Author: David Littlejohn
Publication Date: 1997
No. of Pages: 344
Synopsis (from B&N): "Between 3,500 and 4,000 country houses--large, often elegantly furnished and surrounded by extensive estates--remain more or less intact in England today, although frequently converted to non-residential uses. Whether in public or private hands, the best known of them have become a major magnet for British and foreign tourists, attracting about 20 million paying visitors each year. Country houses, with their furnishings and landscaped settings, have been called England's one important contribution to art history. They figure prominently in the ongoing debate over how much of any 'National Heritage' is worth preserving.
In The Fate of the English Country House, David Littlejohn describes the past glories and troubled present condition of 'the stately homes of England,' both those that continue to serve as private houses, and those that have been turned into museums, tourist attractions, convention centers, hotels, country clubs, schools, apartments, hospitals, even prisons. By means of extensive conversations with their owners and managers (the book contains more than 50 photographs of the houses), the author takes us on a private tourof these remarkable places and evaluates the many proposals that have been put forward for their survival."
Fiction or Nonfiction: nonfiction
Comments and Critique: I'm an architecture buff and admire European architecture particularly. I also love English literature and have often wondered what it would be like to live in one of these places. Of course, living in one in the time setting of the books (generally 17th-19th centuries) was vastly different than what it's like today, a point that the author makes very well. The upshot is that, absent the huge domestic staffs of yesteryear, these beautiful buildings are almost impossible to keep up. And seriously, who wants to clean one of these monsters? It's all I can do to keep up with the tiny house I have now.
Another thing that the author does quite well is explaining the impossible situation that the owners are placed in once they inherit (most of the surviving houses have been passed down through numerous generations; those that have been sold to wealthy foreigners are the exception). I won't go into great detail, but essentially many owners can't afford to maintain the houses and pay the inheritance taxes; often can't find buyers; can't give them away unless they provide large endowments (which if they had, they wouldn't need to give the house away); and are prohibited by law from demolishing them, even when the house is falling down around their ears. (Caveat: this book is more than 10 years old already, so laws may have changed. I have not researched to see if the legal descriptions are still accurate).
Many houses have been opened to tourists or converted to other uses, such as hotels, hospitals, and schools, but these all bring a different set of problems (and some of the tourist attraction additions sound absolutely horrible, IMO). The blame for the various problems can't be placed on one group and the author is objective and fair-minded in examining the issues. I find the subject very interesting and I can't wait to one day see some of these buildings in person.
Would You Recommend This Book to Others: Yes, but it would most likely only appeal to those with an interest in architecture. Also, the author goes to great lengths to discuss the legal and tax problems faced by owners, which to a tax geek like me was very interesting, but to the average reader is a bit much.
Challenges: Wind-Up Book Challenge
Weekly Geeks questions:
Tiny Little Librarian asked, "I daydream about living in an English country house - were you interested in learning about their fate? That is, was it both an entertaining and informative book?"
I've also daydreamed of living in one of these beautiful old homes (often with Mr. Darcy, but don't tell my husband), although given the problems detailed by this book, I'm less sure now that I'd want to. The book was definitely informative and educated me about a number of issues that I'd never thought about in relation to these houses. I was glad to see that the book contained a number of pictures, although I wished it had more and that at least some of them had been in color.