Book Corner – October 2016 (2)


The Long Weekend: Life in a Country House between the wars – Adrian Tinniswood

Depending upon your point of view, English country houses were the glue that held rural life together and provided employment to the lower orders or they were the embodiment of the class system that bedevilled British society. Or you could be like Sir Charles Trevelyan and try to have your Victoria sponge and eat it – he moved into Wallington House in Northumberland in 1929 and started opening it up for community events of a socialist hue before eventually giving it over to the National Trust in 1936 on the proviso that he could continue to live there. “I do not believe in the private ownership of land”, he said. “By pure chance I own Wallington. I regard myself solely as a trustee for the community..

The Long Weekend is the period between the end of the First World War and the start of the Second, a period of phenomenal change and challenge for the country house, beloved of English fiction of all genres in the early to mid 20th century and TV series to the current day. The carnage of the Flanders’ killing fields did for many a son and heir as well as cutting down swathes of erstwhile servants and estate workers. Taxes and death duties were crippling. Some chose to sit it out, immolated in grief, hanging on in quiet desperation, the English way, like the first family we meet, the Hoares of the wonderful Stourhead whose son, Harry, was killed in 1917, until death and the National Trust came knocking on the door as they did in 1946.

But it was not all gloom and doom. Often salvation came from across the pond either through judicious marriages with American heiresses a la Lord Grantham or through monied American purchasers. The newspaper tycoon, Randolph Hearst, telegraphed “want to buy castle in England, please find one which ones available”.  He ended up with St Donat’s which happens to be in Wales, a small detail perhaps. Others were remodelled, some more sensitively and successfully than others, to introduce some of the modern conveniences that earlier owners thought unnecessary, like electricity. The castles at Leeds, Herstmonceaux and Saltwood were all restored during the twenties and thirties.

Some were built from scratch – Lutyens built Castle Drogo for Julius Drewe who wanted a new mediaeval castle built, a contradiction in terms which seemed to escape him. But others were pillaged, staircases and ceilings shipped off to America and some like Nuthall temple in Nottinghamshire demolished. Many didn’t survive the Second World War, not because of bombing but because of the vandalism of troops who were billeted in the stately piles.

Tinniswood is a fount of amusing stories, enlivening the account of life both above and below stairs. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Saturday to Monday parties – it was infra-dig to call them weekend parties. So accustomed were the staff to see priapic male guests padding the corridors en route to an illicit assignation that one poor chambermaid turned a blind eye to one who turned out to be a thief making off with jewellery to the value of £4,000.

I found the sections on architectural features harder going and, perhaps, more illustrations would have helped the reader. But on the whole it is an engaging and entertaining book with a fund of anecdotes which will light up a dull dinner party. If you haven’t read it, put it on your Christmas list.


Book Corner

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The Rainborowes – Adrian Tinniswood

This is a fascinating book written in what can be best can be described as a populist historical style, a genre in which Tinniswood is a pre-eminent exponent. His task is to restore the Rainborowe family to the degree of prominence that they had in the early to mid 17th century.

Tinniswood starts off with William, a prosperous mariner and merchant based in Wapping who is despatched to serve king and country by curbing the menace to English shipping and English coastal settlements posed by the Barbary pirates. His sons, William and Thomas, play leading roles in the reformation of the English navy and in the civil war which resulted in Charles I losing his head.

Indeed, Thomas was a leading radical, playing a prominent role in Cromwell’s New Model Army – their siege-master pre-eminent – and becoming a Leveller and having a dalliance with the splinter Ranter movement. It was Thomas Rainborrowe who uttered the famous sentence in the Putney debates – where the Levellers made a determined but ultimately ill-fated attempt to push through universal suffrage – “that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent to putt himself under that Government“. Revolutionary stuff, indeed. Thomas, after declaring himself so conspicuously for the Levellers, was killed in Doncaster in mysterious circumstances – the suspicion – although Tinniswood can’t quite get the point home – was that he was a victim of an internal plot rather than at the hands of the enemy.

William Rainborowe the elder’s daughters, Martha and Judith, were part of the Puritan settlement of Massachusetts, where a network of family connections between Wapping and the burgeoning colony boosted the transpontine trading links. One of the principal reasons that families ventured into the unknown, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and scratched a living on the inhospitable American coast was the opportunity to practise their religious beliefs without fear or favour. What is fascinating, though, is that the outbreak of Civil War in England and the success fo the Puritan caused many on the other side of the pond to reconsider their strategy. If a New Jerusalem was about to be established in England, why struggle to establish one in America? And so some crossed the Atlantic to aid the Roundhead’s cause, notably Thomas Rainborowe’s brother-in-law, Stephen Winthrop. A number of the naval commanders who established English supremacy over the Dutch were New Englanders.

Tinniswood’s style is bright and breezy and carries the reader along at pace, perhaps at the risk of taking too superficial a view of what doubtless were complex issues. But by focussing on a family that had links to the American Puritan movement and the English radicals, Tinniswood has put this remarkable family deservedly back into the spotlight.