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The French aristocracy and their homes

Life in the French Country House - Mark Girouard

Mark Girouard is in that very exclusive group of authors who can be said to have created their own genre of books. For decades he has written studies of country houses and the people who lived in them, blazing a trail that, with the popularity of programs like "Downton Abbey," others have subsequently followed.

 

Girouard's extensive output, though has largely been focused on the country houses of the British. In this respect this book represents a foray into new territory, as he shifts his attention to the country houses of the French aristocracy. It's a natural choice, given the houses' common origins as fortified domestic residences. Yet their evolution was different, in large measure because of the very different development of the French aristocracy as a group. Though more numerous than their English counterparts, the French aristocracy possessed far less wealth and political power, a consequence of the growth of the French monarchy and the French practice of partible inheritance, which regularly weakened estates over generations. The diminished political role of the aristocracy meant that the chateaux were far less important as a stage for French aristocrats, and by the 17th century most aristocrats increasingly neglected them in favor of living in Paris, the main political arena for the country.

 

Girouard describes all of this while explaining as well the evolution of the chateaux as residences, noting the changes in layout and function of the country houses over time. What he goes into less detail about, though, is the daily lives lived in the houses, providing little sense of how the houses functioned or what their inhabitants perceived their lives within them. This may reflect the relative lack of attention French country houses have received as a subject over the years, a fact Girouard notes several times over the course of his work. Hopefully his book will fuel as much interest in further exploration of French chateaux as his work on English country houses have done for their counterparts across the channel, as he successfully demonstrates how such houses played different roles in the varied contexts of the European aristocracy over the centuries.