Brideshead Revered

David Cannadine

  • The Country House by James Lees-Milne
    Oxford, 110 pp, £4.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 19 214139 2
  • English Country Houses and Landed Estates by Heather Clemenson
    Croom Helm, 244 pp, £15.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 85664 987 2
  • The Last Country Houses by Clive Aslet
    Yale, 344 pp, £15.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 300 02904 7

‘One of the many contradictory qualities of the British,’ James Lees-Milne rightly notes in his attractive if angry anthology in piam memoriam Bladesover, ‘is to revere, and even lament, the things they are in the process of destroying.’ You cannot, he seems to be saying, have conservation without destruction, or a stay of execution without a sentence. This is not, of course, a universally valid dictum. Even the combined and mellifluous resources of Mark Girouard and Yale University Press have yet to unfurl the full panoply of best-selling nostalgia on behalf of such doomed and dodoed delights as education before the comprehensive (Life in the English Secondary Mod?), arithmetic before the pocket calculator (The Victorian Counting House?), American politics before Watergate (The Return to Camelot?) or British politics before Thatcher (Sweetness and Light?). Many such lost causes pass unlamented – more likely to be powdered into dry-as-dust dissertations than instant coffee-table books. We know too much about them to regard their passing with unequivocal regret.

But elsewhere, the plague of nostalgia rages with ferocious and seemingly incurable vigour, as shown by the remarkable sales of the Girouard oeuvre (as much a social phenomenon as social history) and the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (Mrs Dale meets the Archers). Indeed, a glance in any bookshop will reveal row upon row of such rustic and escapist volumes, dwelling with dewy-eyed and treacle-tongued rapture on the idyllic delights of cottages, villages and country houses, gardens, forests and mountains, birds, flowers and animals, all the way from James Herriot’s Yorkshire to Angela Rippon’s West Country. The world we never knew becomes the world we have lost and thus the world we want to find again: the only paradise we really seek to regain is the one which was never ours to lose. Not since the 1890s or the 1930s has the worship of wistfulness been so widespread. And there, in part, lies the explanation: then, as now, depression is the begetter of nostalgia, disenchantment the handmaid of escapism. As before, when the shopkeepers go out of business, we become a nation of ruminators.

Lees-Milne’s pocket anthology provides fascinating fodder for such digestions, even though it also contains an unexpected (perhaps unintended?) antidote to the nostalgia disease. Drawing widely on the printed memoirs, diaries and correspondence of natives and foreign visitors, he compiles a memorable picture of life in the English country house, as described by some of its more outspoken and opinionated habitués, the cumulative effect of which is to leave an overriding impression of eccentricity and bad temper. We meet Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, lamenting her ‘misfortune to suffer very great mischiefs from the assistance of architects’; Sir John Cope, of Bramshill, whose ‘apartments are so vastly spacious that one generally sees Sir John toward the winter put on his hat to go from one room to another’; John Mytton, of Halston Hall, who consumed between four and six bottles of port a day, and once set fire to his nightshirt to frighten away the hiccoughs; Disraeli, gazing into the fire at Hughenden, murmuring ‘Dreams, dreams, dreams’, and being refused in marriage by the Countess of Cardigan because his breath smelt of ‘the ill odour of politics’. And there is – as one might expect – the by now obligatory quota of quotes from Brideshead.

Funnily enough, it is not only the people, but also the houses, which emerge rather less saccarine-sodden than one might have expected. In the first place, as Lees-Milne points out, many contemporaries (especially 18th-century) were highly critical of the mansions of their own day: Westcombe House ‘must have been built by somebody that is mad’; Blenheim was ‘execrable within, without and almost all round’; Kedleston ‘would do excellently for a town hall’; Hardwick had ‘vast rooms, no taste, much indifferent tapestry’; Powderham was ‘not worth a halfpenny’; and Hagley was ‘deficient in water and gravel, two great charms’. To judge from such opinions, contemporaries like Horace Walpole and Arthur Young would have regarded the present cult of the country house with amazement and incredulity. Moreover, the life which was actually lived within their walls emerges as far from beguiling. Most country houses were cold, gloomy, eerie, filthy, smelly and insanitary; they were too grand or too small, too plain or too ornate, too shabby or too vulgar; the food was bad, the company often boring, and there was little to do except hunt; and the servants were frequently dishonest or incompetent, while the nannies were sometimes wicked and tyrannical.

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