AN ENGLISHMAN'S HOME is his castle. The tag sticks in one's mind from fifth grade. Now listen to today's Englishman who owns a castle or a palace, talking from a delightful book called The Stately Homes of Britain, which is beautifully illustrated by Derry Moore's fine and original photographs.
"The Honorable David Lytton Cobbold, a great-great-grandson of Edward Bulwer Lytton, moved into Knebworth House with his wife and children in 1971. They left behind a warm, comfortable medium-sized house in the village to face the rigours of life in a mansion then in an advanced state of decay.
"'Would you make the same decision today?'
"'Almost certainly not. It is the sort of decision one makes in one's thirties and regrets in one's forties. The sacrifices are very great. At the time I would have done anything to save the house . . .'"
We turn to the owner of Blenheim Palace, the largest house of all: John George, 11th Duke of Marlborough.
"'Do you ever feel tempted to give up the struggle?'
"'No! Never -- I live for Blenheim . . . We persuaded my father to open five days a week and now of course it is seven days.'
"'And your private apartments too. Don't you mind people tramping through your bedrooms?'
"'I am not there . . . I have a house not far away where we go for the summer months; we have young children and no private garden at Blenheim, we cannot keep them here with 350,000 people passing through. But we return in September.'"
It is hard to imagine the Duke of Marlborough as a nomad, leading his tribe away from their home during the lovely summer months, but the story is typical of those of other great landowners in this lively recital. The houses that they inherited were built for pleasure; nowadays it is uphill work just to keep the roof on, let alone caring for the treasures inside their homes.
That they have won their uphill fight is illustrated by The English Room. Again Derry Moore's camera illuminates the manuscript, and the subject matter covers rooms from famous great houses to the houses of celebrities that have less often been described: the Queen Mother's Royal Lodge at Windsor; Lady Diana Cooper's house in Little Venice, London; Clouds Hill, "the Dorset Retreat of Lawrence of Arabia;" Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, belonging to Lord St. Oswald. The authors consider that their choice comprises the best of English rooms.
What is a typical English room? There is no set of rules to be established by a perusal of these pages. Indeed, an American reader is struck by the disregard of rules. A military great-grandfather brought back a large elephant's foot from Burma? All right, stick it next to a delicate masterpiece of 18th-century French cabinetmaking brought home by another ancestor who was ambassador to the court of Louis XVI. Take the library at Hatfield, home of the Cecil family since Elizabethan times. On a large stiff sofa near the superb marble mantelpiece are three excessively shabby padded and buttoned red leather cushions, which have nothing to do with anything except that one can picture generations of Cecils, famous for their brilliant conversation and passionate political convictions, lounging about on the sofa and occasionally throwing the cushions at each other. The English room is a mixture of nostalgia, grandeur and unsnobbish style.
If the Englishman has partially lost his castle to the hordes of tourists who annually invade it, the Englishwoman has hung onto her bedroom, which is her personal haven. The Englishwoman's Bedroom shows us charming country house bedrooms such as that of the fourth Viscountess Astor, who tells us that it took her nine months to make her own bed hangings. Then we have the exotic jungle setting in the London home of the antique dealer Irina Laski and the circular room with mirrored walls and reflective foil belonging to the designer Zandra Rhodes, who calls it a world of fantasy.
How long is it since you have bought a coffee table book for yourself? In the case of this reviewer it has been a long time, but these books are reasonably priced and instructive, as well as pleasurable to those who love England.
Susan Mary Alsop, the author of "Yankees at the Court: The First Americans in Paris," is an editor-at-large for Architectural Digest.