One of the Top Ten
"I was nine years old when I first saw Burghley. We arrived in the dark of an October evening and all I could see of the house was the silhouette of the chimneys and turrets against the sky. But the flaring gas lights at the drive entrance brought home an important fact; in 1956 Burghley still had no electricity. – the opening paragraph from "Life at Burghley"
This book is a treasure. If I could only keep ten of my research books, Life at Burghley by Lady Victoria Leatham would be one of them. A measly 236 pages in a standard hardback side, each section is filled with inspirations for a dozen novels.
The servants come first and a colorful lot they are. The lady’s maid who was once “quality” and fond of gin (Gordons), the butler who would shout at any family member who trespassed into the servants quarters and Jim Curtis, a butler of the mid twentieth century. His “beautiful legs” looked splendid on the running board of the coach that was still occasionally used.
Pick one, any one, and let your imagination run wild. When you are tired of that take a look at the Cecil family.
Sir William Cecil (1520-1598) is recognized as the most successful spymaster ever to serve on Britain’s behalf.
The fifth Earl of Exeter (1648-1700) loved travel and went abroad more than a dozen times to buy art. His bedroom décor included a “shocking” number of paintings of naked women.
Brownlow Cecil, the ninth Earl (1725-1793) was so afraid of being buried alive he ordered that
he lie in his open coffin until his body began “to show signs of mortification.”
As a young man, the First Marquess (1754-1804) ran away from home, met and married Sarah Hoggins despite the fact he already had a wife.
David Cecil, the 6th Marquess of Exeter (the author’s father) competed in the 1932 Olympics. A version of his story is told in the movie "Chariots of Fire."
After making your way through the people who lived at Burghley, you are left with the house itself, the most amazing “character" of all. Lady Victoria takes the reader on one of the best “tours by book” I have ever read. The roofs were used as walkways from its earliest construction, since the paths there were more private than anywhere inside. The area included turrets called “Banketting Houses,” spaces perfect for escaping rain or meeting a lover. I so want to see the roof, more than the state rooms, the enormous kitchen or the fabulous Heaven Room, its soaring walls completely covered with murals by Verrio.
It took thirty years to build the first phase of Burghley in the 16th century, and almost that long to reclaim it in the 20th. It stands with Petworth and Blenheim as one of the greatest of the Great Houses. If a trip to England is not on your list anytime soon, find this book and imagine.
Architecture is one of my great interests, of the Regency or any other era. Whether writing contemporaries or historicals, I spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out where and how my characters live down to design details no reader will ever see. Nothing I have ever imagined comes close to the grandeur of Burhgley. Leatham’s book is one of my research keepers, no doubt about that, and the first book I loan to anyone interested in writing historicals. Would you care to share one of your favorite research books?