A nostalgic account of life at English country houses during the interbellum era.
Tinniswood, who has written frequently about English cultural history—from pirates (Pirates of Barbary, 2010) to architecture (The Arts and Crafts House, 1999)—returns with a richly researched story about the rise and fall and transformation of country-house living, the effects on same of World War I and the arrival of World War II, and numerous other aspects of the phenomenon. In each chapter the author focuses on a different perspective: the emergence of the country house, country-house living of the royals, various restorations of some places that date back to the Elizabethan era, the arrival of moneyed Americans, upstairs/downstairs stuff, and the changes wrought by more bohemian occupants. Tinniswood teaches us about shooting, hunting, tennis, and golf (some owners built links on their grounds). We learn a lot about the designers, remodelers, occupants, and sales and purchases as well as the endless array of names of these places: Castle Drogo, Gladstone Park, and the like. The author does not suggest that there is anything untoward about any of this vast wealth in the midst of vast poverty, probably calculating that this is the sort of text that will appeal to the myriad viewers of Downton Abbey. Tinniswood includes plenty of engaging details and amusing anecdotes—e.g., one owner’s idea for stringing electrical wires: “they prized up a floorboard at one end and dropped a dead rabbit into the void; then they prized up a floorboard at the other end and unleashed a ferret, with a string tied to his collar. When the ferret had managed to negotiate the joists and reach the rabbit, the string was used to pull through a cable and, hey, presto! The problem was solved.” Although there are many pictures and illustrations throughout, readers will surely wish for more images of these remarkable dwellings.
An enjoyable tour with a genial, informed, devoted docent.