Back at the end of August, I discussed the importance of a house and land in the country for the wealthy classes of England…and the fact that if you had land, then you had money and power. Before the 19th century, you may have owned thousands of acres of land…but visited them rarely, if at all. London was truly the seat of power, because that’s was where the king was…and the king was the source of royal patents, monopolies, and all the little jobs and perquisites that the rich and powerful wanted in order to become even more rich and powerful.
But that began to change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Thanks to the influence of writers and philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others, the idea of Nature with a capital ‘N’ along with the Romantic movement meant that the country began to exert a new allure on the upper classes. Along with this came the not-very-romantic realization that paying attention to their country estates and land could yield a vastly increased income. Technological improvements in transportation made getting to the country easier…all of which combined in a perfect storm that meant the golden age of the country house
So for a good part of the year, when Parliament wasn’t in session, Papa might be in the country breeding better beef cattle or discussing field rotation or enclosure with his farm bailiff or steward. What might his daughters do in the meanwhile?
1. Be outside! Riding and walking were always popular, to enjoy the benefits of fresh air and exercise. If science was an interest, then botanizing or bird-watching might be on the menu. Country scenery offered plenty of inspiration to the young lady equipped with sketchbook and pencil. And if sports were it, there was fox-hunting (in season) or quieter activities like lawn tennis, croquet, or boating on a handy river or pond.
2. Go visiting. If one was of a charitable bent, those walks and rides might be to visit the poorer families that lived nearby, in order to keep an eye on their needs and wants (and perhaps offer words of guidance that might—or might not—be gratefully received.) The more conscientious landowning families could be extraordinarily charitable to their poorer tenants and employees. If one was sociable, a visit to the nearby gentry might be on the list—the local vicar and his family, perhaps, or friends at other “big houses” nearby.
3. Indoor activities. When the climate or inclination did not call for being outside, there was plenty indoors to occupy her, just as there was in London: reading, needlework, writing letters, and tagging along after Mama to learn how to run their own country house some day.
4. Party! The 19th century was also the heyday of the country house party. The opening of rail travel in the later 1830s allowed much more movement just for the fun of it…but it was still enough of an event to mean that longer visits of a week or more remained the norm, especially in the autumn.
Want to know more? I recommend Mrs. Hurst Dancing & Other Scenes From Regency Life 1812-1823 (watercolors by Diana Sperling, text by Gordon Mingay), featuring the charming watercolor drawings of gentry life in the Essex countryside, and the compulsively readable non-fiction books Ladies of the Manor by Pamela Horn and The English Country House Party by Phyllida Barstow.