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.
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!
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.
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