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Life in a German Country House

Excerpts taken from The Leisure Hour: a Family Journal for Instruction and Recreation. (April, 1866). Unknown author.

An 1896 cover for the journal The Leisure Hour

       The journal contained many different items, from biographies to reference information and short stories. Copies were illustrated with scenes from the stories, and many of the editions were headed with a quote by William Cowper; ‘Behold in these what leisure hours demand, – Amusement and true knowledge hand in hand’, which gives an impression as to the aim of the publication. Each edition was originally priced at one penny and published weekly. (See Rooke Books)

       However, I found this piece on Ebay for a couple of pounds! It appears to have been neatly unbound from its original volume at some point and sold on as a separate essay. I haven’t reproduced it here in its entirety as the story is over 6,000 words! So far, it has been impossible to track which house is being discussed – which is disappointing, but the article is fascinating for many other reasons. The language is very conventional for the mid-nineteenth century, and the (female) writer clearly had set ideals concerning daily routines, dress codes and even room settings. (Note the complaints she makes about a type of bedding we now take for granted.) In many instances these are very apparent and she seems rather haughty, or at best slightly naive. Perhaps the best thing about this article is a reader’s comment at the end which questions the original writer’s authority and knowledge on the subject. Clearly, someone wasn’t impressed by the simmering haughtiness and constant cultural comparisons which favoured the English above all else!

There is a short glossary of terms at the end.

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Life in a German Country House.

       Our acquaintance with the Von Fersens commenced in a singular way. The Countess broke her arm crossing the Brunig Pass in Switzerland, and was brought to Lungern while we were there. We were able to show them some attention, and were a good deal in their company; in fact, I struck up quite a warm friendship with the twin daughters – very pleasant girls. Some six months after we returned to England a very pressing invitation came for us to pay a visit to the Von Fersens at their home at Havelburg.

 

       As we drew up, there was a hospitable rush of the whole family outside to receive their guests. Helena and Bertha overwhelmed me with embraces and tears. The Countess, who spoke little English, exclaimed, ‘Very much welcome, my dear mess,’ as she kissed me on both cheeks. ‘Welkommen, ein schones Welkommen,’ said the Count, who knew no English, giving me what he called a right English handshake. My brother Fred was most cordially received, and a tall, long-backed son, Count Albert, duly presented.

 

       Helena led me up the carpetless stairs, with their massive oak balustrades – stairs so smooth and shining that, running down in a hurry, I more than once narrowly missed a tumble. Going down a broad passage, we entered a pretty room, with two windows overlooking the lake. There was no toilette-table, but a tall, narrow mirror stood between the widows, secured by an ingenious contrivance of ropes. This, being rather rickety, often frightened me as I brushed my hair before it, for I was afraid of the heavy thing tumbling down on me. There was a small piece of carpet – quite a luxury – under a round table in front of the sofa. The small bed was without hangings or drapery. The sofa could, if necessary, be turned into a couch. The washing-stand shut up and formed a table during the day. An antique chest of drawers and a few chairs completed the furniture. I leaned out of the window to enjoy the prospect. How pleasant these foreign windows are in summer: it is so charming to have the whole aperture for light and air, and to lean out without risk of knocking one’s head. In winter give me our close-fitting sashes.

 

       There was a tap at the door, and Paulina, the young Countess’s maid, entered with a friendly ‘Guten Tag, gnadige Fraulein.’ I soon found out that the servants expected to be greeted with a few civil words on first seeing them in the morning, etc., as much as their masters did. Servants here are by no means the silent automatons we are accustomed to; and, as they talk without forwardness, and give themselves no airs, the greater freedom of intercourse with their employers seems, after all, more natural than our cold English fashion.

 

       A little before two we assembled in the large drawing-room. Even at this early hour the sisters were in low barege dresses, with a white muslin jacket. The Count offered his arm and we marched into the ‘saal’. The soup came first, which the hostess helped as in England. Everything else was handed round the table being covered with plate and flowers, silver vases at the corners filled with lilac and golden-rain (laburnums), and an epergne with preserved fruit in the centre. Three courses of made dishes followed the soup, very nice, but incomprehensible – most likely veal. Two plates were given us to-day for the apricots, here considered the proper accompaniment for roast pork. When we mentioned apple-sauce as the fashion at home, all the family exclaimed at the strange mixture.

 

       I thought then and afterwards that dinner lasted a very long time. The interval between each course was immense; but did not find it at all tedious. The young ladies spoke capital English – so idiomatic; Bertha enchanted Fred by coming out with a little mild slang, yet neither had been in England, but as is customary in North Germany, they had had an English governess for several years.

