The cottages and castles of English women: an armchair tour

The Englishwoman's House, edited by Alvilde Lees-Milne; photographed by Derry Moore. Salem, N.H.: Salem House (distributed by Merrimack Publishers' Circle). 151 pp. $26.95.

''The Englishwoman's House'' is a book of photographs of 28 houses of all sorts, from a simple little cottage called the Hole of Ellel to veritable palaces like Deene Park, Chatsworth, or Elton Hall. Its subjects also range from 12th-century Beeleigh Abbey to a sleek, contemporary London flat whose furnishings are all, without exception, white. But the thread that runs through all the rooms in all these houses is warmth, enthusiasm, love.

This is a welcoming, hospitable book. The women who have decorated these rooms - from designer Laura Ashley to the Duchess of Devonshire to popular novelist Barbara Cartland - have written their own commentaries to accompany the photographs of their homes. It is as if they were giving us a private guided tour, complete with lots of family history, anecdotes on the origins of many lovely things, and a special, affectionate pointing out of what they particularly love about their homes.

Though there are many famous houses in this book, the most impressive are not necessarily the most attractive. A thatched cottage in Wiltshire with low, beamed ceilings and rose-patterned slipcovers is every bit as appealing as the gilt-framed ancestral portraits, canopied beds, and ornate mantelpieces of the stately homes.

Yet rooms in the ''historic houses'' never appear stiff or pretentious. Even the Grand Drawing Room at Elton Hall, the most formal room in the book, is not forbidding in its stately splendor. And the Duchess of Devonshire's magnificent bedroom at Chatsworth, with its elegant four-poster and gilded fillets framing the walls, is a comfortable haven, where her dog sleeps blissfully on the window seat.

What is particularly appealing about the texts in ''The Englishwoman's House'' is the insight they provide into a way of life that may be on the wane, or that in any case is not within most people's experience today. We learn of house parties for 24, held in rambling old stately homes like Deene Park, where ''the blankets had probably been at (the Battle of) Balaclava.'' We see what it means to live at Chatsworth, a 157-room ''historic house'' through which thousands of tourists troop every summer. We explore the exquisitely renovated laundry building of a 17th-century estate, in which one lady's son-in-law (''the present Duke'') obligingly invited her to live.

And there is something wonderfully matter-of-fact about the way these Englishwomen write. For the most part, the more aristocratic they are, the more down to earth and forthright their style.

The 200 color photographs are exquisite. They beautifully convey the love and care and joy in beautiful things that have gone into these houses. Many of them were taken with soft sunlight flowing into the rooms, so that the overall effect of the book is a rosy, gentle English glow.

Despite some bold examples of individual taste, the vast majority of the rooms look wonderfully inviting. Barbara Cartland, the popular historical novelist, used oceans of Nile blue and bright coral pink in her rather kitschy but exuberant bedroom. It's hard to quarrel, though, with her philosophy of decorating: ''During the war I altered the colouring of some of the most secret R.A.F. stations in England, and it was proved that in doing so I improved morale.'' What counts in Mrs. Cartland's house, as in all these houses, is that she loves it. She has decorated it to be cheerful, comfortable, and welcoming for her family and friends, and she has made it very much her own.

Kristin Helmore reviews books from international publishers for the Monitor.

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