Tag Archives: Literature

The Country House Garden, Part I: Prospects

It’s spring! In the UK at least, March generally sees the reopening of many sites to the public after the closed winder season. April is apparently National Gardening Month and with the May Bank Holidays the outdoors suddenly become the backdrop to all kinds of refreshing interpretations for the country house and its garden.

I feel this subject often sits separately to that of the architectural history of the country house. There are differing approaches to the country house garden and the majority are glorious illustrations of the evolution of vast gardening and landscaping ideals. As I’ve likely mentioned before, even at a young age, it was the outside space which drew me to the country house initially but once inside I seemed to dismiss the parkland and formal parterres for a long time. For many historians of the country house, it is difficult to fully engage with both simultaneously and I know I still feel more confident discussing the social and architectural history rather than the aesthetics of the outdoors.

However, such approaches in the methodology shouldn’t be given too much weight here as the

Ingress Abbey by Thomas Badeslade, 1720s

country house garden is better admired through less dry academic dialogue. If anything, the country house garden invites all to observe an idealised nature – an Arcadian treat for the visitor. There is also the unforgettable freedom of the country house garden and its park which stimulates curiosity as well as the imagination. Therefore, for this first post of four I want to focus on Adrian Tinniswood’s Country Houses from the Air (1997 edition) since this allows for initial study of the patterns and scale of the exterior world of the country house. I also like the concept of looking at the country house garden from a distance and metaphorically moving in to consider aspects of it more closely by concluding with a case study.

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Colour print of Lulworth Castle after the original drawing by Mrs Humphrey Weld, 1721

In the introduction to the publication, Tinniswood makes a fine argument for the definition of the English country house which is crucial in pulling together the readers’ own preconceptions. I have been challenged on this on several occasions and it isn’t easy to define in simple terms. What Tinniswood does to assist is to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein when debating family resemblances in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953), ‘If you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that…And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail’.  With the inclusion of Blenheim Palace, Knole, Groombridge Place, and Lulworth Castle (above) in Country Houses from the Air, this definition is imperative to understanding these similarities which are both obvious and yet not so. Still, this is the country house; a cluster of similar characteristics which most visitors would nod their heads in agreement at, and at which many owners and managers know instinctively as a part of their world.

And so to it: this book is significant because it helps identify the older ideals of the owners, their occupation with grandeur and fashionable aesthetics, and ultimately the overall composition of their home and ancestral seat. Alongside the fantastic colour images of the aerial views by Jason Hawkes sit prospects by Knyff, Kip, Harris, and contemporary artists commissioned at the time of architectural remodelling or rebuilding.

Newby Hall, North Yorkshire. Engraving by Knyff, 1707

Tinniswood’s publication allows the reader to not only admire the obvious aesthetics of the country house garden and parkland but also tells of the techniques for capturing these images throughout the history of the houses themselves. Here Tinniswood comments, ‘The historical images that serve as a counterpoint to Jason Hawkes’ photographs range in time from the medieval cartulary roll depicting Boarstall [Buckinghamshire] to C. E. Kempe’s late-Victorian line-and-wash drawing of Groombridge Place [Kent] and the early-twentieth-century views of Ightham Mote [Kent] and Arundel [Sussex].’ Such images are also telling of the trends in portraying the country house and it’s gardens. The majority of the historical images date roughly between 1680 and 1720 with many of these representing aerial or bird’s-eye views. Of these, Tinniswood notes, ‘the acknowledged masters of the craft…are Leonard Knyff and Johannes Kip.’

A fine example is Penshurst Place.

Here the scope and development of the exterior setting is clear. the earliest part of the house was established by Sir John de Pulteney who became Lord Mayor of London four times between 1331 and 1337. The estate eventually came into the hands of Sir William Sidney and has remained in the family ever since. Crucially, this is the garden to help establish this run of posts but also its connection with country house poetry which has previously been discussed here. Though the engraving by Kip is a century later, it is easy to visualise the words of Ben Jonson in ‘To Penshurst’ (1616) in which he wrote,  ‘The early cherry, with the later plum, Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come; The blushing apricot and woolly peach Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.’

