Other People’s Homes

What do you think of when the word “home” is mentioned? There are those who still live in their childhood homes filled with memories; there are those who wander this earth looking for a place to set down roots; and there are those who  only want to sell a house after remodeling and redecorating.

Then, there are a handful of individuals who become caretakers of grand, historical homes only for as long as they live; for after they die their oldest male heir will likely inherit their estate. In Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, the Countess of Carnarvon tells the story of Highclere Castle and its surrounds.

People have been living at Highclere for thousands of years as demonstrated by the Iron Age hill fort on the property. The land was owned by the bishops of Winchester for hundreds of years before being awarded, in the late seventeenth century, to the Herbert family, Earls of Pembroke and ancestors of the Earls of Carnarvon. Because of the expense of maintaining palatial properties such as Highclere, male heirs were often encouraged to marry into money so that these properties could be preserved and their splendor sustained. This fascinating book covers the estate and its inhabitants from the late Victorian era to the mid 1920’s.

Sometimes, no matter how much you love your home and what it represents, it cannot be saved. In The House I Loved, Rose Bazelet is determined to stay in the only home she’s really known, a home she has lived in her entire married life. It is the 1860’s and Emperor Napoleon III has given orders to modernize Paris by widening the city’s streets, obliterating entire neighborhoods, included Rose’s. One by one her neighbors move out but Rose is determined to stay. She passes her days and nights writing letters to her dead husband and recalling their past together. Her two closest friends try to encourage her to relocate but she resists them, for how can she leave the place where all her memories reside.

Sometimes there are homes that seem to be charmed. In The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, Heidi, although mourning her husband’s untimely death, travels, along with her young son and sixteen year old niece, to a small village in the south of France. There has been a fire in the ancestral family home and Heidi’s mother has asked Heidi to determine the extent of the damage and stay while repairs are finished. While there, Heidi is drawn into the secrets and magic that pervade this home and, in time, will bring joy and hope back into her life.

There are also homes that seen to beckon us through generations and from distant lands. Going home to Lebanon, Anthony Shadid is determined to rebuild his great-grandfather’s home in House of Stone. His family had fled war-torn Lebanon to build a new life in Oklahoma City where he was raised. The call of family history was too strong, however, and so he returned to his ancestral home determined to bring it back to life again. This wonderful account of restoring a home is interspersed with memorable characters, myths, family histories and traditions, and explanations of the rich culture that exists in his chosen homeland. This superb book is made more poignant by the fact that Anthony Shadid passed away earlier this year.

Finally, if you’re interested in how homes have evolved over the years you should read If Walls Could Talk. This fascinating history covers everything we take for granted in our modern homes: from bedrooms, where sleeping in a private bed is a somewhat recent event, through the even more recent custom of bathrooms, and the modernization of the kitchens of today. This interesting and informative volume is filled with trivia of the everyday running of the home, past and present.

So, pull out a chair (keeping in mind that in a medieval house only the lord or owner was allowed to sit down), relax and be thankful that we live in the here and now and can take the time to enjoy reading about other people’s homes.


After Downton

Recently I have been putting everything else aside on Sunday evenings so I can be in front of my television at 9 p.m. What has captured my interest — Downton Abbey! This Masterpiece series on PBS explores the lives of an aristocratic English family, the fictional Crawleys, and the lives of their servants dramatizing the social life and customs on a vast country estate in the early part of the last century.

There is Robert, the honorable and proper Earl of Grantham, Cora, his American heiress wife and their gorgeous headstrong daughters. Outside of the immediate family there is Violet, the incorrigible Dowager Countess, Carson, the grand butler, Branson, the radical chauffeur and Thomas, the wayward footman. Adhering to strict social codes for both “upstairs” and “downstairs”  had always brought a kind of comfort to the household but gradually their world is disturbed by outside economic and political forces as World War I looms.

The characters, the history, the period dress, the lovely English accents – I just can’t get enough! Fortunately, several nonfiction books have been providing me with related reading entertainment between Sundays.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: the Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle is written by Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, the  real-life, present-day countess of Highclere Castle where the series is filmed. Using the family archives, she tells a story of family life at the Castle that is in some ways more fascinating than that of the fictional family in Downton Abbey.

If you are interested in the servant’s point of view, Rosina Harrison recounts in detail her years as a lady’s maid and her intimate knowledge of extravagant lifestyles in Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor.

The Perfect Summer: England 1911 Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson brings to life England during the summer of the coronation of George V, the event which brought the Edwardian era to a close. Focusing on individuals, she describes the high life of the rich and aristocratic made possible by a variety of servants. She also documents the indifference of industrialists toward their workers as well as the growing women’s suffrage movement.

The second season of Downton Abbey ends soon but I plan to read more about this period while I wait for season three. On my list are:  The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes, the companion edition to the series, and The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund which promises to tell the experiences of twenty ordinary people and how the war affected them in their daily lives.