Evelyn Waugh came to regret Brideshead Revisited.
In a preface to its reissue, he apologised for having infused it "with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful". The excess was due to the wartime conditions in which the novel had been written, he explained:. It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of , the present cult of the English country house.
It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century. So I piled it on rather, with passionate sincerity. Pile it on he certainly did, revering Brideshead for its continuity "Year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended it; year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness" , and condemning the chippy provincial platoon commander, Hooper, for daring to comment, as he and his troops set about requisitioning Brideshead: "It doesn't seem to make any sense — one family in a place this size.
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That his novel would still be popular more than half a century later would have surprised Waugh. He would be even more surprised to find that novels with an English country house setting are among the most acclaimed written in recent years, among them Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day , Ian McEwan's Atonement and Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger Next month brings another notable addition to the genre, Alan Hollinghurst's compelling new novel The Stranger's Child , set partly in a 3,acre estate called Corley Court.
All these are historical novels, set at different points of the last century, with Hollinghurst's spanning 95 years and concluding in Like Waugh's novel, they're also revealing about present-day preoccupations. And what they confirm is the continuing attraction of the English country house to the literary imagination.
Although they've done enough research plausibly to depict what goes on in one, or what used to, none of these novelists grew up in a country house. If it's inside knowledge we're after, we'd do better to read Snobs by Julian Fellowes aka Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, author of Downton Abbey , or pay a visit to a National Trust or English Heritage property, or tune in to Dan Cruickshank's television series The Country House Revealed , which takes us behind doors normally closed to the public.
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What attracts the non-U contemporary novelist to country houses is the space they afford for gathering a group of diverse characters — servants as well as masters — under one roof, so as to watch how tensions develop, love affairs begin and catastrophes unfold. In this, they're also engaging with a tradition that runs from Pope, Fielding and Austen to Forster, Wodehouse and Waugh.
As Mark Girouard points out in his anthology A Country House Companion , there's a mythology surrounding English country houses that extols them as "magical places" and their owners as wise custodians who tend the land, look after their tenants and servants, devote their lives to public service, fill their galleries with beautiful pictures and their libraries with rare books, and are unfailingly hospitable to friends and guests.
Predictably, the most zealous purveyors of the myth have been aristocrats themselves, who depict their homes not as monuments to power and wealth but as embodiments of grace and gentility.
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Eager to establish its democratic credentials, Vita Sackville-West portrays her family home, Knole, not as the vast pile it is — rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards, set in a 1,acre deer park — but as "the greater relation of those small manorhouses which hide themselves away so innumerably among the counties. It has all the quality of peace and permanence; of mellow age; of stateliness and tradition.
It is gentle and venerable. The home of the Tallis family in McEwan's Atonement is ugly — "barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances, and by a younger writer of the modern school as 'charmless to a fault'. As for the "violently Victorian" Corley Court in Hollinghurst's novel, with its "stained glass windows that kept out the light, the high ceilings that baffled all attempts at heating, the barely penetrable thickets of overladen tables, chairs and potted palms that filled the rooms", the suggestion that these "inhuman aspects" and "grotesqueries" might be part of its charm is rudely discarded by its owners, who are keen to make fashionable alterations.
If the houses themselves are unattractive, their occupants are even less so. Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day , might stay loyal to his boss Lord Darlington but the reader unmasks him as a Nazi sympathiser. The frozen Caroline in The Little Stranger feels more protective of her dog than of the child it savages, and — like her war-damaged brother Roderick — is snobbishly inept when dealing with the lower orders.
The Tallis family in Atonement , when misled by year-old Briony, are all too quick to identify Robbie — the son of the cleaning lady — as a rapist, though the real offender comes from their own social caste.
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Hollinghurst's Cecil is charismatic, a poet in the manner of Rupert Brooke, but there's a dangerous power about him, a droit de seigneurial swagger, which he doesn't fail to exploit. These four novels are about much more than country houses: Waters's plays with the conventions of the ghost story, McEwan's has a section on Dunkirk, Ishiguro's is a study in emotional repression, and Hollinghurst's is, among other things, a bibliographical thriller.
