Category Archives: Women and the Country House

Past and present research topics concerning women and the country house

A Country House Christmas, Phyllis Elinor Sandeman (1952)

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Front cover to the current 2016 edition by National Trust Books

Phyllis Elinor Sandeman (1895-1986, and to give her full title The Hon. Phyllis Legh, Mrs Sandeman) was the youngest daughter of Thomas Wodehouse Legh, 2nd Baron Newton and Evelyn Caroline Bromley Davenport. The Leghs are one of a few larger families linked to estates in Lancashire and Cheshire, with Lyme Park being the family’s principal residence and one of the largest houses in Cheshire and also where the publication is set and now owned by The National Trust.

Oil painting on canvas, The Hon. Phyllis Elinor Legh, Mrs Henry Gerard Walter Sandeman (1895-1986), signed (?), 1912.A bust-length portrait of a young woman, body facing right, head turned to face spectator, with short brown curled hair and headband, mouth slightly open. Wearing a black shawl with grey lining over her shoulders, a cream dress with white sash and white lace around neck-line, adorned with jewelled pin.

Oil painting on canvas, The Hon. Phyllis Elinor Legh, Mrs Henry Gerard Walter Sandeman (1895-1986), signed (?), 1912. National Trust Collection

A Country House Christmas: Treasure on Earth has been published three times – 1952 (then titled Treasure on Earth), 1995 and 2016 and has a usual ‘tell it like it is’ feel but has something a little different about it compared to other recounts. I have always been choosy about the first hand accounts of country house living as they do seem rose tinted at best. Over the last few years I have collected a few publications written (or ghostwritten) by individuals who were once employed at a country house. Yet, these are not very coherent and there can be a feeling that they have been encouraged to put their thoughts to paper with too much haste before their experiences become long forgotten. Moreover, there’s always something missing of the mechanics and routine which as ordinary as they are, help bring the story to life.

In fairness, if I were to write an account of my life now or as a student 20 years ago I’d be deterred from including the mundane and keep the more interesting parts for a readership. Most of us would embellish it here and there! However, A Country House Christmas is considered and detailed and Sandeman is neither aloof nor detached in her telling of her youth at Lyme. There is a warmth to the narrative and true fondness as well as dislike for particular parts of the Christmas experience there which will connect to any reader.

Other references in the book are made to sisters Lettice (1885-1968) and Hilda (1892-1970), making them 11, 21 and 14 respectively at the time of the story. Many real names have been altered in the text and Lyme is referred to as Vyne or Vayne and her mother is known as Lady Vyne rather than Newton for example but as a rule it is easy to understand the settings and the players. Additionally, the descriptions of both the landscape and interiors are fantastic and for a regular country house visitor will be recognisable as typical of certain periods, styles and presentation.

General reference to the country house will continue to be Downton Abbey for some time, but here there are intriguing descriptions of the relationships between the family and servants, but also of the community and established hierarchies on both sides and recognition of long standing families who have served and supported the family and the estate. Thankfully too, there is little poignancy for a lost world or ‘other worldliness’. This is a firm recommendation at this time of year or at any other and because it’s Christmas Eve, here’s a small sample to enjoy!

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When everybody had assembled in the library and Truelove had announced dinner they would process into the dining-room, Sir Thomas taking Mrs. Waldegrave, and Lady Vyne bringing up the rear with the Canon. Probably Cousin Amy would be allotted to Mr. Hunt. The boys and girls would bunch in together at the last. Through the little tapestried anteroom they would pass into the big Georgian dining-room. The long table extending almost the entire length of the room would glitter and sparkle with the lights reflected in the silver and white of the cloth and from the walls the family portraits would smile benignly on the company. On one of the four gilt side-tables would stand the wonderful rosewater dish and ewer, silver and parcel-gilt with the Vayne arms embossed in coloured enamels – made in the reign of Bloody Mary….

They would begin with grace said by the Canon and then the meal would proceed eaten off silver plates, not so pleasant as the china service because scratchy under the knife and fork, but welcome because they were part of the Christmas ritual. The candle shades in the tall candelabras had little garlands of silver spangles and there would be crackers laid amongst the flower decorations.

First there would be soup of the clearest consistency imaginable, and then some kind of fish which melted in the mouth. Then an entrée, perhaps a vol-au-vont or small mutton cutlets, and then roast turkey or pheasant. Then a wonderful sweet into which Perez had put all his artistry: perhaps baskets of nougat with ribbons of spun sugar containing a creamy ice, and muscat grapes coated in sugar and crystallised quarters of orange and tiny pastry cakes.

The last course, the savoury, was never handed to the little girls. Without any instruction in the matter Truelove had made this decision, and nobody questioned it. On the other hand, he always allowed them a little champagne. Dessert was almost the nicest part of the meal, and the scent of tangerine oranges would all her life be associated in Phyillis’s mind with Christmas dinner at Vyne.

