Summers’s subject – the English country house – has, of course, been done to death and, although she approaches it from an oblique angle, the reader feels a nagging fear that the book will descend sooner or later into what Waugh, when he came to re-read Brideshead Revisited, called a “gluttony… for the splendours of the recent past”. Luckily, Summers keeps her focus on the human element, rather than the houses themselves, and by encompassing a series of lesser, local voices, skirts the well-trodden ground of “eccentric aristocrats at war”, which, though often amusing – and it is hard not to be entertained by the vignette of the Duke of Westminster, his horses and hounds given up for the war effort, hallooing rabbits across his lawn with a pack of furious dachshunds at his feet – does little to help us understand the realities of wartime life.
Instead, Summers gives us some less familiar comic incongruities: screaming newborns being “sponged down with Dettol water” in Brocket Hall, against a backdrop of painted Chinese wallpaper and a vast red-and-gold pagoda bedstead; the pupils of Malvern College, transplanted to Blenheim Palace, jovially lobbing Molotov cocktails in a nearby quarry during Local Defence Volunteer duties. Summers reminds us that life in these gilded palaces was not luxurious in every respect. As one woman recalled of her war years at Waddesdon Manor, the Rothschilds’ vast faux-French chateau: “This was my introduction to one of the grandest country mansions in England; it was also my first experience of nits and impetigo.”