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Culture Corner: The English country house

“The cup of tea on arrival at a country house is a thing which, as a rule, I particularly enjoy. I like the crackling logs, the shaded lights, the scent of buttered toast, the general atmosphere of leisured cosiness.” — P.G. Wodehouse

It seems that almost wherever you go in literature, the long shadow of the English country house is always with us. “An Englishman’s house is his castle,” the saying goes, and we just can’t seem to escape these old Edwardian haunts – whether it’s in Waugh’s Bridshead Revisited, Ishiguru’s Remains of the Day or Wodehouse’s adventures of Jeeves & Wooster, the stately home is always lurking smartly in the background, a constant background to long summer evenings on the lawns or high tea in the dressing room. And that’s not to mention its more recent resurgence in programmes such as Downton Abbey and our obsession with and romanticisation of the upstairs-downstairs life.

These places seem to be imbued with some sort of mysticism that we just can’t let go of. The country house way of life died out in the 1920s, after many heirs to these homes and the servants that kept them running died in the Great War. By the 1930s they had become an anachronism, and by the 1970s they were veritable fossils. So why do they mean so much more to us, and why do they keep recurring in our collective memory?

The answer, perhaps, is the wonderful prism they give through which we can explore other worlds. With Wodehouse we can revel in the glorious farce and decadence of the era; with Ishiguru we shudder at the dark secrets they contain; in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the country house even becomes one of the main characters in the novel. The English country house in literature is ambiguous and varied – and it’s here to stay.

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