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Pemberley, Manderley and Howards End: the real buildings behind fictional houses

31 July 2017

From The Guardian:

Howards End, Manderley, Brideshead – some fictional houses are as unforgettable as the characters who inhabit them. They can provide a sense of identity, as in the novels of Walter Scott, which were set in a time when a man was distinguished by the land and house from which he got his name. They can convey ideas of personality, as Charles Dickens’s living spaces reflect the quirks of his characters. They can offer us symbols of social status, as with Jane Austen’s Pemberley, or some tangible link to the past, as so ardently forged by writers such as Evelyn Waugh.

The house that commands the fictional centre of a story exerts a power over the characters: their behaviour, aspirations and fate. In my research into houses in British literature, I wanted to find out what drove authors, from Austen to Alan Hollinghurst, to home in on a particular house or type of house as the focus of their fictional worlds. The British may not have the monopoly on house-centred stories, but the literature is filled with thinking, writing, and imagining houses in ways that betray a particular consciousness of house and home. Some of the most celebrated novels, such as Howards End or Brideshead Revisited, signal this from the title, while others sneak us in through the back door, as it were, so that we understand the importance of the house only once we’re ambling along the passageways, scrutinising the furnishings. But once over the threshold, fictional houses have us in their spell. As Daphne du Maurier said of Menabilly, the house that inspired her characters’ devotion to Manderley, it possessed her “even as a mistress holds a lover”.

. . . .

Godmersham Park, Kent:
Jane Austen 

The daughter of a vicar, Jane Austen grew up in a household of more modest means than many in her circle. She attended parties, balls and other social gatherings at plenty of grand Hampshire country houses, writing to her sister Cassandra in 1800: “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not else how to account for the shaking of my hand today.” But it was Godmersham, in Kent, and the smaller, less spectacular but still impressive Chawton House in Hampshire, two properties inherited by her brother Edward after he was adopted by childless relatives, that helped her to inhabit the world of her more privileged characters.

In Edward Austen’s day, Godmersham had 5,000 acres of land (today it still has 2,000). The house was built in 1732 by the Knight family, who added two wings in the 1780s before Edward inherited the property in 1797. It still has several wings and retains its elegant Italianate style. It is sometimes speculated that the more famous Chatsworth in the Peak District was the inspiration for Mr Darcy’s Pemberley, but it was at Godmersham that Austen experienced living in a large house, with many servants and entertainments. She spent long hours writing letters in the library, and the vicarage – still extant on the property – is thought to have inspired Mr Collins’s house in Pride and Prejudice. The place was luxurious to Austen: “I have no occasion to think of the price of Bread or of Meat where I am now; – let me shake off vulgar cares & conform to the happy Indifference of East Kent wealth.” By contrast, writing in 1798 from the rectory at Steventon in Hampshire, where she grew up, she complained: “People get so horridly poor & economical in this part of the World, that I have no patience with them. – Kent is the only place for happiness, Everybody is rich there.”

. . . .

Rooks Nest, Hertfordshire:
EM Forster

Few can read Howards End without longing for a golden afternoon in the garden of an English cottage. The house represents the England of the past, threatened by a modern world in motion where motorcars speed people through a landscape they have no time to appreciate. “Only connect” is the motto of the book, and conveys a possibility for spiritual fulfilment that Forster felt strongly could be imparted through the life of a house. He was very clear about the inspiration for the house of his eponymous novel – Rooks Nest, his childhood home. After his father died of tuberculosis, when Forster was not quite two, his mother decided it would be healthier to move to the country. In 1883 she took the lease on Rooks Nest, near Stevenage in Hertfordshire, where they lived for the next 10 years. The house had belonged to a family named Howard, who had farmed there for three centuries. Forster began memorialising it while still in his teens. “I took it to my heart,” he later wrote, “and hoped … that I should live and die there.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Non-US, Romance