Genre: The Country House Novel – the Social House

Downton-Abbey-Season-1-downton-abbey-31759161-333-500Without doubt, the social country house has become the version of the country house most would recognise currently due in the main to Downton Abbey. It is almost impossible to avoid the series if you like country houses just a little bit because it pops up in internet searches left, right and centre! Its popularity is something which I want to look at in a later post. Yet its content is typical of the social house regardless of how much gloss is placed on the presentation. If the casual viewer can command a good knowledge of servant hierarchies, household politics and daily routines then the programme has done more than merely entertain. Forget the table settings, the beautiful costumes and the fine furniture; this is all about human interaction.


This, the third of three posts looking at the literary country house explores some of the themes presented by staging the house as a location for social discourse. Previous Genre posts here have addressed the country house poem  and the country house as haunted house. The social house however, is where the genre really takes off.

Returning to John Lucas and more specifically Blake Morrison both writing for The Guardian (February and June 2011 respectively), it is possible to see how popular this aspect has become in recent years.

There are two distinctive definitions of the country house in its social guise. The first a solid symbol of artificial hierarchies to the extent that it has become inextricably linked with British class distinctions and notions of ‘knowing one’s place’ throughout history. As Stevens expresses in The Remains of the Day, ‘It has been my privilege to see the best of England over the years, sir, within these very walls.’ Lucas notes, ‘Country houses are nothing if not a symbol of upper class hegemony: the novel provides an apparatus through which this can be examined, sometimes humorously, sometimes with gentle satire.’ This is certainly true of the works of Thomas Love Peacock for example, particularly Headlong Hall (1816) and Nightmare Abbey (1818). In academic circles this is the traditional country house novel, and the true definition of the genre. These works acknowledge greatness and elite authority even if they mock its eccentricities.

Film still from The Remains of the Day with Anthony Hopkins as Stevens - longstanding butler (1993. Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989).

Film still from The Remains of the Day with Anthony Hopkins as Stevens – longstanding butler (1993). Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989).

The social house is a commentary upon the political and cultural scene using gender and race (and class) as the tools for negotiating the main narrative. The other definition and a more refreshing approach sees the social house as more about perceptions of the human condition – past and present. Morrison concludes his article with, ‘What the contemporary novelist finds in country houses isn’t greatness but loss, failure and everyday human struggle, writ large.’ It does not have to be about servants and masters or inheritance and title. The country house in this instance is attractive because it is a convenient box in which to place any number of people and their experiences and desires. From here the author can construct plots concerning deception, family breakdown, heady romance or illicit sex, isolation and the inevitability of aging. In much the same way that the haunted house works with its dark corners and dusty attics, the social house plays host to everything from dinner table talk to hushed liaisons within any and every room, garden and outbuilding.

Cover for the first UK edition of A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman and Hall, 1934)

Cover for the first UK edition of A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman and Hall, 1934)

The role of the haunted house is mysterious; its aging walls suffocating and passages misleading. The role of the social house is slightly more mobile because authors can deposit their characters there and unravel the tale ‘on site’ or they can establish it as a silent asset. The latter sees the country house assume the characteristics of one of the other players, usually a previous owner as in Forster’s Howard’s End (1910) or even Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). The house might have some stoical presence that the human players severely lack, or it might represent resignation; a fate driven by alimony and unwanted inheritance as suggested in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934).

It is the ‘on site’ stories which hold so much fascination for readers though, and many are drawn to the narratives which focus on personal or wider historical events. Descriptions of the house provide a force which is either repulsive or magnificent for the key characters but is nonetheless a place which ultimately controls their motives, behaviour and consciousness,

Morning sunlight, or any light, could not conceal the ugliness of the Tallis home – barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances.                                           (Ian McEwan, Atonement, p. 22)

The wasted chances are as much about the architectural structure as they are about the emotional development and perceptions of freedom made by the inhabitants. As readers we might wonder how we would react to a character’s experience as it unfolds upon the page. Do we relate to it immediately? Does it fill us with disgust or passion? Or do we long to be involved as more than observer?

