The House of Fiction

By Phyllis Richardson

A cultural exploration of British houses in fiction from Shandy Hall to Manderley

History | Women
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Publication date: July 2017

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Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill

Great British Houses in Literature and Life

For every novelist there is a background story, but in the English canon there is often a tantalizing link to house and home.

Horace Walpole’s fascination with medieval churches led him to build his own ‘little Gothic castle’, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, which in turn inspired him to write the first English Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto.

In the Regency period there was a vogue for ‘improving’ grand country houses of the kind used to bold effect by Jane Austen as settings for her sharp-witted society novels. The celebrated author was, herself, no stranger to a manor house or a good ballroom, where she at times ‘danced nine dances out of ten,’ or ‘drank too much wine … I know not else how to account for the shaking of my hand today.’

Fictional houses have captured readers’ imaginations for centuries, from Gothic castles to Georgian stately homes to Bloomsbury townhouses and high-rise pent-houses. This book illustrates how writers have used real and imagined houses to reflect the themes of their novels; how houses become like characters themselves, embodiments of the social and historical currents of their time, and it examines the particular connections those authors may have had to each one.

Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford

Phyllis Richardson takes readers on a journey through history to discover how authors’ personal experiences of houses and home life helped to shape the imaginative dwellings that have become icons of English literature. Virginia Woolf’s love of Talland House in Cornwall is palpable in To the Lighthouse. E.M. Forster described the appeal of his childhood home at Rook’s Nest in words that mirror the idyllic charm of Howard’s End, 'I was brought up as a boy in a district which I still think the loveliest in England…hedges full of clematis, primroses, bluebells, dog roses and nuts.’ Like his fictional architect Philip Bossiney, John Galsworthy had an affair with his cousin’s wife, slipping away with her to a house in the country, which they later lived in as man and wife.

Using historic sources, authors’ biographies, letters and published news accounts, as well as the novels themselves, The House of Fiction presents some of the most influential houses in Britain through the stories they inspired, while offering candid glimpses of the writers who brought them to life.


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  • Phyllis Richardson avatar

    Phyllis Richardson

    Phyllis Richardson is the author of several books on architecture and design, including the highly successful XS series, Nano House, and the forthcoming Superlight, published in the UK by Thames and Hudson. She has written on architecture, urban development and travel for the Financial Times, The Observer and DWELL magazine in the US. She has an M.A. in Anglo-American Literature and has published many reviews of literary fiction in the TLS, the now-defunct Los Angeles Times Book Review and other journals. The author is a Tutor on the Integrated Degree programme in English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmith's, University of London, and blogs about architecture and occasional literary topics on Archetcetera.

  • Contents

    1. Building the House of Fiction: Robinson Crusoe and the first house of fiction; the twists and turns of Shandy Hall and Tristram Shandy

    2. Gothic House: Hauntingly Familiar: Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill, William Beckford and Fonthill Abbey

    3. The Golden Age of the English Country House: The many houses of Jane Austen: from the Rectory to the Vyne, Manydown House, Godmersham, Stoneleigh Abbey and Chawton

    4. In Debt to History, the Scottish Baronial Style: Walter Scott goes bankrupt at Abbotsford

    5. Victorian Backlash: Charles Dickens: London slums, Gad’s Hill, and the mansion that inspired Mrs Havisham’s Satis House

    6. The Aspiring Pragmatist: Thomas Hardy builds Max Gate

    Jane Austen's house

    7. Prestige and Social Angst: John Galsworthy and the inspiration for Bossiney’s ‘modern’ house in The Forsyte Saga. Busby Hall, Yorkshire, as the model for Groby in Parade’s End

    8. Old World Refuge: Forster's Rook’s Nest and Howard’s End, Virginia Woolf's Talland House and To the Lighthouse, London’s Bloomsbury and Mrs Dalloway

    9. Love and tragedy in the Gothic Revisited: Jane Eyre and North Lees Hall, Cromer Hall inspires The Hound of the Baskervilles, Menabilly becomes an obsession for Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca

    10. War-torn Nostalgia: Evelyn Waugh plots Charles Ryder’s return to Brideshead while a guest at Madresfield

    11. The Death of Community: J.G. Ballard sees the scourge of the Docklands in High-rise

    12. Looking Backward: the English Country House through a post-modern lens, from idyllic to unloved: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Darlington Hall, Ian McEwan’s Tallis House, Alan Hollinghurst’s Two Acres, a word about Downton Abbey

  • Phyllis Richardson has written 6 private updates. You can pledge to get access to them all.