In the early nineteenth century some parts of Penshurst were rebuilt in a Tudor-Gothic style and the formal gardens were laid out in the 1850s by George Devey who used Kip’s 1720 engraving as the inspiration for the updated scheme. The image to the left captures the site from roughly the same prospect as that by Kip and the stretch of land shows how much has unchanged since or been inspired by the engraving. Yet, the scars of past aspects are often obvious – note the circular trough where there once stood a low level plantation clearly visible in the older engraving.

These map perspectives are clever studies in the Siennese style which incorporated careful observation, ground level surveys and detailed plans before executing the final draft. Generally, it seems that the engravings were the result of individual commissions and represented a celebration of completion in building works and large scale remodelling. Tinniswood is cautious to point out that a handful of these were likely projections of aspiration, but that otherwise most were true of the scene as it would have appeared at the time. Take Newby Hall (above) as an example. At the very end of the 17th century Celia Fiennes travelled through Yorkshire, stopping at York, Harrogate and Ripon before moving on to Burton Agnes and Hull. Of Newby, she wrote,

…it looks finely in the approach in the midst of a good parke and a River runns just by it, it stands in the middle and has two large Gardens on each side; you enter one through a large Iron Barr-gate painted green and gold tops and carv’d in severall places…and the Squares are full of dwarfe trees both fruites and green, set cross wayes which lookes very finely; there is  Flower Garden behind the house, in it and beyond it a Landry [sic] Close with frames for drying of cloths…

The bird’s eye view would eventually fall out of favour and instead the fashion for landscape painting would take its place; such depictions being better suited to the sweeping romanticised parklands adopted from the second half of the 18th century. Nonetheless, the changes in garden design, architectural planning and the prospect of the country house as taken in by the contemporary visitor are documented well by Tinniswood throughout the publication.

What the next three posts will do is to detail the chronology of country house garden design as well as introduce the influences and those who have become synonymous (and some lesser known) with some of the major changes in landscaping from the 16th century onwards. Some sites have invested a great deal of physical energy and funding towards large garden projects so it is only fair to dedicate time to these too. What is certain, is that there will be some fantastic images yet to come; spring is definitely here!

Links

http://www.gardenvisit.com/gardens/penshurst_place_garden

Blog posts on Kip and Knyff (A study of Knyff) https://parksandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2017/04/01/kip-knyff-part-1-knyff/ (and of Kip) https://parksandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/kip-and-knyff-part-2-kip/

Wikipedia on Knyff : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Knijff and Kip: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Kip

Further Reading:

Isaac Hawkin Browne, An Essay on Design and Beauty (1739)

R. Havell & Son, A Series of Picturesque Views of Noblemen’s and Gentlemen’s Seats (1823)

Gervase Jackson-Stops, An English Arcadia 1600-1900. (1992)

Leonard Knyff and Jan Kip, Britannia Illustrata or Views of Several of the Queens Palaces also the Principal Seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain (1707)

Christopher Morris (Ed.), The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes: c.1682-c.1712. (1982)

Joseph Nash, The Mansions of England in Olden Time (4 vols, 1839-49)

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Book reviews, Parks and Gardens, Recommended Literature

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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Filed under Book reviews, Collections, Food and Dining, Recommended Literature, Servants, Women and the Country House

Giles Waterfield, 1949-2016

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The independent art historian and curator Giles Waterfield died on 5th November of an unexpected heart attack. He was Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery between 1979 and 1996, an associate lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, acted as advisor to numerous museum and heritage organisations, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, and was co-director for the Attingham Trust from 1995-2003, as well as the founding director of Royal Collection Studies there in 1996.

One of the more honest obituaries in a wealth of very matter of fact ones comes from The Art Newspaper in which Waterfield is described as both erudite and amusing. I never shook hands with the man, but did meet him in October 2012 at the Attingham Trust conference. He spoke passionately about the country house and its many histories and I remember thinking he had a great smiling presence in the room which merrily balanced the flamboyant manner of Julian Fellowes who also attended.

