Without doubt, the social country house has become the version of the country house most would recognise currently due in the main to Downton Abbey. It is almost impossible to avoid the series if you like country houses just a little bit because it pops up in internet searches left, right and centre! Its popularity is something which I want to look at in a later post. Yet its content is typical of the social house regardless of how much gloss is placed on the presentation. If the casual viewer can command a good knowledge of servant hierarchies, household politics and daily routines then the programme has done more than merely entertain. Forget the table settings, the beautiful costumes and the fine furniture; this is all about human interaction.
This, the third of three posts looking at the literary country house explores some of the themes presented by staging the house as a location for social discourse. Previous Genre posts here have addressed the country house poem and the country house as haunted house. The social house however, is where the genre really takes off.
Returning to John Lucas and more specifically Blake Morrison both writing for The Guardian (February and June 2011 respectively), it is possible to see how popular this aspect has become in recent years.
There are two distinctive definitions of the country house in its social guise. The first a solid symbol of artificial hierarchies to the extent that it has become inextricably linked with British class distinctions and notions of ‘knowing one’s place’ throughout history. As Stevens expresses in The Remains of the Day, ‘It has been my privilege to see the best of England over the years, sir, within these very walls.’ Lucas notes, ‘Country houses are nothing if not a symbol of upper class hegemony: the novel provides an apparatus through which this can be examined, sometimes humorously, sometimes with gentle satire.’ This is certainly true of the works of Thomas Love Peacock for example, particularly Headlong Hall (1816) and Nightmare Abbey (1818). In academic circles this is the traditional country house novel, and the true definition of the genre. These works acknowledge greatness and elite authority even if they mock its eccentricities.
The social house is a commentary upon the political and cultural scene using gender and race (and class) as the tools for negotiating the main narrative. The other definition and a more refreshing approach sees the social house as more about perceptions of the human condition – past and present. Morrison concludes his article with, ‘What the contemporary novelist finds in country houses isn’t greatness but loss, failure and everyday human struggle, writ large.’ It does not have to be about servants and masters or inheritance and title. The country house in this instance is attractive because it is a convenient box in which to place any number of people and their experiences and desires. From here the author can construct plots concerning deception, family breakdown, heady romance or illicit sex, isolation and the inevitability of aging. In much the same way that the haunted house works with its dark corners and dusty attics, the social house plays host to everything from dinner table talk to hushed liaisons within any and every room, garden and outbuilding.
The role of the haunted house is mysterious; its aging walls suffocating and passages misleading. The role of the social house is slightly more mobile because authors can deposit their characters there and unravel the tale ‘on site’ or they can establish it as a silent asset. The latter sees the country house assume the characteristics of one of the other players, usually a previous owner as in Forster’s Howard’s End (1910) or even Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). The house might have some stoical presence that the human players severely lack, or it might represent resignation; a fate driven by alimony and unwanted inheritance as suggested in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934).
It is the ‘on site’ stories which hold so much fascination for readers though, and many are drawn to the narratives which focus on personal or wider historical events. Descriptions of the house provide a force which is either repulsive or magnificent for the key characters but is nonetheless a place which ultimately controls their motives, behaviour and consciousness,
Morning sunlight, or any light, could not conceal the ugliness of the Tallis home – 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. (Ian McEwan, Atonement, p. 22)
The wasted chances are as much about the architectural structure as they are about the emotional development and perceptions of freedom made by the inhabitants. As readers we might wonder how we would react to a character’s experience as it unfolds upon the page. Do we relate to it immediately? Does it fill us with disgust or passion? Or do we long to be involved as more than observer?
