The Fall and Rise of the English Country House After World War II
By Adrian Tinniswood
432 pp. Basic. $26.99.
“House” is a euphemism in this chronicle of grand British estates — 432 pages of aristocratic real estate porn. Tinniswood, a historian, tours “rambling piles” so large they demand to be named, like the fictional Downton Abbey. Descriptions of “turrets and towers,” 25 bedrooms, 17 bathrooms and “pleasure gardens” read like literary Zillow surfing. One of the most majestic manors, the Tudor-turned-Italianate Chatsworth, served as the stand-in for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in the 2009 film version of “Pride and Prejudice.” When describing the Georgian manse Bowood, the author quotes John Britton, who wrote in his book “Beauties of Wiltshire” that “some people have mistaken it for a small town.”
The homes were beautiful, but after World War II, they sat on a rotting foundation of generational wealth. In a hungry England mired in class conflict, the country house seemed “as anachronistic in 20th-century Britain as the rusting suits of armor that decorated their dusty halls.” Owners — earls and viscounts galore — faced “a future that didn’t want them and a past that cost too much,” thanks in part to staggering taxes introduced as a way of “ironing out social inequalities.” Others struggled with the ballooning costs of maintaining their servants, hardly making for the most sympathetic characters. Elite heirs resorted to selling historic houses to the state, turning them into ticketed museums or converting them into country clubs and hotels.
“Noble Ambitions” is sharpest when it shifts focus from stately structures to their naughty inhabitants. Take Lady Caroline Lamb, who is “said to have surprised her lover Lord Byron by having herself served naked in a large soup tureen during her husband’s birthday dinner” at Brocket Hall. Still, the stakes are not terribly high. From the outset, Tinniswood tells readers that while some historic houses were abandoned, demolished or turned into schools, most remained family homes. “For every impoverished country squire watching in horror as the taxman chipped away, there was another who managed to carry on,” he writes. Like the very essence of privilege, “the English country house is a remarkably resilient beast.”
The Lives and Loves of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten
By Andrew Lownie
496 pp. Pegasus. $32.
Lord Louis Mountbatten was the Kevin Bacon of royals: a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II and uncle of Prince Philip who encouraged their marriage (and inserted his surname to form the Mountbatten-Windsor hyphenate); best friend of King Edward VIII and part of the inner circle who deliberated his abdication to marry Wallis Simpson. Later, “Dickie” served as confidant to Prince Charles. “It seemed almost unbelievable that one human being could have touched the history of our century at so many points,” noted one obituary cited by Andrew Lownie in “The Mountbattens,” his joint biography of Louis and his glamorous wife, Edwina.
Lownie doesn’t glorify Mountbatten, who was assassinated by the I.R.A. in 1979. He’s cleareyed about the seaman’s checkered naval record — that he plowed ahead with risky operations in pursuit of personal glory and spun his repeated blunders as successes. Curiously, though, rumors of Dickie’s homosexuality and abuse of young men are tacked on at the end.
Edwina saves “The Mountbattens” from being a mere record of Dickie’s military blotter. The “richest girl in the world” at their wedding in 1922, the heiress reads like a fictional flapper: “Trapped by domesticity” and the gilded cage of aristocracy, she “craved her own independence” and sought it in wartime nursing, world travel and affairs (a photo spread of eight notable lovers is incomprehensive). Scandalously for the era, she was rumored to have liaised with Black artists and the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, with whom she “exchanged passionate love letters till she died” in 1960.
“The Mountbattens” is most compelling as a strangely sweet tale of open marriage. The couple spent their union “getting into other people’s beds,” Dickie said, including a love quadrangle in which Dickie slept with the same woman as Edwina’s paramour, Harold “Bunny” Phillips. Edwina hinted at divorce. “I don’t want you to stay against your will. I am not that selfish,” Dickie told Edwina in a letter. “But she stayed,” Lownie wrote, “because he loved and needed her and because, in her confused state of mind, she also continued to love him.”
THE DUCHESS COUNTESS
The Woman Who Scandalized Eighteenth-Century London
By Catherine Ostler
432 pp. Atria. $30.
The real-life tale of Elizabeth Chudleigh is begging for a Netflix adaptation, with shades of Jane Austen, “Bridgerton” and a dash of “The Scarlet Letter.” After the financially destabilizing deaths of her father and brother, it was up to Chudleigh, a countess by birth, “to restore her family to their rightful status.” Gorgeous and witty with an “intrepid, unconquerable spirit,” she lands as maid of honor in the 18th-century court of Princess Augusta of Wales, Diana’s long-ago predecessor. Ostler’s book, which comes out in February, is fittingly bubbly for the “ton,” or fashionable set: The royal court brims with “frizelation,” or flirtation. The princess’ maids — professional besties, basically — are the “tinsel of the drawing room”; one of Chudleigh’s moneyed suitors, a “prize salmon.” Many chapters end with soap-operatic, Keith-Morrison-on-“Dateline”-style doom: “Elizabeth’s secret husband had returned home” is a personal favorite.
Women’s fates were tethered to the men in their lives. Chudleigh had “only one possible route to success,” Ostler writes: “to win herself a husband.” But the countess finds too many husbands. A clandestine, moonlight marriage in Chudleigh’s youth fizzles fast, leaving her trapped, unable to wed the real love of her life, the handsome and conveniently loaded Duke of Kingston. “A man (not a woman) could sue for divorce,” and only “with good reason, such as his wife’s infidelity.” Of course, “male infidelity was not grounds for divorce.”
Legal loopholes, which may or may not be legitimate, are presented, paving the way for Chudleigh’s middle-aged second marriage (she is lambasted in the years prior for being too old to wear flowers in her hair). A bigamy trial follows — no spoilers, “The Duchess Countess” opens with Chudleigh, a black-veiled “sepulchral bride,” processing into court, where thousands of spectators have gathered to revel in her downfall. It feels superfluous when Ostler editorializes Chudleigh’s “vicious, misogynistic times,” adding in the epilogue that “the need to judge a woman in the public eyes feels as acute as ever.” The enduring power of sexism was already abundantly clear.