Sparkling book details the nostalgic dream of living in the country

The Last Country Houses, by Clive Aslet. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 344 pp. $35 (hard-cover), $13.95 (paper). Long after the center of Britain's economic life had shifted from the countryside to the towns and cities, the dream of country life persisted. The vastly wealthy bankers, brewers, grocers, and industrialists of the Edwardian era possessed the means to turn their dreams into lavish realities. The idyll of country life also appealed to members of the professional class.

Reflecting and stimulating this nostalgic desire, Country Life magazine, founded in 1897, was, in Clive Aslet's words, ``a shrewd cocktail of idealism and business sense, liberally laced with sentiment, which appeared to catch the flavor of the old country-house world, but in reality appealed as much to the new.'' The country house symbolized an ideal way of life -- or, rather, a variety of ideals, from the extravagantly restored castles of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst to the delicate, fa iry-tale interiors of Madresfield Court (its chapel was the model for the one in TV's ``Brideshead Revisited''), from the opulence of West Dean Park to the rural charm of Plumpton Place, designed by Edwin Lutyens for the founder of Country Life.

For the newly rich members of King Edward VII's smart set, a grandly imposing country house, furnished with the most luxurious modern conveniences, embodied their ideal of aristocratic elegance. For others, inspired by the arts-and-crafts tradition of John Ruskin and William Morris, an intelligently designed country house in harmony with its natural and human surroundings embodied their social (often socialist) vision of the right way to live. Examining both modes (``the smart set and the romantics,'' a s he calls them), Mr. Aslet concludes that in the long run it was the romantic ideal that proved itself the more practical.

Aslet, who is senior architectural writer for Country Life, has achieved in this thematically organized study of country houses built between 1890 and 1939 a richly diverting combination of architectural and social history. Whether he is describing the decline of agriculture, analyzing the root of the ``servant problem,'' or filling in the background on the men who designed, built, or commissioned these homes, Aslet displays an unobtrusive but masterly command of his material. ``The Last Country Houses' ' is a work of serious scholarship that sparkles with wit, intelligence, and graceful erudition.

First published in 1982, ``The Last Country Houses'' was originally conceived as the conclusion to the ``English Country House'' series, following Mark Girouard's ``The Victorian Country House.'' But, as can be seen from John Martin Robinson's survey of country houses built after 1950, ``The Latest Country Houses'' (reviewed here Feb. 27), it may be premature to call anything the last of anything, particularly when one is dealing with the pursuit of a dream.

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