Christina Hardyment is the author of numerous books on social history and literature. Her latest book Novel Houses, beautifully produced and illustrated by the Bodleian Library, covers 20 great imaginative houses beginning with Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto and ending with JK Rowling's Hogwarts. "All they have in common is the enduring fame of the imaginary place in which they are set."
Hardyment summarises the role and place of each house as it impacts plot, characters and author motivations. She reveals, through a combination of biography and psycho-geography, how these fictional houses can be as full of character as the people who live in them.
Hardyment's definition of a house is a little stretched, including as it does, Walpole's Castle, Hogwarts School and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's cabin. Hardyment writes she has deliberately avoided the "dystopic apartment blocks and suburban dreariness" reflected in novels such as J G Ballard's High- Rise and Julian Barnes Metroland.
Similarly the large country houses evoked in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan's Atonement, which "use the great country houses as a symbol of civilised living", are avoided as such places "have less literary charm now that they have become lookalike museums . . . or the gated retreats of the super-rich".
Hardyment restricts her geographical coverage largely to Britain with only three American examples, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables and F. Scott Fitzgerald's West Egg," a vibrant symbol of the degeneracy and access of the Jazz age" in The Great Gatsby. Little Women was excluded as the March family were seen to be "more characterful than their house".
A fourth American author, Henry James, is included, but The Spoils of Poynton, is set in England. The three houses, Poynton "early Jacobean, supreme in every part", the "vulgarly ostentatious mansion" of Waterbath and Ricks, "a Cinderella to the grander establishments", provide the construct for his tragicomic novel.
In many cases, a real house provides the inspiration for the fictional house, as in the case of E.M. Forster's Rooks Nest, which inspired Howard's End and Menabilly for Manderley in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Walpole's Otranto was a celebration of his flamboyant gothic villa of Strawberry Hill, while Jane Austen's brother "inherited a house very similar indeed to Mansfield Park". Dodie Smith's crumbling ruin of Godsend in I Capture the Castle, is based on Wingfield Castle, which Smith visited when it was for sale in 1934.
John Galsworthy "evoked his childhood home on Kingston Hill when he made it the site of Robin Hill, the house at the heart of The Man of Property". Galsworthy wrote in the novel, "Without a habitat, a Forsyte is inconceivable - he would be like a novel without a plot". Virginia Woolf 's Orlando celebrates Knole, the ancestral home of Vita Sackville West. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables was inspired by a "black and heavy-browed" 1668 house in Salem.
Readers familiar with locations such Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead and Tolkien's Bag End will probably turn first to possibly less familiar locations such as Stella Gibbons's initially bleak Cold Comfort Farm and Mervyn Peake's troubled Gormenghast, while Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle sees the Mortmain family struggling in a semi-derelict Suffolk castle, which is "a constant, both backdrop and actor. It imposes its massive, uncompromising bulk on the lives".
Much of the pleasure of this book lies in Hardyment's incisive comments, descriptions and quotations from the authors. In The Great Gatsby, Handyment leads the guests around Jay Gatsby's "Marie Antoinette music rooms and Restoration salons". In stark contrast, in Cold Comfort Farm, the farm initially "lives and breathes malevolence (crouched like a beast, about to spring under the bulk of Mockuncle Hill".
Hardyment cross-references her authors, with Jane Austen satirising the Castle of Otranto and Dickens admiring Hawthorne's "dark romance", which he echoed in Bleak House. Mervyn Peake also referenced Dickens' novel 'in his description of darkness descending over Gormenghast". Stella Gibbons referenced Austen ,Daphne du Maurier made a pilgrimage to the Haworth parsonage, while J. K. Rowling saluted Jane Austen by naming Argus Filch's cat Mrs Norris.
A concluding Gazetteer provides an information on the current status and incarnations of the houses documented. Thus for Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, reference is made to the Haworth Parsonage, now a museum and provides a website reference, while noting that Top Withens, "a ruined farmhouse high on the moors above Haworth often assumed to be Wuthering Heights, is in fact a much humbler house".
- Novel Houses. Twenty Famous Fictional Dwellings. By Christina Hardyment. Bodleian Library. $64.99.