The English country house

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The English country house

Post  eddie on Sat Jun 11, 2011 11:39 pm

England's Lost Houses from the Archives of Country Life by Giles Worsley – review

By Vera Rule

The Guardian, Saturday 11 June 2011

England's Lost Houses: From the Archives of Country Life by Giles Worsley

This grave compilation of Country Life photographs of great houses, burned, stripped, wrecked, demolished and otherwise ruined since 1900 feels like an illustrated supplement to English fiction, high and low, over the same period; for so many novelists visited or returned, or found they could never return, to just such buildings. The magazine's pictures of interiors and exteriors, intense almost to the point of surreality, were always taken in cool daylight, voided of humans or any other signs of actual life, though there is wood ash under an unlit log in a grate in Dunsland House – which I remember disappearing between one journey to north Devon and the next: it had burned down, discreetly. Giles Worsley's brief text for each mansion quietly indicates the feuds, scandals, bankruptcies, boredom and trivial but awful accidents (the nearest competent fire brigade too far away, the blaze always "took hold very quickly") that condemned each place, some brutally grand, and some, like Dunsland, more touching for their modesty. Haunting. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: The English country house

Post  eddie on Sat Jun 11, 2011 11:51 pm

The country house and the English novel

From Austen to Waugh to McEwan, great novelists have been drawn to stately homes. Why are grand country houses such a national literary obsession, asks Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison The Guardian, Saturday 11 June 2011

Big house, little house ... Stokesay Court, Shropshire, home to the Tallis family in the film version of Atonement. Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The sately homes of England

How beautiful they stand!

Amidst their tall ancestral trees,

O'er all the pleasant land.

(Felicia Hemans, 1827)

Evelyn Waugh came to regret Brideshead Revisited. In a 1959 preface to its reissue, he apologised for having infused it "with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful". The excess was due to the wartime conditions in which the novel had been written, he explained:

It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of 1944, the present cult of the English country house. It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century. So I piled it on rather, with passionate sincerity.

Pile it on he certainly did, revering Brideshead for its continuity ("Year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended it; year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness"), and condemning the chippy provincial platoon commander, Hooper, for daring to comment, as he and his troops set about requisitioning Brideshead: "It doesn't seem to make any sense – one family in a place this size. What's the use of it?" In the event the anticipated destruction of the English country house by socialist vandals like Hooper did not occur, and Waugh was relieved as well as embarrassed to find that his novel had been a "panegyric preached over an empty coffin". Still, its redundancy seems to have gone unnoticed both by admiring readers and by the makers of the 1981 television series and 2008 film.

That his novel would still be popular more than half a century later would have surprised Waugh. He would be even more surprised to find that novels with an English country house setting are among the most acclaimed written in recent years, among them Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989), Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001) and Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger (2009). Next month brings another notable addition to the genre, Alan Hollinghurst's compelling new novel The Stranger's Child, set partly in a 3,000-acre estate called Corley Court. All these are historical novels, set at different points of the last century, with Hollinghurst's spanning 95 years and concluding in 2008. Like Waugh's novel, they're also revealing about present-day preoccupations. And what they confirm is the continuing attraction of the English country house to the literary imagination.

Although they've done enough research plausibly to depict what goes on in one, or what used to, none of these novelists grew up in a country house. If it's inside knowledge we're after, we'd do better to read Snobs by Julian Fellowes (aka Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, author of Downton Abbey), or pay a visit to a National Trust or English Heritage property, or tune in to Dan Cruickshank's television series The Country House Revealed, which takes us behind doors normally closed to the public. What attracts the non-U contemporary novelist to country houses is the space they afford for gathering a group of diverse characters – servants as well as masters – under one roof, so as to watch how tensions develop, love affairs begin and catastrophes unfold. In this, they're also engaging with a tradition that runs from Pope, Fielding and Austen to Forster, Wodehouse and Waugh. That tradition is reflected in the number of classics with houses as their title – Howards End, Waverley, Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, The Spoils of Poynton – not to mention the fictional houses made so memorable that they rank with real ones – Pemberley (home to Mr Darcy), Manderley (home to Max de Winter) Thornfield (home to Mr Rochester), Baskerville Hall, and so on.

