Lewis, Lesley. The Private Life of a Country House (1912-1939).

North Pomfret, VT: David & Charles, 1980.

The author, an established art historian and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, was born in 1909 into a professional family, legal men of long standing on one side and military men on the other, who had become part of the minor gentry. (Her paternal aunt was one of the first women Members of Parliament.)

Through her 20s, she lived at Pilgrims’ Hall in Essex, which she describes as a “minor country house.” They regarded themselves as anonymous, very private people, the sort who assiduously avoid the “unspeakably egotistical” first-person pronoun by referring to themselves as “one.” Lewis respects this privacy and the cultivated lack of domestic drama by focusing here not on the people, especially, but on the home itself and on “the things we used.” She and her sisters were taught at home by governesses and then packed off to a finishing school in Paris, but this lack of formal, institutional education obviously didn’t hurt her. At the age of eighteen, she says, she did what all her contemporaries did, if they could afford it — hunted “when there was a horse to be had,” played tennis, went to dances, and stayed at each other’s houses, all of which were run by similar methods. By 1939, though, her studious side had taken over. She was living in the Metropolis and had acquired several degrees from the University of London, and then clerked for (and eventually managed) the family law firm during WWII.

The book takes the form of a room-by-room tour of the new house to which the family moved when the author was four years old, just at the beginning of the Great War, from the front hall and the drawing room, back through to the bedrooms and schoolroom, and out through the kitchen into the small estate and home farm. Often, her description of an tool or piece of furniture (such as the hall table where visiting cards collected) leads to a discussion of social activities (the requirement for and etiquette of formal visits) or to childhood reminiscences (such as the much-coveted permission to do her own projects in the garden potting shed). Lewis has an amazing memory (or perhaps a well-trained one, given her later profession), aided by numerous line drawings. In addition to material things, she also describes the process of living, growing up, and being home-educated in such a house, all of it written clearly and with frequent quiet humor.

The family had only a few servants, Lewis says — though the staff photo of 1913 shows a group of eleven. The Great War, of course, seriously eroded the whole domestic service system and the second war destroyed it utterly. Lewis describes each of the staff as individuals and outlines their various duties — which, by this time, overlapped considerably, largely because most of the men had gone off to the army and those who remained had to make do.

This is a excellent overview of life in the lower ranks of the not-quite-upper class and provides a useful companion (and possibly a corrective) to the many books on the anthropology of much larger country homes two or three generations earlier.


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