With dessert came the crackers, always a trial to Sir Thomas, for whom the sight of grown men and women in paper caps was anathema…

Tomorrow Phyllis would be moving in a maze of enchantment through the drama dance of Christmas, that drama in which the setting played so great a part. Waking in the twilight of the winter’s morning, waiting for the singing in the courtyard, the herald of the day’s delights. Breakfast and the exchange of small gifts. The visit to her parents’ rooms together with her brothers and sisters to give them their joint offerings. Then the drive down through the white park to the old church – the familiar Christmas service. Then out-of-doors for a little exercise, snow balling perhaps if there was enough snow, then in again to change for tea in the dining-room with lovely iced cakes and crackers. And then the joyous chattering throng climbing the stairs to the Long Gallery.

And there would stand the great shimmering blazing tree, the only light in the room except the fire, and beside it the bran tub, so full that some of the packages were not quite submerged, and beyond the radius of the tree’s light the great long room stretching away into the shadows.

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Merry Christmas!

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Further reading:

The identity of the governess uncovered, http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/local-news/mystery-governess-lyme-park-unmasked-8777863

National Trust dedication to Phyllis Legh, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lyme-park-house-and-garden/features/it-wouldnt-be-christmas-at-lyme-without

Short biography of Phyllis Sandeman as painter, http://www.suffolkpainters.co.uk/index.cgi?choice=painter&pid=1673

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‘Wonder! Wonder! Wonder!’ The experimental philosopher comes to Nostell Priory

Having been greatly entertained by the recent series of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on BBC One, it reminded me of something I stumbled across a while ago when still researching the social history of Nostell Priory in Yorkshire. Needless to say, the suitably impressive Yorkshire locations chosen by the BBC for the drama meant I would also be wasting a golden opportunity to show some hidden connections to both the themes and backdrop of the series.

Filming at Oakwell Hall. From The Huddersfield Daily Examiner (15 May 2015).

Filming at Oakwell Hall. From The Huddersfield Daily Examiner (15 May 2015).

The drama is an adaptation of a book of the same name by Susanna Clarke and much of the reviews highlight the work as historical fiction and fantasy. Set in the early nineteenth century, the theory and practice of magic is the very heart of the tale and allows Clarke to subvert traditional systems and social frameworks such as class and industry: the north of England is mystical not industrial and the black servant may yet be destined to be a king. On a wider scale even Englishness itself is toyed with.

The drama is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo more specifically. The latter saw its 200 year anniversary only recently on the 18th June. Therefore there is obviously something immensely topical about the timing of the production. And yet, there is intentional English patriotism which sees the English Army and Navy look for ever more inventive ways to defeat the niggling French enemy of old. Here’s where Strange and Norrell attempt to give English magic a firm platform from which it can be taken seriously once again.

I’m all for an eerie tale of make-believe set against gritty real life and the human condition, moral codes and physical frailties. I think it helps us see the past better. And so, it made me recall a snippet I read in the Leeds Intelligencer dated 12 December 1786 about a Dr. Katterfelto who had been to stay at Lady Winn’s at Nostell for 5 nights and had therefore missed an engagement in town. That engagement was to be his first lecture in Leeds and one which was to have incorporated the varied themes of ‘philosophical, mathematical, electrical, magnetical, optical, physical, pneumatic, hydraulic, hydrostatic, proctic, and styangraphic art.’ In other words, he was experimental!

18th-century contemporary print of Gustavus Katterfelto

18th-century contemporary print of Gustavus Katterfelto

Gustavus Katterfelto was Belgium-born and had been keen to make a name for himself in London using his Solar Microscope with which he claimed the ‘insects’ causing the flu pandemic of 1782 could be seen. By 1784 his shows had attracted royalty. However, Katterfelto wasn’t so great at handling fame when it did catch up with him. The public inevitably raised concerns about the freedom given to his ‘insects’ and whether they were implicit in spreading the flu. Such bad press persuaded Katterfelto to publicise the death of his ‘insects’ in some terrible accident. Within days Katterfelto had suddenly been struck with the flu himself…or so he wanted people to believe. He took to travelling north to Yorkshire and frequently visited Whitby. Throughout the region he attempted to sell elixirs and perform conjuring tricks in the form of lectures in order to maintain an air of scientific capability and mysticism hinting that his powers and the black cats with which he entertained had demonic origins.

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The new mail carriers, or Montgolfier and Katterfelto taking an airing in balloons. From The Ramblers Magazine, 1784. The British Museum.

Sabine, Lady Winn (nee d’Herwart) was of Swiss French origin and had come to Nostell Priory in the mid 1760s as the wife of Sir Rowland Winn later the 5th Baronet. Although vivacious and carefree, Sabine struggled to connect with Rowland’s extended family and was perpetually concerned with health matters especially those associated with aging. When Rowland died in an accident in 1785, Sabine withdrew from public life and became reclusive. Katterfelto’s presence in her adopted land must have presented her with a cause to reclaim something of her former self.

