‘No nation has identified itself more with the house,’ a German visitor remarked of earlier twentieth-century Britain. Looking from the outside, this comment would seem only to apply to the lucky handful of people who have the money, and the requisite number of acres, to indulge their taste for idiosyncratic magnificence. Deborah Cohen’s book looks in another, and more rewarding, direction. It isn’t the splendours of aristocratic collections that interest her, but the rise of the middle class and, much slower, that of home-ownership.
House pride, as a national obsession, is only a hundred and fifty years old. Britain, in the mid nineteenth century, discovered that spiritual sustenance is less immediately gratifying than asking the neighbours round to admire your newly decorated, and joyously original, home. Dickens’s mild clerk, Mr Wemmick, saw nothing intrinsically