2012 was the peak of popular interest in the social history of the country house where Downton Abbey was running to nearly 12 million viewers for its 3rd and 4th series. This was also the 60th anniversary of the Attingham Trust and there appeared to be a flicker of interest in every aspect of the country house, not just its architecture and fine art collections.

In many respects this was due to those like Waterfield who sought to highlight the eras in which these houses were built and the contemporary moral codes of behaviour imposed on their inhabitants. Attempts to define the servant hierarchy and the spaces which acted as identifiers of work rather than entertainment were also gaining greater impetus for research.

Giles Waterfield aided the promotion of such research through publication and curation. Most relevant here is the exhibition and its accompanying publication written and edited by Waterfield and Anne French Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servant Portraits which ran from October 2003 to January 2004 at The National Portrait Gallery in London. With a series of lectures connected to the exhibition, Waterfield would demonstrate his specialist interest in the representation of servants in English literature from the early 19th century onwards.

belwo-stairs

Dare I admit and quite cowardly in hindsight, but I wrote a review of his Markham Thorpe (2006) a couple of years ago for this blog. I was a harsh critic and I deleted it several months later when I was knew I would meet Waterfield and hoped to promote my own research at that time. In the blog post I recall suggesting how detailed and perhaps a little contrived his backdrops were – an easy task given who he rubbed shoulders with – adding that his characters were stereotypes and his female protagonist was too sweet! However, the accompanying publication for the Below Stairs exhibition is obviously not fiction but a scholarly approach to a collection of images which need consideration without prejudice.

Much of my own research since the date of the exhibition has looked into the status of servants from the late 17th century and so my own knowledge is fairly extensive. Nonetheless, that the publication is an accompaniment to an exhibition does not hold it back or allow for patchy source material. It is instead a well written piece and on the one hand appears to bring the subject matter up-to-date whilst on the other it offers a stimulating and unique take on a subject often severely lacking in images.

Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants c.1750-5 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Purchased 1892 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01374

Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants c.1750-5 William Hogarth (1697-1764), Oil on canvas. Tate Collection.

As often seems the case, I was unable to get to the exhibition at the time as I had just started a new job, but I did have the book delivered instead. It covers most ground and includes the essential study of servant portraits from Bramham Park, Yorkshire and Erdigg, Wales as well as those stand alone images like that of Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants (above) by William Hogarth (c.1750-55) or Robert Shaw, Keeper of the Forest of Bowland by James Northcote (c.1806) which have evolved from mere contemporary representation of real people to objects that for the viewer should raise questions about the character and lifestyle of the sitters. French and Waterfield discuss this in light of the servant and master relationship and the production of servant portraiture as a symbol of loyalty and extended family.

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Ignatius Sancho, 1768 Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada

Other themes covered by Waterfield particularly include servants working in institutions, life in service, and black and Indian servants. The latter illustrating some of the finer portraits of the 18th and 19th centuries including Ignatius Sancho (above) by Thomas Gainsborough (1768) and The Munshi Abdul Karim by Rudolph Swoboda (1888).

The images are obviously central to the book and this is not a cheap general publication about servants illustrated with unrelated pictures of maids or gardeners. It is analytical and puts the images in context and wherever possible provides contemporary commentary of the sitter and/or painter/photographer. Servants are the backbone of country house social history and kept these sites running daily. Their status and their numbers were disadvantages which limited their representation so this publication is essential in allowing us to visualise the servant workspace, their daily tasks and study their features in order to try and see something more of the person rather than a job role. Equally so, Hogarth’s representation of six of his servants allows the viewer to hear them speak as it is almost possible to match their faces to the tone of voice or how they may have expressed themselves with the smallest of gestures.

In order to push this to a more general reader, it takes someone like Waterfield to suggest this notion and there was incredible devotion in the work he undertook. My lasting impression of Waterfield from the Attingham Trust conference four years ago was of someone rather unassuming. There were many big voices wanting to talk about their research or pat themselves on the back for their project leadership skills at such-and-such institution. Waterfield was able to navigate through this by simultaneously showing direct interest delivered with a wry smile. People gravitated to him and wanted to know his thoughts on developments in country house interpretation and preservation, and he knew exactly who was connected to which trust, funding body or academic department.

