Girouard, Mark. Life in the French Country House.

London: Cassell, 2000.

The author’s Life in the English Country House has become a classic of domestic anthropology, an examination of the British aristocracy and landed gentry through an exploration of its preferred places of residence. When I became aware of this successor volume (it’s not a “sequel”) shortly after it first appeared, I had my doubts.

I know enough about the history of the upper classes in Britain, compared to nobility on the Continent, to be aware of the very great differences between them, both in origin and in psychology. Girouard tells you up front that what he’s considering here are the châteaux and seigneurial mansions from the 14th century to the modern era, leaving out Parisian residences and also royal palaces. (Fontainebleau and Versailles are not at all typical of French chateaux, the way Windsor Castle might be regarded as really just an oversized English gentleman’s country house.) The architectural traditions in France are quite different from those in Britain, of course, because the political and social history is so different — France also has been overrun by occupying forces on several occasions who either heavily damaged or completely destroyed many of the châteaux — and the author does his usual excellent job of leading the reader through them and sorting out what was typical from what was innovative. French country residences among the wealthy and titled tend to be far more lavish (on average) than is the case in Britain, but this is largely because the château had a rather different traditional role in the French family. And as the narrative approaches the present, it becomes obvious that the French upper class has sought solutions to the greatly increased expense of maintaining a large country home which are not that much different from those in Britain.

One of the best sections of the book, actually, are the first two chapters, “A Quick Run Round the French Noblesse” and “The Language of Chivalry,” which comprise one of the best brief introductions I have seen to the French system of titles and nobility. Girouard has no new insights to offer here but he provides a very good and understandable explanation of those differences I mentioned above. If you loved his earlier classic, you ought to appreciate this one as well.

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