With his peerage, farm and engagingly ambivalent relationship to Sissinghurst, his former family estate, Adam Nicolson is well placed to write a study of the gentry: that great permeable class of landowners who have straddled the divide between aristocracy and commerce, bringing continuity and a sense of noble purpose to the administration of England and Wales for the best part of a millennium. It was not always a Whiggish tale. In focusing on 12 gentry families at a point of crisis, his only criterion being that they should have been “richly articulate” in leaving records about their lives, Nicolson tells of a vexatious, acquisitive and insecure strand of society which acted “at times like little more than armed businessmen, gangsters on horseback”, as it ruthlessly extended its holdings through marriage, legal disputes, political and religious alliances, and brute force. Sir William Plumpton, medieval owner of vast acres in Yorkshire, expected to prosper through his ties to the Percies, the dominant Lancastrian clan. But tables turned, rival Yorkists took power, and he tried to revive his political and financial fortunes by selling two granddaughters to rich lawyers who were unaware he had already secretly sired a male heir. Cue for bitter legal shenanigans, exacerbated by power changes at Westminster. With improved political and climatic conditions in Tudor times, land again became a valuable commodity. This was the environment for protracted squabbling between two families for ascendancy in Wiltshire, which had the lightweight Mervyns luring Thomas, Oxford undergraduate scion of the richer, sharper Thynne family, to an alehouse, getting him drunk and married to their daughter. The Thynnes ultimately won out, making the leap, like the Spencers and Cecils, from gentry to aristocracy. By the 20th century, depressed agricultural pices and death duties meant greater returns were available from government bonds than land. In an atmosphere of “shrinkage, nostalgia and frustration”, Nicolson still offers good tales. His description of a shoot with the Cliffords, significant landowners in Gloucestershire, is masterly: sympathetic, but alert to the ironies of a lifestyle going through the motions of its predecessors. Until 1914, the gentry owned half the land in England; now the figure is less than one per cent. Nicolson fondly sees the present Government, with its Big Society ambitions, as a harbinger of a return to gentry ideals. Be that as it may, he has emerged from the archives to write a wonderfully evocative work of historical rehabilitation.