After discussing Downton Abbey and class differences in my review of the RSC’s 2014 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, I thought that it would be a good idea to take a closer look at the quintessential English estate in literature. They have become an object of nostalgia, a romanticised vision of a time gone by when men were gentlemen, women were ladies, and life was all beautiful gowns and dancing with handsome counts at the ball. Or was it? …No, of course not. And in a future post on the Merchant-Ivory film adaptations of the works of E.M. Forster and the heritage industry under Margaret Thatcher, I will tell you how these buildings became the chosen icon of a glorified British past and the old world order.
For now, here is an overview of some of the most famous fictional estates in British literature.
Look for the cracks in the wall.
Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane Austen
They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road, with some abruptness, wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; — and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!
Howards End (1910), E.M. Forster
It was English, and the wych-elm that she saw from the window was an English tree. No report had prepared her for its peculiar glory. It was neither warrior, nor lover, nor god; in none of these roles do the English excel. It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness, and the girth, that a dozen men could not have spanned, became in the end evanescent, till pale bud clusters seemed to float in the air.
Brideshead Revisited (1945), Evelyn Waugh
We drove on and in the early afternoon came to our destination: wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, an avenue, more gates, open parkland, a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened before us. We were at the head of a valley and below u, half a mile distant, prone in the sunlight, grey and gold amid a screen of boskage, shone the dome and columns of an old house.
The Remains of the Day (1989), Kazuo Ishiguro
It is sometimes said that butlers only truly exist in England. Other countries, whatever title is actually used, have only manservants. I tend to believe this is true. Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of the emotional restraint which only the English race are capable of. Continentals – and by and large the Celts, as you will no doubt agree – are as a rule unable to control themselves in moments of a strong emotion, and are thus unable to maintain a professional demeanour other than in the least.
Atonement (2001), Ian McEwan
In a spirit of mutinous resistance, she climbed the steep grassy slope to the bridge, and when she stood on the driveway, she decided she would stay there and wait until something significant happened to her. This was the challenge she was putting to existence – she would not stir, not for dinner, not ever for her mother calling her in. She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her own fantasies, rose to her challenge, and dispelled her insignificance.
The Stranger’s Child (2011), Alan Hollinghurst
You could strip all the romance from a place if you were determined enough, even the romance of decay.