Cover for Ian McEwan's Atonement (unknown publishing date)

Cover for Ian McEwan’s Atonement (unknown publishing date)

Interestingly, the greatest wealth of literature absorbed with the social house seems to be confined to a particular era – the twentieth century. The nineteenth-century country house novel is to some extent restrained by tradition. Contemporary nineteenth-century authors were writing about a world which had changed very little in centuries; the characters are therefore the focus (including the house as presence) and the plot is devised around the nuances of social interaction. From the dawn of the twentieth century, the country house was on its way to decline. During the second half of the century hundreds of houses had been demolished and their estates built upon. Authors like Waugh and Forster were well aware of this shift and their novels are commentary on the coping mechanisms made by owners as they faced threats to lineage, financial security and their cultural values.

Moreover, authors of the modern country house novel – those making appearances in the twenty-first century – are eqaully attracted to the vanishing Belle Epoque with its grand parties and bustling households. The Downton Abbey effect reinforces this and the social house is marketed as the literary Highclere. I like what Lev Grossman in Time Entertainment (May 2012) says, ‘The paradox of the English country house is that its state of permanent decline, the fact that its heyday is always behind it, is part of the seduction, just as it is part of the seduction of books in general.’

Cover for Kate Morton's The House at Riverton (Pan,  2007)

Cover for Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton (Pan, 2007)

But this probably says something more about the present human condition. Houses and people have a symbiotic relationship which is emotionally complex. The house is the static body which grows old, it has seen a great deal of life and death, and every occupant has left their mark. That its heyday is behind it only reinforces this poignancy. When we visit a well furnished, well curated house we stand to look at the paintings. Offer a visitor the chance to visit the drab cellars or offices and the attention immediately turns to the people who used these spaces. When that world no longer exists in the way it was meant, or its ending is nigh we cling to its memory. The existence of people or otherwise is how we formulate similar narratives. So for an author of the country house novel in the twenty-first century, the social house maintains its grip because people are always full of surprises. The country house is the tool chosen for concealment or liberation of these stories.

References and suggested reading:

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814).

Ned Beauman, Boxer, Beetle (2011).

Isabel Colegate, The Shooting Party (Penguin Classics, 2007)

Lord Julian Fellowes, Snobs (2004).

E. M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910).

John Galsworthy. The Country House (1907).

Linda Gillard, House of Silence (2011).

Mark Girouard, A Country House Companion (1987).

Rumer Godden. China Court: the Hours of a Country House; a novel (1961).

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (2011).

Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day (1989).

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (privately printed, 1928, full text 1960).

Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton (1896).

Malcolm Kelsall, The Great Good Place: the Country House and English Literature (1993).

Virginia C. Kenny, The Country House Ethos in English literature, 1688-1750: Themes of Personal Retreat and National Expansion. (1984).

William Hurrell Mallock. The New Republic; or, Culture, Faith and Philosophy in an English Country House. New York (1878).

Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001).

Kate Morton, The House at Riverton (2008) and The Distant Hours (2010).

Thomas Love Peacock, Headlong Hall (1816), Melincourt (1817) and Nightmare Abbey (1818).

Jane Sanderson, Netherwood (2011).

Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (1993).

Giles Waterfield, Markham Thorpe (2007).

Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (1934) and Brideshead Revisited (1945).

Lucie Whitehouse, The House at Midnight (2008).


John Lucas in The Guardian, full link

Blake Morrison in The Guardian, full link

The country house in modern culture

Lev Grossman in Time Entertainment full link The Tragedy of the English Country House |

Book review blog including Rumer Godden’s China Court

The Country House Myth in The Remains of the Day

A fantastic link which helps summarise the genre entirely

A wider view

Perhaps do a course? University of Leicester

Country House Conference focussing on film and television, Newcastle University


Filed under Men and the Country House, Servants, The Destruction of the Country House, The running of the country house, Women and the Country House

16 responses to “Genre: The Country House Novel – the Social House

  1. Bean, Ronnie *HS

    I love your posts!! So very valuable to me.

  2. fionashepherd

    Really enjoying this post and all the links ( indeed all the posts) – especially as I have recently been accepted by Leicester University to study for the Country House MA as mentioned!

