Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements In Historic Houses
Grade : A

Almost every historical romance you read has a bathing scene. In it, the heroine climbs into a big copper tub filled to the brim with steaming water and thinks about the trials of having a fabulously wealthy earl, or marquis or duke in relentless pursuit. Often she's in the hero's house. He has perfunctorily "ordered her a bath." The steaming water comes up the stairs via the maid who thinks nothing of the extra work. The water, perfumed with lavender, remains hot, seemingly for hours as the heroine soaks and contemplates her troubles. Ah, the good old days, the way we wish they were.

Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses, is an absolutely fascinating look at just how that maid got that water up the stairs, what the tub looked like (it was probably a hip bath - not conducive to soaking) and why the water probably got cold before the heroine had her hair clean. The book is a chapter by chapter account of the housekeeping in great houses in the nineteenth century.

An estate in the nineteenth century was more than a place to live and it was also more than a farm. Wealthy English aristocrats loved to have guests. Even casual visitors might have stayed for weeks. Close friends made indefinite stays that continued for months. Since there were no supermarkets, estates were worlds unto themselves - with dairies, brew-houses, bake houses, distilleries and laundries right on the premises. Ducks and geese were raised for food. Poachers were kept out of the woods so that venison could grace the lord's table. Ice cellars kept food cool over the summer months.

This gorgeous coffee table style book displays photographs of the domestic rooms of a number of beautiful properties of Britain's National Trust. Two hundred illustrations (one hundred and fifty are color plates) make it a treasure. It's one thing to hear about a butler's pantry. Seeing a real butler's pantry, stocked with hampers filled with portable stoves for shooting parties on the grouse moors, is something else again. Everything seems to have had - not only its place - but its own room. We see the "lamp room," the "still-room", the "dry larder," and additional larders dedicated to preserving food. There was a "livery room" where servant's clothing was brushed and repaired, and a separate "brushing room" filled with hat boxes, polishes and boot trees was provided for valets to care for gentlemen's clothing.

The details of domestic life seem to have been far more complex than those described in novels. One of the dovecotes shown could accommodate up to fifteen hundred birds. Apparently the meat and eggs provided a nice change from salted meat and the dung was highly prized as fertilizer. (Perhaps not a romantic fact but an interesting one nonetheless.)

Behind the Scenes is an expensive book, even with the significant discount that Amazon offers. But, if the amount of use justifies the cost, it has been well worth it. I keep this book on the desk in my study. Opening it on a dreary day makes me feel that I've taken a little trip to England. If you can't afford a copy I urge you to hound your local library to borrow or buy a copy. The book is so good that when the librarians see it, they'll be delighted to have you as a patron.

Reviewed by Robin Uncapher
Grade : A
Book Type: Non Fiction

Sensuality: N/A

Review Date : January 12, 2000

Publication Date: 1997

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