Without doubt it was Sabine’s hypochondriac nature that made Katterfelto so attractive a guest. And just like Jonathan Strange and Norrell his occupation brought hope as well as wonderment. Here is a simple snippet, an apology for absence reported in the local press, but Katterfelto would have been well-received at Nostell Priory by the  the reclusive Lady Winn. There is nothing unbecoming or untoward about the meeting – Sabine is difficult to analyse for sure but during her widowhood suffered greatly from sheer detachment – this strange conjurer was something of a curiosity. He came from the continent like Sabine, and had also experienced high society which he too had chosen to dismiss. For five nights they would have discussed these, the borders between conjuring and science, and the study of disease and general maladies.

Having studied Sabine for a long time, I admit it is difficult to see her as a truly compassionate creature. There is something frivolous about her personality. Yet, I like to think that her guest offered a mix of magic and awe, but also philosophical debate which had been dismantled from her social life since the untimely death of her husband. And here is the human condition laid out in similar fashion throughout Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Human frailties – disease, madness, mortality, and loneliness are challenged but to win is to come at a heavy price. We hope that magic can exist when really it is the imagination which provides the best means of survival.

So these men are intellectually alluring as well as captivating in their occupation. What the book and BBC adaptation alludes to so well is the setting and the involvement of the elite in the promotion and manipulation of these characters. Lady Winn plays host to Katterfelto, but she is intrigued by him in the same way any number of wealthy individuals are in the early episodes of the TV drama. Like Mr. Norrell, Katterfelto is invited into sumptuous town houses and country residences. He put himself on display and attempted to champion something loosely based on academic theory and practice.

Dancing for Lost Hope – or in the Great Hall at Wentworth Woodhouse.

Though Nostell doesn’t feature in the BBC drama adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, it struck me that the Yorkshire locations are linked by fine threads. We see furniture made for Nostell in the bookshop (a withdrawing room at Temple Newsam), and the immense facade and austere interiors of the mighty Wentworth Woodhouse – a political base for the Rockinghamites and close friends of the Winn family. Indeed, the majority of locations are interlinked somewhere because they are in Yorkshire and therefore neighbours. Norrell is a Yorkshireman in full stereotype; he is stubborn and earthy, cautious yet outspoken. I wonder what Katterfelto thought of Yorkshire in the end, afterall, he didn’t leave – he died in 1799 and was buried at Bedale Church!

Further reading:

David Paton-Williams, Katterfelto: Prince of Puff (Leicester), 2008

Links:

Gustavus Katterfelto http://www.geniimagazine.com/magicpedia/Gustavus_Katterfelto and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavus_Katterfelto

http://www.obscurehistories.com/#!katterfeltos-live-insects/c1t0t

Jonathan Strange, Mr. Norrell and their creator author Susanna Clarke https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Strange_%26_Mr_Norrell and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susanna_Clarke

BBC locations for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2y60xGs7C1QpyLkx4zBpcPl/where-was-jonathan-strange-mr-norrell-filmed

General overview of locations for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell http://www.creativeengland.co.uk/story/where-was-bbc-drama-jonathan-strange-and-mr-norrell-filmed-

Filming in Yorkshire http://www.creativeengland.co.uk/story/i-love-filming-in…yorkshire

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Isabella’s Maxims for Young Ladies

The following forms a large part of an article I contributed for Herstoria Magazine a couple of years ago whilst promoting aspects of my doctoral research. It concerns a publication written by Isabella Carlisle of Castle Howard toward the end of the eighteenth century and serves to highlight something of her personality and beliefs as a surprisingly pragmatic woman for her time. Since I visited Castle Howard recently, I thought it would be a different take on the site than just a regular day trip report.

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Portrait of Isabella, 4th Countess of Carlisle, by Thomas Gainsborough. Image from the Castle Howard Collection.

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As the second wife of Henry fourth Earl of Carlisle, Isabella had represented a new hope for the household at Castle Howard. His first wife Frances (née Spencer) had died in July 1742 shortly after all but one of his five children by this marriage had predeceased him. At the age of twenty-two, Isabella was half Henry’s age and her youth was to prove dynastically beneficial – she was to bear him four daughters and one son, Frederick, the future fifth Earl of Carlisle.

Yet, before the end of the century and in her late 60s, Isabella had experienced more than most in a life which included early widowhood, a broken marriage to the antiquarian William Musgrave, scandal and self-imposed exile to Europe. Thus she made the decision to publish her experiences s under the title of Thoughts in the Form of Maxims addressed to Young Ladies on their First Establishment in the World. In contrast to more conventional manuals which typically contained strict guidelines as to general behaviour expected of young women, Isabella’s Maxims guided her readers through unexpected and complex moments of life similar to the ones she had experienced herself.

Frontispiece for Maxims. Castle Howard Collection.

Frontispiece for Maxims. Castle Howard Collection.

