The soul of houses: Adrian Tinniswood talks stately homes, social history and The Long Weekend

We are big fans of Adrian Tinniswood, an English writer and scholar who has penned a number of books about architecture, design, social history and how those aspects of life intersect and interact. His most recent is The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House 1918-1939.

Adrian Tinniswood: Chronicler of homes, and the lives lived within them

Published in 2016, The Long Weekend describes in intimate detail the history of the English country house (and the lifestyle that accompanied it) between the world wars. Tinniswood, an historian at the University of Buckingham, has amassed a small mountain of research (from magazines and newspapers, memoirs and eyewitness reports) which he's used to draw his readers straight into the sitting-rooms of some of the UK's most famous stately homes. It's such a trick to bring the past to life, using people's stories to bring so-called ‘dry facts' to life, and Tinniswood has delivered. The book draws you in from the first page with an evocative passage from John Galsworthy's novel, Maid in Waiting (1931), that puts you right in the heart of an imagined world. Before you know it, you’re off on a fast-moving journey of houses, war, real estate, and changing social mores.

We had the chance to talk over The Long Weekend, stately homes and what makes social history so compelling. (After all, the millions who watched - and still re-watch - “Downton Abbey” can’t be wrong!) 

Newtown House: What drew you to the work you do? 

Adrian Tinniswood: My career is a series of accidents, really. I read English and philosophy at university, and I didn’t know what to do with that. Quite by chance I got a temp job at a National Trust house called Sudbury in Derbyshire in the English Midlands. I was researching the history of the house without a history background, about 22, 23 years old, and something just clicked. I fell in love with Sudbury Hall, and I’m still in love with Sudbury Hall 40 years later. I just fell in love with the whole idea of the English stately home, and what it represented and how it functioned. And that took me back, surprised me in lots of ways. My politics are not conservative - they are so not conservative - so it’s an odd thing to be obsessing over.

NH: What do you think is the appeal of stately homes for people - why are we so drawn to them?

AT: I’m drawn to the way in which a stately home can give insight into a whole social structure - there’s the upstairs and downstairs, there’s the simple Downton Abbey side of things. Sudbury supported a village; it was a community. A friend of mine was a hardline Marxist-Leninist and used to spend his Sunday afternoons going around stately homes. When we used to rib him about it he used to say, ‘I go to exult in their downfall!’

When I started out writing and interpreting houses and thinking about the past, I was part of a big movement over here. An architectural historian called Mark Girouard wrote Life in the English Country House, and that was a sea change. When I was working at Sudbury, what people always asked was ‘Where are the kitchens, where do the servants live?’ In a sense the early ‘80s legitimised the social history side of architecture, and that’s what I was raised with. I’ve always thought architecture is not about stones, architecture is about people, architecture is about patterns of behaviour - those sort of big-shot political and economic trends, they’re all there, and they’re there in a more real way.

Paradoxically, as the notion of architecture as a social document has grown, the pendulum has swung too far. The reason most of these places have been saved is ‘cause they’re so damn beautiful. Their value as social documents is inestimable, but the reason they’re saved is because they’re gorgeous, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

NH: What’s the value of this kind of social history in today’s world?

AT: What I would love to say is it’s of no value whatever; it doesn’t teach us anything about today. I really don’t think history teaches us anything - it teaches us what mistakes we’ve made, but it doesn’t teach us not to make them! If it did, things would be a lot better than they are now.

You can’t tell where you going if you don’t know where you’ve come from. An awareness of the past roots you, it contextualises your life. It allows you to make the same mistakes, of course, or worse ones, but it allows you to see yourself as part of a journey. You’re not starting today, you’re starting 50 years ago, 500 years ago, a thousand years ago, and that sense of continuity is really important for communities, I think.

NH: Are people mindful of that journey? Even with the pressure we all seem to feel today to value immediacy over everything?

AT: I think they are, and they need to step back sometimes. If I go back to my roots, to the idea of the country house, it does provide a moment for people to just stop and get their bearings.

People will say, 'I wish I’d lived back then,' but they never say, 'I wish I’d lived as a scullery maid' or a boot boy - and quite rightly, too. But, that said, life certainly wasn’t so bad for lots of domestic staff in the big places.

The Long Weekend Between the Wars jacket image (1).jpg

In Britain, what the Arts & Craft movement did is taught us the importance of beauty. William Morris famously said, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ Functionality doesn’t need to mean ugliness. Function and beauty are not mutually exclusive, and the Arts & Craft movement taught us that.

It’s no coincidence that over here well into the 1900s, the Arts & Crafts movement was called the Domestic Revival. It was called the Domestic Revival because it was about hearth and home. It was about living.

NH: What did the houses tell you when you were doing your research?

AT: I was raised with the National Trust. The narrative the National Trust has unwittingly constructed for itself is that the 1920s and ‘30s were a period of stark economic decline, when the stately homes of England were being demolished. They were being dismantled, they were being destroyed, it’s all true - but the reason for the National Trust focusing on that is that it enables the trust to come in as a saviour. In the late 1930s the National Trust stepped in and started to take on English stately homes. They hadn’t done it before.

