Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History – Mark Girouard (1978)

As you know, I am (somewhat) addicted to social and domestic history of people and places, especially Britain/England, so I was really excited when this huge book arrived from the ILL system.

This is a solidly researched book on the social and architectural history of the English country house from the Middle Ages to 1940 by an acclaimed historian so you know it’s going to be good. With plenty of illustrations and some colored plates (along with citations), I found this to be a fascinating source for learning about the world of the stately home and how it has evolved over time. For example, in the 1700’s, the technology was available for indoor plumbing for bathrooms etc., but few houses implemented them as they were not in fashion yet. (!) This was also supported by the fact that servants were plentiful and fairly cheap, so it was easy to get hot water in small quantities brought to wherever you happened to be in the house.  (I am such a fan of working indoor plumbing that this is hard for me to imagine. “It was out of fashion???” Perhaps if I had plenty of servants, it would be different.) Some families even went backwards in innovation and moved things to the outhouse down the garden to “get closer to the natural state”… (This is beyond my understanding, I am afraid. I can’t imagine trudging through the wet and dark at night in winter to go out of choice.)

As new fashions and trends occurred in architecture and interior design, the stately homes were usually lagging far behind the trend setters in London (see above: indoor plumbing and below re: transportation.) The eighteenth century and early nineteenth century also bought about the inventions of more effective heating and lighting (the lighting was more after 1880). Having visited numerous stately homes in winter during my life and times, I can attest to the fact that these places can be remarkably drafty and cold. I can only imagine what it was like living in a huge drafty house with no widespread heating or lighting. My experience with keeping warm with a real open fire is too hot on one side, and too cold on the other. I grew up in a wonderful Victorian house, but the radiators for the central heating were placed under the windows… Why? All the heat went up and out the windows right away, leaving you with blue fingers and crouched in front of a small electric fire. Plus – it cost a lot to heat the house (well, you know: since the heat went out the windows…)

The nineteenth century set the stage for the Industrial Revolution and the unrest caused by the ripples from the on-going French Revolution. France being not so far from England, this revolution worried the British upper classes a bit, and so, cognizant of the possibility of uprising, the rich families hosted large and extravagant parties, both for their friends and for their tenants and local villagers – “keep the little people happy” idea. There were picnics in the grounds which catered to two thousand people or more sometimes, so these were not little affairs with a glass of orange squash and a Jaffa Cake on a blanket.

In the early years, these houses were very isolated due to the poor roads, the uncomfortable and dangerous carriage rides and how long each journey took. (They were very slow as roads were frequently muddy and circuitous along with the ever-present danger of being robbed by highwaymen.) As the infrastructure improved, the roads became smoother and easier to use during bad weather, and springs were introduced into the design of carriages (making a faster smoother more comfortable ride) which led to there being more interaction between these country houses and London. This meant that fashions began to change a lot quicker than they had before as word traveled more quickly than before and it was easier to bring fabric and new furniture to the country.

As the book went on, I realized that it must really be quite hard for untrained observers of architecture to quickly and accurately identify the age of a building through its style, as so often architectural styles adopted fashions from years ago, doing a faux style (e.g. the Victorians loved Gothic/Tudor/Elizabethan styles as these were thought to be indicative of the style of “old style English gentleman”…)

Speaking of Victorians, they were obsessed with efficiency (linking it with morality and superiority) and so this affected the design of new houses and the additions onto older existing ones (e.g. separate wings for the servants etc.). As the years went by, the fashion changed from forced communal living (everyone – including the servants – eating at the same time in the Great Hall, for example) to more privacy for those who were in the family (and away from the servants).

It was also important to separate the genders (especially the servants as they were less “civilized” and so were more affected by animal instincts…) – houses tended to have women servants’ quarters on one side of the house and the men’s on the other. This did lead to one Achilles’ heel though for the Victorian Morality Crew: the laundry room at this time was often placed on the edge of the house as it was noisy, steamy and smelly; this led to the (female) servants doing the laundry developing more independence as they were further away from supervision. Additionally, the laundry rooms were on the outside of the house (usually close to the stables) and so this meant that non-laundry servants also had access to them (especially those naughty grooms in the nearby stables)… Thus, the Achilles’ heel idea for the moral Victorian family.

Interestingly enough, tobacco also had an influence on the design of country houses and their architecture, coming to popularity with Prince Albert (who was German and Germany loved cigars) and then naughty hedonistic Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales. During the last half of the nineteenth century, this trend led to the introduction of separate smoking rooms in large houses, and they were seen as very masculine and a “safety valve” for the men to be themselves without the social restrictions of women around. Any refusal to join a smoking party was considered to be very rude.  Woman had their own room where they would go to once the men had left the dining room to smoke. Of course, this was the feminine version and would be decorated accordingly. (This room might have been the drawing or “with”drawing room at some point.)

 To keep up with stately house life and society, a magazine called “Country Life” was started in the late 1890’s when it was particularly widespread among the upper classes that the life of the English country gentleman was the best life of all. I vividly remember when I was growing up that my father would have a subscription to Country Life magazine which featured articles on country houses and also listed any that were for sale. I don’t know why my father took the subscription: I know he was particularly interested in local history and architecture with perhaps a smidgen of desire for such a life himself.  (Well, who wouldn’t?…)

Very interesting book although I do have to admit that I sort of skipped over the Middle Ages bit to get to the juicy stuff.  Definitely my shortcoming as opposed to that of the author.

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