Conduct books like Isabella’s had been round for centuries, but by  the late eighteenth century they had evolved into genteel instruction aimed at correcting ‘insufficient’ moral accomplishment in young people – especially women.

Isabella begins her Maxims with some practical advice a woman should,

Make choice of such amusements as will attach him to your company; study such occupations as will render you of consequence to him, such as the management of his fortune, and the conduct of his house, yet, without assuming a superiority unbecoming your sex.

Isabella also commented on female networks which required alliances and sometimes provoked discord,

Female friendships are but too frequently bars to domestic peace; they are more formed by the communication of mutual errors, than the desire of amending them…Endeavour to obtain a clear insight into the character of those persons of your sex, before you engage in unlimited confidence.

She concludes Maxims with poignant thoughts on old age and mortality. ‘Let each year which shall steal a charm or grace, the companions of youth, add a virtue in return.’ In conduct books aimed at the female sex, home and domesticity were presented invariably as a vital backdrop to female existence. For an elite woman such as Isabella Carlisle, this was expressed through the roles of household manager and supportive wife and companion to a husband. Although Maxims has many other themes – including manners, conversation, religion, philanthropy and letter writing – it is household management that Isabella uses as the focus and very personal heart of her book.

Here we are able to visualise the domestic set-up of Castle Howard with greater imagination. Isabella compared the mechanisms of running a household to that of a watch or timepiece, ‘Conceal from the indifferent spectator, the secret springs, which move, regulate and perfect the arrangement of your household.’ Such an analogy was also a reflection of the architectural surroundings and the ways in which the household interacted with the fabric of the building. The ideal household manager was well educated and able to discriminate between frivolity and responsibility, indiscretion and prudence; she was also humble and restrained and never tempted to ‘boast’ of her accomplishments. A guest should remain ignorant of the hustle and bustle of the home as the ideal household mistress always ensured tranquility and good order.

The management of the household was a skill as well as an accomplishment made up of academic exercise and diplomacy to be performed within compartments of the home. Isabella defined these activities through household accounting, servant organisation, medicinal and culinary practice and some degree of hosting and entertainment. The secret springs were the order, memoranda, documents, lists and even people who represented the working pieces. Of servants she noted, ‘Be extremely cautious in the choice of those who are to be your attendants…’ and emphasised the propensity of servants for false flattery and manipulative talk. Servants could, if left unrestrained by their mistress, become ‘licentious’ and have little regard for their own responsibilities in the household. Isabella also warned against prejudice, ‘Do not suffer your partiality to one domestic…Rule as much as you are able with an even hand, and steer between pride and familiarity’. Servants in particular were to be offered ‘tender care’ in sickness and it would have been extremely remiss of any mistress if she did not allow them to perform their religious duties even if their ‘persuasion’ was different from her own.

Isabella made herself supervisor of the household accounts at Castle Howard. It was one thing to direct the morals and daily responsibilities of her servants, but having knowledge of housekeeping totals and incomings and outgoings enabled her to plan, coordinate and direct the household as a whole. ‘Observe the utmost regularity in the keeping of your household accounts; it is tranquillity to you, justice to your dependents’ noted Isabella. The family fortune depended upon minute observation and, since women were rarely taught accounting, the chatelaine had to be prepared to inspect the work of others in charge of such matters. Isabella’s own abstract and summary of accounts was therefore intended as a measure of security against the main household account books – ‘inspections, diligently and judiciously made, will maintain probity among your agents’ – so that any discrepancies could be acted upon straight away.

From matters of accounting Isabella moved swiftly onto the subject of hospitality. As a society hostess, and elite woman could delegate responsibility to an upper liveried servant, offer guests fine wines with meats provided by the estate – and draw attention proudly to her offspring as they mingled with distant relatives, family acquaintances or close political allies. Despite her own elite social status, in Maxims Isabella was careful to consider cost and warned against irresponsible display which evoked extravagance and frivolity rather than cleanliness and order, ‘Neatness and elegance should be joined to each other; ostentation and profusion are in general equally united, and equally to be avoided.’

Although she was thought an embarrassment in later life because of her rising debts and supposed dalliances with foreign noblemen, Isabella still retained something of her former disciplined and inventive self. In a letter to a friend she expressed her delight at having found a French cook who proved ‘so excellent an œconomist’ (thrifty) that it was more convenient to stay abroad than to return home.

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Isabella is still very much a major presence at Castle Howard, and her impact as enthusiastic household manager lives on. In 2003 her portrait by Thomas Gainsborough was used as branding in the Castle Howard gift shop for a range of kitchen linens including tea towels and aprons. Samples of her recipes were also included in cookery books and manuals published especially for sale at the house. In the context of her own life experiences, Isabella’s publication may appear as some cautionary piece containing carefully constructed sayings and precepts dedicated to the avoidance of life’s obstacles. On the other hand, Isabella appeared to admire life and its complexities. That her household expertise is still remembered as a key aspect of her character is definitely something which Isabella would welcome.

