1.03.2011

English Country Houses: Inheritance and Wait for Me!

The "if you like this, you will also like this" feature on Amazon was incredibly useful in helping me find these two books. After reading The Hare with Amber Eyes, I was interested to find other similar memoirs, and though Inheritance by Robert Sackville-West and Wait for Me! by Deborah Mitford are quite different from Hare, they are similar in their nostalgic evocation of different time.

Inheritance charts the familial history of Knole, the giant pile of a manor house in Kent, England. It is perhaps most well-known for its association with Vita Sackville-West a prominent author in her day and the lover of Virginia Woolf (who also loved Knole and whose novel Orlando is an homage to that very place.) The early chapters of Inheritance are appealing in their tangential referencing of English history, as the history of Knole and its family, the Sackvilles, is essentially a history of England - spanning 400 years - but the vignettes about the family itself are not excessively entertaining. Thomas Sackville was given (as a the story goes) Knole by Elizabeth I, and Sackville was immediately anxious to renovate the house to display his power and wealth. Knole was originally the home of an Archbishop, and Sackville built upon the existing spaces to create a giant, rambling building, a house that Vita Sackville -West described as more of a village than a single dwelling. Indeed, it is huge and purports to be a calendar house (though there is some ambiguity here, as I am assuming that it is difficult to actually count every room in the house?). In any event, a calendar house boasts 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards.
The Sackvilles themselves are are difficult to distinguish from each other, and there is a parade of dukes and lords with brief sparkles of brightness (mostly provided by wives and lovers) until the narrative reaches recent history and things get fascinating. The most absorbing sections of the book begin in the 19th century with Vita's mother Victoria who loved Knole enough to marry her cousin, and heir to the house, in order to stay there. She turned Knole into a fashionable, comfortable destination - bragging that it was as comfortable as the Ritz, in fact - for the most important people of her day. The house was taken over by the National Trust in 1947 and the current Lord Sackville, the author of the book, lives in a section of the house.
This is a charming look into aristocratic England and a unique chronicle of a stately family home, an inheritance unlike anything we would know about in the States.

Along a similar vein as Inheritance, comes Wait for Me! by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire. Everything about this memoir is polite, but DD, as she refers to herself, doesn't shy away from presenting her hardships. Her miscarriages, husband's alcoholism, sister's betrayal of another sister, is all mentioned, but nothing is dramatized or labored over. These things happened, the memoir staunchly says, and then dealt with. There is a little room for melodrama. Her asides about the differences between her young adulthood and the young people of today are amusing, and one gets a sense that we have come quite a long way in the 90 years of her life. In this regard, the memoir stands as a unique lens through which to see the evolution of the 20th century, as DD lived through many of the major events. Yet, this is not a memoir intended, we can assumed, to stand as anything but a story of one woman's life, and, as interesting as it may be to those of us who didn't live through World War II, are not aristocratic, and did not live in Chatsworth, hers was a life - with its ups and downs - that was not that much different than anyone else's. Her work, her home, and her family distinguish her, and she explores these aspects with keen insight.
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