    17th July 2017 House of Fiction is Book of the Week!

    It's printed, it arrived, it looks great, and we are so pleased to see that House of Fiction was chosen as Book of the Week by the Times on Saturday. See the review here:

    27th June 2017 They're here!

    Yes, finished copies of House of Fiction have arrived. Thanks to all of you lovely, patient, book-loving people. Books should be winging their way to you anytime now. It has been a long journey for me and for many of you who signed up in the early days of the project. I hope you'll feel it was worthwhile, and that you'll let me have your thoughts once you've read it. 

    If you didn't manage to…

    8th March 2017 Last Chance to Join the Club

    Above: literary and society friends at Garsington Manor, home of Lady Ottoline Morrell and her husband the MP Philip Morrell. The artists, intellectuals and conscientious objectors who gathered at Garsington were lampooned by Aldous Huxley (also a frequent visitor) in the 1921 novel Crome Yellow (see Chapter 10).

    So we are approaching the end, that is, the end of the subscripton drive for House…

    3rd February 2017 Hooray for Harriet!

    Hi, there, I am very pleased to announce that I've received the final drawings from Harriet Winterburn of the houses that will form the Chapter Openers for the book (and from which some of you will be receiving a print).  How will you choose? They are really wonderful and I'm very much looking forward to everyone else getting to see how detailed, original and atmospheric they are, which is not so…

    1st November 2016 Last chapter finished, the rise of the tower block

    It was a great thing to hand over the last chapters, and I'm grateful for all of you who have been sticking with the project, especially you early subscribers who may have thought it would never happen. Though there is still a lot to do: editing, chasing down illustrations, going through my long list of details and references to check. It's now in the editing stage and I must promise myself to refrain…

    31st July 2016 Crafting Houses in Fact and Fiction: Thomas Hardy's Architectural Notebook

    [Above: sketch of a village church, left, and a baptismal font]

    Okay, so finishing the last couple of chapters and putting together illustrations for The House of Fiction now. I just had to share this little fascinating gem of a book. It's Thomas Hardy's Architectural Notebook with sketches mainly from his time working for John Hicks in Dorset, Arthur Blomfield in London (in whose office E…

    10th May 2016 Secret Passages and Rampant Bears

    Melville Castle, Lasswade, Scotland (above) now a hotel. Photos: Phyllis Richardson

    Doing the last bits of research for my chapter on Walter Scott, looking around his haunts in the Borders. After stop at Melville Castle, former home of Scott's patron the Duke of Melville, and now a hotel, we paid a rewarding visit to   Traquair House in Peebleshire, the 'oldest continually inhabited house…

    1st March 2016 Unpublished Drawings of Robin Hill in the RIBA Journal online

    Hello, everyone, and apologies for bombarding you with two posts in two days. 

    I just wanted to let you all know that my fantastic discovery of the drawings that John Galsworthy made of the plans for his fictional experimental house at Robin Hill, have now been published in an article I wrote for the RIBA Journal. The Journal article is excerpted from the chapter in the book, so this is a little…

    29th February 2016 Fully funded--we're on our way!

    Above: engraving of 'Wolf's Crag' castle, from The Bride of Lammermoor

    Thanks to everyone, each one of you who has supported the book by sponsoring and those of you who have come to events, put the book on your Facebook pages, or asked (or told!) friends to support it. It now has the funding needed to do the first printing, which I am very excited about and grateful for. (I'm still hoping for…

    19th January 2016 Julian Fellowes and the House of Fiction

    Above: sketch © Harriet Winterburn

    Hello, Everyone, and Happy New Year 2016!


