Not all of Tinniswood’s spicy anecdotes are new (hands up anyone who hasn’t heard the one about the incorrigibly randy Lord Charles Beresford shouting ‘cock-a-doodle-doo!’ as he leapt, not on his mistress, but on a bed containing a very disconcerted bishop and his wife). A narrow framework – Tinniswood restricts himself to British high society – leads to some misleading assertions. The great Georgian ball at Osterley presided over by Lord and Lady Jersey in the long hot summer of 1939 was by no means a unique example of society dancing on the edge of the precipice. Across the Channel, equally lavish parties were being organised until the very brink of war. Nevertheless, this is a delightful little book, narrated with Tinniswood’s habitual panache.
The House Party is rife with shareable anecdotes about an era too often revived by BBC period dramas, but does not gloss over the crueller facets of the age: a generation haunted by war, locked into advantageous but unhappy marriages and suffocated by propriety. Tinniswood has served up a rich eulogy of “the days that are fled” as the aristocratic class failed both to acknowledge and adapt to a rapidly changing world. It makes a perfect host’s gift.
There’s a memorable vignette of after-dinner tedium for women, from Beverley Nichols’s diary of a 1930s weekend at Polesden Lacey. “When Winston Churchill was at a dinner table with a good cigar in one hand and a better Armagnac in the other, the chances were that they would be left without cavaliers until nearly bedtime, and would have to spend the rest of the evening hissing at each other over acres of Aubusson.” It was fascinating to discover that the German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop was nicknamed “the Londonderry Herr” because he was a frequent guest of the Londonderrys at Mount Stewart in the 1930s.
"Croquet. Parlour games. Cocktails. Welcome to a glorious journey through the golden age of the country house party-and you are invited." Tinniswood traces the evolution of this quintessentially British pastime from debauched royal tours to the flamboyant excesses of the Bright Young Things.