I’m sure there will be a gap left behind as Giles Waterfield was a character essential to the modern day study of heritage. As funding narrows and dismantles the enthusiasm many have for history and heritage sites we desperately need individuals like him who can operate underneath this and motivate and collaborate in order to challenge any normalisation of weak interpretation and cultural obscurity for many places.

Links to obituaries and articles in his memory markham-thorpe

From The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/11/17/giles-waterfield-art-gallery-director-and-novelist–obituary/

From Apollo Magazine http://www.apollo-magazine.com/tribute-giles-waterfield/

From The Times http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/giles-waterfield-68wg3tzq6

Art Forum https://www.artforum.com/news/id=64555

Other pieces:

Home page with full list of exhibitions and publications http://www.gileswaterfield.com/

And to end, something a little more lighthearted: When Lucy Worsley and Giles Waterfield met http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/giles-waterfield-lucy-worsley-i-gave-a-talk-about-a-woman-who-went-mad-in-the-tower-he-told-me-it-10316533.html

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Filed under Book reviews, Collections, Exhibitions, Servants

Thinking about the Country House in 2016

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A portion of the cast from Dowton Abbey giving their acceptance speech at the Screen Actors Guild in Los Angeles 30 January 2016

In 2012, I wrote a piece here about the current trends in country house studies as well as general literature and popular culture. A lot can happen in four years, so I thought a return to the subject matter seemed overdue. Spurred on by the recurring themes of country house social history highlighted by this blog’s statistics, there is indeed some things to be thinking about in 2016.

Since 2012 the country house has been discussed a lot less on British television that’s for sure and in hindsight, programmes like The Country House Revealed from 2011 seemed like a passing phase. That’s probably more to do with the producers of popular TV rather than the wider interests of those watching. Yet, there has been a shift and without doubt there is a strong fan base surrounding the country house united by the subject’s social themes more than anything else in 2016. That’s not to say that architectural history and the decorative arts have dropped from favour, but overall there appears to be a collective demand for knowledge about how people interacted with the country house; as designers, owners, servants or suppliers. This is not new, and there has certainly been an excess of publications on the country house servant specifically since the 1950s – partly as a result of the decline of the country house and the nostalgia that followed. Yet, the social history of the country house in the second decade of the millennium is rather more epic in its presentation.

In order to support this view, there is no need to look any further than the global appeal of Downton Abbey. At the close of 2015, rumours of a film abounded but as I write this blog post, it is neither confirmed nor denied as to whether the cast and crew are set for a large scale production. However, coming up trumps with a win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles for Best TV Ensemble, Downton Abbey shows its exceptional success in the US particularly and a continued appeal which looks set to blaze through many other countries still.

And it is the word ‘ensemble’ which is really intriguing! Of course the SAG Awards are identifying the on screen cohesion of a large cast, but in writing country house histories it has never been a word I thought to use – or one suggested to me as a PhD student. The country house hierarchy of servants is indeed an ensemble; the household is an ensemble of characters that work together. Acting these parts on screen is part of the story-telling process which has created the mass appeal of Downton which is an admirable achievement. It also goes to show the curiosity and demand for ever more detail and individual accounts (fictional or otherwise) set against the historical backdrop of the country house and its estate.

Rather more tentatively I would also say that the architectural aspect of the country house has become academic for most in 2016. Downton Abbey is certainly popularist but it allows some themes of the country house to become accessible to many – a point made time and again in this blog. Yet, I always feel a little dismayed at the types of literature available either online or at the local bookshop dedicated to the country house. The architecture of the British (mainly English) country house is confined to glossy coffee table tomes which lack depth and lengthy discourse. The most recent additions to my local bookshop’s shelves are repetitive and assert the author’s own connections to particular sites and families. More importantly, they’re out of many enthusiastic readers’ budgets.

