My thanks to Yale University Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this interesting and informative read.
[Country houses] are a document on which is written their owners’ changing lives, tastes and sources of income.
In The Story of the Country House: A History of Places and People, architectural historian and writer Clive Aslet traces the evolution of the English country house from mediaeval times to the present—the introduction in fact beginning even further back with the villas of Roman Britain—looking into various aspects from the form they took and architectural details to style, features, uses, the architects who designed them and the people that lived in them.
From villas to castles, pleasances to hunting lodges, large sprawling estates to more modest dwellings, country homes have taken various forms over time, and been designed based on changing ‘fashions’ and trends—inspirations for their design and decor coming from various parts of the world—Ancient Greece and Rome to the continent, and even the colonies. As they evolved, features and material used changed—sash windows and bow windows making appearances at different times; the emergence of the library; ha-has, follies and conservatories forming part of the property and waterworks becoming more complicated. At different times too, those that lived in the country home used it for different purposes—from monarchs and nobles of old travelling between their various homes with huge entourages (‘family’ having a wide meaning at this point) and all their furniture and belongings in tow; to castles which had a value for defence; places where owners nearly bankrupted themselves to host the monarch, to spaces where politics was carried out; as hospitals and convalescent homes during the war; places to show off and display one’s wealth to those to which families turned for retirement and privacy. Like their owners, country homes also saw ups and downs, suffering the most during war whether the war of the roses or the civil war or more recently, the first and second world wars; the wars’ aftermath and changing times meant that owners were not always able to keep up these opulent or large homes, with land having to be sold, or at times the homes themselves demolished. Still, the country house has survived and thrived, with people once again turning to them in the current scenario.
This well-researched book, in which Aslet’s knowledge shines through, covers vast ground including, besides architectural aspects and stories of architects and owners, the historical developments that impacted on not only what the houses looked like but also how they were used (the arrival of the motor car, for example, meaning that guests could move on faster and didn’t make long stays; or the need for people to work for a living making country homes spaces for ‘weekends’); and ‘servants’ and their role in keeping up the establishment; the author also brings up the more difficult questions of the sources of many of the owners’ prosperity (slavery; colonialism); besides also going into lighter matters like poetry dedicated to the country home and some literature (Wodehouse, for instance, with his many impoverished peers). The author takes up examples and instances of specific country homes, and the volume has (review copy) nearly fifty photographs and illustrations.
At only 224 pages of text, this is a relatively short volume; yet it is one which is chock full of facts and information—in fact, each page is brimming with it; it is certainly not a quick or easy read, but a book one can spend some time with (and certainly return to as well). What I liked about it was that the facts and information combined with their historical context are put forth in a very readable manner weaving in with them anecdotes and stories of the people associated with these homes. This makes it an enjoyable rather than a dry read despite it being a ‘heavy’ one. I did feel though that as far as the architectural nuances and details were concerned, perhaps one with more of an interest in the subject than a lay reader like myself would be able to both grasp and appreciate them better. But I certainly enjoyed reading it, finding myself thinking of different country homes from books (Austen’s Pemberley or Christie’s Styles Court; Wodehouse’s Blandings, and even Toad Hall—Aslet does mention Mr Toad’s driving escapades; also Downton of course, for some of the aspects of post-war country house history are reflected in that series)—as I did.
3.75 rounded off to 4 stars