Room at the Top

Rosalind Mitchison

At some time in the 1730s Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, Midlothian, wrote down advice on the building of what he called ‘a family house’. This should consist of a central main block and two side pavilions, as a precaution against destruction by fire. ‘The main or chief Body of the House ought to be at Least double the Bigness of each pavilion and may serve chiefly for lodging the Master of the family and the better kind of Guests who come to visit him. One of the pavilions ought entirely to be appropriated for women and children and the other ought to contain the kitchen with apartments for Men servants and such like conveniences.’

Many of the assumptions of upper-class 18th-century society he exposed in that paragraph. The most obvious is the male view that all guests come to visit only the master of the house. This enables Sir John to forget to locate his wife. Is Lady Clerk allowed to occupy the central block with her husband? He will be rather lonely when guests are absent if she does not. Or is she squeezed into a side pavilion with maidservants and children? Above all, though, stands the upper-class belief that the only type of house in which families live is the Big House. Members of these families are the only people who count.

Some traces of these assumptions run through this fascinating book by the Stones. It is a study only of the landowning élite, based on a sample of three diverse counties, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and Northumberland. All decisions or ventures are firmly ascribed to the male heads of the families. Of course, as the authors state, this is a study of the owners of big houses, and these owners were men. Yet instances exist of female intervention over building, enlarging, defacing or abandoning houses, so it is reasonable to wonder if there should not be some discussion of family views about family houses. The construction of Blenheim and Dalkeith palaces owes much to dominant women, and in the cases where a family owned two or three houses and demolished one, or allowed it to decay, it would be odd if the wives had not participated in the decision Perhaps in the course of an academic lifetime spent among the papers of the wealthy and powerful upper classes from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the authors have unconsciously absorbed some of the social assumptions of their subjects.

This book is really three books bound up together. The title indicates the thesis of one – the issue of whether, as historians have tended to believe, the English aristocracy was unusually open, a group into which enterprising men from trade, finance or government could find their way provided they had enough money. The obverse of this theory has been the tenet that primogeniture kept the membership of this élite group stable by forcing younger sons to go out into the world to make their way: privileged, not by title or wealth, but, often, by personal links and contacts resulting from the position of their fathers in politics. The open élite system has been held responsible for the relative tranquillity of politics in England – barring a few unpleasant decades in the mid-17th century – and for the close links between social prestige and economic activity.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in