The House of Fiction

By Phyllis Richardson

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


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

Chapter 2

Hauntingly Familiar

The Gothic House

‘a Gothic chapel and an historic castle are anodynes to a torpid mind.’ Horace Walpole

Picture a medieval stone castle perched on a craggy cliff-face, its walls impenetrable, its turrets and battlements shrouded in grey mist. Now put yourself in a darkened corridor, listen for the echo of strange footsteps, a blood-curdling cry. The setting is eerily familiar in the twenty-first century, but the combination of intimidating architecture and unnatural activities was first used to terrify readers nearly two hundred and fifty years ago. The haunted house or enchanted castle that we now know from stories and film can actually be traced back to an English penchant for Gothic styling that began to emerge in the middle of the eighteenth century. The tales of terror that we associate with these buildings got their start with an early novel that gripped its readers through a spine-tingling mixture of modest maidens and occult forces. The setting was very specific, the architecture was in a style that people knew vaguely from old churches and ancient tales, but it was still strange enough to feel mysterious, even threatening.

The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in 1764 is widely accepted as the first Gothic novel. It was certainly the first to be inspired by an author’s love of Gothic architecture, as Walpole used details form his own extraordinary ‘Gothic villa’, Strawberry Hill to paint in the background. But it was soon followed by another tale linked with an architectural sensation, this time by William Beckford, who created the legendary house Fonthill Abbey. In addition to a love of Gothic architecture, Beckford and Walpole shared a few other important similarities. Both were wealthy aesthetes, both had secret passions that kept them on the margins of polite society, and both created extreme monuments to their creative vision that helped to fix the romance and mystery of Gothic designs in the popular architectural and fictional imagination. Horace Walpole has become a somewhat obscured figure in Britain. He is often confused with his father, Sir Robert Walpole, who was the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister and considered the first to hold the office. As the father of the Gothic novel Horace Walpole gave Britain and the world a literary form that still haunts us, quite literally, today. His was the tale of supernatural horror, of chaste young women being pursued by a demonic presence through dimly lit corridors and secret passages, of ancient prophecies and ruined castles. The Castle of Otranto is now almost unheard of amongst the general reading public, but it provided the inspiration for centuries of writers, from Jane Austen to Bram Stoker and Daphne du Maurier, and a whole genre of stories and films, right up to the modern fantasy of wizard academies and flying broomsticks. Walpole’s inspiration for the enchanted setting of his novel was the house and collection that he built up for himself at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, the first Gothic Revival house in England, which gave birth to an architectural trend of its own.


Walpole was a Technicolor character, a fervently articulate politician and social commentator who provided subsequent generations with a window on eighteenth century Britain through a series of historic memoirs and pamphlets he wrote and published and through more than four thousand letters of correspondence that have survived the centuries[TM, I]. His witty and at times scathing commentaries on society, politics, art, culture, and smouldering instalments of gossip are entertaining in their own right, but particularly compelling because he was so firmly connected with the established social and political elite of the time. Serving as an MP for decades, he took some rather modern moral stands, being against slavery, as well as opposed to war with France and with the British Colonies that became the United States. But he was also not afraid of intrigue and used his great oratory skill and intelligence to further the aims of the people he cared for most, quite apart from and unconcerned with whether or not their success was for the good of the country. Of course there was a private side to Walpole, and his vast correspondence includes some very telling letters to someone, as biographer Tim Mowl argues, who was secretly the love of his life, Henry Fiennes-Clinton, 9th Earl of Lincoln, once described by George II as ‘the handsomest man in England’. Strawberry Hill not only gave Horace the chance to indulge his creative fantasies but a place to retire with ‘like-minded’ friends away from the frenetic gossip of London society.

Looking for a summer retreat from London, Walpole bought the little house in 1747 (aged thirty) and redesigned it with the help of a group of learned friends whom he dubbed ‘the Strawberry Committee’ or ‘the Committee of Taste’. These included John Chute, an avowed aesthete and architectural enthusiast who enjoyed helping to plot out renovations and additions for friends with grand houses. Chute inherited a grand house of his own, the Vyne in Hampshire, a grand Tudor mansion built by Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain, in 1754. While living there, Chute’s sons William and Tom became friendly with the children of the local vicar, George Austen, and the Vyne would influence a different strand of the English novel through George’s younger daughter, Jane.

During his travels in Europe and around his home country, Horace developed a passion for a hallowed medieval past, and during a desultory tour of France, he became particularly enamoured of soaring arches and darkened interiors of Gothic architecture, which he emulated in the elaborate remodelling of his house.

The origins of Gothic style lie in church architecture from France in the middle ages. The influence came to England in early ecclesiastical buildings and was also prominent in university halls and chapels at Oxford and Cambridge. Its hallmarks are its verticality, enhanced by tapering spires, pointed arches, ribbed vaulting and of course the colourful stained-glass windows that depicted Biblical narratives and honoured pious members of the community. Decorative elements often include refined carved stonework, intricate tracery, trefoil windows and other embellishments in stone. By embracing the Gothic, Horace was bucking the period trend for neo-classicism which was popular with English gentlemen who had returned from the Grand Tour under the spell of the sixteenth-century Venetian architect Adrea Palladio. Lord Burlington’s massive Palladian-style Chiswick house, built in 1729, was perceived by many at the time to be the apotheosis of taste. Horace was perhaps even a bit competitive, admitting, ‘I give myself a Burlington-air, and say, that as Chiswick is a model of Grecian architecture, Strawberry Hill is to be so of Gothic.’ (Iddon6) His ‘model’ featured the tall, pointed arches and ribbed vaults, narrow, curving ‘ogee’ and flowery trefoile and quatrefoil windows, and thick stone walls, or the illusion of them—much of the ‘stone-work’ at Strawberry Hill was actually imitation carried out in wood. Horace cared less for historical accuracy than he did for the theatrical effect. The walls were capped by battlements and corner steeples; he even added a crenelated tower with a cone-topped turret, all such fortifications of course, only for show. Horace then threw in a riot of stained and painted glass and tracery designs that made his Gothic far less austere and much more virtuosic, really more over-the-top flamboyant, than what had inspired it.

Lawrence Sterne's Shandy Hall

Horace Walpole’s only novel, like his house, took an existing model and turned it into something far more spectacular. Walpole’s fictional tale also has its origins in earlier designs, the legends of chivalric romance and other stories that sprang from the medieval quest tradition. But at the time he was writing, the novel itself was a new literary form, one that was much more flexible and adaptive than what we acknowledge today.

Robinson Crusoe, the first English novel, was only forty-five years old when Horace published The Castle of Otranto in 1764. The first volumes of Laurence Sterne’s bawdy, meandering life of Tristram Shandy, still one of the most experimental novels ever written, had appeared five years previously and further volumes were still in progress. Horace’s tale, inspired by his love of Gothic architecture and the mystical atmosphere it created, was completely different, but it’s safe to say that at this moment in literature, a lot of what was being written was completely different from what had come before. It was a good moment for inventing a genre.

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