Twofer: Waugh and the Country House

–An essay in current issue of The Critic is devoted to the threatened demise and later salvation of the English Country House. This is by Lara Brown and is entitled “Waugh saves the English country house.” She begins by explaining how Waugh foresaw the destruction of the country house and its occupants which he described in his 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited. When it came time for a reprint and revision in 1959, he explained how he had got it wrong and the country houses and their owners had survived and prospered. The essay brings matters up to date and concludes with this:

…Far from failing to predict “the cult of the English country house”, Waugh created it, ushering in — perhaps in spite of himself — a new age of democratisation for enjoyment far beyond the nobility. It was the work of novelists like Waugh which revived the country house and made it clear that these sites were of “historic interest”. The history of Brideshead has always been aligned with this process of democratisation. Castle Howard, the setting for the ITV adaptation of the novel, was one of the first houses opened up to the public after the war. Its current owner, Nick Howard, credits Waugh with preserving the site so synonymous with the novel.

We should take pride in the English country house. It is a wonderful, distinctly English institution. It has always been the job of writers to preserve our cultural inheritance. I was heartened to see Castle Howard, the real-life Brideshead, included in Netflix’s Bridgerton. Daphne’s reaction upon seeing her new husband’s home wonderfully mirrored Charles’ when Sebastian first drives him there from Oxford. As the National Trust is losing visitors, it may seem that we are losing this pride, however. Visitors to our country estates are accosted by slavery reports, apologies for colonialism and criticisms of our history. It is not in these circumstances that English heritage will flourish.

Prospect Magazine has reposted the 2016 review of a relatively recent contribution to the country house novel genre, although in this case it’s more of a novella. This is by veteran novelist Graham Swift and is entitled Mothering Sunday. The review is by Frances Wilson and begins appropriately enough with a consideration of previous examples of novels featuring country house themes:

…When Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945, it had been impossible, wrote Evelyn Waugh, to predict “the present cult of the English country house.” Every writer worth their salt now counts a country house novel among their oeuvre: Sarah Waters has The Little Stranger, Toby Litt has Finding Myself. Ned Beauman’s debut, Boxer, Beetle (2010) pays tribute, he says, to “the three finest country house novels ever written: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” The country house novel is always paying tribute to the literary past, just as the historical past is usually the setting of the country house novel…

Swift’s recent contribution sounds like a Downstairs, Upstairs situation:

…In Mothering Sunday, Swift’s new novel and his own foray into the genre, there is a great deal of crossing between zones—domestic, generic, sexual and psychological. In brief and lacerating prose, Swift strips the genre bare: the exterior of Upleigh, his novel’s country house, remains undescribed, while the interior is for the most part uninhabited. Except that is in the book’s central scene, when a post-coital maid wanders through the rooms wearing nothing but a Dutch cap. The novel is set on 30th March 1924—Mothering Sunday—when the nation’s mothers are still grieving for the sons they have lost in the Great War. The tone is elegiac, but the lament is less for the certainties of social hierarchy than the innocence of pre-lapsarian bliss. Jane Fairchild, a servant, is having an affair with Paul Sheringham, a master…

The review concludes:

…Rarely does fiction invite such intense identification, such mental hazarding. Swift strips his reader bare. Our tension is born of familiarity: we too have done this… Poking around in other people’s houses is our national obsession. We do it when we flick through Hello! or World of Interiors, when we watch Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey. This is what we are doing when we read country house novels, which describe and, more importantly, re-enact the thrill of being in a room belonging to someone of a finer class.

Swift’s novel was published in 2016 and is available at this link. A film adaptation with a largely British cast was released last year and can currently be seen on streaming services.


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