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English Country Houses.

English Country Houses. By Vita Sackville-West. (London, United Kingdom: Unicorn Press Ltd, 2014. Pp. 92, $14.95.)

This charming and compact publication is a reprint of a book that was first published in 1941. It gives a broad overview of the development of the English country house from the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century and includes mention of their owners from the squirearchy to the aristocracy. The houses described range from fortified manor houses to great baroque mansions, such as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. Vita Sackville-West argues convincingly that the English country house is "essentially part of the country, not only in the country, but part of it, a natural growth" (8). The history of the country house is told in chronological order, although Sackville-West outlines the difficulties of applying rigid rules with regard to the dating of houses, and her survey is not just confined to houses. She makes reference to castles as well. Given the relatively short nature of the monograph, she manages to mention a healthy percentage of houses by name; having grown up in the labyrinthine Knole in Kent, she was intimately acquainted with many of the places she describes. The nineteenth century is glossed over with relatively few words, which is typical of the prevailing feeling at the time that it warranted little serious study.

The book is written in an easy-going, almost chatty style that takes the reader on a journey through the centuries. It is like a slow perambulation around an English country garden in the company of a knowledgeable gardener, which indeed Sackville-West became. There are even touches of humor; talking of the two great ducal castles of the north and south, she says: "... Arundell and Alnwick, in a word, were large and largely fakes" (21).

At the time of writing, the future of the English country house was in the balance, and this adds a certain poignancy. Many of the houses she describes were given over to the war effort, and in its aftermath, hundreds, if not thousands, of houses were demolished. Today, the picture is very different, and we are privileged to witness a revival of its fortunes with many in better shape than ever before.

The book is illustrated with ten pleasant pen-and-ink drawings, most of which show details of specific houses. The reviewer would question whether the original text loses some of its "punch" by removing the original twentynine plates that accompanied the text when it was first published as part of the "Britain in Pictures" series by William Collins. There is a nod to the original dust jacket with a handsome wrought-iron gate also appearing on the front cover of the new publication.

Taken on its own merits, English Country Houses is a welcome addition for the shelves of anyone with an interest in English history. Although the country house landscape has seen some major changes over the last seventy years or so, its history remains the same, and the skillful way in which Sackville-West pulls all the strands together makes this book a useful resource and a highly enjoyable read.

James Peill

Goodwood House

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Author:Peill, James
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2016
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