Easy Living

Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History

by Mark Girouard
Yale University Press, 344, 258 illustrations pp., $19.95

Ambition in authors should always be applauded even though ambition in books, as in life, is rarely achieved. Mark Girouard calls his book, quite modestly, Life in the English Country House, but the title conceals more than it reveals of what he has attempted to do. Professor Girouard is concerned to present a history of the architectural evolution of English country houses from the castle and fortified dwellings of the High Middle Ages to the last brave flourish of Sir Edwin Lutyens in the 1920s and 1930s. This evolution, however, is placed in the context of social history and Professor Girouard analyzes the way social forces and changes in class structure molded the buildings of the ruling class and the life which took place in them. He draws on a huge variety of sources and, above all, uses his exceptional knowledge of individual country houses, whose history he has explored over many years.

So huge a canvas requires a careful structure and a delicate sense of proportion, and this is not always achieved. Similarly, sweeping from century to century invites bold generalization. Certainly there is nothing wrong with bold generalization so long as a wary eye is kept for the exceptions and the divastations, but although Professor Girouard is aware of this necessity, he sometimes stumbles. And although he has read widely in political and social history, he is less at ease in these fields than he is in architectural history. Nevertheless this is a most impressive book, and the detail will fascinate anyone who has a curiosity about social history and the changing habits of classes.

The main theme of the book is the way the hierarchical society of the High Middle Ages was gradually transferred to the class-conscious aristocracy and gentry of the nineteenth century. In the castles of the Middle Ages, status was all. An earl was served by gentlemen: one carved his meat, another poured his wine. He moved from one castle or hunting lodge to another with a huge household—maybe one hundred and fifty or more men (and very, very few women) riding with him, or rather some would ride, others would toil with the wagons and pack animals. And yet, although there was an intense sense of hierarchy, there was little privacy: servants slept sometimes within, sometimes without, the lord’s bedroom—the hall itself would be a dormitory of serving men. The bedroom was a place of reception, even ceremony, as well as a place of business; indeed a room in which to work and live as well as sleep. In very grand houses and castles, there would be rooms of state which visitors of higher rank would take over as of right: if they were royal, they might push the owner right out of his own house.

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, this hierarchical society persisted, although the number of servants and also of retainers diminished. Men such as William Ceell, Queen Elizabeth’s treasurer, built grand suites of apartments at Burghley…

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