Updated on October 5, 2015
5 books about houses (and gardens)
Celebrating books that have a house
or a garden at their heart
As you may have guessed by the name of this blog, I’m fascinated by houses, both in terms of their architecture and interior design, and also because of what they represent to their inhabitants. Your house (or flat or whatever) contains you, and that could be a good or bad thing. Houses should keep you warm and dry and make you feel calm, safe and protected, but they can also feel claustrophobic, stale, dirty and chaotic. A big old house, full of secret passageways and hidden doors, can be a place that leads to great adventure (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) or a cold, dark, frightening place, full of strange noises and forbidden corridors (The Secret Garden). It’s no wonder that houses feature so heavily in so many great works of fiction – and that books about houses are among my favourites. Here are five of the best.
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston
This is the title that springs immediately to mind when I think of books about houses. It’s a children’s book, written in the 1950s, about a little boy who goes to stay with his mysterious great-grandmother in her ancient house in the country. Initially fearing that he might be bored and lonely, he soon finds the house full of fascinating paintings and objects that allow him to connect with the children (his ancestors) who previously lived there: “Tolly lay happily looking at the surprising shadows made by the little night-light – the beams, the big shadow of the rocking horse, the low one of the doll’s house on the floor, the elongated wandering criss-crosses of the bird-cage on the ceiling. The mirror repeated it all in the opposite direction, distant and slightly tilted. How could such a little light do it all? Never in his life had he lain in such a room, yet it did not feel strange. He felt with all his heart that he was at home.”
Later, Tolly finds the garden – filled with animals, topiary, statues and mysterious trees – just as magical as the house, and his adventures there, with his newfound companions, are unforgettable. As the book weaves in and out of the present and the past, the house remains constant and comforting throughout, the shared backdrop of all the children’s lives and the place that binds them together. My copy of The Children of Green Knowe is falling apart – and there’s no better sign of a good book than that.
Green Knowe was based on Lucy Boston’s real home, The Manor in Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire (see the photos below, from the Green Knowe website). It is surrounded by four acres of gardens with surprises around every corner and – yes! – even topiary. The gardens are open to visitors and the house is open by appointment. I would love to go there one day.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
I was fascinated to learn that Brideshead is also based on a real place –Madresfield Court in Worcestershire. Still inhabited by the Lygon family, who have lived there since it was built in 1196, the house has never been bought or sold. Extended over the centuries, it now features a maze of rooms featuring Elizabethan, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Gothic, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts styles. It is packed with ancient artefacts and treasures – some dating back to the 12th century – but is still, at heart, a family home.
No wonder, then, that Waugh found it impossible to resist as the backdrop for a novel – one that would become one of the most famous books about houses in all literature. He stayed there, on and off, from 1931 to 1936, after befriending Hugh Lygon (upon whom the character of Sebastian Flyte was based) at Oxford, and wrote Brideshead Revisited in the early 1940s during the war. It’s not hard to imagine how those difficult years (he served in the Royal Marines and Royal Horse Guards) made him think back to a time and place of security, comfort and peace. And what could be more comforting than a moated house that has stood for centuries, vast, solid and safe, lined with luxury and studded with beautiful objects?
Set in the 1920s, Brideshead Revisited details the friendship between Charles Ryder, a middle class student at Oxford, and Sebastian Flyte, a charming young aristocrat who is sliding into alcoholism. Charles is invited to stay at Sebastian’s family home, Brideshead Castle, and there becomes embroiled in the lives of the troubled Flyte family. Brideshead almost becomes his permanent home when Sebastian’s sister, Julia, who is set to inherit the house, agrees to divorce her husband and marry Charles instead. But she changes her mind for religious reasons and it seems that he no longer belongs there.
Of course the house could not protect either the Lygons of the real world or the Flytes of Waugh’s fictional world from scandal, heartbreak and loss. But, at the end of the book, an unexpected visit to Brideshead during wartime sets off a comforting train of thought in Charles Ryder: “Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; a flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.”
He is referring to the presence of God, and to the grace of God that he had become aware of during the end of his relationship with the Flytes. This was very personal to Evelyn Waugh, who converted to Catholicism in 1930. He speaks of his belief in grace in a letter to Lady Mary Lygon, who inspired the character of Julia Flyte: “I believe that everyone in his (or her) life has the moment when he is open to Divine Grace. It’s there, of course, for the asking all the time, but human lives are so planned that usually there’s a particular time – sometimes, like Hubert, on his deathbed – when all resistance is down and grace can come flooding in.”
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The book in this house is not central to the plot, but it symbolises so much about the lives of the characters it contains. The story is set in the 1950s and explores a growing disillusionment with the American Dream through the relationship of young married couple Frank and April Wheeler.
Here, the house is a suburban family home that many couples might have dreamed of, but the Wheelers consider themselves creative city types who are too sophisticated for bland suburbia. The couple long for something out of the ordinary, “a small remodelled barn or carriage house, or an old guest cottage – something with a little charm”, but what is available to them is “a sweet little house and a sweet little setting. Simple, clean lines, good lawns, marvellous for children”, with a dreaded picture window, a sure sign of unimaginative conformity. However, even the Wheelers, who are more in need of stability than they realise, find that “the symmetry of the place was undeniably appealing – the fact that all its corners made right angles, that each of its floorboards lay straight and true, that its doors hung in perfect balance and closed without scraping in efficient clicks. Enjoying the light heft and feel of these door knobs, they could fancy themselves at home here. Inspecting the flawless bathroom, they could sense the pleasure of steaming in its ample tub; they could see their children running barefoot down this hallway free of mildew and splinters and cockroaches and grit. It did have possibilities. The gathering disorder of their lives might still be sorted out and made to fit these rooms, among these trees; and what if it did take time? Who could be frightened in as wide and bright, as clean and quiet a house as this?”
