Studying the Country House for my masters, of course I wanted to get my hands on Lady of the House: Elite 19th Century Women and their role in the English Country House by Charlotte Furness. How women are intimately bound up with the decorative arts, social history and material culture has been a constant source of fascination and, I’ve found that you can never drink too deeply from this well of insight. From the very beginning, I was raised on visits to National Trust and English Heritage properties with my grandparents, who installed within me a love for setting, intrigue and the stories behind those grand portraits hanging on stately walls. I’d find myself coming away wanting to know more… and more… and more!
If you’re so inclined as to follow the story lines behind places of note and those people who dwelled within, then you’re in for a treat with this particular title. When it comes to choosing books, I’m awfully exacting with what I’m looking for – enjoying writing that is informed, engaging and eloquently put. The author and team behind Lady of the House were kind enough to send me a copy to help with my studies and align with my interests. In return, I’m writing this to give you my thoughts as a lover of those books that are well worth reading.
Married early to the object of her choice, as a wife, a parent, and a benefactress, she was alike exemplary.From the obituary of Elizabeth Manners, 5th Duchess of Rutland
Presented with Harriet Leveson-Gower, Countess of Granville, Lady Mary Isham and Elizabeth Manners, Duchess of Rutland, I was able to delve into character studies and anecdotes from the lives of these three women. These lives and their world encompassed the site of the country house and all that this entailed for female expression in the 19th century. As chatelaines, lovers, ambassadors, developers and decorators (to name but a few of their occupations), Harriet, Mary, Elizabeth and their counterparts across time and place were, in a sense, the true architects of England’s stately homes and Charlotte Furness’s telling of their stories gives this subject well-due appreciation in a time when women’s history matters.
Where a home came to define one’s life, Lady of the House traces the day-to-day rhythms and almost quiet contributions made by women who were able to choose their husbands and build their lives in a setting like no other. The stage, therefore, is set for their achievements – whether this was the running of a household, the orchestration of a husband’s business affairs or the attentive remodelling of ancestral wings.
Yes, there’s intrigue (if a young lady who married her aunt’s lover isn’t enough to tickle your fancy, then I don’t know what will!), but there’s also exquisite detail in the ordinary. Having read Mistress of Charlecote: The Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, I fell happily in with diary entries, snippets and tantalising titbits from the extraordinary everyday. Anything that’s able to transport us in such a way is what living and breathing history is all about. The Lady of the House spans influence, marriage, homemaking, raising children, widowhood and the idea of having a legacy – topics expertly woven throughout that manage to tie together the lives of these women in a way that is intimate and real.
There’s enough in this book to dip in and out of whilst you enjoy a cup of tea and you don’t need to strictly adhere to the chapters. Rather, I was encouraged to pick and choose interesting excerpts relating to all manner of interests. When a book has been well-researched, there’s truly a joy in reading it and constantly returning to it for more. You can certainly tell that Charlotte delighted, like I am currently, in her studies of the Country House.
This isn’t just a book for niche historians though. Whilst, yes, you will find ample points for further study and comment, if you’ve ever enjoyed an episode of Downton Abbey, found yourself looking up at an enigmatic portrait of a woman who you only know by the name on the copper plate or simply wondered how a sprawling estate could be held together, this will certainly satisfy. Writing this from my own desk, I’m reminded that we all have stories to tell and have the utmost respect for those writers bringing otherwise unknown accounts into our orbit.