As Mark Girouard points out in his anthology A Country House Companion, there's a mythology surrounding English country houses that extols them as "magical places" and their owners as wise custodians who tend the land, look after their tenants and servants, devote their lives to public service, fill their galleries with beautiful pictures and their libraries with rare books, and are unfailingly hospitable to friends and guests. Predictably, the most zealous purveyors of the myth have been aristocrats themselves, who depict their homes not as monuments to power and wealth but as embodiments of grace and gentility. Eager to establish its democratic credentials, Vita Sackville-West portrays her family home, Knole, not as the vast pile it is – 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards, set in a 1,000-acre deer park – but as "the greater relation of those small manorhouses which hide themselves away so innumerably among the counties . . . It has all the quality of peace and permanence; of mellow age; of stateliness and tradition. It is gentle and venerable."

The myth of the country house is seductive but authors aren't obliged to sign up to it; they can also question, satirise and subvert, as Noël Coward does when he rewrites Felicia Hemans: "The stately homes of England / How beautiful they stand, / To prove the upper classes / Have still the upper hand." Certainly the country houses that appear in contemporary fiction are far from gentle and venerable. The home of the Tallis family in McEwan's Atonement is ugly – "barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances, and by a younger writer of the modern school as 'charmless to a fault'." Hundreds Hall, in Waters's novel, is decaying, creepy and a home – or so it seems – to poltergeists. As for the "violently Victorian" Corley Court in Hollinghurst's novel, with its "stained glass windows that kept out the light, the high ceilings that baffled all attempts at heating, the barely penetrable thickets of overladen tables, chairs and potted palms that filled the rooms", the suggestion that these "inhuman aspects" and "grotesqueries" might be part of its charm is rudely discarded by its owners, who are keen to make fashionable alterations.

If the houses themselves are unattractive, their occupants are even less so. Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day, might stay loyal to his boss Lord Darlington but the reader unmasks him as a Nazi sympathiser. The frozen Caroline in The Little Stranger feels more protective of her dog than of the child it savages, and – like her war-damaged brother Roderick – is snobbishly inept when dealing with the lower orders. The Tallis family in Atonement, when misled by 13-year-old Briony, are all too quick to identify Robbie – the son of the cleaning lady – as a rapist, though the real offender comes from their own social caste. Hollinghurst's Cecil is charismatic, a poet in the manner of Rupert Brooke, but there's a dangerous power about him, a droit de seigneurial swagger, which he doesn't fail to exploit.

These four novels are about much more than country houses: Waters's plays with the conventions of the ghost story, McEwan's has a section on Dunkirk, Ishiguro's is a study in emotional repression, and Hollinghurst's is, among other things, a bibliographical thriller. And insofar as they take property as a theme, they address issues familiar to most of us – everything from inheritance and refurbishment to faulty wiring. "Aren't you ever amused at the solemnity with which we middle classes approach the subject of houses?" Margaret Schlegel asks Mr Wilcox in Howards End. What she calls solemnity has now become a national obsession, fed by endless television documentaries about buying houses and doing them up. Like property pages and estate agent windows with their multimillion-pound homes, country house novels allow us to luxuriate in places we could never own – to linger in long galleries, gaze at ancestral portraits and roam the gardens and parkland. They're appealing to film companies, too – Atonement and The Remains of the Day became big-budget movies, and there's every chance The Little Stranger and (no relation) The Stranger's Child will follow suit.

But the motivation for these authors isn't the prospect of movie deals. Nor do nostalgia, aestheticism or attachment to privilege play much of a part. What draws them to a country house setting is the space it offers for everything to happen under one roof; the house of fiction has many rooms, but country house fiction has more rooms than most. There's also the opportunity to play with ideas and motifs that date back centuries. Plus ça change; in country house literature things move slowly or not at all. However smartly renovated, the same few themes, characters and plot-twists come up again and again.

1 Englishness?

The Stately Homes of England

Although a trifle bleak

Historically speaking

Are more or less unique.

"Of all the great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character," wrote Henry James, "the most perfect, the most characteristic, the only one they have mastered completely in all its details, so that it becomes a compendious illustration of their social genius and their manners, is the well-appointed, well-administered, well-filled country house." Coward and Waugh likewise bought into the notion of uniqueness. But is Chatsworth any more quintessentially English than, say, a working-class terrace in Derby or a mobile home in Jaywick? Besides, the idea that there's something quintessentially English about country houses is to ignore Russian dachas, French châteaux, Italian villas, Anglo-Indian hill stations and the "big houses" of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.

As with the houses, so with the literature. It's arguable that Irish country house literature surpasses ours, because the conflicts it dramatises – both political and religious – are on a larger scale. William Trevor's The Story of Lucy Gault, for instance, begins in 1921, during the struggle for independence, with an episode involving the IRA, the British army, an Anglo-Irish landlord, and an arson attack. Then there's Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen, Jennifer Johnston, Molly Keane, Caroline Blackwood's Great Granny Webster, and many more.

And the master of the form is surely Chekhov, whose plays – set on country estates under threat of being sold off because their owners are indolent, prodigal, alcoholic or unworldly – have become integral to British theatre. In The Cherry Orchard (currently playing at the National) Madame Ranevskaya and her brother Gayev carelessly assume that something will turn up to solve their financial problems, despite warnings from the entrepreneurial Lopakhin that they must act. Like Mr Wilcox in Howards End, Lopakhin belongs to the world of "telegrams and anger", and in his forward thinking, if nothing else, he's the natural partner of the leftwing student Trofimov, who rages against the sins of his aristocratic hosts:

All your ancestors were serf-owners, possessors of living souls. Don't you see that from every cherry tree, from every leaf and trunk, human beings are peering out at you? Don't you hear their voices? To possess living souls – that has corrupted all of you, those who lived before and you who are living now, so that [you] no longer perceive that you are living in debt, at someone else's expense, at the expense of those who you wouldn't allow to cross your threshold . . . We are at least two hundred years behind the times . . . We only philosophise, complain of boredom or drink vodka. Yet it's quite clear that to begin to live we must first atone for the past. . .

Forthright political condemnation of this sort is rare in British fiction; the atoning that Briony Tallis has to do, in McEwan's novel, is of a different kind.

2 Illicit sex

It's difficult to have sex in a flat or a small house without the other occupants noticing: hence the scene in Sons and Lovers when Paul Morel and Clara Dawes have to wait for her mother to go to bed before they get on with it. The country house affords more opportunities: bedrooms lie further apart and can be crept into in secrecy; gardens offer hidden bowers and trysting-spots; and if all else fails, and two people are desperate enough, there'll always be an empty room where they can risk it. In Atonement, Robbie and Cecilia have sex in the library, not the best of choices, given Cecilia's bookish younger sister Briony, who walks in on them. In Hollinghurst's new novel – a demure one compared to his earlier work – erotic excitements happen in the linen-room, and in woodland, and the garden at night.

The ultimate achievement in country house sex is Lady Chatterley's Lover, in which Connie finds fulfilment not in the bedroom at Wragby (her crippled husband Clifford is impotent and sex with a house-guest, Michaelis, fails to satisfy her), but in a cottage in its grounds, with the gamekeeper, Mellors. Connie is transformed by the experience ("she was gone, she was not, and she was born: a woman"), though at least her metamorphosis is less drastic than that of Sylvia, the wife in David Garnett's Lady into Fox (another memorable country house novel), who becomes a vixen.

A later variant on the Connie-Mellors liaison comes in LP Hartley's The Go-Between, published in the 1950s but set in 1900. Now an old man, the narrator, Leo, recalls the hot summer he spent at Brandham Hall in Norfolk, acting as messenger-boy for the beautiful Marian (played by Julie Christie in Joseph Losey's film version) and for Ted Burgess (Alan Bates), the local tenant farmer with whom – although engaged to marry a viscount – she is having an affair. The past might be a foreign country, where they do things differently, but Marian and Ted suffer the same fate as other star-crossed lovers down the centuries; because they come from different social classes, their relationship ends tragically, in suicide.

3 Rightful ownership

In Fielding's novels, the handsome but lowly heroes end up owning country estates. The footman Joseph Andrews has the patronage of Mr Booby to thank and the foundling Tom Jones turns out to be of noble birth; because they're essentially good men, despite some rough and tumble, they merit their good fortune. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights has no such entitlement, either by birth (he's a "gypsy brat" from Liverpool) or through his behaviour, but he revenges himself on his betters by becoming the owner of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange – a troubling outcome for 19th-century readers and reviewers. Then there's Dr Faraday in The Little Stranger, whose desire to marry the awkward Caroline isn't easily disentangled from his desire to live in Hundreds Hall. (Is it a coincidence or a subtle allusion that the owner of Darlington Hall in Ishiguro's novel is called Farraday?)

