Looking for a Royal Flush? Read These Books. – The New York Times
The Fall and Rise of the English Country House After World War II
By Adrian Tinniswood
432 pp. Basic. $26.99.
“House” is a euphemism in this chronicle of grand British estates — 432 pages of aristocratic real estate porn. Tinniswood, a historian, tours “rambling piles” so large they demand to be named, like the fictional Downton Abbey. Descriptions of “turrets and towers,” 25 bedrooms, 17 bathrooms and “pleasure gardens” read like literary Zillow surfing. One of the most majestic manors, the Tudor-turned-Italianate Chatsworth, served as the stand-in for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in the 2009 film version of “Pride and Prejudice.” When describing the Georgian manse Bowood, the author quotes John Britton, who wrote in his book “Beauties of Wiltshire” that “some people have mistaken it for a small town.”
The homes were beautiful, but after World War II, they sat on a rotting foundation of generational wealth. In a hungry England mired in class conflict, the country house seemed “as anachronistic in 20th-century Britain as the rusting suits of armor that decorated their dusty halls.” Owners — earls and viscounts galore — faced “a future that didn’t want them and a past that cost too much,” thanks in part to staggering taxes introduced as a way of “ironing out social inequalities.” Others struggled with the ballooning costs of maintaining their servants, hardly making for the most sympathetic characters. Elite heirs resorted to selling historic houses to the state, turning them into ticketed museums or converting them into country clubs and hotels.
“Noble Ambitions” is sharpest when it shifts focus from stately structures to their naughty inhabitants. Take Lady Caroline Lamb, who is “said to have surprised her lover Lord Byron by having herself served naked in a large soup tureen during her husband’s birthday dinner” at Brocket Hall. Still, the stakes are not terribly high. From the outset, Tinniswood tells readers that while some historic houses were abandoned, demolished or turned into schools, most remained family homes. “For every impoverished country squire watching in horror as the taxman chipped away, there was another who managed to carry on,” he writes. Like the very essence of privilege, “the English country house is a remarkably resilient beast.”
The Lives and Loves of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten
By Andrew Lownie
496 pp. Pegasus. $32.
Lord Louis Mountbatten was the Kevin Bacon of royals: a …….