THE LONG WEEKEND LIFE IN THE ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE, 1918-1939
By Adrian Tinniswood
Basic Books, $30, 344 pages
Still yearning for “Downton Abbey”? Adrian Tinniswood’s “The Long Weekend Life in the English Country House, 1918-1939” is probably the necessary antidote.
A wonky, veritable tell-all, a who’s who of British gentry, it is 344 pages of history, scandal and gossip focused on the nitty gritty of the country’s grandest homes and stateliest mansions, and their glittery and often weird and wacky owners. The author knows his Burke’s Peerage along with his cornices and cornerstones and has crammed every page with over-the-top detail about these historic ruins and palaces along with the peccadilloes of their aristocratic proprietors. Tales about piracy, crookery and shenanigans involving the supremely well-to-do are always intriguing and entertaining.
The country weekend was famous for illicit affairs often orchestrated by the host or hostess. As long as guests followed proper decorum and were in their own bedrooms with their own spouse for early morning tea no one seemed to care.
Mr. Tinniswood describes Noel Coward’s flamboyant weekends where the illustrious playwright, a leader of the gay social set, was apt to entertain a variety of guests in his famous rabbit suit; and the luxurious residence of Prince of Wales, renovated Belvedere castle, where the future Edward VIII and his wife-to-be, Wallis Simpson, spent their time mixing cocktails, needle-pointing and dancing to American jazz records. H.R.H. also spent a lot of time on the golf links.
Sir Philip Sassoon, a scion of the Rothschild family, was a major society figure. He played host to Lawrence of Arabia, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill in an exotic manse, Port Lympne, Kent. It sported lapis lazuli walls, gilded chairs and a frieze of naked black Egyptians in a formal dining room. The unusual decor was hastily covered by loin cloths and skirts when Queen Mary paid an unexpected visit in 1936. Essayist Max Beerbohm described Sassoon’s excesses as “an extraordinary elaboration of Persian fantasy, controlled by Etonian good taste.”
Mr. Tinniswood, a research fellow in history at the University of Buckingham, focuses on the twilight of the empire: Britain between the two world wars coping with death duties, crushing taxes, loss of servants and status. And the merchant class, the nouveaux riches, who, seeking social approbation, scooped up neglected properties and estates. In 1919 the magazine Country Life noted, “People who formerly lived in very large houses are getting out of them As to who goes in is another matter.”
Many ancestral homes were torn down, their elaborate furnishings, floating staircases and wood-paneled drawing rooms sold, carted off to America by rich Anglophiles.
Mr. Tinniswood’s knowledge of the “Saturday to Monday,” the accepted phrase among the upper crust for weekend festivities, is encyclopedic and so complete he should be called the Samuel Pepys of royal residences and high-end real estate.
There is little doubt our fascination with this particular period and slice of life has been heightened by the glamorous ups and downs of the fictional Earl of Grantham, his clan and his digs — the magnificent Downton Abbey, in reality, Highclere Castle. (Interestingly, there is photo of the Jacobean castle in the book. Taken during World War II, the chatelaine Lady Carnarvon is playing on the lawn of Highclere with a group of children evacuated from London during the blitz.) But this book is something different.
A scholarly study, it includes details regarding the arrival of the Gilded Age American heiresses, Edith Wharton’s “the Buccaneers,” who exchanged cash for tiaras. They crossed the pond and married titled, impoverished nobility, thereby shoring up deteriorating dwellings and adding new life and stability to once-opulent estates.
The rise of celebrity decorators was another innovation. With houses changing hands more rapidly over the years, and each new owner anxious to reinvent his or her new home, the renowned hostesses, Sybil Colefax and Syrie Maugham, rose to the top. They were calculating and ruthless in their climb to attract clients.
They were, writes Mr. Tinniswood, “talented amateurs (and some not so talented) who moved from decorating their own homes and the homes of friends and acquaintances to opening their own premises and carving out careers, while never jettisoning that sense that theirs was a relationship of social equals.” Featuring wallpaper and fabrics, Colefax and Fowler still has a showroom in London.
The country house retains its romantic allure. But now the lavish balls, pheasant shoots and trout streams are open to paying guests or charity events. In order to pay the bills many formerly exclusive houses and gardens have become destination spots for the hoi polloi; for weddings, corporate gatherings, rock concerts or just a quiet afternoon tea. Some have been turned into pricey hotels. Highclere is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the nation.
In “The Pursuit of Love” (1945), Nancy Mitford portrayed her reflections of the era. “It’s rather sad … to belong as we do to a lost generation. I’m sure in history the two wars will count as one war and we shall be squashed out of it all together, and people will forget that we ever existed. We might just as well never have lived at all. I do think it’s a shame.”
• Sandra McElwaine is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast.