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Joanna Quinn on the English Country House in Fiction
A stunning family saga that takes in themes of performance, class and gender expectations, Joanna Quinn's The Whalebone Theatre traces the fortunes of the Seagraves - owners of a crumbling pile by the Dorset coast - as the shadow of war looms ever closer. In this exclusive piece, Joanna considers the role of the 'big house' in the English literary tradition and why those of us who could never dream of possessing one feel so compelled to read - and write - about them.
I recently met the woman who is translating The Whalebone Theatre into Danish. She told me it was easy to picture the crumbling manor at the heart of my novel because it’s ‘so familiar’ – and it struck me that the country house is arguably one of our greatest exports. Even if you live in an apartment in Copenhagen, you have a good idea of what life is like inside an English mansion, thanks to innumerable books and TV shows, from Rebecca to Bridgerton.
The English big house is a curious thing: a fictional setting that has outlived its real-life counterparts. Most of the real ones were knocked down or sold off in the first half of the 20th Century – although that is also part of their appeal. Evelyn Waugh, looking back at his novel Brideshead Revisited, admitted he “piled it on rather” because he was writing in the bleakness of wartime when English manors seemed doomed to extinction. Many big house stories are hymns to a way of life becoming obsolete or, like Downton Abbey, preoccupied with their precarious survival. Other contemporary versions – such as Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day – use those same themes to question the values embedded within them, while Natasha Brown’s Assembly uses the setting to dissect the contemporary legacy of colonialism.
It's an evergreen setting but one that I have strangely complicated feelings about, being the kind of person who wrote angry feminist analyses of Jane Eyre at university. I am aware of all the inequalities inherent in the big house, and I’ve never thought of myself as particularly English – my family comes from Ireland, Wales and Cornwall (which is, as we know, a fully independent kingdom) – so it’s curious to me that I wrote about an English upper-class family living in an ancient manor in Dorset.
I suspect my interest stems from childhood reading. As a kid, I lived in a terraced house in Ealing. My Mum, my sister and I were squashed onto the top floor, while the ground floor was let out to lodgers. It’s not hard to see why I loved stories about big houses with massive gardens where unsupervised children could roam freely. The Children of Green Knowe, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Moondial, The Secret Garden, The Enchanted Castle. All my favourites were tales of children discovering something wonderful and life-changing in an old empty house. Even the wardrobe that led to my beloved Narnia was found in a country house.
It is strange to think how many children grow up within an imaginative landscape dotted with English manors. The books we in the West call ‘children’s classics’ typically feature a very English world, one of crumpets, lacrosse, nannies and lords. Think of Toad in The Wind in the Willows with his love of cars and his showy mansion. He might be amphibian, but he is also a recognisably English type – an arrogant member of the upper classes (although probably new money, don’t you think? Badger seems like old money – one of those posh people who are so posh they wear 300-year-old trousers).
This is something I later considered when writing my novel: how our interior worlds are shaped by our childhood reading. My fictional family, the Seagraves, enjoy Victorian adventure stories and grow up believing in all the gung-ho militarism those books contain. My library books convinced me that crumbling manors with supernatural qualities were frequently stumbled upon by ordinary children. It was surely just a matter of time before I found one too.
Curiously, when I was young, the library in Ealing was housed in Pitzhanger Manor, a grand 19th century building fronted by towering pillars. It was like a huge imposing assertion that what I had read about truly existed, and as such, was almost a sacred space for me. I remember wandering among bookshelves in echoing rooms with high domed ceilings – and I remember the heavy, hard-back books I found there. Reading meant a kind of quiet spaciousness. Long polished corridors. Bookshelves so high they required a ladder. A sense of infinite possibility.
I suspect that there was too, buried beneath my compulsive reading, a niggling envy. Why didn’t I get live in an ivy-covered mansion with magical secrets? Even my favourite boarding school series, Malory Towers, was set in a country house. It seemed profoundly unfair that I should have my lessons in a portacabin. In one of her Reith lectures for the BBC, Hilary Mantel says there is a kind of historical fiction which ‘taps into that common childhood daydream that we are not the children of our parents, but of more distinguished strangers, who will turn up any day to collect us – to save us from our humiliating ordinariness’. There of something of this in country house fiction, I think. Both for children and adults.
Because the country house is somewhere we can only visit. We can never own it, so it becomes a place of projected fantasy. (You are unlikely to find a big house book written by someone who has actually lived in one – although, for a brief insane moment, I considered applying for a job as a National Trust cleaner so I would at least know what it was like to mop one after hours). I sometimes wonder if writing a big house book is my way of planting a flag in territory I can never possess.
But, as it turned out, this sense of envious exclusion became one of the keys that opened the door to my own novel. My characters could be people who felt uncomfortable in the house, unsure of their relationship to it, excluded from power or status for all the tenuous reasons the aristocracy relies on – birth, gender, class, sexuality, nationality.
And, although the big house is often a place of stuffy traditions, it’s also notable for its lack of helicopter parenting. In adult big house novels, much of the narrative concerns social status, money, marriages and so on – the stuff of drawing room conversations – while the children in the house are left to their own devices, told to ‘run along’. Children’s fiction picks up this trail and follows those children as they dart along empty corridors, having adventures and uncovering secrets.
This then was my way into the big house story. I didn’t want to write a novel where entitled people with silly nicknames exchanged witticisms over croquet, but I was interested in those overlooked children. The ones who had kept me company when I was young. Who would they become when they grew up? What happens to the imaginative kid who grows up inside the big house? That was the story I would tell in The Whalebone Theatre.
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