Friday, November 13, 2009

The Importance of the Country House

    One of the classes I teach in the US is on the great country house, and how important it is to visit them.
    I also write contemporaries and if I can’t visit the place in question (I’ve set two books in LA, but not made it there yet) I find someone who has, to see if I have the “feel” right.
    While we can’t contact someone who lived there in Regency times, we can visit people who have visited it now. And we can read the impressions of people who lived there.
    The country house was the seat of power for the Regency nobleman. While he would visit London regularly, to attend Parliament, visit his man of business, attend social functions, even have his wife give birth there (the best accoucheurs preferred to remain in London), the country house was his home, and the base of everything he did.
    In those days, most of the power was in property and the land. Even the new industries depended on mineral resources and suitable locations. Most of the populace lived in the country and London was an exception. The largest city in Europe, maybe in the world, it was an aberration that didn’t reflect the way things were done in the rest of the country.
    Feudal structures lingered and the basis of power in the counties was the gentry. So to carry this forward and represent their influence and power, the great country houses were built.
    From Hardwick Hall, and several houses before it, the castle became virtually obsolete. Through the eighteenth century, Palladianism was the ideal, the familiar structure of a columned portico and a series of great state rooms was adhered to. Blenheim was built by “A grateful nation” for John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. His wife, Sarah, complained that it wasn’t a practical house because the kitchens and dining room were so far apart, but that was dealt with in later structures by having a smaller preparation room close to the dining room, so food could be heated up and finishing touches added.
    The state rooms, first in a line, “enfilade” and later in a circular layout, formed the heart of the house. Not where the family lived, but where they entertained and met the people they needed to impress. Without that, the status of the family and the whole of the local gentry would be depressed.
    In modern books set in the Regency, the country house is often neglected in favour of London life. I’d love to see more stories set in places like Longleat, Chatsworth and Holkham.
    When I write a book set in a country house, I use a particular house as a model, but I change its name, and occasionally its location. In “Yorkshire” I used Calke Abbey as a patterncard for Hareton Abbey, and moved it a few miles north, from Derbyshire to Yorkshire. I might try to blog about that at a later date because it was the most remarkable house I’ve ever visited!

No comments: