Literature of the Country House: Your Recommended Further Reading

On the Literature of the English Country House we trace the literary history of the country house over 450 years, from Ben Jonson to Oscar Wilde. However, the story doesn’t end there, so invited learners to recommend their own favourite examples of the genre that aren’t covered on the course. The results have been astounding!


Time to enjoy Some summer reading suggestions made by our learners.

Time to enjoy Some summer reading suggestions made by our learners.

The Tour Continues

In 2015 we invited learners to suggest their favourite examples of country house literature not covered on the course. In this video, Dr Amber Regis and I talk through the many suggestions made by learners. With over 290 suggestions (at last count) we couldn’t mention them all, but we could identify the clear favourites and discuss some of the striking themes that have emerged throughout the exercise, and throughout the course as a whole.


 

Secrets and Misunderstandings

A clear trend across the vast corpus of proposed texts were recurring themes of secrecy, scandal, mystery and revelation. The country house is apparently a space populated by lots of people all ‘keeping up appearances.’ As we saw in Weeks 3 and 4 of the course, there were increasingly regimented models of behavior made available through ideas of politeness and sociability. It seems that an abundance of authors are interesting in exploring what dwells beneath that sociable exterior!

Texts in this category include:

  • E M Forster, A Room with a View [1908] (and its award-winning film adaptation of1985)
  • LP Hartley, The Go-Between [1953]
  • Ian McEwan, Atonement [2001] (adapted to film in 2007)

 

Chatsworth House, a central location throughout the course.

Chatsworth House, a central location throughout the course.

The Stately Homes of Others

As some learners have identified throughout the course, the literary history of the English Country House apparently presents a narrative of tradition and conservatism. In the 18th century, for instance, the behaviour of country house residents was seen to provide a model of respectable behaviour for others to aspire too. They set the social standards. What is more, there is also a pragmatic tendency within this towards the hetero-normative (heterosexual relationships presented as the ‘norm’).

Property is passed down through primogeniture (the eldest son inherits), prompting an explicit emphasis on male and female marriage and the conception of future heirs. So, we have a heteronormative, conservative tradition apparently intent on preserving  family fortunes and propagating the aristocracy of the future. It perhaps comes as no surprise then that time and again writers have entered into this literary tradition with a view to highlighting more counter-cultural trends and characteristics, positing secret histories of what might have really been happening behind closed doors and offering a voice to those individuals who might have previously been silenced ‘for the sake of the family.’

Texts in this category include:

  • Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited [1945] (adapted in 1981 and 2008)
  • Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child [2011]
  • Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre [1847] (adapted in 1983 and 2011)
  • Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea [1966]

The Cheshire Cat at Chatsworth House: Is there something frightening and uncanny about the country house?

The Cheshire Cat at Chatsworth House: Is there something frightening and uncanny about the country house?

Uncanny, Gothic, Horror

Given the status of the country house as a symbol of an older time, home to such secret histories and suffocated family scandals, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is so often utilized as a site of hauntings, horror and terror. So many of the suggestions this week have spoken to this, and if we were to rank all of the suggestions in order of how many people named them we would have one clear winner:

  • Daphne DeMuir, Rebecca [1938] (adapted in 1940 and 1997)

Famously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, the tales sees our nameless narrator installed at the Manderley estate, where she finds herself competing with her new husband’s late wife, the first Mrs DeWinter, whilst being tormented by the cruelly efficient Mrs Danvers.

Other texts in this category include:

  • Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger [2009]
  • Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy [1946-1959]

 

The view from the 'theatre' at Chatsworth House.

The view from the ‘theatre’ at Chatsworth House.

Children’s Fiction

These themes of secrecy, and secret family histories in particular, persist across different genres and as some learners have pointed out, they can even be found in some children’s literature. Each of these examples see the children making a discovery or being perceptive of something that adults are not, alert perhaps to some of the contradictions and absurdities of the myths propagated by Country House literature:

  • Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden [1911]
  • Philippa Pearce, Tom’s Midnight Garden [1958]

A visitor at Chatsworth enjoying literature in an English country house.

A visitor at Chatsworth enjoying literature in an English country house.

Comedy

These contradictions clearly offer a rich seam of material to be mined by comedy and satire, as demonstrated by the work of another author name-checked time and again throughout the course.

  • P.G. Wodehouse, The Jeeves Stories [36 published between 1917-1966], The Blandlings [10 published between 1935-1966]

A mix of comedy and social comment Woodhouse’s works prove timeless, sending up the endearingly incompetent Bertie Wooster or the hapless residents of Blandings Castle, whilst celebrating the unbeatable versatility of butler Jeeves, who can solve any problem and can seemingly access all human knowledge.

 


 

The team return home after a busy day of filming.

The team return home after a busy day of filming.

Non Fiction

Finally, it seems appropriate to close by stressing that not all literature is fiction, and it has been great to see some non-fiction titles amidst everyone’s suggestions.

  • Lord David Cecil, Two Quiet Lives: Dorothy Osborne and Thomas Gray [1948]
  • James Lees-Milne, Some Country Houses and Their Owners [2009]

As Amber details in the above video, the country house has prompted some extraordinary examples of non-fiction, not least in the writing of Vita Sackville-West. Amber demonstrates, using a few choice examples, that Vita’s relationship with Sissinghurst has also prompted a vast amount of other literary material, from Virgina Woolf’s Orlando [1928] to the competing biographies and accounts of Vita’s own relatives and descendants.


 

More Literature of the English Country House

So it seems that whilst the course is drawing to a close, there is still plenty to read! And if when you’ve worked through this list you’re still hungry for more, why not check out the recommendations from the first iteration of this course [2014], detailed in the video below!

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