Links

Copy of the publication available to download through The Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/thoughtsinformm00howagoog

Maids and Mistresses exhibition (2003) across several Yorkshire country houses including Castle Howard and Isabella Carlise http://www.ychp.org.uk/exhibitions-maids-and-mistresses

18th-century conduct books http://umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/emotions/conduct_books.html

 

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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.

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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).

Links:

John Lucas in The Guardian, full link http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/feb/01/country-house-novel

Blake Morrison in The Guardian, full link http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/11/country-house-novels-blake-morrison

The country house in modern culture http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/01/17/downton-abbey-and-the-cult-of-the-english-country-house/

Lev Grossman in Time Entertainment full link The Tragedy of the English Country House | TIME.com http://entertainment.time.com/2012/05/02/the-tragedy-of-the-english-country-house/#ixzz2qYzpD2Yx

Book review blog including Rumer Godden’s China Court http://www.essbeevee.co.uk/2013_04_01_archive.html

The Country House Myth in The Remains of the Day http://www.postcolonialweb.org/uk/ishiguro/ed9.html

A fantastic link which helps summarise the genre entirely http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/english_literature_in_transition/v053/53.1.larabee.html

A wider view http://splendidlabyrinths.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/country-house-literature.html

Perhaps do a course? University of Leicester http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/postgraduate/madegrees/ma-option-modules/en7222

Country House Conference focussing on film and television, Newcastle University http://countryhouseconference.wordpress.com/

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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

A Christmas Ball.

40773The following is a short but charming excerpt from Backstairs Life in a Country House by Eileen Balderson with Douglas Goodlad (1982). Eileen Balderson was born in 1916, and as the youngest of a large family left school early to start employment in domestic service mainly in large country houses. Many of her reminiscences come from her time spent at particular houses like Burwarton House (Shropshire), Rise Park (East Yorkshire) and Middleton Hall (East Yorkshire).

Here, Eileen discusses the breathtaking seasonal entertainments, of which Christmas was one. She then recalls some of the seasonal Dinner menus – the Winter one is added at the end here!

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Never again would there be such entertaining as in the pre-war years. Never again such hosts – or guests!

The big houses were full of music and colour at party time…When there was a big shooting party, there were a number of visiting servants…If the local hunt met at the house all the mounted followers were offered a drink – port, sherry, cherry brandy, sloe gin, with whisky for the huntsmen and whips, and others who asked for it. I longed to try the sloe gin, which was made in the house. Alas, it was locked in the butler’s pantry.

In houses with upwards of twenty in staff, a servant’s ball was held around Christmas time. The ball with the gentlemen of the house having the first dance with the cook and his lady danced with the butler. My sister dropped an awful brick at a house where she was head kitchen-maid. The eldest son of the family asked her for the first dance. Not knowing who he was, she said she was engaged for that turn around the floor! The mistake is readily explained. Except for the butler’s pantry staff and the lady’s maid, the rest of the servants very rarely saw the family, the kitchen staff least of all.

Master and mistress stayed for about half an hour and after a toast to them they left. The ball then got going, but was fairly respectable and sober until the butler, cook and their guests had gone. After that, it was really enjoyable! As the ball did not usually start until about 10pm we were out of bed for most of the night. It was work again in the morning, and a case of wash and change and into uniform for a day’s duty without sleep, but not without sustenance. There would no doubt be some tasty leftovers.

Winter Dinner Menus

Chicken Soup

Fish Quenelles

Fillets of Beef

Japanese Artichokes

Stewed Normandy Pippins

Whipped Cream

Sardines a la Piedmontaise

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Rice and Tomato Soup

Fillets of Plaice with Green Peas

Salmi of Game

Potato Fritters

Pear and Chestnut Tart

Cheese Ramequins

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Mutton Broth

Stuffed Fillets of Haddock

Curried Chicken     Boiled Rice

Cold Apricot Souffle

Savoury Brain Croutes

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (British History Online).

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (British History Online).

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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East India Company at Home Mid-Project Conference, 31st May – 1st June 2013.

Since the East India Company at Home Project started in September 2011, there has been a buzz surrounding its methodological framework, its research findings and range of subject matter. I last covered this project here after they released their first case study.

The project (EICaH for short) began at the University of Warwick but has since been transferred to University College London (UCL) for a variety of reasons, but mainly due to funding opportunities and departmental interests.* The premise of the project is to examine the British country house in an imperial and global context through material culture and the families linked with these houses on the one hand and the connections they may have had with the East India Company on the other.

EICaH wallpapers[2]

Helen Clifford and Emile de Bruijn presenting their paper on Chinese wallpapers in National Trust properties ‘every good country house has its Chinese wallpaper’!