As for the social histories, there are the semi-autobiographical pieces hidden away in the history section or selected for their seasonal relevance – usually at Christmas. Based on the literature being published alone, the argument would be that studies of the country house have become divisive in recent years. In academia this is reinforced by the capabilities of departments seeking funding for projects based on the specialisms of their existing staff, and in most cases one is either an architectural specialist or a social historian. For the moment, one cannot be both.

My diagnosis of this issue is the speed at which academic institutions are encouraged to deliver and the place these institutions have in our cultural landscape. It is easier to divide themes and examine them more closely that way, but also reach the targets set by funding bodies and peer group assessment. At the same time as academic institutions turn inwards to their research (be it architectural, material culture or social history), the well-connected TV broadcasters are inviting more viewers to think about past lives and discover semi-fictional accounts of families from ‘the big house’. Thus, it is television which is currently at the forefront of presenting the country house to a wider audience and not the traditional body of academics and curators and their respective assistants.

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So are things shifting again in 2016? Perhaps taking advantage of the popularity of Downton but also as a means of identifying as well as dismantling the popularist aspect of country house social history, it is my ambition this year to focus on the country house servant and household and the material culture that supports these. Not in the usual sense though – the nostalgia and ten-a-penny reminiscences – instead it will something more constructive and debatable. Of course, personal experiences are always valued and are critical to social history, yet the social history of the country house covers huge ground; it is every aspect of human life literally under one roof.  This year in blogging will see highlighted discussion concerning not just servants and their roles, but also love, marriage, children and parenthood, and even crime. Themes which themselves are an ensemble of varying aspects of day-to-day routine or circumstance influenced by or indeed an influence upon the country house and its development.

Let’s not forget that Downton Abbey is complete and its final series was aired in the UK in September 2015. Long may its reign continue, but something will move into the void left behind. I am not convinced academia will manage this without looking more outwardly than it does currently in Britain at least. Yet, there are many findings to hit the shelves in 2016 and I look forward to reading into these. It may still be possible to unite the architectural with the social before we meet 2017 and I hope to offer a narrative as we go!

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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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Filed under In the News, The Nostell Project, Women and the Country House

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

Genre: The Haunted House

The Ash Tree Illustration by George Chastain

The Ash Tree illustration by George Chastain (The Twilight Zone 1981)

‘… there were no more mysterious occurrences … no rings on the bells, no raps, no footsteps, no more curious incidences of any kind. The house continued to … “behave itself” ‘.             (The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, p. 386)

After a lapse of a few weeks, I have finally been able to return to the literary country house. My last post on this topic is here, and concerned the country house poem. Here the focus is how the country house can play host to something more supernatural and chilling, and ultimately more claustrophobic.

In an article for The New Statesman (2011), John O’Connell identified the country house genre as two distinct groups; the Gothic (the focus here) and the social.  This article is now exclusively for subscribers, but the overview is given by John Lucas in The Guardian from February 2011. Lucas himself states, ‘It’s dramatically useful to be able to force characters together in a physical space where they have little choice but to interact with each other. In this sense, the country house functions in much the same way as a pub in a soap opera.’ Yet the Gothic and the social country house did not just appear from nothing. There is certainly something which links the steady move towards privacy for landowners and their families, Acts of Enclosure, and extensive landscaping which suggests that the house itself became ever more remote and mysterious during the eighteenth century.

Of course the Gothic setting may not even be a country house. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1778), and Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) all play out within murky castle walls. Indeed Gothic originally implied medieval, but by the end of the eighteenth century its meaning had altered to incorporate the purely macabre, eerie and supernatural. The medieval element was not always important.

How the country house setting fits into the Gothic model is complex, and is as much the backdrop as it is a character. This is not about whether ghosts or the supernatural are real, but often about social commentary and the psychological and physical threats posed by others. For example the artificial relationships set out by the class system and patriarchal dominance, the paranoia of rightful inheritance, tyrannical masters seeking sexual deviance, or the consequences of inbreeding. Add to these the architectural decay of a world that once thrived or the intrigue of an ill-fated inhabitant brought to an early demise through murder or suicide and the scene is set for monsters and ghouls stepping forth to tell their tales.

