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The World of the Country House in Seventeenth-Century England

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by J T Cliffe. Yale University Press, 1999. 232pp. £30

This book identifies a small section of social and architectural history that has, until now, escaped the attention of those many authors who have made country house studies into a distinct publishing industry, writes Dan Cruickshank. J T Cliffe takes the country houses of the 'gentry' - not the aristocracy - as the focus of his study in a century which, by comparison with the eighteenth and nineteenth, has suffered some architectural neglect.

The author is scrupulous in his definition of the families which come within the scope of the book - he calculates 1317 in number which were neither too grand nor too lowly, neither too rich nor too poor, to qualify, between 1600 and 1700, as the families of 'gentlemen'.

Having identified his sample, Cliffe defines its essential character and looks at where and how these gentlemen of England lived. It must be said that this is more a social than an architectural history. There are lots of contemporary prints and portraits, and some fine colour photographs, but no plans and little about the ways in which buildings were financed, designed or constructed.

Instead we are offered a rich and revealing insight into the family lives of Cliffe's gentlemen and discover how their estates were organised and how the various component parts functioned. To this end the author offers chapters dealing not only with 'The Squire's Wife' but also with servants, coachmen, chaplains and tutors. In addition there are chapters which cover parks and gardens, intellectual pursuits and - hidden apologetically at the end of the book - one on scandals.

This deals at length with seventeenth-century gentlemen's addiction to adultery. As Cliffe ruefully admits, 'there can be no doubt that sexual promiscuity was relatively common among the landed gentry, both before and after the Restoration. '

The one good point that emerges is that the country gent. tended not to abandon his illegitimate offspring - even when by 'common whores' of London - but remembered them in his will, tried to marry them into decent families or, like Sir Thomas Spencer, not only made generous provision for his illegitimate daughter in his will but committed her to the care of his long-suffering wife who already had four daughters of her own.

Cliffe also includes a few country-house murders, which are all bloodcurdling affairs, mostly of great savagery. Clearly, when his emotions were aroused or his mind temporarily unhinged, the seventeenth-century country gent. could be a very dangerous fellow indeed.

Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian

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