What makes the EICaH project so unique and perhaps even dynamic, is its attempt to pull together knowledge from a spectrum of sources and people. By putting this bluntly, the project’s diverse pool of thought comes from academics, museum professionals, archivists and librarians, students, local and family historians and independent scholars. The core team consists of Professor Margot Finn, Helen Clifford, and Kate Smith. Then there is an Advisory Board consisting of those affiliated with institutions like the V&A, the British Library or local authorities to mention a few. Project associates make up the next segment of those involved and are a healthy mix of those with interests in the British country house, the East India Company, trade and consumption and all the bits in the middle. I’m a project associate simply because I clearly adore country houses and the mixture of histories which can be applied to them.

I don’t want to talk at length about the details of the project as this is fully accessible through the links already given. What I do want to do is address the topics discussed at the mid-project conference which took place at the end of last week.

The conference was split over two days and roughly by content and methodology. The link to the programme is here. On Friday some fascinating papers concerning particular people and places associated with the East India Company were presented to the cosy audience of about 70 avid listeners.

EICaH John McAleer

John McAleer and the architecture of the East India Company’s Offices (image courtesy of Rachael Barnwell)

My favourites were Georgina Green’s research into supercargoes and the roles of East India Company captains; John McAleer’s look at the architecture of the Company’s offices; Stephen McDowall’s extensive and thoughtful examination of material culture and the meanings placed upon specific objects; and Janice Sibthorpe’s Sezincote’s case study. In the evening a keynote lecture by Giorgio Riello about the trade and consumption of cotton textiles finished the day on a high.

Saturday was the day of debate with the focus on how collaboration between academic institutions and those outside the ‘academy’ work effectively or otherwise. Here it was necessary to understand the structure of the project – its framework, but also the questions it was hoping to ask as well as answer. There was  lot to cover.

The most anticipated part of the Saturday sessions was undoubtedly the trip to Osterley Park (which I was unable to attend) but for me in particular it was the discussion concerning the methodology of the project since I was taking part. Upon the very kind invitation of Margot Finn, Helen Clifford and Kate Smith, also participating were Margaret Makepeace (Lead Curator of East India Company Collections at the British Library), Cliff Pereira (Public Engagement Consultant), and Keith Sweetmore (Development Manager at the North Yorkshire Country Record Office) That’s the four of us pictured below.

EICaH me

In the words of Margot Finn, the project is fairly ‘experimental’ in terms of previous attempts by historians to collaborate. I’ve found other projects to be rather formulaic and incredibly constrained by academic protocol (for want of a better word) and so I was eager to see some part of the discussion aimed at how the EICaH project had been able to challenge this. My belief is that for something of this scale to thrive, individual academics must be willing to show motivation and share their professional development both within their respective departments but also elsewhere.

I, for one, despise the Research Excellence Framework (replacing the Research Assessment Exercise) since it encourages exclusivity through peer review whilst exposing a neat way to keep academic research knotted tightly to the academy. In more simple terms, any research undertaken by an academic institution, regardless of wider collaboration eventually becomes the possession of that institution and the doors close to those without academic affiliation.

So where does the EICaH project fit in? I understand there to be two distinct parts to its methodology and its collaborative efforts represent the major part; the role of the country houuse as means of posing and answering questions, the lesser part. Margot Finn and Helen Clifford are the highly motivated academics who initiated the project and discussed its possibilities long before it began. They also have a desire to promote greater dissemination of their own findings to wider audiences. Inevitably, they are bound by academic protocol because funding for projects like this comes with certain criteria to which any published material or outcome must adhere.

However, it should be noted that the EICaH project is perhaps transitional. Finn declared it to be experimental, indeed there is still more to be said about exactly how the country house community and household may be placed within an imperial and global context, but the project can provide a working model for future historians.

At the end of the conference though, I came away satisfied that history can be made more accessible both to bigger audiences and to those wishing to undertake historical research. The academic can put something into context, and the museum professional can provide layers of interpretation, but a historian is not limited to fancy apparatus like the scientist, or material compounds like the chemist in order to test a theory; history is about thinking. Many of Britain’s archives, libraries and collections are freely accessible to everyone, working collaboratively can enrich the pools of thought and maintain a flow of intellect whether someone has an academic tenure or not.

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* Warwick University links are still accessible and currently functional. I have left the original post on countryhousereader (dated March 2012) with these links in tact. The same case studies are also available on the UCL blog which has transferred everything over to this new site. The links in this post are for the UCL blog.

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Filed under Building the Country House, Men and the Country House, Women and the Country House

Genre: Country House Poetry

The country house genre: put simply, this literary genre places the country house within the main narrative as an essential piece of subject matter. Its varied history is as old as the country house itself. Based on G. R. Hibbard’s article (see references below), the scholarly view is that the country house poem (or country estate poem) of the seventeenth century which praised the houses and estates of the landed elite was the early form of this genre. By the end of the eighteenth century, the genre had taken on different characteristics, and the house itself became the focus. It was no longer the subject of direct admiration and instead became a symbol of the ‘other’; of foreignness and the gothic.  Throughout the nineteenth century the genre evolved further and has since become recognisable in recent decades in works of historical fiction.