 

       About half an hour after dinner, old Tegel, the footman, brought round some delicious coffee; and then we all rose and dispersed in different directions. The gentlemen took Fred to look at the farm buildings behind the Schloss. These German land-owners are generally farmers; i.e., they have their land in their own hands, and manage it by means of inspectors (bailiffs). Our system of letting several hundreds of acres to one tenant seems quite the exception. For some miles round, nearly all the land belonged to the Count, and more than a thousand persons lived on his property in two villages. Havel had four hundred inhabitants, and Rosen, three miles off, was larger. Some idea may thus be formed of the number of labourers employed, and of the very large sum disbursed weekly in wages. A German nobleman, therefore, while at his landhaus, leads an extremely active and busy life.

 

       The garden at Havelburg was a very disappointing place. Count Fersen was considered the wealthiest man in the province, and there was much taste in the laying out of the grounds; but Fred and I were scandalised at the want of order and neatness. In spite of the efforts of several women-gardeners, who were perpetually sweeping and raking, the lawn looked like a young hayfield, while the soi-disant gravel paths were ankle-deep in dust.

 

       Reader, you may be well acquainted with Rhineland, you may even have done the grand round of German capitals, and still you may know nothing of a genuine German bed. The number of travellers visiting the country have effected a revolution in the chief hotels, and there we find sheets, blankets, and counterpanes much the same as in England or France. The architecture of my bed was on this wise: a spring mattress at the bottom, then a feather bed covered with a sheet, an enormous pillow for the head as big as four of ours rolled into one, and a smaller one for the feet, elevating them in an uncomfortable manner. There was only one lower sheet, and neither blankets nor counterpane. The superstructure was a large feather bed in a case, the duplicate of the one below. The night was oppressively hot, and I trembled at the idea of passing it beneath that mass of feathers. The next morning Fred enquired how I managed, and gave me the benefit of his experience. After a desperate idea of using the towels as sheets, which from their size and dampness he found impracticable, he said he ended by taking the feather bed out of its white covering, and so slept in the great case. Even in winter, when the warmth is grateful, these beds are uncomfortable, as they are apt to roll off, and it is impossible to tuck one’s self up.

 

       After Sunday dinner the Count asked us to drive to a neighbouring Schloss, which we declined; and then Count Albert made a vain attempt to induce Fred to join in a dance the servants had got up in the lower hall! Of course our scruples were considered unreasonable. In the cool of the evening Helena and I strolled down to the lake, and there she begged me to tell her what the day at home was like. I tried to picture to her the serenity and peace of an English country Sabbath, the rest from toil for man and beast, the quiet, happy family gathering, the freedom from worldly cares, and the holy preparation for the perpetual Sabbath-keeping that remains for the people of God. I suppose in many families there may be better usages, but I record what I saw of ‘Life in a German Country House’.

 

A reader’s comment.

I have been rather amused lately by an article in ‘The Leisure Hour’ for April, entitled ‘Life in a German Country House’. Though evidently a recollection of ‘auld lang syne,’ the little picture is painted in lively colours, and cannot fail, I am sure to give pleasure even to those who cannot have the same interest which I have in hearing German life described by and English pen.

But while it is only justice to say that this little narrative is amusingly written, it is nevertheless far from giving satisfaction to a German reader; and I cannot refrain from making a few remarks, and protesting, in the name of my countrywomen, against conclusions that might be drawn in too strict accordance with the sample of German country life given here. Besides, it would only have been fair to state how many years ago, and in what part of Northern Germany, the lady may have gathered her experience of German life.

I am quite ready to believe that, many years ago, in some remote part of back Pomerania or Eastern Prussia, things may have been as described in that article, from the absence of the egg-cups and toilet-table up to the dusty garden walks and weedy flower-beds. But I can only say that my experience, which is not based on one case only, is of a very different nature. It is quite true that we Germans do not, happily for us, attach so much importance to all the luxuries of life as is the case in England; but I must say that, though sometimes more than fifteen miles distant from a railway-station, and in houses where there was no pretence to luxury, I never yet found a bedroom so bare as the one described; and that wherever I went I have always been lucky enough to be provided with a well-furnished washing-stand, which was not meant to be anything else during the day.

The narrator must have gone with wonderful notions on her German visit. She seems to have expected a sort of back-woods life! She dwells with considerable length on the good-natured hospitality she everywhere meets. She praises it just as one would praise it in a savage, and is not only astonished to find a certain degree of intellectual culture in German women, but actually quite wonders not to find that they may be only good for knitting stockings and spinning flax.

 

Glossary of terms

Barege dress: Mainly a gauze dress

Landhaus: Country house, administrative base for estate management

Saal: Dining room

Schloss: Manor house, castle, mansion or stately home.

Soi-disant: Probably meant here as ‘so-called’ or ‘supposedly/allegedly’.

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