Friday, 9 November 2012

The country house as metaphor

Lumsden          we… the Trust, its houses, its coastline, its landscape… are, if not the model of England, at least its mitigation

Dorothy           Country houses are window dressing. They mitigate nothing. … England is not my problem. I will not be metaphorised.

25 years ago this year Robert Hewison published ‘The Heritage Industry’, a book that did more than any other to throw light on the expanding market for heritage experiences. There is a whole chapter in the book devoted to the story of the National Trust and the rescue of the country house. In ‘Brideshead Re-revisited’ Hewison tells a story of ‘the power of the cult of the country house’. ‘A building that can only be glimpsed becomes the erotic object of desire of a lover locked out…’ he writes, ‘By a mystical process of identification the country house becomes the nation, and love of one's country makes obligatory a love of the country house.’

Hewison’s booked raised some criticisms of the Trust, in particular its stated desire to show collections ‘in the ambience of the past’. This raised questions for Hewison of definition and interpretation – whose past? How was its ambience being conveyed?

Hewison’s essay attempted to puncture holes in the pretences of ‘the heritage industry’ (he claims to have invented the phrase), and in our national reverence for ‘stately homes’. At a recent debate held in Cambridge Hewison observed that his criticism was directed at the way the past was becoming used as a comfort blanket for the nation: a new museum opening every fortnight at the same time as manufacturing industry was on the slide.

Alan Bennett’s new play ‘People’ explores similar territory. It concerns a country house, Stacpole House,  and its owner, Dorothy Stacpoole, who is contemplating whether or not it should fall into the hands of the Trust. (The variant spellings of ‘Stacpoole’ are deliberate, evoking the aristocratic tradition of Harewood/Harwood etc.) The ‘ouch’ moment for the National Trust occurs in the character of Ralph Lumsden, the enthusiastic Trust representative, who in making an inventory of the contents of the house is given to waxing lyrically about the place’s significance in the history of the nation.

In passing he makes reference to various angles on the house’s presentation that may be familiar to aficionados of today’s National Trust: stabilisation (not elimination) of the decay in the tapestries; the scullery and the still room being as important as the drawing room; bringing back the farm and growing stuff for the café etc.

 ‘While of course as a growth organisation we are concerned to maximise the percentage footfall, do please bear in mind these are not just people’, he reminds Dorothy, when she voices concerns at the number of visitors who would be descending on the property.

Many will enjoy the satire, and no organisation is immune to this sort of critique, least of all one as big and popular as the National Trust. The text of the play is sure to become a staple of heritage studies undergraduate courses for years to come, just as Hewison’s book did. But does Bennett add anything to what Hewison was saying 25 years ago?

At the recent Cambridge event, Hewison amplified his thesis: he was not decrying history, just its commoditisation as ‘heritage’. The National Trust has only survived because of its ability to raise funding for its conservation work from private sources, and through the generosity of millions of members, donors, volunteers, visitors and supporters. This is the reality of the Trust’s work in rescuing special places and saving them forever. 

We’ll enjoy going to see ‘People’ (when we get a chance to). But People and Places are intimately intertwined in the work of the National Trust, and not just in the ways that Alan Bennett describes. 

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