JUDGING BY HIS C.V., Mark Girouard is something of a toff. (That term doesn't translate succinctly from the British but it refers to the sort of person satirized by Monty Python's "upperclass twit of the year.")
Girouard began his career in the 1950s as a writer and then editor at Country Life, the house organ of the English gentry, a magazine whose most closely read pages describe Georgian farmsteads, disused rectories, and other idyllic properties for sale to would-be squires. From journalism Girouard eventually found his way to the weightier enterprise of the scholarly coffee table book, producing a considerable number of volumes thick with color plates and liberally dusted with footnotes. For the most part these books deal with architecture, the field in which Girouard did his doctorate at Oxford, and attention is also paid to the social and cultural patterns of life that give the built environment its fullest meaning. This broad compass goes some way towards explaining the books' popular appeal.
Girouard's breakthrough as an author was Life in the English Country House, which became an unexpected bestseller for Yale when it appeared in 1978, and which was an expansion of the series of lectures he had delivered a few years earlier as Oxford's Slade Professor of Art. This visiting professorship retains much of its original prestige a century and a half after it was inaugurated by Ruskin, the unhinged colossus of English art criticism, who was summoned to Oxford to lecture on landscape painting and in the end drove his well-born pupils to dig ditches in the countryside. To my knowledge the Slade Professorship is the only academic post that Girouard has ever held, but there is an old flavor in his written manner — a richness cut with tart irony; a plummy certitude of judgment; a savory marinade of table talk and gossip — reminiscent of a venerable Oxbridge style that is now more or less extinct, discredited, and even scorned. And perhaps rightfully so. This old intellectual order was after all the appendage of a ruling class whose empire is long gone, whose many faults are now apparent, and whose very existence seems repugnant in our present atmosphere of democratic scrupulosity.
But whatever else may be said about the old Oxbridge set, the best of them could write. At a time when scholarly prose is widely condemned as flaccid or obscure, the easy lucidity achieved by a formidable old don — an Evans-Pritchard, a Trevor-Roper, even a single-barrelled Marxist like Hobsbawm — is the product of a distinct tradition whose style has much to admire. It is in this tradition that Girouard writes. He achieves clarity and liveliness in his prose not by supposing that his audience is mostly ignorant and quickly bored, but by taking for granted that they are knowledgeable and curious, and that their interest will be held by a subtle raciness of phrase and thought: that they are, if not colleagues or friends, then at least provisional members of an inner circle whose assumptions, prejudices and tastes he largely shares. Though this inner circle is founded on exclusion, its rhetoric can be paradoxically open; always professional but impatient with jargon and never over-serious. The result is an almost conversational tone: and if the conversation seems to unfold over a decanter of port, that's all the more appropriate, since the discussion has turned so frequently throughout Girouard's career to baronial manors, castles, and the like. This is a world in which he is very much a...read more