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THIS WONDERFUL TITLE appeared in the London Review of Books, August 14, 2016, in a book review written by Rosemary Hill, whose other work in LRB I’ve enjoyed. I’m sure you’ll enjoy tidbits from her review.
Hill begins by referencing “Sh!t the Dowager Countess Says,” a YouTube compilation of Maggie Smith one-liners in Downton Abbey. I’ve already had fun here at SimanaitisSays with the Dowager Countess’s “What is a weekend?” Tinniswood’s book examines a weekend in the country with plenty of great stories.
For instance, many of these grand country residences are now old and not overly sturdy. A tale is shared about how the Earl of Powis stuck bravely with Lymore Hall, his decaying home, until a church fete in 1921. Then, ” ‘without any audible premonitory symptoms,’ the earl and twenty of his guests suddenly fell through the floor of the great hall into the cellar.” Subsequently, real estate agents advised prospective buyers “to stay close to the skirting boards.”
Hill also writes that it was good for a country house to have some history, but not too specific nor too recent. A Tudor heritage fit the bill, though: “Tinniswood notes that extensive as Elizabeth I’s progresses [royal tours] were, she cannot possibly have visited every house with which such sales notices of the 1920s and 1930s optimistically associated her.”
In 1927, Noel Coward rented Goldenhurst, a Kent farmhouse he described as ” wearing perkily a pink corrugated tin roof and looking as though it had just dropped in on its way to the races.” Beneath its Victorian elements was a “rather lovely 16th and 17th-century oak-beamed farmhouse.”
Coward entertained many famous personages at Goldenhurst. Hill notes, “The local postmistress was rendered speechless one evening by being asked to put through a call from Marlene Dietrich.”
Consuelo Vanderbilt was an American trophy wife, “the reluctant duchess of ‘Sunny,’ Duke of Marlborough. Snubbed by servants and family alike, she was so bored at dinner that she took to knitting between courses.”
This marriage ended in 1921 through divorce. Sunny’s next wife was another American, Gladys Deacon. “She got just as bored but in keeping with the more excitable mood of the 1920s took to playing with a revolver at mealtimes, telling one guest that she thought she might just shoot the duke.” Another divorce followed.
Country Life, the magazine celebrating such residences, described a new one as “an example of artistic power and ability of its own generation.” Hill notes, “Honor Channon, wife of the politician Chip, thought it looked like a Spanish brothel.”
Hill also observes that it wasn’t easy entering service at a country house: “The Duke of Bedford only employed housemaids who were exactly 5’10”.”
She also notes, “One candidate for a job as a footman was told at the interview, ‘If you come to me you’ll be James, all my second footmen are called James, just as all my first footmen are called William.’ ”
This reminds me of another exchange, possibly apocryphal, possibly not: M’lord asks his new chauffeur, “What are you called?”
“My name is James, sir.”
“We do not use Christian names in this house; what is your surname?”
“In that case, home, James.”
I certainly enjoy Rosemary Hill’s writing. I suspect I’ll enjoy Adrian Tinniswood’s book as well. ds
Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016