The End of High Society
After the sun had set on the British Empire, it shone its light closer to home: on British high society. What began as a relaxation of rules at the close of World War I became the end of the aristocracy as World War II loomed. English society traditionally centered on members of the royal court, whose wealth, influence, and style enabled them to support great estates as centers of social and political influence. But in the 19th century, the circle expanded to include the local landed gentry, who were tied to the aristocracy by marriage and a similar lifestyle. The industrial age deprived society of control over newcomers into its ranks and as a result the elite began to focus on more frivolous pursuits. After the gruesome war years, British high society was ready to make merry, but the party would not last for long.
While the London party season lasted only from late March to early August, (roughly coinciding with the sitting of Parliament), the English country estate was always in season. Land was the basis of the English aristocracy. A country estate, handed down from father to son, was a sacred inheritance. The Edwardian era, when 80 percent of the land was owned by three percent of the people, marked the zenith of country house life. But change was afoot as early as 1909, when the Finance Act increased taxation on all land revenues and triggered a sell-off of farmland and estates. After the First World War, an estimated eight million acres in Britain changed hands, far more than at any other time in history. One real estate firm claimed to have sold property the size of an English county. Some aristocrats kept just the house and park, others sold them off separately for use as schools or other institutions, and still other great houses were razed -- continuing the destruction of the country houses begun in the late 19th century. The editors of Burke's Peerage and Burke's Landed Gentry found that the older the family, the more likely they were to keep their estates. Still, by 1937 only a third of the families listed in these aristocratic directories actually held land.
At the same time, staffs were growing smaller. After the First World War, there was a shortage of servants in London, where alternative employment was both more abundant and more lucrative than in the country. When a family returned to their London house, they generally took their country staff with them rather than do without. New labor-saving appliances also reduced the need for a large staff. The vacuum cleaner replaced an army of housemaids. Commercial laundries took over for laundry maids. Electricity supplanted oil lamps, which needed endless cleaning and filling. Still most country estates operated as they had for years, on the principles and traditions that would not change until the onset of the next world war.
The Good Life
In the years between world wars, life in an English country house revolved around the family and its guests. A normal visit lasted a weekend, then considered Saturday to Monday. House parties often centered on a sporting event such as a race, hunt, or shoot in the winter or a cricket match in the summer.
Visitors arrived by car or a train from London. The gentleman would not bring his own valet, as his butler would remain at home to supervise the staff in his absence. The host's butler and footmen would act his valets, which entailed removing clothing discarded when changing for dinner and brushing, pressing, and returning them in the morning when he called with tea. A lady would take her own maid who knew exactly what her mistresses would wear and when and would lay the requisite garments out. A woman's clothes -- tweed suits, twin-sets, and flounced evening gowns -- traveled in a trunk. Every woman traveled with at least eight pairs of shoes because, as with men's day clothes, shoes were whisked away and cleaned by a servant specially employed for this purpose. Unfortunately, they were seldom returned before morning, which meant that ladies often came to breakfast in their evening slippers.
With or without guests, the daily routine for a family at its country house was unalterable, due in part to the servants, whose meal-times were rigid, and in part to Edwardian era tradition. At nine o'clock, housemaids and valets arrived to draw bedroom curtains and deliver a cup of tea as ordered by the hostess the night before. An estate such as The Cazalet's Home Place could do with no less than a butler, cook, housemaids, and chauffeur. If there were children, a nanny and governess were required as well. The outdoor staff would include a head groom, possibly two under grooms if the whole family hunted, a head gardener, and an under gardener. Estates of any size were managed by a resident land agent, and the farm was managed by a farm bailiff. Grander houses had larger staffs, the ultimate belonging to the royal household. When George V recuperated in Bognor in West Sussex, he took a "skeleton" staff of 45 servants.
