Barstow, Phyllida. The English Country House Party.

Wellingboro, UK: Thorsons, 1989.

For the past three or four centuries, but especially in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the English upper class (titled or not), spent as much time as possible in their often semi-palatial homes in the country. This tradition was very different from the situation in France, Germany, and especially Russia, where an urban-oriented aristocrat only repaired to his country estate when his sovereign ordered him to go there, as punishment.

The rural world on the Continent was likely to be dangerous, undeveloped, unpleasant, and full of brigands and muttering peasants, none of which was a problem in Great Britain. Distance was a problem, however, and a visitor before the 1830s had to go to a good deal of trouble and expense to travel to his host’s home several counties away – and once there, he expected to stay for six weeks or more before making the long, tiring trek back home. Then the railway came in and, quite suddenly, one could travel a considerable distance in comfort for merely a three- or four-day visit. The weekend country-house party was born.

The best book I know on the phenomenon of the English country house is Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House, but I’m always on the look-out for the comments and thoughts of other authors. Barstow is a product of the country-house party culture herself, though of a much later date, of course, when the old ways of doing things were long gone. She has resurrected that earlier world in an interesting manner, however, quoting frequently from the diaries and memoirs of those who took part, and covering the inbred character of that very small world, the essential role of riding, shooting, and other vigorous outdoor sports, the role of country-house parties in arranging marriages and forging political alliances (because nearly everyone present had known each other all their lives), and giving special attention to the differences of weekending in Scotland. At the same time, she seems not to have much control over her subject. She spends far too much time on the disastrous upbringing of the Prince of Wales, the construction of Balmoral, cheating and money-lending at the races, the techniques of stag-hunting in the mountains, and a number of other subjects which, while generally interesting in themselves, have nothing whatever to do with the title or theme of the book. Barstow is a good writer, though, so I recommend you read and enjoy. and not worry too much about editorial dereliction.


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