The English country house was at its most popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was where wealthy and aristocratic families retired once the London season came to an end. The Season began in May with presentations at Court for girls ‘coming out’ that year, and could involve up to ten balls a night. Attendance at countless other social events was also required: racing at Ascot, regattas at Cowes and Henley, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the Chelsea Flower Show and so on. The Season came to a close in August and it was then that families would return to their estates until the following May.
The Country House Timetable
A round of visitors and visits filled the autumn and winter months, following a ritual that rarely varied. Country house parties took a huge amount of organising. A guest list had to be compiled, rooms had to be checked (guests brought their own servants who had to be accommodated), menus selected, seating at the table decided.
Guests would most often travel by public transport – even a small local train would have First Class carriages and Third Class for the servants. The visitors would be met at the station by a conveyance sent from the ‘big house’. By 1914, that was likely to be a motor car and chauffeur rather than a coachman and carriage. In A Buttonmaker’s Daughter, Eddie makes the impressive transition from driving horses to driving a car. Any servants, along with the luggage, would follow in the station trap.
Once the visitors had settled in, there would be plenty of activities on offer: traditional pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing, of course, but in addition croquet, lawn tennis, billiards, even charades and amateur dramatics. And the invention of the gramophone meant music was available for dancing or listening. But despite modern innovations, an unyielding set of conventions still had to be followed.
Breakfast was always a vast buffet to which guests could help themselves, with servants at the ready to replenish the dishes. Once breakfast was cleared, the domestic staff started on preparations for lunch, eating their own meal at midday. The family lunch was at one o’clock, the butler presiding. Afternoon tea was at five o’clock, served perhaps in the drawing room or if weather permitted, outdoors. At seven, a gong sounded as the signal for the family and guests to retire to their rooms to dress. The ladies went upstairs, accompanied by their maids, to bathe and dress. At eight o’clock another gong sounded to signal dinner was ready.
Dinner was the most important meal of the day and was conducted formally no matter how few diners there were. Tweeds might be the choice for daytime wear for both sexes but at night it was white tie and décolletage, even when no guests were present. Dinner would consist of five or six courses served with the best silver. If there was a dinner party, then eight or ten courses was the norm with several choices in each. Soups were served first, the second course was fish and the entrée would be a meat course with cutlets or sweetbreads. Then the main course – meat or poultry. A game course of duck, pheasant or partridge would follow, along with game chips. Once the table had been cleared and laid with fresh cutlery and glasses, there were ices and deserts. The final course was fruit and nuts accompanied by port and Madeira.
Nothing preoccupied the mind of an Edwardian hostess so much as the planning of a dinner party. From the seating plan to matters of food and drink to table service to … Dinner was therefore a high stakes experience and one that in The Buttonmaker’s Daughter sends poor Alice Summer into a meltdown of nerves.
After the meal, the ladies would have their coffee in the drawing room while the men lingered at table to drink port and smoke cigars. They would join the ladies later, once they’d had enough of discussing politics and money, subjects on which women were considered uninformed. The tea tray would be brought in around ten o’clock and by eleven, most of the guests would have retired to bed.
The Decline of the Country House
The First World War is often seen as the moment when the English country house began its sharp decline, but in 1910 when the Edwardian age ended, the landowning aristocracy was already in deep trouble. The bigger the estate and house, the more acute its economic difficulties. Land, traditionally the source of wealth and prestige, had by this date depreciated hugely in value. The arrival of cheap, imported corn from North America during the 19th century had led to a lasting depression in British agriculture. In addition, landowners were heavily taxed and were facing a hostile Liberal government. It was becoming increasingly difficult for them to find staff and for those servants they did employ, there was a new National Insurance levy to be paid for each member of the household.
Many landowners sold up (some even blowing up their houses to save money) while others staggered on, but with the outbreak of the Second World War in September, 1939, the last remaining vestiges of country house living disappeared. When war broke out, houses all over the country were commandeered by the Government, some for training, others for offices or research centres. The least popular option for owners was to house soldiers – and with good reason. A number of country houses were destroyed by military occupation, their interiors hacked about to make different accommodation and several burned to the ground because of carelessness. There were stories of panelling chopped up for use as kindling and jeeps being raced along wide corridors. In The Secret of Summerhayes, Alice Summer, now an old lady, is confined to a small attic apartment while the mansion she once called home is battered and scarred by military occupation.
During the Second World War, shortages in staff became even more acute. Conscription meant that from the outset both men and women were compelled to report for military service or war work, and the numbers employed in country houses sank to a minimum. After the war ended, it was impossible for most owners to maintain even this minimum. Domestic service with its long hours and lack of mobility had been deeply unpopular after the First World War, and now there was simply too much choice of other work for young men and women. For a while, the upper class social round continued in skeletal form. Socially aspiring families, in search of a suitable husband, still sent their daughters to be presented at court and to take part in a ‘season’ of balls and parties. But though such traditional rituals continued, the decimation of the country house had torn the heart from the system.