I’m currently reading two books, Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson and The Last Lion by William Manchester. Quicksilver is a great disappointment, I am sorry to report. It is the first volume of a three volume prequel to the extraordinary Cryptonomicon, one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in the last ten years. The Last Lion is the riveting first volume of Manchester’s unfinished three volume bio of Winston Churchill.
John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlboro, is a character in Quicksilver, as is Winston Churchill the first, John’s father. John won the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 and the Queen honored his victory by building him a palace that he named for his conquest. Manchester gives us some facts about Blenheim Palace where Winston the later was born in 1874.
It has 320 rooms. The house’s footprint is seven acres. (I love a house where you don’t bother with square feet and just do the acres.) Nice yard, too—2700 acres of parkland though modern accounts give it as a mere 2100. Either Manchester erred or they sold some off. Or I misheard the number listening on my iPod. Either way, plenty of room for picnics, cricket, golf or anything other than a major military engagement.
The Great Hall’s ceiling is 67 feet high. The Palace’s library is the longest room in any private home in England, 183 feet. That’s 60 yards, folks. It was originally built as a portrait gallery. Today it holds 10,000 books. There’s still a little room left over for a few pictures.
But my favorite fact about the Palace is the key to the lock that opened the door to the Great Hall. It was brass and weighed three pounds. Three pounds! Where do you put it? How big is the key ring for that key? How big is the doormat you slide it under?
Of course, the really rich rarely carry keys. They have doormen and drivers. Manchester points out that Winston never drew his own bath, never rode a bus and took the tube only once and had to be rescued because he was lost. But the best story Manchester tells of the rarefied life of the British aristocracy is about a cousin of Winston’s. He was traveling without his valet and complained to friends on the trip that his tootbrush was not “frothing properly.” The friends explained that a toothbrush needed paste to froth. The cousin was unaware of that crucial step—his valet always took care of it. This makes Bush 41 look like the salt of the earth.