Thornes House, Wakefield. Lost Heritage: Britain’s Lost Country Houses. Fire destroyed Thornes House in 1951. Click on image to enlarge it.

James consolidated his friendship with Charles Milnes Gaskell and was invited to experience an English Christmas in 1878 with the family at Thornes House, Wakefield, in "the well-appointed, well-administered, well-filled country-house" (Portraits 268) that Charles had inherited on the death of his father, James Milnes Gaskell, in 1873. Thornes House provided a complete architectural contrast to Wenlock Abbey. It was – I use the past tense for Thornes House was destroyed by fire in 1951 – a fine building constructed between 1779 and 1782 for the Milnes family. The architect was the Yorkshire-born John Carr (1723-1807), who came from Horbury, a small town a few miles west of Wakefield. In the Palladian style, Thornes appeared larger than it was owing to a two-hundred-foot-wide façade integrating the main part of the house in the centre – a three-storey block with seven bays and a three-bay pediment supported on four fluted Ionic pilasters – flanked at a lower level by one-storey matching service blocks, housing the stables on one side and the kitchen, laundry and wash-house on the other. At the lower level, doors crowned with classical urns were substituted for windows. A particular feature inside the house was an oval drawing-room with a semi-circular bay at one end overlooking the gardens, and, at the opposite end, also semi-circular, two niches, one on either side of the door, to house classical statues or vases. Carr created a feeling of space and of classical ruins, by placing, in the inner hall, a pair of free-standing columns supporting the landing above through which one had to pass to reach the staircase on the side of the house. Although James described Thornes as a country-house, it was in fact a grand, classical villa of such importance that it was included in the 1802 edition of Vitruvius Britannicus and chosen as one of only twenty-seven buildings in Britain worthy of being illustrated. Thornes House was situated in the country, about a mile and a half to the south of the industrial town of Wakefield, with its woollen mills and factories with tall chimneys belching out smoke, coal mines and row upon row of back-to-backs, the two-up, two-down, brick houses, usually rented, accommodating workers and their families. An outdoor lavatory, with a wooden seat with a hole, in a shed at the bottom of the garden or in a yard, would often be shared by several households. There were no bathrooms or running water: the weekly ritual of filling a small tin bath with water fetched from a pump or well, then boiled over a coal fire, formed part of a miner's life, a practice well described by D. H. Lawrence and Émile Zola.

Thornes House was part of a one-hundred-and-twelve-acre estate, allowing James ample space to enjoy country walking. But above all he had been so engrossed in Gaskell's private library that he had neglected his letter writing, as he explained to his sister Alice: "But what more particularly, I found to go against epistolizing at Thornes was Gaskell's beautiful and interesting library; for whenever I was not talking or walking, or lunching or dining, I was turning over the charming collection of books, in that charming great room" (Letters 2.198)

One particular event left its mark on James – a visit to a grim Victorian workhouse. It was on that very cold, dusky Christmas Eve in 1878 that James was driven, with the lady of the house, in a "lamp-lit brougham" that pulled up in "the snowy quadrangle of a grim-looking charitable institution". He was suddenly plunged into the world of Dickens and transported "to the early pages of Oliver Twist". He was invited by a "lady [who] had made a present of a Christmas-tree to the children of a workhouse [...] to go with her and assist at the distribution of the toys" (Portraits 269). This act of charity by a wealthy lady was part of the ritual of life among the English gentry. The "beautiful Lady Bountiful" in question was probably his hostess, the twenty-one-year-old Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, then mother of a one-year-old son. He witnessed the Dickensian scene in a "large frigid refectory" where "some hundred and fifty little children of charity", dressed in pinafores, lined up to receive "little offerings" distributed by "their benefactress" to whom they "directed a melancholy hymn". The juxtaposition of these two very different worlds, geographically close but so far apart, left a strong and lasting impression on James: "The scene was a picture I shall not forget, with its curious mixture of poetry and sordid prose – the dying wintry light in the big, bare, stale room; the beautiful Lady Bountiful, standing in the twinkling glory of the Christmas-tree; the little multitude of staring and wondering, yet perfectly expressionless, faces." James had been sheltered from poverty all his life and here for the first time he came face to face with the reality of life in the workhouse.

The Yorkshire countryside in the north of England was harsher than that of Shropshire, and its industrial landscape, particularly to the south, was dotted with coalmines. Returning to London, and from the comfort of an armchair in the Reform Club, James wrote to Grace Norton revealing his true feelings: "that Yorkshire smoke-country is very ugly and depressing, both as regards the smirched and blackened landscape and the dense and dusky population" In his essay "An English New Year", he was more circumspect and described it as "a populous manufacturing region, full of tall chimneys and of an air that is gray and gritty" (Portraits 268).

That year the weather was bitterly cold with heavy snowfalls and severe frost, and James suffered from a recurrence of chill-blains. So deep was the snow that Gaskell and James went by sledge to nearby Bretton Hall (built in the early eighteenth century) to call on Lady Margaret Beaumont to whom James took an instant dislike! She was, he wrote, "a drawling, lisping fine lady [...] enclosed in her great wintry park and her immense dusky, pictured luxurious house – with her tea table at one elbow and a table-full of novels at the other" (Letters 2.200).