    It's time to say that THE HOUSE OF FICTION has now reached 71 per cent of its funding (HOORAY!), so thanks again to all of you brilliant subscribers. We're almost there and with the new year, I'm making a renewed drive for more subscribers. Please all of you who…

    4th November 2015 House-hunting with Charlotte Brontë

    First of all, thanks to all new contributors: Hannah, Pete, Meghan, Patricia, Penny, Martin. The book is moving along. Just finished what I hope is the near-final draft of my chapter on Dickens and am settling down to write about the next novel and the house that plays such a large part in it.

    Above: Brontë Parsonage

    There are a few houses to consider in Charlotte Brontë’s renderings of…

    18th September 2015 Charles Dickens: the peripatetic man


    The word refers to Aristotle but could as well be applied to 'Boz', who found walking necessary for his fitness but all in large measure for his sanity. He often walked 12 miles in a day–usually through, around, about London–and once famously walked from his home at Tavistock House in Bloomsbury to his newly purchased retreat, Gad's Hill Place, near Gravesend in Kent, a distance of some 30…

    30th July 2015 Ford Madox Ford: Friends and Enemies

    Ford Madox Ford's is one of those puzzling literary lives. Many count him as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century, certainly the finest writer on the First World War, a key figure in the advent of modernism. And yet there were the detractors. Hemingway treats him with contempt in A Moveable Feast, the famous reminiscence of his Paris years. But then Hemingway had contempt for his…

    13th June 2015 Sex, Lies and Architecture

    John Galsworthy’s Love Affair with Robin Hill

    Damian Lewis and Gina McKee in the 2002 television adaptation of The Forsyte Sage


    How far should we read fact into fiction? It’s a question that all biographers must negotiate as they learn about their subject and try to describe the life and the work in some harmonious narrative. All writers will channel experience into their fiction…

    21st May 2015 Virginia Woolf and 'Friends': the elite Edwardian series

    Left to right: Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell, Thoby Stephen

    With apologies to Adrian Stephen, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and Leonard Woolf, who should all be in the picture too.

    As many of you will know, I've recently finished up my chapter on Virginia Woolf, who is probably most easily associated in the popular imagination with her coterie…

    28th April 2015 Springtime at Virginia Woolf's Monks House

    Virginia Woolf's garden writing shed at Monk's House (above)

    '[April] had drawn out every leaf on the trees' as from Mrs Dalloway

    Of course, one of the great perks of this project is travelling to the many fascinating dwellings that I'm looking to learn more about. Over the weekend I made a trip with my dear friend (and volunteer research companion) Guilland Sutherland to Monks House in…

    24th March 2015 Tales from Talland House

    My trip to Cornwall last month to visit Fowey and environs brought another literary bonus. On a quick excursion to St Ives, I wandered Porthminster Beach in brave February sun, and betook myself up the hill to Talland House. With the help of a friendly resident I found the house where Virigina Woolf spent her childhood summers at the end of the street below Talland Road. At first I looked at each…

    24th February 2015 Finding 'Rebecca' in Fowey

    Cornwall in February is not a bad bet. We had glorious weather for 3 of 5 days and I managed two long walks over the cliffs where Daphne duMaurier tramped around on her own or with her dog in all kinds of bluster and sun. Based near the town of Fowey, I made the most of taking in the rocky coastal formations that hold so many hidden coves within their grasp, like Polridmouth and Readymoney. No…

    4th February 2015 The Fun of A Cock and Bull Story

    The more I write about Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy, the more I want to watch (again) the blissfully idiosyncratic film adaptation directed by Michael Winterbottom. Re-reading Shandy–the expostulations in the parlour, the pounding of poor Susannah's feet across the hall overhead, the ruminations on wit and judgment (focusing on the two knobs on the back of the chair), Dr Slop's ineptitude…

    20th January 2015 'in a bye corner of the kingdom'

    A visit to Laurence Sterne's Shandy Hall, in Yorkshire, leads one predictably off the linear track. I'm not sure what I expected, but I suppose it wasn't to be quite as overwhelmed with the number and range of activities and creative tangents the house (and the Trust) have prompted and promoted in recent years. But then Sterne was never retrograde in his writing or his visions. As we know he published…

