Come Sunday a good half the capital will traipse into the National Gallery determined to see the art collected over centuries in British country houses. At that very moment 60 occupants of those rural palaces -- people who have lent all save little Emilia's honor -- will be chopping wood, eating grits and dusting tiaras in the log cabins on the grounds of Stratford, the fine Lee house down in the Northern Neck of Virginia.
They were supposed to sleep in guest houses at Stratford, in this excursion to show them how the American half lives, but once they discovered there were genuine log cabins down there, they all stomped (as it were) and demanded to sleep in them and nuts to any cruddy guest house.
I have inside information this may have made the Stratford people feel bad. They think their guest houses are nice, don't you know.
At least one inquiry has been received, by the way, what one does with one's tiara in a log cabin, and the obvious answer is that one wears it. One poor peeress has already pointed out she can't, since hers is in the show.
Vernon Edenfield, who has arranged the sightseeing holiday itinerary, did try to point out the cabins aren't heated. An American said well, maybe servants could bring in some wood for the fireplaces. Fine, except there aren't servants for 60 peers lolling about Stratford, one of the nation's great museum houses open to the public.
My own advice, which people too rarely ask, is to agree instantly to put them in the log cabins, before it occurs to them to ask for Indians and a staged massacre of the Virginia colonials as well.
As for the heat, the British would never have noticed there wasn't any if the Americans had just kept quiet. If fires are needed, the lords love to chop wood; indeed, the outdoor heartiness of the British upper classes is one of the hardest burdens an American has to bear in their islands. The British male, by and large, does not wear jewels, so he can get on with the chopping while the ladies watch, without the slightest risk to their tiaras. Next question.
Now that that's all settled, the marquess and marchioness of Bute, Lord and Lady Astor of Hever, the marchioness of Cholmondeley and so on through the alphabet to the duke and duchess of Rutland, the countess of Strathmore (niece of the Queen Mother) and Sir Hereward and Lady Wake, can take off on buses tomorrow for a tour that many an American would kill for (to use the vulgar and descriptive term) even if there was not an ermine for six counties around.
The American National Trust thought maybe somebody should do something (besides pour cocktails down their throats) for the notable visitors who lent things from their houses. The British, for their part, well aware that the first week of November brings the most glorious weather of the year to these parts (I guess this is just asking for a hurricane) were not averse to leaving their dark dens and have arrived in force.
Now Kenmore, the Lewis-Washington house in Fredericksburg, is one of the prettiest American houses of its period (1750), fortunately open to the public and equipped with an energetic director, Edenfield. Or perhaps he was nodding when he found himself saddled, however agreeably, with the little task of hauling the Brits through the commonwealth. They will have lunch at Kenmore, where if they are wise they will make correct noises about the ceilings, celebrated throughout Fredericksburg and, of course, the world. Otherwise Edenfield will probably deny them their pudding.
They conclude the day at Stratford in the Northern Neck in time for tea. There they will receive a ginger snap. Look, I report what I am told. Brandy will be given to all in medicinal need, then supper and a tour of the house by candlelight. A violin will play Handel at Kenmore and a harp will play at Stratford.
If it's not presumptuous, I suggest the visitors carry powerful flashlights with them. I have myself been on candlelight tours. Since the house is not lived in by the Lees nowadays it's okay to check out the woodwork and somebody is going to want to examine the mouldings of the big hall. The panels have bisection mouldings and although the room is early (the house was built in 1725) it is remarkable. The full Corinthian entablature was ambitious for the period, and if you count on candles you won't see beans.
The house suggests Vanbrugh (architect of Seaton Delaval, Blenheim, Castle Howard and so on) not by its size, which is tiny by English standards, but by its astonishing clustered chimneys. Very like Blenheim, we always say.
People were quite civilized in Virginia by 1650, or at least as civilized as now, so it is not surprising that 75 years later they were breaking their necks to build as stately as their means (and their workmen) allowed. The vast grand clumsy stairs to the front door were clear in the owner's mind, though they didn't turn out Grand Baroque so much as Not Quite Sure How To Go About It Provincial. It is, all the same, as fine as any house on the continent, and of course Robert E. Lee was born there. I guess strangers know we kneel?
Janet Grayson Whitehouse of Marshall, Va., and Molly Jacobs of Baltimore have planned the ginger snaps and much else. They are also going to try to make everybody go on a nature trail down to see an old water mill. If it should drizzle and turn cold, this would prove exquisite revenge on our good cousins of Albion, who if you visit them will feed you all right but then make you walk 10 miles to see the moors or the marshes or the crested grebes or whatever else is a considerable distance from the house.
They go forward to a generous handful of the best houses of the Tidewater, then back to civilization again, examining a group of Piedmont houses near Charlottesville and the university, handsomest of American colleges, not that it has rivals to speak of. They will wind up at Oak Hill, the Prendergast house once Monroe's, for further ginger snapping. I wonder if this interest in ginger snaps is not something new in Virginia? And on to Washington. Central heat at last. Real subways.