Obviously it makes sense in that narrative for the crisis to be dramatic. That is all true. But what I recognised is that there’s an alternative and parallel narrative, and it’s one of dynamism and life. It’s one of lots and lots of English stately homes being sold … and they were being bought. People were buying them, people were renovating them, people were building new ones, people were leading admittedly quite hedonistic and exciting lives in them.

You also see interesting social changes. One big change: In 1918, among the nobility of England, almost nobody was divorced. In 1939 quite a lot of them were divorced. You see marriage moving from sacrament to social contract, and by the late 20th century, early 21st century that will have profound consequences for the whole society as it trickles down.

"We can’t save everything. But the thing is, when it’s gone, it’s gone. With preservation, the big mistakes are irrevocable mistakes."

The other big change I noticed is that the orthodoxy is that the ‘servant problem’ meant it was really hard for the big houses to get domestic staff. It wasn’t really - you wanted to work in one of the big houses. The attitude of the staff changed - they moved on, they moved on regularly. A valet butler who went into service in 1909 and retired in 1978, in his first 10-15 years in service had 10-15 jobs, he moved on. You see those old, almost feudal ties disappearing, and the master / servant relationship is replaced by an employer / employee relationship. If you don’t get the pay rise, if you don’t like the work, you move. For people to be in service for one year, two years, in a household was fairly normal. The aged retainer who’s been there with the family, that becomes quite a rarity.

Before the first World War married servants were a rarity, they really were. Most domestic servants were women, it was what what you did between school and marriage. Later it becomes perfectly acceptable to have married servants in the house. Part of that is a supply thing: the supply was clearly not as great as it had been, so concessions were made.

NH: What were people doing instead of going into service?

AT: They worked in factories, they worked in offices, although it can be questioned a little bit. Women found other career opportunities and realised that although work in a factory could be pretty damned hard, at the end of the day you went home, you had a life outside of work. In domestic service it’s quite hard to do that, you were still living on the job.

NH: Why are people fascinated by old houses, and houses in general? Is it that people want to project themselves into that environment? What does it say about us that we find that fascinating?

AT: With the big houses that I’ve been writing about in The Long Weekend, I think there are many different things going on. There’s curiosity, as you say there’s projecting yourself into those spaces, there’s educating and informing yourself, honing your taste when you look at beautiful things or paintings on the wall. There’s the gathering experience. Years ago the National Trust did a satisfaction survey and the two most significant factors were whether the car parking guy smiled and the quality of cake in the tea room! It was how the experience was topped and tailed. What I’m saying is there’s no one thing, and people are different. If I look at friends of ours who are young couples with 8, 9, 10 year olds, the experience is very different to me. I’m 62, wandering around on my own on a quiet day.

That said, I’ve been getting more and more interested in the idea of home and what connects us to places. There’s no doubt that some places pull on us a lot more strongly than others.

"The past can be a refuge. As an historian I’m always trying to deconstruct the past, to interpret the past, to understand the past. There are times when the past is just a nicer place to be - it’s comfortable there. I’m not immune to that, and most people aren’t."

NH: Do houses have a soul? (We think they do.)

AT: I don’t know what it is, but I agree with you. The word is shorthand for something that we can’t articulate. It’s certainly true, it’s certainly there. We have a very small house in the southwest of Ireland that’s a good example of what I’m talking about. I ache to be there, I hate leaving it. There was a point a few weeks ago when I was packing up to leave the place that I realised I wasn’t packing up to go back to England, I was packing up to leave home. That’s the tipping point. I was packing up to leave a place that I considered home to go back to Bath. Something had changed.

NH: And what’s the place for these older buildings in a modern world?

AT: We can’t save everything. But the thing is, when it’s gone, it’s gone. With preservation, the big mistakes are irrevocable mistakes. There are buildings that we fought to save that we shouldn’t have bothered about too much, and there are buildings that we didn’t save that the world is a greyer place for their absence.

If you take the long view, in this country we have very tight preservation laws. You can’t change the front door or windows if it’s a listed historic building. To the rest of the world that often seems almost kind of Stalinist - state control over individual property. That’s why so much of Britain is still so beautiful, though. You need to trade off, I’m afraid. Individual liberty is great but for the greater good you need to trade against that.

NH: What’s next for you?

AT: I’m writing a book which is called We Have Called You Gods: A Domestic History of the Monarchy from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II. It’s about social structures in the British royal households - not just kings and queens but the stories behind them from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II. It’s about how these places worked, who made the decisions - because it certainly wasn’t the kings and queens who chose the menus when Queen Victoria gave a state dinner. So just how did palaces work, how do palaces work? I’m right in the middle of that now, which is huge fun.

The past can be a refuge. As an historian I’m always trying to deconstruct the past, to interpret the past, to understand the past. There are times when the past is just a nicer place to be - it’s comfortable there. I’m not immune to that, and most people aren’t.

Tinniswood's blog about The Long Weekend is here, you can find out more about him here, and if you're interested in the book look here.