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Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History (1978)
- Both and France and England had started in the Middle Ages with the basic system of hall and chamber (in France salleand chambre), but the system had developed differently in the two countries.
- As far as country houses were concerned, the functions of the lower ranks within the hierarchy were now only those of respectful service to their superiors. They lived in the basement, or in subordinate wings to either side of the house. The main rooms were designed as the orderly setting for meetings between gentlemen, lords, and princes, who seldom forgot their rank. But behind the rigid etiquette which regulated their intercourse, continual jockeying for power, position and favours went on. The central government was a rich source of jobs and perquisites, which were distributed either by the king himself, or by his ministers and favourites. The main power of the court aristocracy now lay in its power of patronage; it was constantly being solicited for favours.
- The separation of men from women at the dinner was still in the mediaeval tradition. Another interesting feature of the evening is the relatively small number of people involved. Eighteen sat down to dinner, fifteen couples danced at the ball. The entertaining was ‘the finest that ever was seen’ because of the style and richness of the accompaniments, not because of its size. This was typical of the period. Feasts for several hundred people were still being given in the country, to prepare for an election or celebrate Christmas, births, weddings, and comings of age. They usually centred round dinner in the hall, and could involve all the neighbouring gentry and near-gentry, and even the tenants and local freeholders. But the entertainments which enjoyed the most prestige were small but elaborate ones for relatively few people – just as the prestigious part of the house was devoted to a few large apartments for great people coming on what amounted to a state visit. A hard line was still drawn between the inner ring of the great and smaller fry.
- The combined results of the growing independence, culture and prosperity of the lesser gentry and professional classes, the sewing up of the parliamentary system, and the resulting decline in importance of the smaller freeholder was a growing gap between the polite world of the gentry and the impolite world of servants, farmers and smallholders. In terms of the country house this meant an increasing split between gentry upstairs and non-gentry downstairs. Gentlemen could now only enter household service as librarians, tutors or chaplains; in which case they did not consider themselves servants and ate with the family or on their own. The tenants and freeholders, on the other hand, had sunk in status with the upper servants.
- One result of the nobility and gentry becoming more mobile and mixing more together was new kinds of parties. From the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, whenever people decided to entertain, they did so in much the same way. They gave either a dinner on its own, or a dinner combined with dancing. The latter combination started with a meal, sometimes enlivened by music. After dinner the company retired to a withdrawing room, and passed an hour or so by taking tea or dessert, or playing cards, or listening to more music. They then returned to the room where they had dined, for dancing or as it tended to be called, a ball; in the early eighteenth century as few as seven couples dancing together could be described as a ball. After dancing there was normally some kind of light refreshment, and then everybody went home. The refreshments at the end might, according to the century, be described as a banquet or a supper, the room for dinner and dancing a great chamber or a saloon; the dances danced, the music played and the food eaten changed, but the pattern remained much the same. The guests did one thing at a time, and they all did it together.