Viscount Bullingdon is the son of the Right Honourable Sir Charles Lyndon, the deceased husband of Lady Lyndon, who Redmond Barry, Irish adventurer and opportunist, inveigles into a marriage that will be advantageous to him. He does so by the most underhand means; calling out rivals to the extremely wealthy widow’s affections, wounding one such suitor (the one she prefers) savagely on the duelling ground, whilst blackmailing her with letters she had sent him, some years earlier, whilst under the impression that he, Redmond, was a noble European chevalier at Spa, a watering place on the Continent.
Bullingdon is Redmond Barry (nee Lyndon’s) nemesis. He has nothing but animosity for this renegade – “the tall dark man at Spa with the cast in his eye, who used to make my governor tipsy and sent me the sword: his name is Mr Barry.” While Barry lays claim to roots in the Protestant Irish ruling class, and mythic kinship with ancient Irish kings, “Bully” inclines towards Catholicism. Barry Lyndon is free to fritter away Lady Lyndon’s wealth during her lifetime. But while generally successful when making his way upwards in society, once established among its upper exchelons, Barry’s luck deserts him: he cannot maintain his status – while a master of gaming at all the card-tables of Europe, he is no match for the perfidious teamwork of the English nobility, and this is partly because he no longer has a partner in his uncle (who formed part of a team with Barry in Europe) but now he must engage with chance on his own.
Lady Lyndon’s estate is entailed on Bullingdon, only son of her first husband. Right from the start of the new marriage it is clear that the boy has no love for his step-father, and, for all his avowals of even-handedness, it is apparent that Barry has him horsed, and canes him mercilessly, so that eventually he runs away. Thought to have died whilst fighting against the United States, he turns up, years later, alive, to champion the cause of Lord George Poynings, the cousin of Lady Lyndon and the suitor chosen for her by her family, and indeed the suitor of her choice, who has been out-finessed and nearly killed by Barry. Eventually, after Barry has squandered most of her fortune, Lady Barry is wrested from him by this aristocratic rescue-party, and as a result, Redmond Barry spends nineteen years in a debtor’s jail, writing memoirs truncated only by his death.
The Hindu caste system divides people into four main categories – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Many believe that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation. Outside of this Hindu caste system are the the Dalits or untouchables. At the top of the hierarchy are the Brahmins who are mainly teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma’s head. Then come the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from his arms. The third group are the Vaishyas, or the traders, who are created from his thighs. At the bottom of the heap are the Shudras, who came from Brahma’s feet and do all the menial jobs. The Dalits are beneath even these lowly beings – they are well and truly outcasts. In the British caste system, thanks to Henry VIII, Kshatriyas claim superiority over Brahmins, but otherwise, things are much the same.
Bullingdon is of a lineage that occupies the heights of this hierarchy. The Viscount epitomises the maintenance of the status quo – largely achieved by keeping wealth “in the family” – which is why he favours Lord George, as his widowed mother’s suitor. His name – though a fictitious one created for us not by Brahma but by William Makepeace Thackeray – identifies the club at Oxford University that dedicates itself to booting the upwardly-mobile back down the stairs. This club, drawn from alumni from public schools such as Eton and Harrow, is notorious for vandalism and assault, and members firmly believe in their own justification, not so much by the “grace” of God, but by the “grace” of rank. Those with rank are born into honour, and no downright dirty deed besmirches that. Therefore they can do no wrong. And while it is clear, from Barry Lyndon, that the upper class is prepared to rat on itself, cheat any other member of it, murder a brother if advantage can be had from it (as in James Hogg’s The Confessions of a Justified Sinner), and that the rule of life is that dog will eat dog, the Bullingdon Club is united in keeping its boot on the lid of any vaunted change from below. Be it Irish blackleg Redmond pushing up against that lid, or the Socialists, or the Palestinians – for while Charles Rothschild was the prey of “Jew-hunting” when at Harrow, these days, perhaps by dint of indebtedness and American pressure, the British ruling class have come to an accommodation with Zionism.
Members of the Bullingdon club have gone on to become leading figures within Britain’s political establishment. These include the former Prime Minister David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Billionaire Nat Rothschild, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Nick Hurd, current Minister of State for Northern Ireland.
Further understanding about “Justification” can be found in my essay on Immoralism. And Thackeray’s brilliant novel may be considered in both the immoralist and the picaresque tradition – discussed in my essay on The Grotesque.