Dainty enough to perch at the top of a Christmas stocking, Adrian Tinniswood’s celebration of the Victorian rise and mid-20th-century slow collapse of the country house party is a richly anecdotal companion to his recent and more substantial work The Long Week-End: Life in the English Country House Between the Wars.
Here, as in its predecessor, Tinniswood maintains a judicious distance from the ludicrous world that he describes. For the most part, his stories are of house parties we can be thankful to have escaped. Guests at Seaton Delaval might wake to find their hosts sniggering at the spectacle of them being publicly lowered, by the use of secret pulleys cunningly attached to the beds of unwary visitors, into a bath of icy water. Those staying at Lord Tredegar’s eccentric home were hooted at in bed by their host’s free-roaming pet owl, after being made to listen to hymns sung from the garden by a shivering village choir. Active participation could be worse. At Chartwell, Winston Churchill thought nothing of ordering his weekend guests to shovel out mud to help with the creation of a new swimming pool. Majestically attired in rubber waders, their cigar-chomping host bawled directions from the side ‘like Napoleon before Austerlitz’, one guest recalled.