying to get into aristocratic circles by buying feudal titles associated with old landholdings. The titles are being put up for sale nowadays by none other than the hard-pressed aristocrats who once owned the land that went with them.

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