For every surprise possession of a country house, there must also be a dispossession, and fiction is full of these, too. At the start of Sense and Sensibility, John Dashwood succeeds to the Norland estate and defies his father's dying wishes by failing to provide for his three half-sisters and their mother, who're forced to move out and rent the "defective" if charming Barton Cottage. The romantic twists that follow – is Edward a suitable match for Elinor? Will Marianne end up with Willoughby or Colonel Brandon? – include many references to property, to what these men do and don't own. Austen heroines aren't so vulgar as to gossip about wealth; they leave that to others ("His woods! I have not seen such timber any where in Dorsetshire!"). But come the denouement, it's unthinkable that their circumstances should be reduced. The same goes for Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre: "Reader I married him" – and lived happily ever after in a manor-house.

Spiritual entitlement to a house is a trickier business, though many have experienced the feeling that a place is somehow "right" for them. In Howards End, Mrs Wilcox, whose only passion in life is her country house with its nine windows, five acres and wych-elm, asks that it be left to Margaret Schlegel. The family ignores the request but Margaret ends up there anyway, as the second Mrs Wilcox. "Houses have their own ways of dying," Forster writes, "falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly . . . while from others the spirit slips before the body perishes." Until Margaret takes possession of it, Howards End seems to be slipping away, but the novel concludes with images of spring and rebirth.

4 Poetry

Hollinghurst's new novel opens at a house called Two Acres, where the budding poet Cecil Valance is visiting his friend from Cambridge, George Sawle. As its name suggest, Two Acres is a paltry suburban plot compared with Cecil's estate. But he writes a poem as a thankyou for the hospitality he receives, and "Two Acres" later becomes his best-known work. Hollinghurst, who began as a poet, clearly enjoys composing Cecil's poems for him, and also enjoys reversing the convention whereby a poet of modest means writes a homage to his better-off hosts.

This kind of poem was a popular genre from the 16th to the 18th centuries, one associated with Spenser, Carew, Jonson, Marvell ("Upon Appleton House"), Herrick, Dryden and Pope. Building design, fountains, garden statuary, the provision of beef and beer: any of these might win compliments, so long as they reflected well on the taste and generosity of the owners. "Thou are not, Penshurst, built to envious show, / Of touch, or marble; nor canst boast a row / Of polished pillars or a roof of gold," Ben Jonson writes, contrasting it with the "proud, ambitious heaps" of showier estates. Alongside the vanity and indulgence of Brideshead, Jonson's Penshurst is a model of social responsibility:

The blushing apricot and woolly peach
Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.
And though thy walls be of the country stone,
They're reared with no man's ruin, no man's groan:
There's none, that dwell about them, wish them down;
But all come in, the farmer, and the clown,
And no one empty-handed, to salute
The lord and lady, though they have no suit.

These poems celebrate simple rural virtues as against the dubious pleasures of London (and never mind that the hosts own a place there too). In this, Jonson et al were following the Ancients – Horace, Juvenal and Virgil – who contrasted wholesome estate life with urban vice. Satires on mean hosts or hubristic houses were less common but not unknown. "Thanks, sir, cried I, tis very fine, / But where d'ye sleep, or where d'ye dine," goes a poem on Blenheim, "I find by all you have been telling / That tis a house, but not a dwelling."

As well as writing thankyou letters in verse, visiting poets sometimes had to sing for their supper. Edmund Gosse's biography of Swinburne describes the excitement Swinburne aroused when he arrived looking like Apollo at a country house party in 1863. Asked to read aloud after dinner, he chose a poem that shocked the Archbishop of York and sent two young ladies into giggles. There's a similar mix of excitement and discomfort in The Stranger's Child, when Cecil recites his verse at Two Acres.

5 Americans

Only Americans can afford to buy English country houses: so goes the joke in The Remains of the Day when Stevens confesses that his new employer, Mr Farraday, comes from the United States. In a Britain of mega-rich pop stars, footballers and hedge-fund managers, the joke no longer holds true; in the 21st century, stately homes aren't necessarily bought by magnates from the US. But the joke made sense in 1956, when the outer narrative of The Remains of the Day is set, as it also did for Coward in 1938: "The stately homes of England / We proudly represent / We only keep them up for / Americans to rent." In The Little Stranger, circa 1948, Caroline cynically suggests that "you can get an American to buy any old bit of black timber, just by telling him it comes from the Forest of Arden, or was sneezed on by Shakespeare, or something."

The gibe seems apt when you consider Henry James, many of whose novels and stories are set in English country houses, and several of whose heroines – from Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady to Fleda Vetch in The Spoils of Poynton – share their author's aristo-Anglophilia. "It is not too much to say," he wrote, "that after spending twenty-four hours in a house that is six hundred years old you seem yourself to have lived in it six hundred years." And though it was too much to say it, he said it again, many times: "Those delicious old houses, in the long August days, in the south of England air, on the soil over which so much has passed and out of which so much has come, rose before me like a series of visions. I thought of a thousand things . . . of stories, of dramas, of all the life of the past." The houses didn't just give James the milieu for his fiction, the great good place, they also defined its style – the decorative borders of his semi-colons, the long corridors of his sentences, the spreading parklands of his paragraphs.

6 Ghost stories and whodunnits

Coward is spot-on again: "The stately homes of England / Though rather in the lurch / Provide a lot of chances / For psychical research." Country house Gothic goes back to Austen's Northanger Abbey (itself indebted to Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho) and Wuthering Heights, and through to Waters. Rustling wainscots, hidden panels, dusty attics, secret gardens: the country house is the perfect backdrop for ghosts.

For whodunnits, as well. "This whole thing's getting rather like one of Agatha Christie's," a character in the new Hollinghurst novel remarks, and few plots in fiction are as familiar as a murder committed during a country house weekend, followed by an interrogation of every servant and house guest, and a resolution that requires all remaining characters to come to the drawing-room so that Hercule Poirot (or Miss Marple, or Sherlock Holmes, or Lord Peter Wimsey) can deliver a verdict.

7 Upstairs/Downstairs

Country house literature isn't only about nobs; there are also the servants. The idea that pre-modern writers failed to pay them heed doesn't survive a reading of Sophocles, let alone Shakespeare or Goldoni. Still, they get more attention than they used to. The Losey/Pinter film The Servant features a live-in manservant, a gentleman's gentleman, played by Dirk Bogarde. The Remains of the Day is narrated by a butler. And a current popular choice for book groups is Kathryn Stockett's The Help, about black maids in Mississippi in the 1960s.

At Two Acres, young Jonah is asked to valet for the visiting Cecil, which means unpacking his suitcase and arranging the contents "convincingly". He's fascinated by Cecil's ivory-coloured drawers, "fine as a lady's". There's an echo here of Rose Harrison, in her memoir of a life in service, recalling Lady Astor's underwear: "It was kept in sets in silk pouches which I had to make and decorate in his lordship's racing colours, blue and pink. Every evening I would leave one pouch on her stool and she would fold her underwear into it and tie the ribbon, and so it would be sent to be laundered." Cecil has no such fastidiousness: he strews his stuff around for Jonah to clear up.

To a contemporary, it's amazing how little the servants complain – and how often they are complained about by their employers. Ishiguro's Stevens is a paragon of forbearance, enduring humiliation without complaint and subduing his own interests so comprehensively that he can't even recognise what they are. He sees himself as a witness to world-changing events, having come to believe that:

the great decisions of the world are not, in fact, arrived at . . . under the full gaze of the public and the press. Rather, debates are conducted, and crucial decisions arrived at, in the privacy and calm of the great houses of this country . . . To us, then, the world was a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub, their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them.

This might stand as a last word on country house fiction, defining it (and defending it) as a literature about great men and their machinations. But Stevens is an unreliable narrator. What the contemporary novelist finds in country houses isn't greatness but loss, failure and everyday human struggle, writ large. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: The English country house

Post  eddie on Sat Jun 11, 2011 11:54 pm
The Stately Homes of England- Noel Coward.

