The world of the English country house between the wars is becoming increasingly familiar thanks to novels and films such as The Remains of the Day and Gosford Park, to say nothing of the television series Downton Abbey. The late Pamela Horn established herself as an authority on the social history of the country house long before it became the popular subject it is today, describing and analysing the lifestyles of the landed classes and the complex, equally hierarchical society of their servants. In this, her final book, she turns her attention to the lives of England’s upper classes after the First World War.
What gives the world she describes its special fascination is the combination of continuity and change as landed society tried to come to terms with the devastating impact of the First World War and maintain traditions while adapting to jazz, shorter skirts, “bright young things” and a more permissive attitude to sex. In the new country house party, the hunt still met in front of the manor, mansion or castle, but guests arrived by car; dining remained formal, yet afterwards there was informality with dancing (increasingly the Charleston rather than the waltz) to the accompaniment of a gramophone; and if servants were harder to recruit, the green baize door continued to divide the spaces of guests and those who looked after them.
Horn, however, goes beyond the country house milieu to describe an upper class that, while it struggled to maintain its houses and estates, was increasingly metropolitan, spending not only “the Season” but much of the year in London, and ranging further in its long holidays in France and across the Atlantic. The aristocracy and gentry and, indeed, the new rich of the Edwardian period had lost so many sons in the trenches that the survivors and the young women who had lost family, friends and husbands were determined to make the most of life. There was a generational gulf between the young and their parents, symbolised by that at the very top of society between David, the Prince of Wales and his quintessentially Victorian father George V.
Changes in sexual mores can, perhaps, be exaggerated, for the late Victorian and Edwardian upper classes were discreet in their affairs rather than always monogamous. But the difference, as Horn makes clear, was the new freedom enjoyed by young women, who, although they still “came out” by being presented at Court, gradually shook off the restrictions of the chaperone system, and plunged into the world of nightclubs, affairs, cocktails, drugs and parties. Although socialites such as Edwina Mountbatten and Lady Diana Cooper and her husband Duff cannot be taken as typical of the upper classes of the age, the fact that they remained part of “society”, despite fast lives and many affairs, underlines the shift in upper-class attitudes to sexual morality. The heiress Nancy Cunard, however, went too far when she added an affair with a black musician to her rackety history of promiscuity, drinking and drugs, which resulted in her mother having her followed by private detectives.
Rather like the 1960s, the Roaring Twenties drew criticism from subsequent sterner generations, and even from participants for its hedonism. It became customary to disapprove of the period as one in which members of the fast set had, as Horn quotes one critic, burned up their youth “in the flame of nightclubs and cocktail parties”. Yet another survivor she quotes expressed regrets that the “irresponsible effortless zest is gone from us all”. This eminently readable book, combining delicious gossip with a serious theme, conveys how exciting the 1920s must have been – if you had money and position.
Country House Society: The Private Lives of England’s Upper Class after the First World War
By Pamela Horn
Amberley, 256pp, £20.00
Published 25 November 2013