From Thornes House, it was only a short distance – approximately twelve miles in a north-easterly direction – to Richard Monckton Milnes's (Lord Houghton) "hospitable house", Fryston Hall, about one mile north of Ferrybridge, to which James was invited for New Year. He was to experience life in yet another English country house, in the vicinity of the pit village of Fryston (its colliery has since closed). This was the Hall (demolished in 1934) to which Thomas Carlyle had been invited in April 1841 and had been accommodated in an apartment "furnished as for Prince Albert and Queen Victoria; the most absurd place I ever lived in". Richard Monckton Milnes was a great admirer of Carlyle and his writings, in particular his monumental work The French Revolution. Both men shared a common interest in books and had worked together on the library committee of the London Library. But there were considerable drawbacks in being a country-house guest. In exchange for lavish hospitality, the guest – and particularly a prestigious writer – was expected to entertain and be entertaining from breakfast until very late at night. James suffered from being deprived of his personal independence and remarked to American diplomat William Jones Hoppin that "to be obliged to be agreeable morning, noon and night for several days is a great task upon one's spirits – if not one's intellect" (Life 236). Carlyle found the experience so disruptive of his routine that he could not sleep. He described Fryston Hall as "a large, irregular pile, of various ages, rising up among ragged old wood, in a rough large park ... chiefly beautiful because it does not set up for beauty" (in DNB from Collected Letters 13.80).

When Adams stayed at Fryston Hall in December 1862, Laurence Oliphant and A. C. Swinburne were also guests (Taylor, 96-97). It was an all-male party and no doubt a jolly affair for, as John Batchelor observed, "there was never anything serious about Monckton Milnes, who [...] introduce[d] Swinburne to the dubious joys of flagellant pornography" (Batchelor). Oliphant's cutting observations were incorporated into his satirical novel Piccadilly (1870) in which Fryston Hall is depicted as Dickiefield and where R. Monckton Milnes figures as Lord Dickiefield.

A library was an essential feature of these country houses. As at Thornes, it was Lord Houghton's fine collection of books that appealed to James. It must have been a devastating experience for the bibliophile when a terrible fire in November 1876 swept through Fryston's eighteenth-century front, containing the drawing room and long library and destroyed much of the fabric and many of the rare books. Repairs had not been completed at the time of James's stay. He wrote to his sister Alice that "poor Lord Houghton's immense library was thrown into hopeless confusion at the time of the partial burning of his house, two years ago, and is now scattered all over the place" (Letters 2.198-99).

For the New Year there was a small party of guests including the witty Mrs Anne Procter (widow of writer Barry Cornwall), the dowager Lady Galway (Lord Houghton's sister), "a pretty Miss Bland", the great Macaulay and others. On one occasion, Lord Houghton took James to visit the elderly Duchess of Somerset.

James was a compulsive writer – it was his trade – and sitting by "a luxurious fireside" or in the privacy of his bedroom he had been constantly recording his impressions of those two country houses (Portraits 268). Some of his experiences as a house guest chez Milnes Gaskell at Christmas and chez Lord Houghton at New Year provided the inspiration for his article "The New Year in England" – the title is slightly misleading for the essay also discusses Christmas – published in the New York-based magazine Nation on 23 January 1879, remarkably soon after his Yorkshire stay. As always, James is totally discreet – therefore socially acceptable – and no names or places are mentioned. But the essay is unusual in that it begins and ends with a commentary on social conditions in England at the time. He was enjoying assuming the role of transatlantic correspondent in England and presenting to Americans a certain image of the Old World, rather like that of the American journalist Edward R. Murrow, broadcasting reports from London during World War Two.

In private, James penned a fair, but perhaps cutting portrait of R. Monckton Milnes to Grace Norton soon after his New Year visit. He was "a battered and world-wrinkled old mortal, with a restless and fidgety vanity, but with an immense fund of real kindness and humane feeling. He is not personally fascinating, though as a general thing he talks very well, but I like his sociable, democratic, sympathetic, inquisitive old temperament" (Letters 2.208).

James seemed to thrive on such an exhausting schedule that required huge stamina, resilience and an ability to adapt. His social life continued to increase – he was the ideal guest – and he became so popular that during the winter of 1878-1879 he confessed to accepting "107 invitations" (Kelley 201): Leon Edel counted 140 engagements (Life 224). His cosmopolitan entourage, with a vast number of French, British and American acquaintances, provided the subject matter for his novels. His visits to country houses enabled James to witness the heyday of the country squire, a powerful force in Parliament, in local justice, in the Church, and in the countryside. He could enjoy a romanticised and picturesque vision of their life. But only a few years later, in 1882, Charles Milnes Gaskell published an article in the The Nineteenth Century on the plight of the country squire in which he bemoaned, with some degree of exaggeration, the financial difficulties: "He has given up his deer, has dismissed his servants; he is advertising his house for a Grammar School or a Lunatic Asylum; he is making arrangements with little Premium for the sale of his ancestors, and with the nearest timber-merchant for that of his trees [...]. He has made permanent reductions in three or four of his principal farms, and he has 800 acres on his hands" (Quoted Wilson 587). Although the role of the country squire may have diminished, Charles Milnes Gaskell was to some extent unnecessarily pessimistic. His Shropshire home is, today, well-preserved and maintained partly as a private family residence: the ruins are protected and cared for by English Heritage. Stokesay Castle and Ludlow Castle are both beautifully preserved: the former in the care of English Heritage, the latter the property of the Earl of Powis and Trustees. Vast stretches of land upon which Henry James trod and which he admired, such as Wenlock Edge, are also protected for generations to come through bodies such as The National Trust, one of whose founders was John Ruskin.

View of the Wrekin from Wenlock Edge. Photograph 2005 by the author.

Last modified 16 March 2020