Death at Harrods

Can this possibly be true? On 25 August 1909, the New York Times reported: “As a result of the death of Miss Helenora Catherine Horn-Elphinstone-Darlrymple, sister of Sir Edward Graeme Elphinstone-Darlrymple, during a dry shampoo with carbon tetrachloride at Harrods Stores,

By M.j. Akbar (Byline)

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Published: Mon 31 Aug 2009, 10:15 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 8:50 AM

charges of manslaughter were yesterday preferred at Westminster Police court against Mr William H. Eardly, the manager of the department, and Miss Beatrice Clarke, one of the assistants. Miss Horn-Elphinstone-Darlrymple went to Harrods for a dry shampoo on July 12. She was warned she might feel faint…”

I am not doubting the fact of death [why isn’t there an Agatha Christie novel called Death at Harrods?]. Or that Sir Edward had enough clout with the local constabulary to send William and Beatrice up for trial. But could anyone really have had a surname like Horn-Elphinstone-Darlrymple? The answer must be yes. The London correspondent of New York Times might have been forgiven for getting a manslaughter mixed up with a mere tort. But no news editor would have used his copy again if he got a multi-barrelled name from the British aristocracy wrong. And if his spelling is as accurate, then William the writer of many many books has surely forgotten an “r” in his Dalrymple.

Can you rule an Empire with short names? Roman Emperors kept their names terse, but since they promoted themselves into gods, anything above three syllables became unwieldy on the common tongue. How do you worship a Fotheringay-Fotheringay Phipps? You don’t. You just throw bread rolls at him at Drone’s off Piccadilly.

The British ruling class was not alone in puling on the appendices to a Helenora [itself an affected extension of the more working class Helen, I presume]. If you wrote the full name of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, there would not be much space left over for this column. Reasons for longitude varied with culture. The Mughal dad could not stop praising his newborn prince; each additional word was an adjective. When the prince grew up, killed his siblings and plonked himself on the throne, he could not stop exalting himself and added a few pearls of admiration to the already long-winded paragraph that was his name.

The British yardstick for yardlong names was different. It was advertisement of the family tree. So Helenora was telling you that the family fortunes were established by old Darlrymple, and further fattened by Elphinstone and Horn. I don’t suppose they included the failures in-between the genealogical line. There may have been a Barrington, for example, who sold the family castle to pay off his gambling debts at White’s, but you could not keep him on par with Elphinstone, who slogged hard in the East India Company and bought back a country estate. And if Elphinstone turned out to be the chap who governed Bombay in the old days, then it was precisely the kind of family connection that would impress Scotland Yard when you wanted to file a case for manslaughter.

Logically, the lower down you go on the social order, the shorter your surname becomes. The John Carpenters, not to mention the John Smiths, must have been mere Johns until the era when labour was treated with dignity.

In India, Hindu caste names are a dead giveaway of origin. But those promoted to prominence by the British happily traded in the past for the present. “Chowdhury”, or “Malik”, are titles and thus used across the religious divide. Indian Muslims, technically, did not have caste names, but if you were an Ansari from east Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, you could be more or less sure that there was artisan blood in your veins.

Helenora’s tragic appointment with her hairdresser took place in 1909. Five years later the First World War began. It was after this Great War, with its millions upon millions of wasted lives, that the pomposity of the British aristocracy began to dribble away, in my estimation. They had killed working class boys on an unimaginable scale in order to preserve their class-ridden societies, and a reaction was inevitable. The English lords had ruled beyond their sell-by date, just like the Mughals a century earlier.

The barrels began to drop off the surnames, slowly, piecemeal, but surely. What could not be destroyed by war was surely erased by the floating notes of P.G. Wodehouse’s laughter, although Wodehouse was also in love with the class he teased out of existence. Even a Tobias prefers to call himself a Toby these days. He probably would not get a restaurant booking in the name of “Tobias”.

Harrods is still there, of course. But if parts of the great English store occasionally look like side lanes of a Cairo bazaar, there is a valid explanation. It is now owned by an Egyptian who is convinced that his son was bumped off by the British secret service because he was about to marry Diana, Princess of Wales and ruin the bloodline of the British ruling class forever. Harrods customers are now more likely to be Asian tourists than the British gentry. The only institutions with long names now are law firms. [There is much anguish in Yale at this moment because the American law firms, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, and Milbank, Tweed, Hadley, and McCloy are not hiring. I would have used an ampersand in the law firm names, but I can’t find one on my keyboard.]

The old order giveth way to the new.

M.J. Akbar is Chairman and Director of Publications of the fortnightly newsmagazine Covert

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