I found this whilst browsing in the National Gallery and always meant to read it but forgot all about it, until this weekend I read an interesting article in the Guardian about the country house in the novel. This is a very short book that contains extracts of the diary of Lees-Milne who in the 1930s and 40s travelled around country houses all over the country to try to persuade them to hand over their houses to the National Trust.
The diaries are both funny and extremely Despite being left-wing I found myself feeling very sorry for these upper class landowners who were finding that they were no longer able to maintain their houses and had to hand them over to the NT; although I suppose if they hadn’t I would not have been able to spend all my free time visiting them. Basically lots of the houses had to be given up due to an agricultural depression, the deaths of heirs in World War I and the increased taxation of incomes and estates, as owners could no longer maintain them.
Some of the stories are both funny and tragic – at Ham House he meets who he thinks is the old alcoholic family butler, only to discover that he is in fact the heir to the estate who is driven almost to the point of suicide whilst trying to maintain two great houses. “When I waved goodbye, the faintest flicker of a smile crossed his bucolic face, and a tiny tear was on his cheek” He also meets Lord and Lady Newton of Lyme Park who recognise that “their day was done, and life as they had known it was gone forever. How right they are, poor people”.
There are also characters who you feel less sympathetic towards such as Lady Binning of Fenton House who confides that she is pro Nazi and “she denied that the Germans had committed atrocities, and declared that the Jews were the root of all evil”. In the classic English understatement Lees Milnes sums this up with “Oh dear”.
The book is divided into two parts – the first half deals with the houses that were accepted the National Trust whereas the second half deals with those that were rejected or the deals fell through – some of these are the giant estates like Chatsworth and Castle Howard but you can’t help wondering what happened to some of the poor rundown ones and their owners.