History Books: From Chatsworth to Blandings

THE RISE AND FALL OF THE STATELY HOME by Peter Mandler, Yale pounds 19. 95
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We are regularly reminded that we are the proud possessors of something valuable and important called the "national heritage": indeed, there exists a government department with just such a name, to prove it.

But what exactly is this heritage, and to whom does it really belong? There are large swathes of countryside and coastline, which must be preserved from too many visitors and from vulgar, unsightly development. There are paintings and sculptures, many of them by foreign artists, which were often plundered or purchased in the past from foreign owners. There are great buildings, like Greenwich Hospital and Admiralty Arch, which had to be protected from Michael Portillo. There are the archives of Sir Winston Churchill, which had to be saved from the Americans and the Japanese. And there are those mansions of the once-mighty aristocracy, which used to be called country houses in the days of their owners' greatness, but which are now commonly referred to as stately homes.

It is these patrician palaces, once lived in by the governing elite of our land, which today are widely regarded as embodying the "national heritage" in its most beautiful and venerable form, and there is an argument to justify this bizarre perception of them that goes something like this. These treasure-houses are England's greatest contribution to civilisation. Across the generations, and undaunted by adversity, their aristocratic owners built them, cared for them, and filled them with magnificent works of art. This was not for their own instant or selfish gratification: as custodians rather than owners, they held their mansions and their collections in trust for the nation as a whole. These houses were always open to visitors in the past, and the burgeoning of the stately-homes business since the Second World War has enabled an even wider public to enjoy their delights. They always were, and still are, the iconic part of the national heritage.

But, as Peter Mandler explains in his bracing and scholarly book, most of this argument is without serious or substantial historical foundation. It is true that many country houses were open to the public by the middle of the 19th century, some of them being visited by tens of thousands of people a year. But few owners were aware of the merits (or otherwise) of their collections: they opened their houses out of a sense of noblesse oblige, and they did not charge an entry fee. Moreover, most visitors, influenced by the writings of authors such as Sir Walter Scott, preferred Tudor or Jacobean houses like Knole or Hatfield to the later, classical palaces of the Whigs, and they were more interested in them for their historical associations than for their works of art. Accordingly, this first age of popular country-house visiting should be understood as a part of that mid-Victorian compromise between aristocracy and people that was reached in the aftermath of the Great Reform Act and the repeal of the Corn Laws.

During the 40 years before the First World War, Mandler argues, this compromise between the patricians and the plebs began to unravel. In the era of agricultural depression, death duties, Lloyd George, the "people's budget" and the Parliament Act, the aristocracy was forced on the defensive. Some of them, like the Duke of Marlborough and Lord Spencer, began selling off valuable works of art to rich Americans or British plutocrats. Many more, seeking refuge from what they regarded as the horrible world of industrial and democratic modernity, closed their doors to visitors, and withdrew into embattled and embittered privacy. But this was not the only reason why the excursionists went away. In the popular mind, country houses were increasingly regarded as symbols of indefensible wealth and privilege: instead of visiting Chatsworth, trippers preferred to go to Clacton.

During the inter-war years, these aristocratic mansions only declined still further in popular esteem. Once peace broke out in 1918, many great estates were put on the market, and stately-home visiting virtually came to an end, as owners closed, sold or demolished their homes. In the era of ribbon development and the motor car, most ordinary people were more interested in going to the countryside than to the country house. Many owners were by this time in a state of bewildered and immobilised despair: so much so that when the National Trust set up its Country House Scheme just before the outbreak of the Second World War, there was very little interest. Only among a group of young, reactionary, non-patrician aesthetes, like Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman, was there developing a new and much more favourable view, of the country house as a fetish object: the precious embodiment of all that was best and most civilised about the English past.

Since 1945, and especially since the 1970s, it is this opinion which has increasingly come to prevail. In the aftermath of wartime requisitioning and depredations, many country houses were demolished or given to the National Trust, and those which have survived in private hands have been opened to an ever-expanding paying public, following the trail originally blazed by Lord Montagu at Beaulieu, Lord Bath at Longleat, and the Duke of Bedford at Woburn. Aristocratic owners increasingly came to appreciate and to exploit their houses and collections in the struggle for survival, and the selfish barbarians of earlier times were superseded by a new generation who were eager to present themselves as selfless custodians of the "national heritage". But as Mandler rightly insists, the history of the stately home during last 200 years gives no grounds for supposing that this state of affairs will endure indefinitely.

This is a thoughtful and serious study of a subject too often blighted by sentimental ignorance and reactionary prejudice. The early chapters are the least successful, when the author tries to invent something called the English "cultural nation", and when he claims that there was a decline in popular interest in history during the late 19th century. It is a pity that he does not devote more space to discussing the portrayal of the country house in fiction: we get Waugh and Brideshead, but not Wodehouse and Blandings. There is also more than a whiff of English parochialism: it would, for instance, have been instructive to compare popular attitudes to the country house in Ireland during the same period. And he never mentions English churches, which surely have a far stronger claim to be regarded as part of the "national heritage". Why is it that they have never become fetish objects in the way that country houses have?

But it is one of the merits of this book that, in providing the first full-scale account of the English cult of the country house, it also stimulates such broader questions. It is a valuable contribution to the history of heritage, a timely reminder that heritage is one thing and history another, and a welcome antidote to the excesses of the heritage mania today. With any luck, it will provoke some subscribers to the Sunday Telegraph, the Spectator and Country Life into paroxysms of fogeyish rage. It should also be read by people who take a broader and more rational view of preservationist matters, and especially by officials at the National Trust and in the Department of National Heritage. Like all Yale University Press books, it is beautifully produced and splendidly illustrated, and it deserves a wide and appreciative audience.