The Tragedy of the English Country House

Nobody likes the one percent, so why can't we stop reading novels about their stately homes?

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(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

I’ve stayed in houses that were in the country, and in England, but I’m still not sure that I’ve stayed in an English country house.

Sure, the houses were large and damp, with profusions of bedrooms and noisy plumbing and smoky fires that never managed to get the whole place completely warm the way a brutally efficient American furnace would have. Nobody hunted foxes, or anything else, but people did get drunk and behave irresponsibly.

But there’s something different about actual, genuine English country houses, and by that I mean the ones in novels. They envelop you and cocoon you. The space inside them is weirdly infinite: the interior chambers and upper stories and wings and outbuildings multiply and ramify without end — one is always stumbling on secondary and tertiary and quaternary bedrooms and bathrooms and conservatories and libraries and mud rooms and tack rooms, suitable for sex or murder or indiscreet conversations, or even just mud and tack, as if they were extruded by the house on demand for that express purpose. I can picture Brideshead very clearly in my head, but I couldn’t draw a map of it; the house wouldn’t stand still for it. In some ways the quintessential Fictional English Country House is the one in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: a house that has a whole world tucked away inside it.

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(Parenthetically: If I could take any room in literature and install it in my house, it would be Charles and Sebastian’s bathroom in Brideshead Revisited: “We shared what had once been a dressing-room and had been changed to a bathroom twenty years back by the substitution for the bed of a deep, copper, mahogany-framed bath that was filled by pulling a brass lever heavy as a piece of marine engineering; the rest of the room remained unchanged; a coal fire always burned there in winter. I often think of that bathroom — the water colours dimmed by steam and the huge towel warming on the back of the chintz armchair — and contrast it with the uniform, clinical, little chambers, glittering with chromium-plate and looking-glass, which pass for luxury in the modern world.”)

It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that the English country house novel is currently being revived; there certainly are a lot of them right now, but as far as I can tell it never expired in the first place. You could walk from here back to the 18th century stepping only on English country house novels and never get your feet wet — starting, just for example, with Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child and proceeding (carefully skirting Downton Abbey) via Sarah Waters, Edward St. Aubyn, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, back through Wodehouse and Waugh and Forster, all the way to Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe and beyond for all I know. The most recent example is Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests, which is the occasion for this column.

The particular house where The Uninvited Guests takes place is named Sterne, and it’s actually two houses stuck together: “a strange, shallow red-brick manor house of two floors and great charm, built around 1760,” grafted onto an older structure, “a great barn-like building of stone, where once one of the first lords of that manor would have laid his fires and roasted his meat, but which now stood almost empty in graceless neglect.” In 1912 Sterne is owned by the Torringtons: mother Charlotte, children Clovis, Emerald and Imogen, the youngest (known as “Smudge”). The father, Horace, who bought Sterne at what turned out to be the peak of his financial viability, has died, and Charlotte is re-married to Edward, a barrister with one arm. The children despise Edward, though more for form’s sake than for anything else, as he is, in fact, a stand-up guy.

It’s no longer possible to simply build English country houses out of words, because they’ve already been so thoroughly described that all the applicable words have been used up, and one is forced to build them instead out of words recycled and scavenged from other descriptions of other country houses. (The title of The Uninvited Guests, for example, is an echo, witting or un-, of Edward Gorey; the name of the house is borrowed from the author of Tristram Shandy; and so on.) At this late date any English country house novel, however formally traditional, must be highly self-conscious if only by default, and like The Stranger’s Child, The Uninvited Guests is very aware of itself as a second-order fiction. Or if it isn’t, the reader is.

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There is something slightly irreal and super-bright about Jones’s prose — it conveys a sense that her knowledge of the world she’s describing is also second-order, i.e. derived from books, or at least refracted through them, rather than observed first hand, unmediated. Describing the ladies on horseback, Jones writes: “Emerald had never ridden side-saddle but — most comfortably — astride, long before it was fashionable for modern young women to do so. Charlotte had been raised amid and among many occupations and worlds, one of them being horses, and she had an unconventional belief that the side-saddle was a ludicrous contraption, no good to woman or mount.” It’s not unconvincing, or implausible, but it is both very precise and slightly low on detail, so that the people and beasts in question feel not so much historical as animatronic, or very expensively CGIed. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s not realism either. There’s a whiff of fan fiction about The Uninvited Guests: one hears the echo — the echo of an echo, really — of Cordelia remarking in Brideshead, dismayed at the state of the local hunting protocol: “If only you knew how unsmart the Strickland-Venables are this year. They’ve even taken their grooms out of top hats!”