The genre’s ability to adapt is a consequence of contested views about town and country, about wealth or the lack of it, and about active and passive ownership. The literary country house is then either a part of a nostalgic vision surrounding an imaginary stable society or a symbol of England’s imperial past. No matter how simplified, these constructions are ever present throughout the genre right up to the present day.

The country house has therefore been cast in different literary interpretations, but themes of social and political hierarchies, the roles and responsibilities of man, and notions of spatial definitions have always provided continuity. This post is one of three which offers an overview of the country house genre from its early incarnation in the seventeenth century to its development into mainstream literature today.

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Thou hast no porter at thy doore

T’examine or keep back the poore;

Nor lock nor bolts: thy gates have bin

Made onely to let strangers in;…

Thomas Carew (1595-1640), ‘To Saxham’ (ll. 49-52)

Country house poetry is a form of ‘courtly compliment’ which idealised particular elite estates and patronage, but also celebrated man’s participation in the natural world. Classed as country house panegyrics, works like Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ (1616), Thomas Carew’s ‘To Saxham’ (1640) or Andrew Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ (1681) act as descriptions of elite splendour as well as philosophical statements upon natural and artificial social constructions.  Indicative of their early education, writers were much influenced by Horace, Martial and Statius and themes of man as a moral being and landownership as a metaphor for the state are heavily embedded in the country house poem.

Thomas Carew (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Thomas Carew (National Portrait Gallery, London)

The seventeenth-century country house poem is both commemorative and quixotic, and academic criticism of the genre’s tradition and longevity is divided. What is certain is that its poetic version was founded upon a heritage of patronage poetry and pastoral discourse. How the genre has survived since has much to do with perception of the country house at any given time, but especially in the context of wider economic developments.

Such theorising makes the genre appear fusty and somehow exclusive. Yet, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of great social and political upheaval in England. The country house poem in this instance provided a snapshot of a time when the rural landscape, the seasons and nature’s bounty were the vision of an English idyll. The country house poem made its subject a real-life Arcadia which was simultaneously idealistic and tangible. This was the nostalgic vision.

No forraigne gums, nor essence fetcht from farre,

No volatile spirits, nor compounds that are

Adulterate; but, at Nature’s cheap expence,

With farre more genuine sweetes refresh the sense.

Such pure and uncompounded beauties blesse

This mansion with an usefull comelinesse,

Devoide of art, for here the architect

Did not with curious skill a pile erect

Of carved marble, touch, or porpherie,

But built a house for hospitalitie…

‘To My Friend G. N. from Wrest’ (1640?), Thomas Carew (ll. 15-24)

The hospitality of the country house is what connects the dweller to the wider world. For the poet, the dweller (the landlord) represents the fertility of nature. By sharing and dividing their wealth and the abundance of nature, the dweller fulfils their moral obligations. The country house estate is part of a hierarchy which therefore relies upon the co-operation of many in order to succeed – like a quasi-commonwealth, ‘They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan’ (‘To Penshurst’, l. 46). If the landlord is not wasteful, then he is celebrated, if he hankers after ostentation and conspicuous consumption, then he is to be reminded of his natural role and responsibilities. Either way, the pastoral ideal is the platform for persuasion and the model to which man must adhere.  Appreciation of life and the correct use of possessions have Classical resonance. Assimilation with the natural order of things underlines most Biblical teachings.

Ben Jonson (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Ben Jonson (National Portrait Gallery, London)

At least this is the stylistic formula of the country house poem. To a great extent it is the landscape which is the main focus; a mythical Arcadian world where lasting relationships are formed. The house itself is the accumulation of this natural order and substance;

Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,

Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.

Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;

Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,

Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,

Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;

That taller tree, which of a nut was set

At his great birth where all the Muses met.

‘To Penshurst’ (1616), Ben Jonson, (ll. 7-14).

All is green and ripe, plump and rosy; pike, partridge, cherries, figs, pears, ‘The blushing apricot and woolly peach.’ Such hospitality is the product of civility and gentility, but also of a virtuous life.  This metaphor is also something Milton utilises in Paradise Lost in which Eden represents the very first ‘landed’ estate. The sensuality of nature’s bounty is further alluded to, particularly by Jonson, in the context of patrilineal inheritance with the family itself a representation of the fruit of the virtuous lord and lady.

The style of country house poetry changed over the seventeenth century, and developed what have been identified as sub-genres. Poems of appreciation, as an example, suit Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst,’ and what is known as the retirement poem best describes ‘Upon Appleton House’. The latter was probably penned in the 1650s when Andrew Marvell stayed at Nun Appleton in Yorkshire, to tutor Mary Fairfax, the daughter of parliamentarian general Thomas Fairfax. Here the country house and estate are places of retreat from a disruptive world. For Fairfax, his Yorkshire home was the private sphere from to which he could escape the chaos of the English Civil War.

