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.