    • Well done! And thank you! Obviously my posts are very simple overviews, but I try to add more with the links. I hope the course goes well. I’ve met a few students who have completed it and they have all said wonderful things.

  3. Stephen Pollock-Hill

    Very interesting article. But regrettably “Howards End” (which I know well as Rooks’ Nest House, in old Stevenage- where the Howard family farmed for over two hundred years,) is hardly a “country house” in the accepted term.
    It is a two bedroom cottage with originally an outside toilet. E M Forster and his mother had just one housemaid, and it was too small for Merchant and Ivory to use for the film!
    An unexplored gem for a novelist is the vicarage through the ages. many vicars. including my grandfather in his first living ( in Ashton Makerfied, Lancs, circa 1900) allowed him a staff of three. His living depended on Frederic,3rd Baron Gerrard at Garswood Hall, an immense palatial country pile, now demolished.

    • You’re right about Howard’s End, and it is certainly with a little regret that I wasn’t able to discuss at great length the ways in which parts of society interact in codified space based on say, gender, personal interest and class. I was a little hesitant to include it here, but Howard’s End does offer aspects of that, and Forster does make comment on social structures and how the house stood to represent the values of the time. I think there is ambiguity about the size or status of Howard’s End as a typical country house, though frustratingly it is included in a great deal of the reference material concerning the country house novel!

      • Stephen Pollock-Hill

        ” Here had lived an elder race, to which we look back with disquietude. the country which we ( the town dweller) visit at weekends was really a home to it and the graver side of life, the deaths, the partings, the yearnings for love, have their deepest expression in the heart of the fields. All was not sadness…
        In these English farms , if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth, connect-connect without bitterness until all men are brothers”
        Chapter 23 Howards End, subtitled “Only Connect”.

        I must declare an interest. I am a Trustee and Vice chairman of The Friends of foster Country, trying for 30 years to save 120 acres where EM Forster spent between the ages of 4 and 14 and shaped his love of the country and England..
        We are lobbying for a new protective organisation to preserve the british Countryside that has inspired some of our greatest literature. We have Areas of Natural Beauty (ANOB s)protected, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) protected- but no “HALLS” Heritage and Artistic and Literary Landscapes, most of which will be buried under the wrecking ball and “red rust” of housing as Forster called it

  4. Stephen Pollock-Hill

    Two important Country House staff that Julian Fellows has completely ignored are the vicar, and the Head gardener, ( Downton Abbey could have had up to six gardeners!).

    my father worked for Colonel Micklem of Rosehill House, Henley on Thames, as his estate administrator, and I have notes from his memoirs about how this large household was run, as my father often had to pay them.There was a 1 acre walled kitchen garden that still exists but the main house has gone. An equestrian company runs the old stables as a successful going concern.
    I will look it up and post it here for interest

  5. Stephen Pollock-Hill

    Update January 2013.
    Photo of Micklem

    This month I have received some very interesting additional information from a gentleman who knew Colonel Micklem. His name is Stephen Pollock-Hill and the following information and Photograph is a collation of the information that he has supplied. I am most grateful for this. – DG.

    Dear Don.

    I knew Colonel Henry Micklem quite well, as my late father Malcolm Pollock-Hill was his secretary for many years, from the late Forties to about 1963.

    My parents used to be invited to stay at Rose Hill and as a young man I visited 9 Green Street, Mayfair on many occasions between 1955 and 1963. These visits were mainly so that I could go out with my godmother, or to collect my father for dinner or a trip to the theatre or cinema, in the West End.

    My late godmother Pan ( Pansy) Burchall, (a former actress and dancer), was Colonel Micklem’s “companion”, probably as near as he ever came to having a wife.

    He rather adopted her after her husband died, She was a former girlfriend of my father in his bachelor days. I have a silver cigarette case signed “to Malcolm, love Pan 1930″

    My father even considered buying the property 9 Green Street when the Colonel died, (it went for about £100k then!) the whole building!

    I always visualise him in ” white tie and tails” as even in the late Sixties he always “dressed for dinner”, while his spotless white starched “westcot” always impressed me.

