I was inspired by an Instagram post I read recently from a fellow-author.
She said she was warming up with a cup of coffee at the Dorchester Curiosity Centre in Dorset, while waiting for her MOT to be done, and ‘contemplating how cover design has developed over the decades’. She was looking at an entire wall filled with enticing covers of books over the past fifty years.
So, I replied, “Oh for the days when a book cover was boring, and you had to open a book to find out what it was about!”
I was thinking about all those beautiful libraries history lovers enter, within grand country homes open to the public gaze. They are my favourite rooms in the house. Usually there is a vast antique desk in a warm golden oak, with crystal ink pots and the finest stationery sets laid out upon its green baize cover. Elsewhere upon its gleaming timber surface we may notice a pure silver tray, and upon this reposes a cut glass decanter of port, sherry or madeira wine, and a few elegantly arranged crystal glasses, and perhaps a dish of almonds and delicate cheese portions. Behind the desk we may find a luxurious leather throne.
Elsewhere we may sink into sumptuous leather armchairs, or Chippendale chairs, and the finest oak tables to place our books on. The walls are lined by deep carved oak shelves, from floor to ceiling, filled with a glorious display of books all mysteriously bound in the same restrained russet or midnight-blue or bottle-green with gold tooled titles on the spine. To decide on a book, you had to go through the shelves and take one out and open it and scan the title page inside and the first few paragraphs and decide what you think.
I later discovered that the book cover as a way of advertising a book’s contents did not exist until the late 19th century. Until then, book bindings – made in leather or vellum – were merely handcrafted protection for expensively printed or handwritten pages.
There was none of this ‘being-hit-in-the-face’ as we are these days as we enter a bookshop, and soon become dizzy with multiple colours, stunning designs and sensory overload. No kaleidoscopes of images from every sphere of human existence, designed to hook you and claim your attention, with the purpose of gaining access to your inmost desires in the shortest time possible, to chime bells inside you, to meet whatever needs you believe you may have. How do the people with synaesthesia cope, I wonder? Those who hear colours as sounds, or experience sounds as colours?
But back before the late 1800s, no-one expected this when they entered a realm of books. Nothing would break in on them. These were times of leisure and contemplation and deliberation, we might think, if we enter one of the gracious libraries in an English stately home.
How I long for the mental and physical space, silence, and peace that I imagine reigned within some of those libraries. My dearest wish would be to go on retreat there for several days or even weeks, with all my needs catered to of course, several of them being met by on-call, willing and ever attentive uniformed staff. (The others might be catered to by a visit to the nearby bathroom with its gold taps and blue and white Delft tiles upon the walls and its porcelain fittings). I would then calmly enter into the world’s greatest literature, spending quality time with the hearts and souls of those who penned it, their wisdom, their insights, their profound thoughts enshrined within the most beautiful language and powers of self-expression. I would have time to imbibe all this, and to take it all into my own heart and soul.
A dream, you say? An idyll that never existed? Or a luxury only for the privileged few in a profoundly unjust world? For all those who dwelt in this environment during those days when the house was a live space, not merely a museum, would have had their own sorrows and anxieties and pressures too. They too, like us, would have been plagued by annoying people. The staff would probably have brought their own personal troubles into the house. The world they all lived in was replete with dreadful tragedies, social injustice, natural and man-man disasters, and political folly all borne from and fed by the same greed and lust for power that surrounds us all today. They themselves, as individuals, may have been protected from that world to a certain extent by their money: even that did not save them from the effects of disease both physical and mental, ignorant doctors, bereavement, war, broken relationships, adultery and child mortality.
Yes, yes, I recognise all this: but back to those beautiful libraries. Surely, they were created by people with a vision: a vision for what life COULD be like, a vision for what many of certain tastes, like me, dream of and value. A vision marred, of course, by human nature and social injustice, and the fact that humans cannot seem to bring anything into reality, however dreamlike, that does not eventually become elitist, and connected with material wealth and social status. A beautiful, mellow, golden room, lined with books.
My favourites, all from grand country houses in the county of Warwickshire where I live, include the libraries at Charlecote House, Stoneleigh Abbey and Upton House. At Charlecote, the Lucy family were the lucky owners of the library. At Stoneleigh Abbey, Chandos Leigh, romantic poet and contemporary of Lord Byron, spent his happiest hours here within this room, and probably still haunts it today. At Upton House, Lord and Lady Bearsted enjoyed the warmth of this room.
We can dream, and then we return to the twenty-first century high street bookshop and synaesthesia-challenging covers.
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6 thoughts on “The Lure of a Country House Library”
Let me know if you do manage to arrange a retreat in such a place, Sheila
The retreat centre is Holland House in Cropthorne, Pershore. Yes, I’ll have to book a retreat there this year!
I have a deep longing for such a room. Currently, bookcases scattered about in most rooms of the house.
Yes, I think many of us can only hope to find ourselves in such a library and be able to stay there for several hours. Our nearest retreat house in Worcestershire has a gorgeous library. As soon as I entered it, my heart leapt. I thought ‘I must arrange to join a residential retreat here, and then I can spend hours in this room!’
I’’m absolutely on the same page as you with this, Sheila – literally, figuratively and pun intended! I adore a library. One of my favourites is Baddesleigh Clinton, which also has a nook half way down the stairs that overlooks the moat and would be a perfect little space to sit and read.
Absolutely, Anna! I love that nook in Baddesley Clinton!