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Life in the Victorian country house

Country House Life: Family and Servants 1815-1914 - Jessica Gerard

There are few institutions more indelibly associated with the British aristocracy than the country house. Lavishly decorated and heavily staffed with a retinue of servants, these places served as symbols of their lofty social status and important instruments of their influence. Yet these places were also homes in which generations of noble families were raised and imbued with the traditions of their class. Many assumptions have emerged which shaped perceptions of what living in these houses was like, yet as Jessica Gerard demonstrates, most of these are little more than stereotypes that offer a distorted understanding of how life functioned within their walls.

Gerard's focus is on life in the country houses during the nineteenth century, when the aristocracy was at the peak of their power and prestige. Her examination can be divided into three parts. The first part, which consists of the introduction and the first chapter, offer an overview of country house life and the aristocracy who lived in them. The second part, which consists of the next five chapters, deals with the lives "upstairs," particularly those of the women and the children. Here she demolishes numerous misconceptions about their lives, demonstrating that love was seen as an important criteria for most marriages and that most parents enjoyed close relationships with their children, with discipline often balanced by affection.

The final five chapters shifts the focus to the servants. They played an indispensable role in country house living, and their close proximity meant that the family enjoyed little actual privacy. These positions were an important source of employment in the countryside, and offered landholding families with opportunities for displaying their wealth. Among their ranks were gender and class divisions that mirrored those in society as a whole. Satisfaction with their job was determined less by the work they performed than by their relationship with their employer, though isolated authoritarians did little to diminish the demand for such employment, as the pool of applicants for these positions remained high right up to the start of the First World War.

Clearly presented and drawing from an extensive range of research, Gerard's book is a convincing examination of country house life in the nineteenth century. Her arguments are not quite as groundbreaking as she makes them out to be, but she advances them well by utilizing the recent research in the field to support her points. The main problem is n what she left out - the men of the country houses, whom she asserts have been addressed elsewhere. However valid her claim, such an omission prevents her from providing a more comprehensive picture of her subject, one that would show how her reinterpretation changes our understanding of the role men played in country houses. Nevertheless, this is a good study, one that is an excellent resource for anyone seeking to learn more about country houses and the people who lived and worked in them.