Andrew Marvell (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Andrew Marvell (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Crucially, emphasis upon the right use of life and possessions morphed into an exploration of man’s role in life. Rather than being purely didactic pieces, themes of experience and the impact of surroundings played a larger part in the country house poem of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Of men Recorded or who then Exceed

To urdge their Virtue and exalt their Fame

Whilest their own Weymouth stands their noblest Aime.

But we Presume, and ne’re must hope to trace

His Worth profound, his Daughters matchlesse Grace

Or draw paternall Witt deriv’d into her Face

Though from his Presence and her Charms did grow

The Joys Ardelia att Long-leat did know.

‘To the Honourable Lady Worsley at Longleat’ (after 1690) Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea (ll. 91-98)

Themes of virtuosity remained strong but with emphasis on more give and take. Writers were sure to allow their protagonist thoughts of resourcefulness and pragmatism but also stated the benefits of retreat upon such a mind, body and soul. In many secondary sources it has been suggested that this literary device stemmed from the changing economic landscape; a shift from a feudal system to that based on capital and monetary values. The country house was an administrative base for the estate, but its owner had shifted his attention to the city with its attractive financial and parliamentary offices. The old halls were being replaced with ‘carved marble’ and filled with foreign goods from the East India Company, land was enclosed and smooth uninterrupted parkland rolled over acres of fertile soil.

Land was an exchangeable commodity and the country house was now a decorative item in the distance. The dweller used it as an alternative site for conducting business, but it was no longer perceived as the tangible vision of Arcadian mythology. It was now the retreat of the few, to be admired from afar and provide respite for those locked in matters of national importance. Virtue was the outcome of an individual’s own experience and quality of life from which he was to influence those less fortunate. The literary country house was a private domain, and one which symbolised the contested views of town and country, of private ownership and public office. If the pastoral was the seventeenth-century fantasy, then the mysterious other was to be the eighteenth-century fantasy.

Suggested poems:

Geoffrey Whitney, ‘To R. Cotton Esq.’ and To Richard Cotton Esq.’ (1586)

Aemilia Lanyer, ‘The Description of Cookham’ (1611)

Ben Jonson, ‘To Penshurst’ and ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ (1616)

Thomas Carew, ‘To Saxham’ and ‘To My Friend G. N. from Wrest’ (1640)

Robert Herrick ‘A Panegyric to Sir Lewis Pemberton’ (1648)

Richard Lovelace ‘Amyntor’s Grove’ (1649)

Andrew Marvell, ‘Upon Appleton House’ (1681)

Charles Cotton ‘Wonders of the Peak’ (c.1681)

Anne Finch ‘To the Honourable Lady Worsley at Longleat’ (after 1690)

Mildmay Fane, ‘To Sir John Wentworth’ (unknown ?)

References:

Alastair Fowler. The Country House Poem: a Cabinet of Seventeenth-Century Estate Poems and Related Items . Edinburgh (1994)

Richard Gill. Happy Rural Seat; the English Country House and the Literary Imagination. New Haven (1972)

G. R. Hibbard: ‘The Country House Poem in the Seventeenth Century’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XIX (1956), 159-74.

Malcolm Miles Kelsall. The Great Good Place: the Country House and English literature. New York (1993)

Malcolm Miles Kelsall. Literary Representations of the Irish Country House: civilisation and savagery under the Union. New York (2003)

Gervase Jackson-Stops et al. The Fashioning and Functioining of the British Country House (1989)

Hugh Jenkins. Feigned Commonwealths: The Country-House Poem and the Fashioning of the Ideal Community. Pittsburgh (1998)

Virginia C. Kenny. The Country-House Ethos in English literature, 1688-1750: themes of personal retreat and national expansion. New York (1984)

Kari Boyd McBride: Country House Discourse in Early Modern England (2001)

D. M. Rosenberg. ‘Paradise Lost and the Country Estate poem’ (no year given) http://tiny.cc/4gb7tw

Don E. Wayne, Penshurst: the Semiotics of Place and the Poetics of History (1984)

Raymond Williams: The Country and the City (1973)

Links:

Literary links to Penshurst http://www.penshurstplace.com/page/3053/Literary-Links-to-Penshurst-Place

Bibliographies for the nineteenth-century country house and related themes http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/bibliography4.html

Tom Lockwood (2008) ‘All Hayle to Hatfeild’: a New series of country house poems from Leeds University Library, Brotherton Collection http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-6757.2008.00124.x/full

Judith Dundas ‘The Country House Poem Revisited’ http://www.connotations.uni-tuebingen.de/dundas00801.htm

University of Sheffield, School of English course Literature of the English Country House http://soeblog.group.shef.ac.uk/mooc/

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Filed under Men and the Country House, Parks and Gardens, Recommended Literature, Women and the Country House