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Re: The English country house

Post  eddie on Fri Oct 14, 2011 3:03 pm

Lives & letters: the English countryside

Why do we still crave books about the rural landscape and its natural history?

Stephen Moss, Friday 30 September 2011 22.55 BST

Rural idyll: The English countryside is back in fashion. Photograph: John Miller/Alamy

The English countryside is back in fashion. By "English" I don't mean British, but a very specific image of rural England: a patchwork quilt of green fields bordered by hedgerows; a landscape where skylarks sing and wild flowers flourish; a bucolic idyll peopled by honest, hard-working farming folk, gathering in the harvest.

This rose-tinted portrait is about as far from the truth as you can get. The countryside is primarily a food factory, where a small fraction of the rural population works hard to make profits for an even smaller group of rich landowners. Wildlife is in freefall: in much of rural England you would struggle to hear a skylark, while more than 98% of traditional hay meadows have been destroyed, and more than 250,000 miles of hedgerow lost since the second world war. And conflict in the countryside is hardly a thing of the past. The current controversy about the government's decision to relax planning laws is causing consternation in the shires and may lead to a Tory backbench rebellion.

Yet we continue to read books that celebrate the wonders of the English countryside as never before. Contemporary authors Richard Mabey and Mark Cocker jostle on our bookshelves with the classic works of Gilbert White and Henry Williamson. So what underlies this long love affair with literary representations of rural England? And, in particular, why are these so often rooted in a specific place, usually the author's home village?

Back in the early 19th century wilderness, rather than village life, was in vogue. The fashion for undertaking a "grand tour" around Europe exposed the English upper classes to the wonders of the Alps, and when they returned they headed for the next best thing: the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District. Walter Scott, with his tales of wild places and even wilder people, topped the bestseller list; the tamer landscapes of lowland England didn't get a look-in. Later, across the Atlantic, men such as Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir would create the literary genre of "wilderness writing", whose books would fuel the embryonic environmental movement in the US. But here at home, we were happier exploring the nooks and crannies of a country parish.

The book that would become one of the bestselling works in the English language, in any genre, had suitably modest beginnings. The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, by the Hampshire vicar Gilbert White, first appeared in 1789. But its popularity did not really begin to take off until the start of the Victorian era. Selborne exerted a powerful appeal to the millions of Britons who had, during the course of one or two generations, moved from the countryside to the cities. In doing so, they had developed a profound sense of longing for the world they had left behind.

Selborne's enduring popularity – almost 300 editions, and continuously in print for over two centuries – is partly because White asks the sort of questions we all want answered: why do birds migrate, how does wildlife cope with harsh winter weather? But the key to its continued success is also that it is written about a specific place: by focusing on what he knows, sees and experiences, this humble country vicar appeals to the villager in all of us.

Of all White's literary disciples, none was so rooted in a particular place as John Clare. Celebrated, yet also patronised, during his lifetime as a "peasant poet", Clare fell rapidly out of favour as the years drew on, and by his death in 1864 he had virtually been forgotten. His reputation was finally resurrected during the latter half of the 20th century, and today he is justly regarded as the finest exponent of place-based nature writing.

Like White, Clare's most distinctive feature is what the critic John Barrell called his "sense of place": that when he describes a tree, bird or hedgerow he is writing about a specific tree, bird or hedgerow, not some romantic, literary vision of one. Yet Clare was drawn to a landscape we would now find alien and unfamiliar: the pre-enclosure, open fields of his childhood.

What he hated – and what eventually helped drive him to a mental breakdown – was the wholesale replacement of this age-old landscape with a grid system of small, tightly enclosed fields; a pattern that today, for most people, embodies the English countryside. But for Clare, this was sheer vandalism; the devastation of a familiar world which he chronicled with such despair in "The Flitting":

I've left my own old home of homes
Green fields and every pleasant place
The summer like a stranger comes
I pause and hardly know her face …

Towards the end of Victoria's reign, the pre-enclosure landscape had long been forgotten, and Blake's "green and pleasant land" was the new reality. Yet not all was well in this new Eden. After centuries of adherence to the firm belief that the natural world was an inexhaustible resource, provided by God for the use of Man, there were murmurings that perhaps it wasn't quite as robust as had been thought.

