Is it possible to review a book about English country houses without mentioning “Downton Abbey”?
Preposterous plot lines apart, “Downton” writer Julian Fellowes drew on real people and events for his wildly popular PBS soap opera, as does historian Adrian Tinniswood for his prodigiously researched, rather more scholarly — but no less entertaining — chronicle of country house life between the two world wars.
Like “Downton,” “The Long Weekend” features a lavish cast of eccentrics, tales of social snobbery and sexual shenanigans, hedonism and self-indulgence on (as Tinniswood puts it) “a Wagnerian scale.”
How eccentric? Consider Gerald Berners, who dyed his pigeons magenta, copper green and ultramarine. (It was claimed that they only mated with pigeons of the same color.) Not to be outdone, one of Berners’ guests, the Marchesa Luisa Casati, was reputed to have dipped her black servants in gold paint, “with decorative but near-fatal results.” Once she brought a boa constrictor in a glass case. “Would it like to eat?” asked Berners’ mother. “No,” the Marchesa replied. “It had a goat this morning.”
How self-indulgent? The first Lord Fairhaven’s guests had their shoelaces ironed before breakfast. The second Marquess of Ripon was recorded as killing 370,728 birds and animals, including two rhinoceroses. Bathrooms were considered “an unnecessary luxury when there were housemaids to carry up brass cans of hot water.” When Queen Mary visited Holker Hall she brought two dressers, one footman, one page, two chauffeurs, one lady-in-waiting, a maid for the lady-in-waiting, and a detective. (Perhaps they were planning to play Clue.)
Apart from men (and women) behaving badly, Tinniswood offers fascinating stories of the destruction and salvation of country houses, from the vandalism by billeted troops that led to the demise of hundreds of properties, to the influx of Americans who brought their own energy and style and who, with their money and Anglophile tendencies, saved and revived hundreds more. And there is enough detail on art, architecture, furniture and interior design to interest the enthusiast and the general reader alike.
Oh, did I forget to talk about the sex? Sorry. For that, you’ll have to buy the book.
Paul Duncan is an international business consultant specializing in the United Kingdom. He grew up in England, but not in a country house. He lives in St. Paul and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Long Weekend
By: Adrian Tinniswood.
Publisher: Basic Books, 322 pages, $30.