    He was very tall, straight backed ( ex Army officer) with a strong stern but kindly face. He had white hair and a moustache rather walrus -like as I recall.

    Even in the Fifties he lived an Edwardian life-style at Rose Hill, with a butler who unpacked guest suitcases, and two housemaids, and a cook, two full time gardeners plus assistants, and there was always fresh home grown produce from the kitchen garden served at meal time my parents said.

    Rose Hill, was quite a place, not quite Downton Abbey, but the life was straight out of “The Forsythe Saga”, if you know what I mean.

    Here is an excerpt from the memoirs of my father, written between 1989 and 1992, when he had retired to Southern Spain.

    “Firstly I must give the background details of my new boss.

    Colonel Henry Micklem CB. CMG. DSO was the son of General Micklem of Rosehill, Henley on Thames, the family home of many generations of Micklems. He was educated at Winchester, and Woolwich where the army educated him as an engineer.

    After the Boer War, the army lent him to a company to construct a railway in South Africa. He was then seconded to the Chinese Engineering and Mining Company in Tientsin, China (now 4th largest city in China, and spelt Tianjin ) as general manager of the largest coal mining and engineering concern in the Far East. His predecessor in the job was Hubert Hoover, later to become President of the USA. This appointment ended when the Japanese invaded China and took control of the mines.

    Henry Micklem returned to England to take up an important post in The War Office during the First World War and took over as Chairman or Director of several important public companies (see above) including The Investment Trust, and The Gaumont British Film Company (later the Rank organisation in 1941). These were companies that had been started by his father, as well as two Southern Spanish railways and Greenwood & Batley, a large engineering company in Leeds.

    Henry Micklem was the finest man I ever met, he was 6ft 4ins tall, with bright blue eyes, complete integrity and fair and just in his judgements. I knew him intimately for over 40 years, and I never saw him do a mean or underhand action. I ended up being executor of his will.

    My work for Henry Micklem was not connected with his various directorships as the companies had adequate staff to deal with any problems, but mainly with his personal affairs.

    One of these was that his brother Edward Micklem had died and Henry was an executor and there were complicated legal problems which involved me dealing with top legal counsels.

    His father was very old and had become senile and Henry was nominated as Receiver under Victoria Act 53 which involved the assets and properties of the General submitting accounts to the Official Receiver.

    When both his mother and father died, Henry inherited the Rosehill estate and I had to go down there once a month to pay the staff, become an estate manager and familiarise myself with the tasks , leases with farmers and the sundry pubs and cottages management.

    Country House life before the Second World War (with plenty of staff) was very pleasant. The Rosehill staff consisted of a butler, and footman, cook and kitchen maid, two house maids, a chauffeur , a head gardener and three under gardeners, and living in the Bothy, a game keeper, and assistant. I had to arrange for the payment of their wages, insurance stamps, and petty cash accounts. I must say it all worked very well.

    Henry organised many shooting parties during the season but otherwise only went down to Rosehill at weekends. We dressed for dinner every night but that was no chore as one had a good hot bath, and the clothes were laid out by the butler.

    It is a style of life that has gone for ever. Henry was comfortably off but not a multi millionaire. During the war staff was difficult to get but I remember Henry ringing up his brother in law General Sir Hebert Wilberforce, grandson of the Liberator* whom we both disliked and asking him for the weekend saying “you’ll have to rough it Herbert as we have no footman!”

    In pre War days, it was not the expense of keeping a large staff that was important, but the quality of the employees that were prepared to devote their lives to domestic service without any feeling of inferiority.

    There was a dignity in being a good butler, or a dedicated cook to an employee who knew the rules. For example at Rosehill there was a green baize door that divided the kitchen quarters and bedrooms and neither Henry or I invaded this privacy. You would ring the bell and ask for whoever you wanted to come and see you. There was no need to increase wages each year as there was no inflation to make life more expensive. The indoor staff were fed as cook decided, and the butler was responsible for discipline. The outdoor staff had their own cottages with whatever perks went with the job.

    I had a pleasant office on the first floor where I held discussions with the senior members of staff. I enjoyed my talks with Stacey the head gardener whose knowledge, not only of gardening but of country life was immense.