The final decades of the 19th century saw the rise of the modern-day conservation movement, spearheaded by the founding of the RSPB in 1889, the National Trust in 1895, and the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (which later became the Wildlife Trusts) in 1912. Literary figures such as WH Hudson were prominent in these campaigns; though today Hudson's writing appears rather quaint and dated, at the time he was enormously popular. This era saw a sea change in the way we viewed our rural heritage: the shift from collecting to protecting. Plants and animals were changing from things we used, exploited and ignored, and instead were becoming objects of delight and recreation.

In response, the first half of the 20th century saw a boom in popular literary works, mostly written for children, which celebrated and anthropomorphised the wild creatures of the English countryside. Yet although Wind in the Willows (1908), Tarka the Otter (1927) and Swallows and Amazons (1930) may have been aimed primarily at a younger audience, their enduring popularity among adults is surely down to a deep sense of nostalgia for our rural heritage. Again, a specific sense of place explains much of their appeal: Kenneth Grahame's river isn't any old river, but draws its power from being based on a stretch of the Thames at Cookham, near where the author lived as a child.

Not everyone saw village life through such benevolent eyes. In 1932 a young journalist, Stella Gibbons, published her first novel. Cold Comfort Farm was a barbed satire on the works of rural writers such as Mary Webb, whose novels Gone to Earth and Precious Bane depicted English country life as a melodramatic series of life-challenging events.

Cold Comfort Farm revels in the sheer life-force of the countryside: the sickly smell of the sukebind, the finding of a marsh-tigget's nest, and the constant "scranletting" of the surrounding fields – all products of the author's imagination, yet convincing all the same. The Starkadder family – patriarch Amos, depressive Judith, flighty Elfine and over-sexed Seth – are some of the most vivid of all literary characters, urban or rural. Cold Comfort Farm made it well nigh impossible to write without irony about "honest country folk" again.

It took almost four decades for someone to do so. In 1969 Ronald Blythe published Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village. A Suffolk man himself, Blythe used the simple but revolutionary technique of allowing his subjects – the older inhabitants of this eponymous village – to speak for themselves. The resulting collage of voices was both a celebration of, and a lament for, a fast-disappearing world and became an unexpected bestseller.

Yet during the following decades, the literary genre offering a personal perspective on rural life and natural history virtually ground to a halt. Environmental concerns such as pesticides, habitat loss and climate change rapidly took over, in a series of works that gloomily predicted the end of the world as we know it. Amid such serious global problems, writing a personal account of a particular place was seen as increasingly irrelevant, parochial and narcissistic.

One man kept the torch burning: Richard Mabey. He published the bestselling foraging guide Food for Free in 1972, but what may be his most important book appeared a year later, with rather less fanfare. The Unofficial Countryside praises the "messy bits", from railway cuttings and roadside verges to what would later become known as brownfield sites; wildlife havens fast being destroyed by tidy-minded planners, who viewed them simply as "wasteland". The book remains one of the best accounts of why dividing our country into urban jungle, suburban sprawl and rural idyll is so unhelpful when it comes to safeguarding our natural heritage.

By 2005, when Mabey published Nature Cure, the idea that the natural world was good for our mental and spiritual health could no longer be dismissed as the preserve of cranks and hippies. Nature Cure is a beautifully written and honest account of how getting to know a small corner of the English landscape helped the author recover from depression. We were finally beginning to realise what writers such as White and Clare had always known: that nature is good for us.

As if to celebrate this, the first decade of the new century produced a slew of books following in these literary giants' footsteps, by celebrating the specific and the local. Of these my favourite is Crow Country, by Mabey's friend and collaborator Mark Cocker. In choosing the crow family, and more specifically the rook, as his subject, Cocker firmly planted a flag for these common, neglected and often vilified creatures, without which the English countryside would be a far poorer place.

And yet at a time when this genre of place-based writing has never been healthier, when membership of conservation organisations is at an all-time high, and when Springwatch and its spin-offs are one of the BBC's leading brands, we face a worrying paradox. We may love the English countryside, but through a combination of greed and neglect, we have allowed it to reach the brink of destruction. It would be ironic if, after two centuries of literary tradition, we allowed the place that inspired all these wonderful writings to disappear.

Stephen Moss's Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village, is published by Square Peg.

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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