There is nothing quite like the English country house anywhere else in the world.
So begins Vita Sackville-West’s proud and patriotic English Country Houses, a slim but lavishly illustrated book, first published in 1941 as part of a series called ‘Britain in Pictures’.
This wonderfully eccentric series was commissioned by editor, writer and literary editor of the Spectator, Walter J. Turner, and stretched to 132 books, published by Collins between 1941 and 1949. They were, no doubt, commissioned in part to foster a sense of nationalism and pride in Britain and everything she stood for; a morale booster for a British people beleaguered by tough times of war and rationing. Turner got some of the best writers of the day on board – Vita Sackville-West, as you see, and also George Orwell, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen and many others.
Reading through the list of titles (which you can find in full here), it’s hard not to grin at such delights as ‘British Merchant Adventurers’, ‘British Rebels and Reformers’, ‘British Sea Fishermen’, ‘Sporting Pictures of England’, ‘British Clocks and Clockmakers’, ‘British Chess’, and, perhaps most intriguing, ‘Life Among the English’ by Rose Macaulay. And, lest we forget, ‘British’ back then didn’t just refer to life on our Sceptred Isle, but volumes entitled ‘East Africa’, ‘Canada’, ‘India’ and ‘Australia’ remind us just how far British rule stretched.
I worry that like this Guardian journalist, I will find that knowing about this series will foster an addiction. Now I long to go into a second-hand bookshop and serendipitously happen across one of the other 132 titles in the series, and another, and another … Book collecting is a slippery slope.
But for now I am more than happy with my volume by Vita Sackville-West, kindly and thoughtfully given to me by a fellow bookseller, to whom I meagrely offered some Scottish tablet from my days in Nan Shepherd country.
So what is it that is so unique about English country houses, that sets them apart from French chateaux and German castles? In a brilliant sentence which is about as old-school English aristo as you can get, Vita Sackville-West writes:
The peculiar genius of the English country house lies in its knack of fitting in.
This encapsulates the sentiment of the whole book, which praises above all moderation, proportion and scale. I had to laugh when Sackville-West raced past the Gothic Revival:
It is surely not necessary to give more than a passing mention to the freak architecture of the Gothic Revival … [which] proved ludicrously unsuited to the English counties … we may rejoice that the whimsical air of novelty was so soon blown away. Had the same fate attended the later purely Gothic craze, we should be spared much to-day: St. Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial, and streets of gable villas with stained glass in the doors.
Evidently, Vita Sackville-West finds this ‘freak’ architecture, these ‘crazes’, this ‘whimsical air of novelty’ terribly alarming. It certainly doesn’t match her vision of the country house, perfectly melting into the surrounding landscape. She tries to explain away the Gothic Revival as a result of boredom with tradition – classic houses ‘were safe, but they were dull.’
This is deeply revealing of the time that she wrote English Country Houses. The Blitz was from September 1940 to May 1941 – it was a time when houses were going up in flames, when buildings felt everything but ‘safe’ and ‘dull’. Confronted with whole cities blazing on the horizon, no wonder she yearned for safe and dull houses that ‘agree with’ their landscape and don’t ‘overwhelm [their] surroundings’.
From the ashes of the Blitz, rose this phoenix of a catalogue and guide to our country houses. Here Vita Sackville-West strives to preserve these houses under threat from fire and changing economic times:
with war taxation and the present rate of death duties it seems improbable that any family fortune will long suffice to retain such homes in private ownership.
Who could be a better guide than this most aristo of aristos, who could count both Knole and Sissinghurst as her homes? For not only does Sackville-West provide a lengthy catalogue of what the houses look like from the outside but she pays loving attention to their interiors and offers some affectionate remarks on the people who lived in them:
I fancy that any English aristocratic intellectual house-party in 1610 would not have differed very much from the equivalent house-party held at any time between the years 1912-1939. The Cecils must have talked in very much the same way at Hatfield in 1619 as the Cecils at Hatfield might talk in 1939, with the same mixture of political and intellectual interests, switching over from one to the other; and so, I imagine, a family party of the Sidneys at Penshurst must have run over all the happenings of life, skating gracefully from one subject to the other, never dwelling ponderously on anything, but always touching delicately and briefly, in the true sense of Humanism.
There must have been something deeply comforting about this feeling of continuity, of English people rooted in English places, in the face of so much upheaval. Of course Sackville-West was right to be sorrowful about what the future would hold for these country seats, to feel anxious that the Cecils might not still be holding intellectual house parties at Hatfield in three hundred years time. (Although, she’d be relieved to see that the Cecils are one of the few aristocratic families who have held on to their ancestral home.)
Reading English Country Houses today, it is indeed a window on to lost world. It is a magnificent catalogue of the National Trust, before the National Trust stepped in to help most of these aristos out. One feels incredibly grateful for the book, for Sackville-West to have succeeded in her last-ditch attempt to capture a precious part of British life before it pretty much disappeared. And a part of you can’t help but wish that these good old days continued and mourn the loss of this well-established, noble way of life.
But before we get too glum about what has been lost, let’s look a little more closely at the cover of the book, which shows the gates of an English country house … closed. Closed to outsiders, to those not invited to those intellectual house parties, not born into wealth and land. Let’s not forget that this life was, for the most part, terribly shut-off to the hoi polloi, unrepentantly elitist and snobby. In any case, if one ever did get through those steely gates, life was terribly elegant but, like the houses, perhaps a little ‘safe’ and ‘dull’.
For sure, we must mourn with Vita Sackville-West the loss of these houses, the inescapable sadness that comes from turning a living country house into the ‘dead thing’ of a museum, but let’s not be too sad at the loss of the Downton Abbey way of life. Now we can embrace the recklessness, irreverence and fun, which she found so alarming. And, come on, who cannot be impressed or feel even a little bit fond of the mad exuberance of St. Pancras?