Books: Ancestral piles

Piers Brendon meets the hard-up nobility who sought salvation in the tourist trade

The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home by Peter Mandler, Yale University Press, pounds 19.95

In 1871 a fire damaged Warwick Castle, ruining many private apartments. The castle had long been popular with visitors, who apparently paid one housekeeper pounds 30,000 in tips. So a restoration appeal was launched, without reference to the 4th Earl of Warwick in order to protect his "sensitive honour". Radicals attacked the fund but supporters argued it would restore part of the national heritage. Ruskin himself, though a champion of castles,found the subscription disgusting at a time of widespread destitution: "If a noble family cannot rebuild their own castle, in God's name let them live in the nearest ditch till they can."

Nevertheless, pounds 9,000 was raised, the castle was repaired and visitors were soon guided round "the 'all that was destroyed by fire; hancient harmour; Guy of Warwick's 'elmet; hetruskin vawses ..." A few years later, the Earl imposed a charge of a shilling for entry, antici-pating later stately home entrepreneurs. So, like Windsor Castle, Warwick was private property while it was standing but belonged to the nation when it burned down. Its true status was unequivocally demonstrated in 1978 when the eighth Earl sold it to Madame Tussaud's.

This vignette illustrates many of the themes explored in Peter Mandler's splendid scholarly survey of the fortunes of the stately homes of England over the past 200 years. The book explodes the pervasive myth that country houses are unchanging Arcadian monuments, cherished by owners and venerated by a populace who regard them as the quintessence of Englishness. Mandler argues that even critics of the present country house cult, who see it as an expression of snobbish nostalgia, misread the past. They magnify the aristocratic contribution to national heritage while neglecting the influence of popular culture.

Thus the Victorian vogue for country-house visiting, which peaked in 1870, was financed by higher wages, facilitated by more leisure time, fuelled by steam and fostered by travel agents like Thomas Cook (who wanted to keep people out of pubs). It was also inspired by the quest for a cultural inheritance which had more to do with romantics like Walter Scott than with prosaic aristocrats. They themselves tolerated the intrusion to assuage class antagonisms.

Struck by the agrarian depression in the late 19th century, many owners charged for entry, sold or closed their houses. Chatsworth and Knole restricted access. Waldorf Astor built a stone wall topped with broken glass around Cliveden, earning himself the nickname "Walled-Off Astor". As the peerage faced fiscal and political assaults which culminated in Lloyd George's People's Budget, its palatial mansions were more often deemed "fortresses of barbarism" (Matthew Arnold's phrase) than strongholds of civilisation. The proprietors looked upon them as white elephants. So after the First World War great estates were broken up and, after the Second, demolitions continued apace. Between the wars visits to stately homes reached their nadir. Only about two dozen were open, as opposed to 350 today.

The current boom did not really begin until the 1960s. Governments had earlier given tax relief, helped the National Trust and subsidised owners who opened their doors. But what chiefly revived stately homes was the arrival of a vast new public, motorised and conservation-minded. They flocked to enjoy houses that the Gowers Report called "England's greatest contribution to the visual arts", and valued homeliness as well as stateliness.

This summary does scant justice to Mandler's 1ong, sophisticated but sometimes tiresomely abstract account. It is certainly open to criticism. While admirably tart about the taste of patricians, Mandler underestimates the quasi-magical sway they have exercised over England's caste-ridden society. As late as 1939, Chips Channon could crow: "It is the aristocracy which still runs this country although nobody seems to realise it." Nevertheless, this book is less a tour d'horizon than a tour de force. Moreover, it is handsomely illustrated but modestly priced - another triumph for Yale.

Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home