Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Road House blues (and other warm or creepy homes in literature)

[From my theme-driven books column in Forbes Life]

One of my earliest, most cherished literary memories doesn’t involve the written word at all: it involves a couple of drawings from a Ladybird Children’s Classics edition of Johann Wyss’s 1812 novel Swiss Family Robinson. The story (which I probably thought at the time was a companion piece to the similarly titled Robinson Crusoe) had a family shipwrecked on an island where they proceed to use available resources as best as they can, and the pictures that most enchanted me were of a cave-house dug into a cliff, to spend the winter in. The interior was cosy, warm and well-lit, the doors and windows were rounded, there were little bookshelves, and the rooms in which the children lounged on bunks seemed to belong to a particularly luxurious boarding-school hostel. Even the stalactites hanging from the cave’s roof looked friendly.

The image of the cave-house changed the tone of the book. Even on a strange island, you can find your personal castle, it seemed to say. By this point in the story, the Family Robinson are well-settled in their new surroundings – in control, with much of the danger having passed.

There are many other comforting houses in children’s literature, of course; another personal favourite is Moon-Face’s little "flat"
in Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood series located near the top of the tree, complete with a slide that takes you back to the bottom – which becomes a meeting point for the characters before their faraway-land adventures begin. Elsewhere, there are reminders that outward appearances can be deceptive: in Hansel and Gretal, the children are lured into a witch’s captivity because they are mesmerised by her cake-and-chocolate house – a cautionary lesson about excessive sweet consumption for young readers to this day – and in CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children living together in an old country house discover, in the wardrobe, a portal to the magical land of Narnia. (Given that the story is set during the Second World War, the escapist implications are obvious. Yet there is also the knowledge that the real-world house is a place that must in the end be returned to: you can’t stay in fantasy-land forever.)

Anglophone literature of an earlier vintage was often set in a world of ancestral estates or mansions that a family might have stayed in for centuries. Hence the many novels that are named for residences – such as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey – or otherwise feature houses that are inseparable from the story and the characters: Pemberley in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy – dislike slowly turning to love – deepens; or Mrs Havisham’s frozen-in-time mansion Satis House in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, mouldy and in disuse, its
appearance echoing the heartbreak and festering bitterness of its owner. And try imagining PG Wodehouse’s delightful Blandings Castle stories without the setting: an English country estate where imposters hop in and out, stern aunts get their comeuppance, lovers are reunited – and all the while, the absent-minded Lord Emsworth, king of this particular castle, thinks only of his beloved pig the Empress. When Evelyn Waugh called Blandings a Garden of Eden, it was a recognition that such a setting was more like a state of mind than an actual, physical space.

Much less welcoming houses may be found in the mystery and horror genres. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again” is the famous opening sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, told in the voice of an unnamed young woman who marries a wealthy man named Maxim de Winter, goes to live in his estate as a happy young bride…but then finds herself in the shadow of Maxim’s deceased first wife, with every corner of Manderlay haunted by Rebecca’s memory. More recent haunted-house novels include Stephen King’s The Shining (in which a writer named Jack Torrance takes up a position as the off-season caretaker of the Overlook Hotel one chilly winter, and finds the hotel exerting a strange spell on him) and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, about
experiments in fear conducted by a Dr Montague and his subjects in the spooky Hill House. The accent in these books is on psychological horror the house becoming a channel for the demons in the characters’ minds – rather than in the sort of supernatural terror you find lurking in the vampire’s castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (with one of its creepiest images – Jonathan Harker held captive in the ancient house and watching from a window as Count Dracula crawls, spider-like, down a wall and disappears from sight).

Other “house” books supply commentary on class relations and how they affect human transactions. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is an account of a real-life crime – the murder of an infant boy in an English country house in 1860 – but one of its subtexts is the complex set of relationships between the “masters” and the “servants” living in Road Hill House (a maid moves up the ranks when she becomes the second wife of the house’s owner, leading to resentment among other members of his family, and complicating the question “who did it?”). A famous novel written a decade before the Road Hill murder, Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, is about the upward mobility of the wild child Heathcliff, and what the farmhouse of the title represents to him – a place of aspiration but also deep loss.

Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, combines two of the themes listed above, being an atmospheric haunted-house story but also being about the blurring of class lines in post-WWII Britain, and the effect this has – materially and psychologically – on the old rich and their one-time servants. The setting for this cultural clash is a once-grand mansion called Hundreds Hall whose inhabitants, the Ayres family, used to be landed gentry but are now casualties of a changing order: the vastness of their house is scarcely representative of their actual financial standing and lifestyle. Into this world comes the book’s narrator, Dr Faraday, who had seen Hundreds Hall as a child, because his mother once worked there as a nursemaid. Faraday becomes the Ayres’s friend, but he can’t understand why the family is so terrified of the house. Surely there’s a commonsense explanation for all those strange noises and sightings. Or could it be that his changed status is making the house uncomfortable? 

The most moving aspect of this story though is the theme of people clinging to the past, afraid to let go, and tied almost as if by a magic charm to the place they spent their entire lives in. “I expect you think that we’re absolutely mad to go on living in Hundreds, trying to keep it the way it was,” a member of of the family tells Faraday, “but we have to sort of keep the place in order, keep up our side of the bargain."

[Some earlier Forbes Life columns: time travellers, parents, satire, popular science, translations]


  1. I had to comment! I am so happy to see Moonface's house mentioned here. The entire series of Enchanted wood books was something I read and re-read while in school and even today helps me mentally escape into a happy fantasyland when the going gets tough. Thanks for re-kindling old memories.

  2. Longer word limit would make for a more comprehensive analysis.

    1. Yes, of course. But this isn't that sort of column. Meant to be snippety.

  3. Brideshead Castle in Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited' was another house which was quite central to the story.