Weekend life at an English country house was regimented by four meals, whose menus were determined by the lady of the house and the cook -- at Home Place the Duchy and Mrs. Cripps. Breakfast, served at 9:30 a.m., was considered a major meal. Lunch, served in the dining-room at one o'clock or after the servants had eaten, was usually an egg dish to start, followed by a main course, cold meats on the sideboard if anybody wanted them, pudding, cheeses, and dessert. Lunch was an informal meal, with guests and family often helping themselves. In the summer, picnics on the estate's grounds were popular not only with the guests but also with the staff left behind. Afternoon tea was served in dining room or, less often, in the drawing room. The practice of women changing for tea died out in most houses before World War I.
The most popular summer entertainment was tennis. Every country house of note boasted a court, sometimes more than one. These courts were nearly all grass, as most aristocrats still considered hard courts a vulgar novelty. Croquet was played with enthusiasm, as was golf, by both men and women. Some estates, including all royal country residences, had their own courses. Wet-weather entertainment was a long damp walk or ride. In more traditional houses, men and women spent their days apart. Men played games of billiards and snooker in the afternoon, between tea and dinner. To play after dinner would have been rude to the hostess and insulting to the other women.
At a half an hour before the dinner, a gong sounded and everyone retired to change for dinner. Family members and guests went up to a bath drawn for them and to change into the clothes laid out for them. Women's fashions changed constantly. Pajamas for dinner were a 1930s invention and only worn for dinner with family and close friends. Men wore dinner jackets; the host sometimes donned a smoking jacket. In the grandest houses, all gentlemen were expected to wear tailcoats.
Family and guests first gathered in the drawing room for cocktails, generally served by the host. Unlike in London, no one was escorted into dinner but there was a seating arrangement, with neighbors placed between guests and family. A typical dinner party menu began with soup, followed by fish, then chicken or quails, a saddle of lamb or beef, a pudding, a savory, and finally fruit. There was sherry with the soup, white wine with the fish, red with the main course. For a more informal family dinner, the entree might be left out. Coffee was served the dining room. When the hostess had finished, the women retired to the drawing room while the men stayed on smoking and drinking port for an hour or more.
The party was reunited in the drawing room for post-dinner entertainment like bezique, backgammon, and bridge. After World War I, contract bridge became so popular among both men and women that it was nearly mania. Equally popular in the 1920s was mah-jongg, the society game for the short time the craze lasted. Other houses went in for acting games like charades. The younger members of the family and their friends would roll back the carpets, wind up the gramophone, and dance. The grandest houses often imported local bands for after dinner dancing. When family and guests returned to their rooms, a fire had been stoked, the bed turned down and the day clothes removed. Guests could watch the shadow of the flames on the ceiling as they fell asleep.
When Hitler's armies invaded Poland in 1939 and marched on to occupy France in 1940, British aristocrats could no longer ignore the war that had reached their shores and now threatened their lives as well as their way of life. Like all British citizens, they would be called on to sacrifice. Conscription was ordered for all men 20 years and older and men like Rupert and Edward Cazalet promptly enlisted. Meanwhile, German U-boats formed a blockade around the British Isles, sinking 160,000 tons of British shipping and causing massive food shortages. The days of sumptuous menus and vast dinner parties were over. Even the Royal Family was issued ration books. The naval blockade was followed by an air attack known as the Blitz, flying more than 1,500 missions a day over England. Air raid shelters were dug in back gardens, and London subway stations hosted a nightly influx of sleepers. Children were whisked away from cities under attack to find shelter in country households. Gas masks were issued to everyone, even babies like Sybil and Hugh's young son William. The Cazalets, like families all across England, tacked black fabric over their windows to comply with the total blackout imposed by air-raid wardens. When German bombs hit the Cazalets' timber yard, a worker is killed and inventory destroyed. Such heavy losses were incurred all across England, bringing the wealthy to their knees. Much of their vast holdings were lost and their land could not save them.
While English high society did survive after the war, it never regained its former level of power and influence. A new era of egalitarianism dawned, and the days of country houses and aristocratic lifestyles became the stuff of rosy reminiscence.
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