    5th January 2015 Hello, 2015! and 18th-century publication by subscription

    I hope you all had a wondrous, relaxing holiday and are ready to embrace the New Year. I'm beginning my House of Fiction New Year with a visit to Shandy Hall in a couple of weeks time. I'm really looking forward to seeing the house where Sterne went to live after the success of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. (Sadly, the vicarage where he lived previously at Sutton-on-the-Forest, was…

    21st November 2014 Thomas Hardy, Robinson Crusoe and Thank You

    'Ruined Castle' at Hagley Park, Worcestershire. Image: BBC

    First of all, great thanks to Celia, Will, Jill, Vivienne, Joe, Stephen, Jean Bernard, Richard, Chris, Dee, Roslyn and ALL of you who are supporting the book. You can have a read of some of my  thoughts on Thomas Hardy and Max Gate, which the Hardy Society have very kindly posted on their website.  

    Though currently my thoughts have…

    4th November 2014 Women in Print

    When Charlotte Brontë submitted her novel JANE EYRE to public scrutiny (under the pseudonym Currer Bell), she received praise from literary luminaries such as Thackeray and George Henry Lewes (the noted critic, dramatist, novelist and married lover of George Eliot, aka, Mary Ann Evans). But when she sent some of her verses to the poet laureate Robert Southey, she received a stunning rebuke:

    14th October 2014 Galsworthy Houses, Forsyte Saga of a different kind

    I've been doing more research into John Galsworthy's houses and though I still haven't found the definitive model for Robin Hill in the Forstye Saga, I've found some interesting facts. After he was offered a knighthood (by Lloyd George, which he turned down) in 1917, Galsworthy bought Grove Lodge, in Hampstead, and then a few years later he bought Bury House, a 15-bedroom mansion near Pulborough…

    2nd October 2014 My Latest Book in the New York Times

    Before setting to work in earnest on The House of Fiction, my most recent book was about small houses that are built of lightweight materials or have a 'light' impact on the environment. It's called SUPERLIGHT and has just been published by Thames and Hudson in the UK and Metropolis in the U.S. SUPERLIGHT was featured in the New York Times online edition (Home section) on 30 September…

    16th September 2014 Ghosts of Fonthill

    Remaining corner tower of Fonthill Abbey.  Images: Phyllis Richardson

    I had the very good fortune to attend the symposium 'Recovering Fonthill' over the past weekend and to learn from some expert researchers about the history of the Fonthill Estate. A series of grand houses have been built and pulled down on this site since the early 17th century, leaving mostly open land with textured features…

    4th September 2014 Oscar Wilde and Wallpaper

    ​Fritillary Wallpaper, William Morris, 1895. Image:​

    Most people will have heard that while he lay expiring  in a Paris hotel Oscar Wilde famously uttered one last quip about duelling to the death with his wallpaper. I've been reading further about Wilde's  dabbling in interior design. This was before he married Constance Lloyd and set up the lovely house in Tite Street…

    1st September 2014 Judith Flanders and Claire Tomalin at Folkestone Book Fest

    Just received my tickets to see and hear Judith Flanders and Claire Tomalin at the Folkestone Book Festival on 22 November (it runs from 14 through 23 November). Other writers include Michael Rosen, Clive Aslet, mathematical whiz Alex Bellos, and lots of others. I'm hoping to do something for the Fringe events, so watch this space.

    Judith Flanders is the author of several books on Victorian England…


    GREAT NEWS: I'm thrilled to announce that Arts Council England have agreed to help support THE HOUSE OF FICITON! We still need people to pledge toward the first printing, but their support is a great boost for the project, so spread the word...

