As house prices fall and mortgage rates rise, there is a sense of unease, bordering on panic, that goes beyond economics. An idea of home that is dear to the English middle class is, it seems, under threat. Hermann Muthesius, whose Das englische Haus first appeared just over a century ago and has now been translated in full for the first time, would have sympathised. For him too the English way of domestic life was a precious ideal, which he investigated in exhaustive detail and explained admiringly, despite occasional moments of puzzlement, to his German readers. England, by the end of the 19th century, was, as he pointed out, 'the only advanced country in which the majority of the population still live in houses'. Flats were not popular, nor were town centres. No Englishman would live over a shop if he could help it. It was to the country and the suburbs that the English retreated, to houses which, Muthesius noted with approval, were 'to live in, not to look at', practical and unpretentious. If the nation lacked a café society and any real metropolis, that was because people entertained informally at home, and if guests came 'with no particular culinary expectations' (which was just as well in view of the 'almost primitive' level of cooking and the prevalence of Worcester sauce), they experienced a degree of genuine hospitality from which Germany might learn much. The devotion of the English to their domestic life meant that they would 'forgo the theatre, concerts, dinner parties, the races, at-homes and much else' in favour of their own firesides. Here, without stoves or central heating but 'impervious to the draught', they lived lives governed by such 'immutable patterns' of behaviour that they were always at ease and able 'in all situations to do the right thing'.
LRB 22 May 2008 | PDF Download