The haunted house may simply be the desolate detached thing at the end of the road. Yet the country house (big or small) provides the writer with a greater variety of space, of past opulence, of dysfunctional families and their struggle to uphold pride and lineage. The dark corners, damp basement passageways and dusty attics are all places for secreting horrifyingly disfigured relations, ancestral sins, or discarded womenfolk.

Front cover for the Turn of the Screw, making use of an typically ethereal painting by Atkinson Grimshaw.

Front cover for the Turn of the Screw, making use of an typically ethereal painting by Atkinson Grimshaw.

Key authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would certainly include the following: Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839),  Charles Dickens et al., The Haunted House (1859), J. S. Le Fanu, ‘Madam Crowl’s Ghost’ (1870), Charlotte Riddell, The Haunted House at Latchford (1872), Henry James, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898), and M. R. James, ‘The Ash Tree’ (1904). All of these have different tales to tell, but the techniques are similar wherever you look. Ultimately, the haunted house is the static setting into which one or more characters are introduced in order to relate the tale to us as the readers. The madness and hysteria may have already existed before their mediation like in H. P. Lovecraft’s, The Rats in the Walls (1924). On the other hand this new character or characters may or may not be the trigger for the haunting as in the genre’s present day revival like Sarah Waters’s, The Little Stranger (2009).

Front cover for The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (first published 2009)

Front cover for The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (first published 2009)

M. R. James does not use this technique in ‘The Ash Tree’, but instead has his narrator pass on the tale as though it were stuff of legend or folklore. Yet, this too is common, especially in short stories. The period setting is therefore important and may be familiar to the reader. Supernatural suspense in the protagonist’s own present or recent past for example  might be provided by a tortured spirit, often with a message from the grave like in the late James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall (2006) or even Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983). Also common is the retelling by the main character of their version of events (usually by firelight) to a contemporary audience.

The role of the haunted house has never really changed dramatically in literature over time, but it has seen a handful of revivals. The country house as haunted house however does not fit obviously into the social changes occurring simultaneously.  The interwar years see little production of ghostly tales, as the country house at that time became the social house model as noted by John O’Connell. Presumably this might have more to do with a dismissal of all things Victorian rather than a severe dislike of the supernatural tale itself. Moreover, demolition of the country house in the UK during the 1950s and 1960s does not seem to impact too heavily on the genre.

As a child I was probably reading haunted house stories produced during a wave of interest in Victoriana and past opulence in children’s literature. Many of my favourite authors like Robert Westall, Philippa Pearce and  Helen Cresswell knew how to twist the fate of an old mansion. Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) for one, is as much about a fantasy world as it is about the dismantling of a golden era. Today’s revival has been a few years in the making, but there is a wealth of novels and short stories to examine further. Perhaps the accessibility of the country house has aided this fascination; the layers of history witnessed in the blocked up doorways and windows, glistening mirrors that once held someone’s reflection, creaking floorboards, the maze of passageways, empty beds, and unnamed portraits…

Still from the 20 film of The Woman in Black (Cotter Hall)

Still from the 2012 film of The Woman in Black (Cotterstock Hall, Northamptonshire)

References and further reading:

John Boyne, This House is Haunted (2013)

E. J. Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction (1995)

J. S. Le Fanu, In a Glass Darkly (1872)

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (2000)

Peter Haining, The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories (2005)

James Herbert, Haunted (1988)

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

P. J. Keating, The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875-1914 (2012 ?)

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986)

J. B. Priestley, Benighted (1927)

John Sullivan, Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story From Le Fanu To Blackwood (1978) and Lost Souls: A Collection of English Ghost Stories (1983)

Robert Westall, Ghost Abbey (new edition 2011)

Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost (first published 1887)

Links:

The Ghost Story on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_story

The Gothic literary genre on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_fiction

Haunted Country Houses in Country Life Magazine http://www.countrylife.co.uk/countryside/pursuits/article/153019/Top-10-haunted-country-houses.html

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

And last but not least, Horror Film Haunted Houses http://cinefantastiqueonline.com/2009/03/sense-of-wonder-hollywoods-most-haunted-houses/

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