• Email
  • Print

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 in anticipation of royal visits. Entertainment not only of royalty and of the aristocracy was vast. Any traveler of modest standing expected, and got, food and drink. Hospitality was a tenant’s right, and the poor battened on the waste that was regarded as essential to the aristocratic life (and at least this persisted until the late nineteenth century: at Blenheim the leftovers were packed into containers, fish, meat, and pudding all higgledy-piggledy, and sent to the poor of Woodstock after every meal). With little privacy, little or no sanitation for the bulk of the household, the mess and the smell of these great households would be intolerable to us. Furthermore these households were overwhelmingly masculine—the lady of the household might have one or two gentlewomen and a maid or so, but 90 percent of all servants were male.

Unfortunately most of the evidence that remains even of sixteenth and seventeenth-century households relates to royalty or the great aristocracy. Yet what glimpses there are of the life of the gentry indicate that it differed in the number of people employed rather than in the style of life; the ritual and ceremonies, the deep sense of the hierarchical nature of social life, and the clutter of servants were much the same. Although intensely hierarchical, the social life of master and servants was not separate. An earl might play at dice with his butler; the dancing, the music, and the games embraced the entire household. Master and servant lived their lives in very close proximity.

From 1650 on, this traditional hierarchical society was in rapid decline. The number of servants diminished, women began to replace men, particularly in the kitchen, and they were steadily segregated from their masters and mistresses, no longer sleeping in their bedrooms or allowed to lounge about the hall. Backstairs kept them from view and a servants’ hall excluded them more and more from the life of the household. Rooms of state were still maintained providing a circuit of display of riches. Indeed they remained a sign of status in new, large city houses as well as country houses until the late nineteenth century. From the seventeenth century, however, apartments became more elaborate, more extensively furnished, and more comfortable. The changes that took place after 1660 were strongly influenced by the Dutch and the French, and the best part of Professor Girouard’s book is the skill with which he delineates the transition from the traditional quasi-feudal household to the great country house of eighteenth-century England—from, say, the Huntingdon’s castle at Ashby-de-la-Zouche to Houghton Hall of Sir Robert Walpole.

However, some of these changes he makes too sharp and I am inclined to think that he exaggerates the extent of the exclusion of servants from the lives of those they served. True, from the eighteenth century they tended to live in separate wings, were made to use separate staircases and to keep themselves unseen until they were summoned by bells—a totally different world from that of the medieval serving man’s. And Professor Girouard sharpens the effect of his argument by telling the story of the Duke of Portland who sacked any housemaid whom he came across face to face at Welbeck. But then Portland was almost certifiably mad. Professor Girouard says little about nurseries and nannies, little about ladies maids or valets, nothing of relationships with gardeners or butlers which could be, and often were, quite close. And he says absolutely nothing of the sexual tensions that arose in so many households. Physically masters and servants might be divided but their relationships could still be intense on both sides. In many ways the curiosity of servants was whetted by their isolation. Also, the sense of “family” remained very strong whatever the architectural arrangements might be for masters and servants—of necessity the roles of master and servant provoke emotion.

The transition from the great Palladian Whig mansions that were as symbolle of political power as any feudal castle to the great Gothic piles of the nineteenth century which mainly spoke of social status and money Professor Girouard handles with less skill. He ignores much of the contemporary literature about country houses—and there was a great deal of it published in the eighteenth century. Pope gets a passing reference (although Timon’s villa was probably not Cannons) but Payne Knight none. He seems unaware of Maynard Mack’s work on The Garden and the City and oblivious to the political aspects of the cult of the country house that reached its peak in the praise lavished on Thomas Johnes’s house at Hafod. He says nothing, too, of the model villages with which, from the late eighteenth century onward, country house owners salved their consciences and at the same time rebuked those Whig magnates who had removed all signs of human habitation, other than their own, from their parks. It was the last brave fling of the old conservative hierarchical tradition so beloved of Pope and Swift, disgulsed this time in the pervasive cloak of intellectual theory.