Ancient as it is, Sterne is outfitted with the one modern convenience no fictional English country house can be without: crippling debt, which has brought the Torringtons to the brink of selling it. As the book opens, Edward is off to Manchester to try to secure a loan to save the house. It’s Emerald’s birthday, and Charlotte is trying to put a brave face on it, though it’s not very brave. “I’ve brought you up to these notions of permanence,” she wails at her children, veering dangerously close to straight thematic exposition in her grief. “I ought to have been satisfied with wandering, and never having anything of my own, and no love, and no home.”

Thus one of the primary mechanisms of the English country house novel is activated: its anachronistic nature, the tension between the undeniable comfort and graciousness and romance of the ECH (let’s abbreviate) and the fact that it is the product of a social and economic order that has been exposed as not just obsolete and non-viable but politically and morally bankrupt. It’s a contradiction that’s oddly impossible to resolve: we loathe and decry the 1%, but at the same time we’re very sentimental indeed about the box they came in.

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Not that the outcome of the conflict is ever in doubt: we only ever encounter the ECH in its death agonies. In the hands of Agatha Christie country houses became the basis for an entire sub-genre of murder mystery, but in a sense all ECH novels are murder mysteries, where the victim is not a person but the house itself. In the more ambitious but rather less entertaining The Stranger’s Child, the death of the country house in question, Two Acres, is staged as a slow motion, novel-length horror sequence, as the house is gradually, excruciatingly ingested and absorbed by London until hardly any trace of it remains.

Jones, a writer of admirable narrative energy, wastes no time in firing, as it were, the other barrel of the fowling piece: namely, the traditional incursion into the house from outside. There has been a terrible train accident nearby, a derailing, and Sterne is enlisted to shelter the surviving passengers. It’s a highly resonant scenario: WWI is almost upon us, and the survivors of the accident are harbingers of the crowds of refugees that will be displaced by the wars to come, and ultimately of the invading rabble (me included) who now pay to troop through England’s stately homes, which are duly tarted up and roped off to receive them; likewise the locomotive (which also, in the end, did for the Pevensies in The Chronicles of Narnia) is the advance guard of the machines of war that are waiting just offstage to tear Europe to pieces. The English country house presents itself as a haven from painful realities, but no matter how far one burrows into it one is never entirely enclosed and safe from the painful realities of the outside world. (In the book’s final act a luckless pony also invades Sterne, under curious circumstances, and it’s as out of place there as the house is in the world around it.)

I am, in case it’s not obvious by now, a loyal fan of the English country house novel, and I would probably read a phone book if the phone numbers in it were somehow understood to be guests at an ECH. Fortunately The Uninvited Visitors is a lot more entertaining than that: Jones has a painfully accurate, almost Stoppardian ear for the dialogue of the clever, bratty sorts of people who generally make up the fauna of such houses, and she’s got a delightful streak of cruelty that flirts with, and then tumbles straight into bed with, the gothic. The book’s great set piece is a made-up parlor game called Hinds & Hounds, over the course of which a collection of at least nominally civilized individuals revert to a state of savagery in about 20 minutes flat. If the book’s big reveal is staged with more skill than its somewhat melodramatic contents really warrant, well, that is very often the way with novels.

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Like the houses inside them, ECH novels are themselves, formally, comforting throwbacks: disdaining both avant-garde and genre fiction, the ECH novel charts a calmly mournful path straight up the middle of 20th century fiction, steadfastly un-evolved, neither real nor fantastical, with the shattered urban nightmare of modernism on one side and the medieval dream-landscape of The Lord of the Rings on the other. It declines to wholly depart from reality, or to dwell in it — it sits huddled and trembling in the wardrobe, and it won’t come out, and it won’t go through into Narnia either.

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. In their spanking new prime such houses might have been as obnoxious and extravagant as stretch Hummers, but as it is there’s a romantic melancholy about them: each one is a little universe the sustaining god of which has died, never to be revived, leaving this even more elegant husk behind. It symbolizes — what? Anything you like that’s good about the past and that cannot exist in the present day. There’s something science-fictional about ECH’s: They’re like stately, well-appointed spacecraft, traveling through the void, with no destination ahead and no home planet to go back to, bearing the hope, however quixotic, that something of value from the past — good manners, human connection, premium alcohol, nice bathrooms, most of all novels themselves — might possibly survive the calamity of the future.