    21st July 2014 Unwanted pregnancy in 18thc Scotland

    Scholars of Walter Scott will have long known what I'm just discovering, that the author of galloping adventure and romance was sympathetic to the plight of women. LIke Jane Austen, he called attention to the state of genteel young women who were prevented from inheriting due to laws of entail, like Rose Bradwardine of Waverley and Lucy Bertram of Guy Mannering. With poor Effie Deans in The Heart…

    8th July 2014 Ellangowan Castle, from Scott's Guy Mannering

    Happy to find an image of Caerlaverock Castle on, which Scott mentions in a footnote to Guy Mannering as the model for his description of Ellangowan Caslte: 'on entering the gateway, he found that the rude magnificence of the inner court amply corresponded with the grandeur of the exterior. On the one side ran a range of windows lofty and large, divided by carved mullions of…

    30th June 2014 A Disquieting practice

    Scold's Bridle on display at Stoneleigh Abbey

    Image: Phyllis Richardson

    This is an object on display at Stoneleigh Abbey, and while it has nothing to do with Jane Austen or literary houses, it is such a strange and disturbing piece of equipment I thought I should say something about it here. No, it's not a war helmet, well not for open warfare. This lovely device was invented by some ingenious…

    24th June 2014 Stoneleigh Abbey--what a house, what stories...

    Stoneleigh Abbey, West Wing, image: Phyllis Richardson

    As I mentioned in my last post, I was off to Stoneleigh Abbey to look into connections with Jane Austen and Mansfield Park. I must add a correction, Stoneleigh is not thought to have inspired the house at Mansfield Park, but rather Sotherton, the house in the novel that is inherited by Mr Rushworth and which he is intent on 'improving'…

    20th June 2014 Stoneleigh Abbey and Jane Austen


    I know there's quite a lot of Jane Austen material about but I'm particularly keen to be going to Stoneleigh Abbey, in Warwickshire this weekend. The Abbey was inherited by a relative of Jane Austen's mother, the Reverend Thomas Leigh, and Jane visited with her mother in August 1806. Many people feel that Stoneleigh was the model for Mansfied Park. But it is Jane's mother's reaction to the…

    16th June 2014 The Grand at Folkestone, H G Wells and Spade House

    Hello, everyone, and thanks again to all of you for supporting the book. I know it seems to be going slowly but there are new supporters every day, which is really fantastic. Please do pass on the link when you think of anyone else who might be interested in having a look.

    I spent the weekend on some literary house searching with my friend Rachel in Folkestone. We took a trip up to the Grand…

    7th June 2014 Evelyn Waugh Complete Works

    Exciting project for Waugh-lovers, or Waugh-ites (?) a complete works on its way. Nice post about the Waughs when they lived near my part of town.

    3rd June 2014 J G Ballard, High-Rise

    Reading around the authors at the moment. The current London skyscraper debate made me think of Ballard's dystopian views. For example, this from High-Rise: 'The internal time of the high-rise, like an artificial psychological climate,operated to its own rhythms, generated by a combination of alcohol and insomnia.'

    2nd June 2014 The quotable Laurence Sterne

    'In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,--and at the same time.'

    Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

    31st May 2014 Still early days: a visit to Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire

    Thanks very much to my first supporters: Gillian, Janet, Robyn, Dan, Gerald, Jane, David, and all of those people who are posting and tweeting on the book's behalf. I guess this is how social media really works. Just wanted to mention a rather lovely country house we visited today Hartwell House It's not in my book, nor does it have any ties that I know of to literary fiction, but a wonderful example…

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  • Tamasin Little
    Tamasin Little asked:

    More a question for Unbound than for you but I accidentally pledged twice - can I swap to a single signed copy rather than 2 unsigned? I don't need to reduce the amount

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    Hi Tamasin, Thanks for getting in touch. You can indeed do this. Please get in touch with us via and we'll sort this for you. Best wishes, Caitlin - Community Manager

    Clare Butler
    Clare Butler asked:

    A similar query for Unbound - I think I made a pledge but I can't remember for sure. How do I find out? Would I have got the email about it if I hadn't? Thanks.

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    Claudia Woodlingfield
    Claudia Woodlingfield asked:

    Hello there, Is it still possible to change the name in the back for this publication? I've managed to change the name for another book which I plan to give s a gift but can't find The House of Fiction under my account to do the same again.

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