The Long Weekend
Life in the English Country House Between the Wars
Out since June from Jonathan Cape, £25 hardback
Fans of social history, architecture, elite lifestyles and yes, the entire Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs crowd should enjoy this beautiful, illustrated book depicting life in great country houses such as Cliveden, Ditchley Park, Sissinghurst, and more.
Tinniswood divides the book not by houses or families, but thematically, with chapters addressing some of the great architects, styles of interior decoration, sporting trends (from hunting to the rising popularity of golf), the Georgian revival that swept Britain, the mechanics of a house party (when to arrive, what to wear, how much to tip, and the all important sexual mores), plus marvellous tales about the owners, inhabitants, and visitors to these magnificent dwellings, which describe a society in flux, responding to changing circumstances by adjusting its values.
His goal, stated at the outset, was to unpick the myth that all the best houses in England were “deserted and dismantled and demolished” between the wars, and their environs turned into soulless suburbs. Though that was true to a degree, he explains, it’s equally true that there is “a narrative which saw new families buying, borrowing and sometimes building themselves a country house; which introduced new aesthetics, new social structures, new meanings to an old tradition.”
This book was well reviewed in the press on its release earlier this year, and the praise is justified. Tinniswood’s authoritative, his style readable and wry, and his appreciation for these buildings resonates on every page. There’s enough detail here to help any writer embarking upon an historical novel. It feels as if we’ve entered each home and been shown round by one who knows all the secrets — structural and personal. The wealth of anecdotes about colourful inhabitants’ eccentric behaviour will satisfy any gossip addict.
Complaints? More pictures, please. Not every house is depicted, nor do we always get our fill of both interior and exterior shots. (Yes, that would have driven up the price.)
An excellent Christmas gift for anyone on your list with an Edifice Complex.