In fact the Wheelers are both frightened – Frank’s sense of masculinity is threatened by his own anxieties and insecurities and he is deeply sensitive to anything that might weaken it further; April, full of neuroses, fears the stultifying effect of suburban life on their already troubled marriage – and their problems only intensify even while they live in that wide, bright, clean, quiet house.
As the months go on, the state of the house begins to reflect the state of their marriage – presentable on the outside, but sullied beneath. When April realises she is pregnant for the third time, and fears that a new baby will place even greater limits on their lives, she tries to clean her way out of her anxiety: “She had spent the day cleaning the parts of the house that didn’t show. Breathing dust and spitting cobwebs, she had hauled and bumped the screaming vacuum cleaner into all the corners of all the rooms and crawled with it under all the beds; she had cleaned each tile and fixture in the bathroom with a scouring powder whose scent gave her a headache, and she had thrust herself head and shoulders into the oven to swab with ammonia at its clinging black scum.”
April festers away in her “sweet little house”, set at the dead end of Revolutionary Road, until ultimately it becomes the scene of tragedy in this heartbreaking novel.
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
Books about houses are often children’s books, perhaps because children don’t have the chance to travel as far as adults. In Tom’s Midnight Garden, written in the 1950s, young Tom Long feels particularly trapped. Sent to stay with his Aunt Gwen and Uncle Alan while he is quarantined for measles, he is dismayed by their tiny flat and even more horrified by the lack of a garden to play in. How on earth he will amuse himself during his weeks of exile?
Except… at night, when the grandfather clock in the communal hallway mysteriously strikes thirteen, Tom opens the back door onto an entirely different world. He experiences the house and garden as they would have been before the house was divided into apartments and the surrounding land sold off. And he meets Hatty, a little girl who also lives there, and whose sparkling company salves his loneliness and boredom.
After the claustrophobia of his uncle and aunt’s flat, and their serious adult conversation, the garden represents yearned-for space and freedom: “He would run full tilt over the grass, leaping from flower-beds; he would peer through the glittering panes of the greenhouse – perhaps open the door and go in; he would visit each alcove and archway clipped in the yew-trees – he would climb the trees and make his way from one to another through thickly interlacing branches. When they came calling him, he would hide, silent and safe as a bird, among this richness of leaf and bough and tree-trunk.”
In time, he and Hatty explore even further afield, and Pearce’s descriptions of the Cambridgeshire countryside are surely a lament for what has since been lost: “…an orchard on one side and a meadow on the other, turn right at the white-washed cottage, the five miles or more of a brisk, ringing trot on ice-bound roads between ice-bound fields and meadows. To the east of them lay the low hills that look like sleeping giants in that flat countryside; to the west of them, unseen, wound the river, taking the same direction as the high road, towards Castleford. Tom had been this way before with his uncle and aunt, but the view then had always been shut out by houses…”
Tom’s adventures with Hatty are great fun to read about, but the thing I really love about this book is that they are not simply explained away with references to some kind of benevolent magic. Tom sees the garden, and meets Hatty, for a specific and significant reason, and the moment when he finally realises what has been happening is wonderfully moving.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Spoiler alert! I give away the ending of the book here, on the basis that the story is so well known.
Here’s another book that is not ostensibly about a house. Yet houses and estates, the vexing business of entails, and the necessity for women to secure a place of residence for their adult life through marriage or family connection, are at the heart of this famous story. And by that measure it is nothing short of a fairytale, as our heroine, the marvellous Elizabeth Bennet – intelligent, clear-thinking, diplomatic, modest, feisty, morally commendable and immensely likeable – eventually wins the housing jackpot in the shape of Mr Darcy’s Pemberley estate: “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.” The interior is just as pleasing – grand and magnificent, but decorated with style and restraint: “The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less splendour, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings.”
Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley reinforces her growing fear that she may have been wrong about Darcy, whom she has previously found to be rude, arrogant and snobbish. She is struck by the lack of flashiness and ostentation in a house that could have been bursting with ornate furniture and fussy decoration. Instead, she admires the fact that Darcy is sensitive to the history and grandeur of the place but has not been tempted to indulge in self-conscious and unnecessary displays of wealth. This – and her subsequent meeting with Darcy himself in the grounds – is the turning point from which she begins to regard him in a much more affectionate light. Clearly, even in the early 19th century, you could tell a lot about a person by their taste in interior design.
Happily, the misunderstandings are cleared up and Elizabeth becomes mistress of Pemberley after all. At the end of the book, she and Darcy are happily settled in their splendid home, in contrast to her badly behaved sister Lydia and the greedy and dishonest Wickham, who “were always moving from place to place in quest of a cheap situation, and always spending more than they ought”.
And finally… to a new book about a house that’s high up on my reading list: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. It tells the story of a young bride, Nella Oortman, who arrives in 17th-century Amsterdam to live with her wealthy merchant husband – a man she barely knows. Stifled by her new surroundings, and unnerved by her controlling sister-in-law, she is less than impressed when her husband presents her with a miniature replica of their house and suggests that she has it furnished at his expense. Nonetheless, she commissions a miniaturist to do the work, only to be spooked by the pieces she receives – items that suggest that this anonymous craftsperson knows more about her new family than she does.
The premise, that of a naive young woman arriving to live with a middle-aged husband in an imposing house full of secrets, locked in a power struggle with a domineering older woman, reminds me of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca – another great book with a house at its heart. Reviews for The Miniaturist have been mixed, with some suggesting that the book does not ultimately fulfil its potential – but I’m looking forward to finding out for myself.