Interestingly, the greatest wealth of literature absorbed with the social house seems to be confined to a particular era – the twentieth century. The nineteenth-century country house novel is to some extent restrained by tradition. Contemporary nineteenth-century authors were writing about a world which had changed very little in centuries; the characters are therefore the focus (including the house as presence) and the plot is devised around the nuances of social interaction. From the dawn of the twentieth century, the country house was on its way to decline. During the second half of the century hundreds of houses had been demolished and their estates built upon. Authors like Waugh and Forster were well aware of this shift and their novels are commentary on the coping mechanisms made by owners as they faced threats to lineage, financial security and their cultural values.
Moreover, authors of the modern country house novel – those making appearances in the twenty-first century – are eqaully attracted to the vanishing Belle Epoque with its grand parties and bustling households. The Downton Abbey effect reinforces this and the social house is marketed as the literary Highclere. I like what Lev Grossman in Time Entertainment (May 2012) says, ‘The paradox of the English country house is that its state of permanent decline, the fact that its heyday is always behind it, is part of the seduction, just as it is part of the seduction of books in general.’
But this probably says something more about the present human condition. Houses and people have a symbiotic relationship which is emotionally complex. The house is the static body which grows old, it has seen a great deal of life and death, and every occupant has left their mark. That its heyday is behind it only reinforces this poignancy. When we visit a well furnished, well curated house we stand to look at the paintings. Offer a visitor the chance to visit the drab cellars or offices and the attention immediately turns to the people who used these spaces. When that world no longer exists in the way it was meant, or its ending is nigh we cling to its memory. The existence of people or otherwise is how we formulate similar narratives. So for an author of the country house novel in the twenty-first century, the social house maintains its grip because people are always full of surprises. The country house is the tool chosen for concealment or liberation of these stories.
References and suggested reading:
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814).
Ned Beauman, Boxer, Beetle (2011).
Isabel Colegate, The Shooting Party (Penguin Classics, 2007)
Lord Julian Fellowes, Snobs (2004).
E. M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910).
John Galsworthy. The Country House (1907).
Linda Gillard, House of Silence (2011).
Mark Girouard, A Country House Companion (1987).
Rumer Godden. China Court: the Hours of a Country House; a novel (1961).
Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (2011).
Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day (1989).
D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (privately printed, 1928, full text 1960).
Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton (1896).
Malcolm Kelsall, The Great Good Place: the Country House and English Literature (1993).
Virginia C. Kenny, The Country House Ethos in English literature, 1688-1750: Themes of Personal Retreat and National Expansion. (1984).
William Hurrell Mallock. The New Republic; or, Culture, Faith and Philosophy in an English Country House. New York (1878).
Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001).
Kate Morton, The House at Riverton (2008) and The Distant Hours (2010).
Thomas Love Peacock, Headlong Hall (1816), Melincourt (1817) and Nightmare Abbey (1818).
Jane Sanderson, Netherwood (2011).
Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (1993).
Giles Waterfield, Markham Thorpe (2007).
Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (1934) and Brideshead Revisited (1945).
Lucie Whitehouse, The House at Midnight (2008).
John Lucas in The Guardian, full link http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/feb/01/country-house-novel
Blake Morrison in The Guardian, full link http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/11/country-house-novels-blake-morrison
The country house in modern culture http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/01/17/downton-abbey-and-the-cult-of-the-english-country-house/
Lev Grossman in Time Entertainment full link The Tragedy of the English Country House | TIME.com http://entertainment.time.com/2012/05/02/the-tragedy-of-the-english-country-house/#ixzz2qYzpD2Yx
Book review blog including Rumer Godden’s China Court http://www.essbeevee.co.uk/2013_04_01_archive.html
The Country House Myth in The Remains of the Day http://www.postcolonialweb.org/uk/ishiguro/ed9.html
A fantastic link which helps summarise the genre entirely http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/english_literature_in_transition/v053/53.1.larabee.html
A wider view http://splendidlabyrinths.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/country-house-literature.html
Perhaps do a course? University of Leicester http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/postgraduate/madegrees/ma-option-modules/en7222
Country House Conference focussing on film and television, Newcastle University http://countryhouseconference.wordpress.com/