House and home-2

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I read while at home fighting off a sore throat, turned out to be better than I had expected. Lots of information about Lincoln’s Cabinet and a not-too-potted-history account of his administration.

There was a little of that annoying popular history “he must have felt as he rode to the cemetery” mind-reading stuff, but not enough to make one fling the book across the room. Somewhat more annoyingly, there were repeated references to “stately homes” — apparently just about anything with two stories.

I’ve been struggling for years at The Sun to stamp out the stately home cliche. For a while anything built before 1950 appeared to be a candidate, but more recently any vulgar mini-mansion squatting on a half-acre qualifies.

Blenheim Palace, which Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor built for the Duke of Marlborough, is a stately home, and Britain has hundreds of them. When Vanbrugh died, one Abel Evans adapted the traditional Latin epitaph sit tibi terra levis (“may the earth lie lightly on you) for the great dramatist and architect: Lie heavy on him, Earth! / For he Laid many heavy loads on thee.

Death duties and the expenses of upkeep have altered circumstances since the grandees built their great structures, as Noel Coward observed in “The Stately Homes of England” in 1937: The Stately Homes of England / We proudly represent, / We only keep them up for / Americans to rent. …

But in America, if you’re not writing about San Simeon or one of those immense “cottages” the robber barons built at Newport, file stately home under cliche, cross-referenced to adjectival clutter.

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