And insofar as they take property as a theme, they address issues familiar to most of us — everything from inheritance and refurbishment to faulty wiring. What she calls solemnity has now become a national obsession, fed by endless television documentaries about buying houses and doing them up. Like property pages and estate agent windows with their multimillion-pound homes, country house novels allow us to luxuriate in places we could never own — to linger in long galleries, gaze at ancestral portraits and roam the gardens and parkland.
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They're appealing to film companies, too — Atonement and The Remains of the Day became big-budget movies, and there's every chance The Little Stranger and no relation The Stranger's Child will follow suit. But the motivation for these authors isn't the prospect of movie deals.
Nor do nostalgia, aestheticism or attachment to privilege play much of a part. What draws them to a country house setting is the space it offers for everything to happen under one roof; the house of fiction has many rooms, but country house fiction has more rooms than most. There's also the opportunity to play with ideas and motifs that date back centuries. However smartly renovated, the same few themes, characters and plot-twists come up again and again. But is Chatsworth any more quintessentially English than, say, a working-class terrace in Derby or a mobile home in Jaywick?
As with the houses, so with the literature. It's arguable that Irish country house literature surpasses ours, because the conflicts it dramatises — both political and religious — are on a larger scale. William Trevor's The Story of Lucy Gault , for instance, begins in , during the struggle for independence, with an episode involving the IRA, the British army, an Anglo-Irish landlord, and an arson attack. And the master of the form is surely Chekhov, whose plays — set on country estates under threat of being sold off because their owners are indolent, prodigal, alcoholic or unworldly — have become integral to British theatre.
In The Cherry Orchard currently playing at the National Madame Ranevskaya and her brother Gayev carelessly assume that something will turn up to solve their financial problems, despite warnings from the entrepreneurial Lopakhin that they must act. All your ancestors were serf-owners, possessors of living souls. Don't you see that from every cherry tree, from every leaf and trunk, human beings are peering out at you? Don't you hear their voices? To possess living souls — that has corrupted all of you, those who lived before and you who are living now, so that [you] no longer perceive that you are living in debt, at someone else's expense, at the expense of those who you wouldn't allow to cross your threshold.
We are at least two hundred years behind the times.
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We only philosophise, complain of boredom or drink vodka. Yet it's quite clear that to begin to live we must first atone for the past. Forthright political condemnation of this sort is rare in British fiction; the atoning that Briony Tallis has to do, in McEwan's novel, is of a different kind.
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It's difficult to have sex in a flat or a small house without the other occupants noticing: hence the scene in Sons and Lovers when Paul Morel and Clara Dawes have to wait for her mother to go to bed before they get on with it. The country house affords more opportunities: bedrooms lie further apart and can be crept into in secrecy; gardens offer hidden bowers and trysting-spots; and if all else fails, and two people are desperate enough, there'll always be an empty room where they can risk it. In Hollinghurst's new novel — a demure one compared to his earlier work — erotic excitements happen in the linen-room, and in woodland, and the garden at night.
The ultimate achievement in country house sex is Lady Chatterley's Lover , in which Connie finds fulfilment not in the bedroom at Wragby her crippled husband Clifford is impotent and sex with a house-guest, Michaelis, fails to satisfy her , but in a cottage in its grounds, with the gamekeeper, Mellors. Connie is transformed by the experience "she was gone, she was not, and she was born: a woman" , though at least her metamorphosis is less drastic than that of Sylvia, the wife in David Garnett's Lady into Fox another memorable country house novel , who becomes a vixen.
Now an old man, the narrator, Leo, recalls the hot summer he spent at Brandham Hall in Norfolk, acting as messenger-boy for the beautiful Marian played by Julie Christie in Joseph Losey's film version and for Ted Burgess Alan Bates , the local tenant farmer with whom — although engaged to marry a viscount — she is having an affair.
In Fielding's novels, the handsome but lowly heroes end up owning country estates. His award-winning restoration first described in the New York Times and in World of Interiors is now illustrated in a new Rizzoli book September He is an extreme athlete, running marathons to benefit charitable organizations addressing the needs of people with disabilities—including races across the Sahara, Atacama and Gobi deserts.
He is the first Shaftesbury in 50 years to live in the house, alongside his wife Dinah and their three children. Thursday, October 25 p. This lecture is preceded by a reception and book-signing at p.
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