    Rosehill was a large Victorian house that had been built after the previous house had burnt down. It overlooked the lovely Thames Valley and there were no ugly developments to spoil the view as all the surrounding countryside had other large estates that had been owned by the same family for ages. As an example of this I came across a lease to a George Barefoot for one of the cottages dated 1690 let by a Henry Micklem, and 270 years later I was responsible for collecting the rent from a descendant George Barefoot on behalf of the current Henry Micklem!

    It was a great sadness that as executor, I had to sell Rosehill as Henry had no children to inherit.

    I sold it to Walter Gilbey of the gin family. I have never wanted to go back there again.”
    If you want to know more about Colonel Henry Micklem, here is the website for which I posted these memoirs of my late father who was Colonel Micklem’s secretary and estate manager……
    I hope this enriches your knowledge and understanding of Edwardian Country House life, Not as grand as Downton Abbey ( or Highclerc), but one of thousands of large landed gentry dwellings or estates of which few remain! Note it was bought by a Gin magnet the new monied classes!‎

    • This is fantastic! It beautifully captures that particular moment or era – one that was definitely pivotal. In all my years of research it is possible to identify these eras based on how attitudes changed or were indeed challenged by external factors, but nothing compares to the richness you find in personal stories and memories. I particularly love the physical description of Henry Micklem and the subtleties included in the household structure. It most certainly adds more depth to a world which was once commonplace.

      • Stephen Pollock-Hill

        Many thanks. When my late father reached 78 and retired to Spain, he told me he was bored in his eagle’s eyrie, a study in a tower up 28 steps overlooking Southern Spain on the coast of Andulusia.
        There is nothing to tax my brain, except bridge and dinner parties of old cronies like me waiting for death!
        “. Why don’t you write your memoirs?” I asked.
        “Who will read them?”
        “Well me and my children and others who would like to know how life was in your era.”
        So I have a wonderful 50 page partly typed/ partly hand written memoir with some amazing personal anecdotes, of which this is just one.
        So grateful am I to him,and how it brings his life back,that I have started MY memoirs of the last 65 years, for with the Internet, the era of instant gratification – any film you want to see from the past 80 years is almost certainly available-personal experiences are going to be missed.
        I am reading “A Backward Glance” by the amazing Edith Wharton perhaps one of the greatest female writers, certainly among the America Grande Dames of literature, and observer of human fraility, greed, selfishness, and neglect. Her memoirs of days in London, Paris and New York of the great soirees and hostesses, the gliteratti of painters, writers, critics all long dead, and some of their life experiences. Pure magic, and bought on the internet for next to nothing.
        So thank you, for your kind comments.
        I will trawl through and see what other gems referring to a country house life are there!

  6. Pingback: The Servant Hierarchy | countryhousereader

  7. Stephen Pollock-Hill

    correction “Gin magnate”, not magnet of course typo, sorry!

    • kay conrad

      In the U.S., we have lots of housewives who blog about their houses and the decorating, renovations, and family life going on therein.

      Are there any similar blogs from the UK that you or your readers could point me toward? I certainly would love to read about the daily life and trials of a modern owner of a country house or cottage. Thanks you so much for any information.

      • Stephen Pollock-Hill

        May i suggest you contact the Historic houses Association email ?
        There are many hundreds of owners of Country Houses who belong and among them there must be a few who write blogs on their website.
        One I know about is James Hervey-Bathurst of Eastnor Castle,, a most beautiful Georgian copy of a medieval castle, (we have been lucky enough to stay overnight in their magnificent state bedroom,
        James records repairs and events at the house, but writes less about their private family life.
        This may be a British v United States trait, difference where Americans are “show & tell all ( e.g. round robin letters at Christmas that are rather un-British), perhaps?

  8. Stephen Pollock-Hill

    Just for interest, as a result of my research, I have been invited by teh current owner of Rosehill to visit the house and estate. he tells me the green baize door is no longer there, but the set of servant bells still exist.
    the house is used as a location for Victorian/ Edwardian period films like Poirot/ Sherlock Holmes, etc.
    I shall report back after my visit on anything else I discover…….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s