Questioning the English country house
Our course is concerned with how the English country house is represented and continues to resonate in the twenty-first century. Ahead of our first session, I invite you to think of questions and themes we can approach in the course. To help you get stated you might choose to do some of these things. You don’t need to do any of these, but I wanted to offer some suggestions. However you approach things, please make a note of questions and thoughts which arise, and bring them to our first session.
- Do you have a guidebook to a country house you’ve visited? How does it present the house and its histories? What is missing?
- You could look at the website of a house you have or haven’t visited – what is and isn’t mentioned? Do they discuss links to slavery? How is the domestic work of servants discussed?
- There was a time when the country house was in peril. A pivotal exhibition was The Destruction of the Country House 1875–1975 at the V&A. The exhibition (a short piece by Matthew Beckett here https://thecountryseat.org.uk/tag/save-britains-heritage/) and discussion between Roy Strong and Lucy Worsley here https://youtu.be/Eng1TrwmQsg?t=2010.
- The National trust report which made such a fuss is available online. Huxtable, Fowler, Kefalas and Slocombe, ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery’ (National Trust, 2020), online here https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/addressing-the-histories-of-slavery-and-colonialism-at-the-national-trust#Introducing%20the%20report.
- Watch an episode of a period drama set in a country house. Downton Abbey, perhaps. What view of the past is presented? Do you think this is a reliable guide to what it was like to live or work in a country house?
- You could then read Jenny Diski on Downton Abbey amongst other things, ‘Making a Costume Drama out of a Crisis’, London Review of Books, 34, 12 (2013) https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v34/n12/jenny-diski/making-a-costume-drama-out-of-a-crisis. What questions does this pose about our relationship with country houses?
- You could also look at the commercial fortunes of Highclere Castle – how is it presented on its website? How does the “real” Downton Abbey relate to the fictional one? You could have a look at some of the products, such as: http://highclerecastlecigar.com/ and on the Highclere website shop. What are people buying when they choose a box of those cigars? What does it mean that they chose a bottle of Highclere sparkling wine? Or luxury preserves from another house?
- You might watch some of the Brideshead Revisited adaptation from 1981 made by ITV. This was enormously popular. What did it mean that people had so much affection for the programme? How is the house important in it? You could then listen to ‘The Reunion’ from radio 4 extra, about the making of Brideshead Revisited on ITV. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rvxzc
If you have other ideas, please let me know