Reviewed by Harriet
This gorgeous book is subtitled ‘Life in the English Country House Between the Wars’, and certainly that is part of its subject. But it’s a book with a much larger scope that that phrase implies. Adrian Tinniswood is a distinguished researcher and academic in the fields of social and architectural history, and has worked with the National Trust for more than thirty years. The Long Weekend is really a distillation of all his considerable knowledge in all these fields. So, though Downton Abbey fans will find plenty of upstairs and downstairs gossip to keep them happy, the book will also suit anyone with an interest in the design, building and restoration of historic houses, the economics of life in the higher echelons of British society in the twentieth century, the implications of being a servant in a great house, the lives of the British Royal Family, and much more besides. Even the time span is broader than the subtitle implies, as many of the houses featured here had been in the same family for centuries, drawing the historical discussion back into the sometimes-distant past.
The book is divided into chapters which are structured roughly chronologically, and starts with an introduction, which demonstrates the impact of WW1 on the families who owned the ‘great houses’ of Britain. Most, though not all, of them were members of the 746 strong group of British peers, many of whom — in fact one in ten – lost offspring in the war. This in itself had an impact on life afterwards, as the future seemed to many families to be bleak and comfortless in the homes they had planned to leave to their sons. Some may have decided to leave for that reason, but many stayed on, like Lady Alda Hoare of Stourhead, who wrote in her diary: ‘I cannot bear to leave my son I everywhere see here’.
Further chapters show the impact of social change on the ownership and condition of some of the greatest houses in Britain. Some, like Harold and Vita Sackville West’s celebrated Sissinghurst, were rescued from decay and lovingly restored, while others were tragic casualties, like the glorious 18th century Nuttall Temple in Nottinghamshire, which failed to find a buyer and was burned to the ground by the demolition contractor who had bought it for £800. Luckily rescue seems to have triumphed over decay, and some architects did stupendously well out of the desire to bring ancient ruins back to life. One such was Philip Tilden, whose career had been all but ended by the war. Tilden was responsible for the restoration work on many now famous castles, such as Allington, Saltwood, Leeds and Bodiam, all in Kent, and many other glorious old houses as well.
New houses were being built too, or old ones being drastically modernised. The owner of more than one of them, the fabulously rich Philip Sassoon, made his Port Lympe into ‘a compact fairy palace in which one walks, wide-eyed, as though on air’, aided once again by Philip Tilden. Edwin Lutyens, meanwhile, was constructing modernist masterpieces such as Castle Drogo in Devon, a wholly contemporary conception. There are also chapters on the great decorators of the era, most notably Sybil Colefax, to whom we owe what we think of today as typical country-house style – good paintings and art objects, beautiful fabrics and carpets, all laid out in an artful way to suggest they had been there since the house was built.
But what of the people who lived in these houses? There’s plenty to learn about them too. A rather sorry lot, some of them seem to have been. Many marriages between the stupendously wealthy ended in divorce or separation, scandals abounded, and the stories about bedroom hopping during weekend house-parties appear to have been absolutely true, according to the servants, who were in the best position to know. Then there were the gays, whose goings on are detailed in the chapter called ‘A Queer Streak’. At the period, of course, homosexuality was illegal, forcing such people as Cecil Beaton to live double lives. Though Beaton was welcome in some houses, he was barred from others, and was only able to indulge his real interests and pleasures in his own house, Ashcombe, where he spent his weekends with his friends, throwing lavish fancy-dress parties and filling the house with a carload of flowers from Covent Garden Market. Beaton seems to have been able to enjoy his flamboyant lifestyle but other homosexuals were not so lucky. The Conservative MP Viscount ‘Loulou’ Harcourt (‘whose nickname might have sent alarms bells ringing in some quarters’) committed suicide following his attempted seduction of a thirteen-year-old boy visitor, and another MP tried to kill himself after being found guilty of gross indecency. Most notorious of all was Earl Beauchamp, whose ‘reckless abandon’ with a large number of men ended in divorce, disgrace, and a sad exile across the channel.
Two of the most fascinating chapters are those detailing the lives of the servants, whose happiness and welfare depended so much on the inclinations of their employers. Some of the smaller houses had just a few, others, like the Astors’ Cliveden, had a small army – thirty-three indoor servants and seventy-odd estate workers. Life for an ambitious young male servant could be anything but bad, however, as we learn from the life story of one Herbert Parker, who started in service at the age of fifteen and rose through the ranks, changing jobs frequently after being head-hunted by prospective employers. By the time of his retirement he had been happily in service for almost seventy years.
The final chapter of this splendid book is called ‘The Old Order Doomed’, and here we learn of the many families who were unable to keep up their houses and their standards of living after 1939. Many houses never recovered from the damages caused by the soldiers and others who were billeted there during the war, and a large number were handed over to the National Trust, much to the pleasure of the millions of visitors who have enjoyed seeing how the other half used to live. I am tempted to say that if you weren’t a socialist when you started reading, this book might easily make you one. The display of wealth that emerges from these pages is quite staggering – fascinating, but somehow rather distasteful, bringing with it as it does such a sense of absolute power and entitlement and being too frequently abused. I suppose those days are mostly gone now, so it is wonderful to be able to read about them here. The book is written with enormous charm and wit as well as impressive learning, the illustrations are fabulous, and I’m delighted to have had a chance to read it.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and has always wanted to live in a stately home.
Adrian Tinniswood, The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House Between the Wars (Jonathan Cape, 2016). 978-0224099455, 406pp., hardback.
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