Nor is Professor Girouard very strong on the economic aspects of country house living. There is little here about the exploitation of mineral resources in which the aristocracy and gentry took a huge part from the seventeenth century onward, or their interest in drainage schemes, canal building, and the like, quite often demanding very large capital investment—nothing, indeed, on the entrepreneurial activity of the great landowners. He dates aristocratic involvement in “improvement” for too late. Owners of great houses were busy with breeding better strains of clover and grasses as well as of horses in the seventeenth century. Surely the pursuit of improvement was more extensive in the late eighteenth century, but by then “improvement” had a long history. His insecurity in economic history leads him to make some sweeping yet curious statements. “Up to the middle of the nineteenth century,” he writes, “anyone who wanted to be accepted as a full member of the upper classes had to cut all his links with business. He had not only to cease working in his office or warehouse but to give up any financial stake in it.”

Only if one defines as a “full member” a person who does not have any such connections is this true, and then the statement is self-defeating, Samuel Whitbread’s house and estate at Southill placed him firmly in the upper classes even though his money came from brewing. In the middle of the eighteenth century one could still buy cloth at the Duke of Bedford’s back door nor did he sell his interest in the Rotherhythe dry docks that he owned. Sir Walter Blacket, up in Northumberland, rightly regarded himself as a member of the upper classes, lived like one at Wallington, and his heirs married like one—to the Trevelyans and Calverleys—but he did not sell his interests in his collieries. The Duke of Bridgewater did not build canals for fun but. for profit. It is true that there was a much more heightened awareness about the nouveaux riches from trade for a few decades in the nineteenth century; but over the centuries the English aristocracy and landed gentry have loved making as well as marrying money. And in many aspects of trade and industry they have been as entrepreneurial as their French counterparts. That they could be hypocritical about trade and industry is certainly true and that certainly is worth exploring.

Nor does Professor Girouard stress the long continuity of so many English estates, both houses and families. A surprising number are still occupied by descendants of those who first acquired them. This was owing to the powerful legal element in English social life and the development both of long-term mortgages and strict settlements from the seventeenth century onward. Money could be easily raised to secure either improvement of building or to tide over the disaster of a clutch of dowry-demanding daughters. Because estates were entailed, they became extremely difficult to sell. Such stability and continuity enabled landowners to build for eternity and to think nothing or remodeling their landscapes by removing hills, creating, lakes, and growing forests.

The strength of Professor Girouard’s book lies in its architectural history and its evaluation of the way people lived in their country houses rather than in its social and economic history. And in these fields everyone will learn a great deal. About the development, for example, from the void to the banquet and so to the dessert, the changing nature of the still-room, or the long-discontinued habit of walking on the “lends,” the metal sheets that covered roofs, which must have been detectable on a summer’s evening, especially if at a corner of the roof there was a banqueting room with, as at Lacock Abbey, a carved stone table that would have been set with sumptuous preserves and fruits. And at another corner there might be music. Samuel Pepys loved to sing with his friends on his “leads.” What a pity roofs have gone out of fashion as a place of delectation and enjoyment!

After reading Mark Girouard’s book one realizes that the social and cultural life of the great country house was rich, not poverty stricken, and that this was also true of the High Middle Ages. Piped water and bathrooms and latrines that could be flushed with water were, too, far more widespread and earlier than most of us have assumed—many were installed by the seventeenth century. Not that these facilities aided hygiene. The bodies of some men and women may have stank less and these early water closets were certainly less foul to enter; but piped water and bad drainage added typhoid to the diseases that flourished like fungi in the English country house. Nurseries of children could be, and were, wiped out in weeks; every birth threatened the mother’s life. Mice. lice, and fleas inhabited country houses in abundance until at least the eighteenth century. On those lovely summer evenings on the leads it would not only be the mosquitoes that were biting.

This book has shortcomings, largely because it ought to have been twice as long. Then Professor Girouard could have explained more fully the social and economic use of the country house. But It remains a deeply important book. One of the most interesting contributions to architectural history for a decade.

  • Email
  • Print