The above link leads to a feature piece in The Guardian by Blake Morrison about the relationship between the English country house and novels. It points out a recent trend for both bestsellers and box office hits based upon them, from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And the piece is prompted by the release of next month’s The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst.
I don’t have a great deal to say about the subject but urge you to read the article. It does an admirable job of attempting to explain the continuing appeal of a surely overused setting. Costume dramas on television are mostly far too common and predictable, always set in the same beautiful but samey surroundings. I do my best to avoid them unless they standout for some reason. But novels set in such cavernous buildings, stretching on and on, filled with history and possibility, remain surprisingly diverse. Perhaps because they continue to attract the best of British writers.
McEwan used Atonement to meditate on the very idea of storytelling and writing fiction. He explored youth, love, sex and passion. He touches on high politics and decision making of immense importance, as does Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day. I have always enjoyed Atonement less than McEwan’s other novels, but The Remains of the Day is the best of Ishiguro’s I have read so far.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a book confined to a stuffy setting with the standard conflicts between staff and intrigues between different social classes. But Ishiguro’s book encompasses so many themes, through the narrow lens of his butler’s restrained narration in a grand and important location. Darlington Hall plays host to international conferences but also humorous misunderstandings, battles of professional pride and tender personal affairs.
For me though the crucial features of good novels like Atonement and Ishiguro’s Booker Prize Winner, were not dependent on the setting. Bryony Tallis’ manipulative and naive vendettas could have been as strong and affecting in any home. Stevens the butler could have perhaps worked in a hotel. And indeed it was his job, his life consuming occupation, that made for such a compelling novel, about culture, class and personality. The butler seems to be the perfect mould for a distinctive, humorous and subtle character of great scope and hidden emotion.
Having said this though, the houses and halls did play their vital background roles. It’s difficult to imagine Stevens in any other setting. It’s tough to envisage a symbolic fictional location that could mirror quite as well the themes of appearance, dignity and decay.
There is really nothing wrong with the continued use of stately homes in novels, as long as the story being told is always a different one, reliant primarily on characters, plot and ideas, rather than ready made sets for the drama. You can’t just add water to the stately home to create a bestselling novel. But they provide pretty firm foundations on which the ingredients of a great novel can be built.