Characterful mansions loom large in fiction
Centuries before the Granthams of Downton Abbey populated our imagination with grand living in the Old Dart’s greenest shires, complete with upstairs-downstairs dramas and dalliances, the English country house has existed as a character and device in British literature. Often such pompous edifices have embodied a gothic sense of gloom and frequently played pivotal parts as atmospheric scene-setters.
Some properties have been so integral to the respective authors’ storytelling that their names constitute the title of the work. From Mansfield Park and Bleak House to Howard’s End and Wuthering Heights, it’s hard to imagine any real progression of plot without so robust and influential a setting. The same is true of Mr Darcy’s home, Pemberley in Derbyshire, the “large, handsome” building that figures so enigmatically in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Most of these houses have been fictional, but some of those brought to screens big and small have been filmed at real locales that, in turn, have become “cine-tourism” stars. While totally a TV construct, Downton Abbey (aka Highclere Castle in Hampshire) has seen its visitor numbers soar since the series debuted in 2010.
And at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, the “star” of the 1981 Brideshead Revisited miniseries based on Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, visitors continue to happily blur fiction with fact, hoping to spy Sebastian’s Flyte’s teddy bear, Aloysius, and photograph the Italian fountain, as described by the book’s narrator Charles Ryder, “an oval basin with an island of sculptured rocks at its centre; on the rocks grew, in stone, formal tropical vegetation and wild English fern … [and] fantastic tropical animals, camels and camelopards and an ebullient lion, all vomiting water”.
Similarly, Chatsworth House, seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, “played” Pemberley in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It’s a nice bit of bricks-and-mortar casting as, in the novel, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, accompanied by Mr and Mrs Gardiner, visits Chatsworth House in the Peak District on her secret mission to spy on Pemberley.
In this enjoyable anthology, Monash University Melbourne adjunct professor Geoffrey G. Hiller makes the reader consider the mythology and wider importance of the great houses by gathering extracts from novels, plays and poems spanning the 16th to the 21st centuries. All are presented with a brief introduction of context and setting and are arranged in chrono- logical order of first publication, from Philip Sidney’s writings on Kalender’s house in Arcadia (1590) to Alan Hollinghurst’s evocations in The Stranger’s Child (2011) of the “modest country villa” of Two Acres on the outskirts of London and the “decidedly ugly” Victorian-era Corley Court in Berkshire. In myriad cases, these “tastings” provide great impetus to read more, particularly lesser-known works or, in my case, to re-read books studied long ago, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872), with Lowick Manor’s “sombre yews” and “little vistas of bright things”; and Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), set amid Endelstow House, with its “many-mullioned windows” and “tall, octagonal and twisted chimneys”.
But let’s not forget an element of derision at the pretension of oft-eulogised country-house life from the likes of PG Wodehouse, whose Something Fresh (1915) satirises the entertainments at Blandings Castle. “The house-party had that air of torpor which one sees in the saloon passengers of an Atlantic liner, that appearance of resignation to an enforced idleness and a monotony only to be broken by meals. Lord Emsworth’s guests gave the impression, collectively, of just being about to yawn and look at their watches.”
These stately residences, of literature and reality, were never just social or holiday retreats but permanent dwellings for moneyed and often titled families. They sat tremendously and paternalistically at the centre of their own universes of tenanted estates, field workers, servants and status. These were the “big houses” of villages, important centres of communities, often agriculturally self-sufficient, suppliers of jobs and judicious largesse, hosts to shooting parties and occasional private summits attended by the politically powerful.
In a scholarly introduction, Monash University senior lecturer Peter Groves contends that a house is “a vehicle of meanings” and English writers have long used descriptions of fictional properties “to exemplify characters and values”. The preface is heavily cross-referenced and, as such, becomes rather bogged down, but he clearly makes the point that few of the stately piles of England are still homes. There is the impossibility of upkeep, punitive “death taxes” and, since the age of industrialisation and the demise of sanctioned servitude, a scarcity of hired household help.
Now many of the top houses are open to all, to see if not to touch. There are roped-off rooms, petting zoos, donkey rides and botanical walks escorted by undergardeners. Often the family in residence lives in one comparatively small wing. When I interviewed Fiona, the reigning countess at Highclere Castle, seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, it was in the family’s “quarters”, a rambling flat high above the may-