I’ve always been attracted to novels set in grand houses—so much so that I set my own novel, THE NECKLACE, in one. Their creaking floorboards, twinkling chandeliers, and manorial names often belie family secrets, mysteries only whispered about, money made and squandered. So often a vehicle for aspirations, dreams, and strivings, great houses are not just a setting but become a type of character in the following novels.
Everyone gets a cottage on the Winslow compound. The pristinely white New England clapboard dollhouses ring a grand family house where a vast porch and a formal dining room act as gathering spots for the extended Winslow clan. The cottages are handed down like Mother’s good pearls, but having one might not be the treasure it seems.
On a sprawling Dutch Colonial gentleman’s farm outside Johannesburg during apartheid, a posh family lives off the bounty of a lucrative diamond mine. The farm, Crossways, has ponds in the gardens and polished silver in the dining room. While it’s all so refined, you get the feeling, as you do in all Sheila Kohler books, that something is about to go very, very wrong.
E. M. Forster and his mother had to move out of his family house, Rooksnest, due to financial constraint when he was in his teens. Longing for that house haunted him for the rest of his life, so much so that he made it the center of this famous novel about inheritance, connection, and finding a place in the world both literal and metaphorical.
This is one of the greatest novels ever written, in which E. M. Forster so delicately, yet eloquently, addresses issues of class, nationality, and economic status. I first read it when I was falling in love with my husband. Forster’s epigraph, “Only connect!” comes from this novel. The full quote is “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” You can see how besotted in love I was.
The Mason family sits in a dim dining room, eating under a sagging, water-damaged plaster ceiling about to fall on all their heads. The house, called the Retreat, sits on the Chesapeake and is filled with rodent nests, closets brimming with stained evening clothes, and drawers overflowing with pitted silver. Uninhabited since the 1920s, the house is inherited in the ’40s by a distant relation from England who sets about restoring it, thinking that he and the house will have a fresh start and a chance at prosperity. What could go wrong?
The narrator dreams of Manderlay, and so have countless readers since first encountering the neo-Gothic mansion on the Cornwall shore. It’s a look-don’t-touch sort of place, complete with a frilly morning room, an elaborate bell system for the servants, and the ne plus ultra of creepy housekeepers, Mrs. Danvers. Manderlay seems to breathe, both entrancing and imprisoning the second, newly wed Mrs. Max de Winter while keeping old secrets.
I watched the classic Hitchcock film of Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic masterpiece starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine for the first time in years the other night, and in loving it was reminded of how much I also loved the book. Is there a first line of a novel more evocative than “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”? Only Hitchcock could do justice to the moodiness and plot twists of Du Maurier’s genius work.
The ingenious structure of this novel follows the life cycle of a fictional grand English country house, from its construction in the 1700s to its modern day ownership by a Rihanna-esqe pop star, and chronicles the many and diverse inhabitants in between. Each chapter takes place in a new era with a new character and new perspective, and the house means something unique to each of them.
Charles Ryder falls in love with the whole Flyte family when his classmate and friend Sebastian Flyte brings him to the family seat, Brideshead Castle. BRIDESHEAD REVISITED is the standard for how a house entrances and seduces, firmly cementing Ryder’s obsession with the family. Like all the best characters, Brideshead Castle changes through the book and comes out at the end a bit worse for the wear, moving forward in a new capacity but still standing.
Evelyn Waugh’s delicious coming-of-age tale of star-crossed lovers and sexually ambiguous pretty boys drinking their way through guilt trips over religion and lost love provided an admittedly romantic backdrop to my own rocky adolescent journey to adulthood.
F. Scott Fitzgerald never confirmed the inspiration for Gatsby’s mansion, but some believe it to be Falaise in Sands Point, New York. Though Fitzgerald only describes it directly in the book once, the house becomes a real place and acts as an economically precise vehicle for Fitzgerald to show the depth, breadth, and hopelessness of Gatsby’s romantic obsession with Daisy Buchanan.
Some consider it “the great American novel.” The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his powerful love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan is an exquisitely crafted tale that has been essential reading since it was published.
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