Book Review: Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements In Historic Houses (Christina Hardyment) : BH

8/12/2001 • British Heritage Book Reviews

Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements In Historic Houses, by Christina Hardyment is published by The National Trust and is distributed in North America by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York. For ordering information, please phone 800-288-2131. $39.95, hardback, 1997.

As author Christina Hardyment mentions in her preface to Behind the Scenes, for many years, visitors to Britain’s stately homes were treated as guests; they entered through the front door and were usually met with the appearance of seemingly effortless domestic tranquillity. What they did not see was the army of servants who spent countless hours of hard, intensive labour to support this harmonious façade. This behind-the-scenes world has become of interest to present-day visitors. At Erddig, a stately home managed by The National Trust in Clwyd, Wales, the house’s caretakers took advantage of this trend by making the servants’ quarters into the official main entrance to the property.

Hardyment explores the world behind the stairs, in which legions of servants baked bread, drew water, milked cows, made cheese, scrubbed pots and pans, put out fires, and performed the innumerable other tasks that went into daily domestic life at a large house. She focuses her attention on properties owned by The National Trust, Britain’s independent charity founded to preserve and protect places of historic interest.

The book’s chapters contain detailed explanations of all aspects of domestic life, from ‘The Living Larder’ and ‘The Dairy’ to ‘The Cook’s Quarters’. Also included are chapters on the supplemental processes of domestic life such as food preservation, light and heat, and bathing and washing. In each, the author provides clear and concise descriptions of the accoutrements of domestic life. The exceptional colour and historical photographs and well-researched captions that accompany the text enhance the reader’s appreciation of the subject.

Behind the Scenes mentions nearly 40 historic houses owned by The Trust. A useful gazetteer, included in the concluding chapter, contains an annotated list of National Trust properties the author feels ‘have the most to offer those interested in domestic arrangements.’ If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit these houses in person, Behind the Scenes offers the perfect introduction to their domestic histories. If you are only an armchair traveller, it will provide equal pleasure in its thorough portraiture of an era in which the domestic comforts of daily life were not taken for granted.

Leigh Ann Berry