“Of all the great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character,” said the American novelist Henry James, “the most perfect, the most characteristic, the only one they have mastered completely in all its details, so that it becomes a compendious illustration of their social genius and their manners, is the well-appointed, well-administered, well-filled country house”. How right he was, says Lara Brown in The Critic. The French have their monasteries; we have our “great estates”. They are preserved in “literature as well as stone”, dominating novels like Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. And they serve as a “physical reminder” of continuity and “our duty to the generations that follow us”. Those who created and preserved these historic estates planted trees, to adapt the Greek proverb, in whose shade they knew they would never sit.
There was a time, after the Second World War, when the future of the country house was in “great jeopardy”. By 1955, one was being demolished every five days. The sense of their imminent destruction permeates Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Waugh, however, later came to regret his gloomy view, describing his novel in 1959 as a “panegyric preached over an empty coffin”. Ironically, it was the author himself, through Brideshead, who helped create the modern “cult” of the country house, reviving interest in its beauty and history. The great houses were no longer the “preserve of the aristocracy”, but could be enjoyed by all. In 1950, Deborah Mitford inherited Chatsworth and £7m of death duties. Determined to save her ancestral home, she opened it to the public, improved the garden, set up a farm shop and wrote several books about the estate. Today, Chatsworth still stands “as a testament to the 20th century as well as the 11th”.