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Shaping chateau society

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France is still a world apart from England, at least in its domestic architecture; even the English French-window is subtly different from its parent and vive le difference. Where the grander houses were concerned they developed along virtually separate lines. Mark Girouard follows the pattern of his acclaimed study - almost 20 years ago - of the English country house and the contrasts are wonderfully revealing.

By the time of the French Revolution, the survival, and growth, of (fully- blown) feudalism meant that the Second Estate was numbered in hundreds of thousands - consisting of those who had inherited, been rewarded by or simply bought their tax-free privileges. In England, where feudalism had been gone for centuries, some 250 peers enjoyed a seat in the House of Lords and the perks and acres that accrued. Small wonder that there were architectural differences.

The medieval donjon in which princes of the church and the noblesse d'epee (nobility of the sword) lived in ill-lit chambers, one above the other, endured. Long after the family had decamped to comfortable quarters, no chateau was complete without a set of towers reflected in a moat. Meanwhile, during the sixteenth century the entry tower was elaborated and fretted to provide a splendid full height stair with which even Audley End could not compete.

Seigneurial society was of immense complexity (and meaning) and preserved its rituals, privileges and style even in the face of near poverty. Girouard's pages sparkle with figures such as the Grande Mademoiselle (Louis XIII's niece) who, aged 10, made a royal progress to Touraine and later recorded it in her memoirs. She would have expected (at least) a fine chambre, a garderobe and a cabinet (with a personal chaise-percee for sanitation) to be set aside for herself, and generous provision for the rest of her considerable train. In the 1560s, Catherine de Medici had taken her sons on a 19 month tour of southern and western France. In England such progresses were confined to Queen Elizabeth I's alarming visits to her subjects but in France the nobility were in constant readiness for a visit by a member of royalty.

There was no question of the chateau disassociating itself from its function; the basse cour (an elaborated, formalised farmyard) was often the forecourt to the great house, sometimes on its own moated island site. While in England the home farm would be tucked away on the furthest side of the park, the French saw the correlation between the produce of the land and the life in the big house as axiomatic. At the Chateau de Chanteloup, the terraced gardens extended over the roofs of the cattle sheds.

As in England, the internal planning of French houses became elaborated to reflect changing expectations in society; the need for individual space - for sleep, study, ablutions or assignations as the case might be. There were to be no more public bedroom audiences. The refined elegance of cabinets, ruelles, anti-chambers and vestibules became the exquisite expression of privacy and intimacy. The theatres and salons served for social gatherings.

It was not until the eighteenth century that the salon 'dethroned' the staircase on the main axis of the house (and soon became, more comfortably, single storey). The relationship between house and garden became central; curved or oval fronted rooms with full height windows brought the two together, a model much admired, and copied, in England. Upstairs, bedrooms proliferated; while long passages with numbered doors announced the future (the hotel). By the 1770s there were some stupendous establishments; the Duc de Conde retained 239 liveried servants to underline his royal blood.

The Revolution did not eliminate the French country house but the end of primogeniture with the Code Napoleon left it stranded, as the dealing out of shares of land between siblings diminished their holdings generation after generation. The nineteenth century nobility arrived by a different route - industrial wealth or canny marriages - and built new chateaux or restored the old ones with such gusto that distinctions between old and new became academic.

Mark Girouard's ability to bring society alive through its buildings is, as ever, impressive. He ends the book with the irony that 'hundreds, perhaps thousands' of chateaux remain hidden behind closed gates, without the extremes of either feudalism or commercialisation to help their owners hang on.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape

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