Country houses possess a remarkable endurance as a subject of study. Ever since the publication of Mark Girouard's seminal Life in the English Country House in 1978, scholars have spent an increasing amount of attention exploring their design and construction, the lives of their owners, the duties performed by the servants who worked there, and their function within the context of English landed society. With the shelves groaning with titles, it may seem as though there was nothing more to be said. Yet Jon Stobart and Mark Rothery's new book demonstrates how much more we have to learn about the country houses and the lives lived within them.
Stobart and Rothery's focus is on the subject of consumption by the inhabitants of country houses in the 18th century. This was a period of increasing consumerism throughout England, as the prospering economy and the growing British empire brought about new wealth and new good on which to spend that wealth. Using three Midlands gentry families as case studies, Stobart and Rothery examine consumption from a variety of different perspectives: construction, everyday provisioning, gender spaces, the roles of servants, and the sellers of goods and the spaces in which people purchased their goods. From it they show the motivations that spurred their spending, the considerations that defined it, and its impact on the families and the communities in which they lived. What emerges most clearly, however, is the country house itself as a living space, one that was regularly shaped and reshaped by successive owners in a way familiar to consumers today.
Together, Stobart and Rothery have provided readers with a study that accomplishes the difficult task of bringing a fresh approach to a seemingly exhausted subject. While the use of theories of consumption at the start of the book can be somewhat inaccessible, the rest of the book is a fine work of scholarship. Demonstrating an impressive and up-to-date command of the historiography of both country houses and the consumer revolution of the period, the two authors connect they show how the consumption patterns of these three families fit within the overall context of spending and consumption at that time.It is a book that should be read by anyone interested in either country houses or consumption in the 18th century, one that is likely to remain an essential source on those subjects for years to come.