Char­ac­ter­ful man­sions loom large in fic­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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-

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