Repositories of Memory: On the Country House Novel
Lucy Hughes-Hallett and Tessa Hadley in Conversation
Writers Tessa Hadley and Lucy Hughes-Hallett have known each other for years, but agree that this is the longest and most enjoyable conversation they’ve yet had. It began with an exchange of emails while Tessa was in the country, working on the final draft of her next book, and ended over Lucy’s kitchen table in North London, just before the publication of Lucy’s novel Peculiar Ground.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett: Until people started telling me I’d written one, I’d never considered “the country house novel” a distinct category. I’m still not sure that I do. L.P Hartley’s The Go-Between, for instance, which is a wonderful novel set in a country house, seems to me to have as much in common with What Maisie Knew and the book of Genesis (the Adam and Eve bit) as it does with, say, Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Hartley’s child protagonist and Ishiguro’s butler are both teasingly obtuse narrators, but that’s nothing to do with the country house setting.
Tessa Hadley: I think that I know what a country house novel is until I try to think of one, and then I discover they’re thinner on the ground than I’d imagined. And more are surely written in the 20th century than the 19th perhaps—in Britain at any rate, but I have a feeling this holds true in Europe too. Which is a nice irony. It’s at the point the power of the landowning elite who built the country houses is actually ending, that the houses become more interesting to writers. Dickens never wrote a country house novel, not did George Eliot (although the Transomes are the best thing in Felix Holt, her novel about working class radicalism which ought to be so fascinating and just isn’t).
LHH: I suppose Brideshead Revisited is the book people are mostly thinking of when they talk about the genre. It’s an interesting case because what has made the novel (and television series) so popular fits precisely with its narrator’s sensibility. There’s a fascination with an over-privileged way of life in which a lot of emotional cruelty coexisted with great beauty. There’s ambivalence—the reader is allowed to feel democratic disapproval while luxuriating in nostalgia. There’s schadenfreude. We want Sebastian Flyte to be destroyed. Imagine what a comedown it would be if he matured into a contented Lord Emsworth figure, tickling his pigs.
TH: That ending is probably more true to life. I rather like the idea of Sebastian tickling his pigs, going to fat and quarreling with his neighbors about rights of way. Paying his taxes. I’ve never got on with Brideshead—perhaps I ought to try again. I don’t know why I find its fascination with that “over-privileged way of life” so off-putting, when I passionately love other novels written out of fascination with that class. I want to feel there’s a distinction between the authentic perception of possibility in an aristocratic culture (Henry James, Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen) and that sort of niggling half-envious half-resentful fan fiction in Brideshead. But perhaps I’m just kidding myself.
LHH: Speaking of Wodehouse, country houses are excellent sets for farce—all those doors leading into redundant rooms where Bertie Wooster’s aunts can lurk ready to ambush him. And they lend themselves perfectly to crime fiction. Wilkie Collins’s characters frequent big houses, and the need for plenty of domestic staff pleasingly adds to the number of suspects. “In the library with a candlestick”—a loft-style studio apartment just doesn’t offer so much scope.
TH: Yes, perhaps Clue really is the ultimate, pared-down expression of the country house mystique: I wonder if anyone still plays it. And whether anyone who ever played it actually had a library (or even a candlestick). Robert Altman’s country house murder mystery Gosford Park was fun, I thought: assembling all the essential country house ingredients relishingly, almost as if it were a board game. Crucial that the director was American, without an insider’s apologetic embarrassment over class.
“Perhaps Clue really is the ultimate, pared-down expression of the country house mystique.”
LHH: The thing about a country house is you can fit a lot of people into it. There are a few good novels about lone individuals (most of them written by Samuel Beckett) but on the whole you have to bring people together before the action can begin. Characters in soap operas spend an inordinate amount of time in the pub: characters in novels attend house parties.
By the way, the house doesn’t have to be enormous. Any house with a spare room, or even an inflatable mattress in the basement, will do. And there’s an idea that big country houses, and country house novels, are quintessentially English, but it’s not really so. The country house as an irretrievable paradise: the most perfect example is French, Le Grand Meaulnes. The country house as the signifier of a decaying aristocracy, glamorous but obsolete: the best example is Italian, The Leopard. The country house as power base: Trollope was brilliant at this, but the unbeatable example is Hungarian, Miklos Banffy’s They Were Divided, in which pre-World War I shooting parties and balls and scandalous love affairs are all threaded through a political narrative about the upsurge of nationalism.
TH: And the best country house film of all time is French, Les Règles du Jeu, complete with shooting party. Jean Renoir uses the actual architecture of the house, the scale of it, to characterise the aesthetic and spirit of his film. Remarkably long shots follow a character advancing through a succession of doorways. With so many doors for entrances and exits, the house is stage awaiting a succession of sublime tragicomic performances.
LHH: Another wonderful thing about that film is that Renoir pays as much attention to the beaters and servants as to the aristos. A privately-owned estate is a workplace. It’s remarkable how few novelists write about work—the money-making stuff to which adults have to devote most of their waking hours. In Peculiar Ground I found myself writing—as we all tend to—about the personal dramas of love and aging, but I was careful to show people working too. Gamekeepers don’t just stand around looking picturesque in plus-fours. In the seventeenth century they are food-producers. In the 20th century they are managing an entertainment business.
TH: I so enjoyed you making us feel the work it took to make and maintain Wychwood—in the seventeenth century and the twentieth. Why is it so difficult to write about work, why is the writer so often tempted back onto the terrain of the private life? (There’s plenty in novels about domestic work, isn’t there—childcare and keeping house? I suspect because of so many middle class women writers, who haven’t been much in paid employment until the last few decades.) I used to think writers just didn’t know enough about other people’s jobs: but really it isn’t too difficult to find out, or to imagine. Work seems to write white, like happiness, if one isn’t careful.
LHH: Being aware of the people who work in a house is helpful technically, too. I do think outsiders make the best narrators. Employees, children, interlopers, unwanted guests—their points of view are always worth attending to.
TH: American Henry James saw into the complexities of English class with such penetration. And I suspect that the Anglo-Irish (Yeats, Bowen) never felt quite at home anywhere—which helped them to see everything, and see through everything.
LHH: Another thing about houses is that they are repositories of memory—and not only the memories of those now living in them, but of all the previous owners and visitors. In your novel The Past you make wonderfully evocative use of the feeling that the previous generation is still right there, alongside the contemporary characters.
TH: In your novel too, the house and its grounds feel so capacious, have so much room inside them for so many stories. And crucially present and past are brought together too inside the shape of the place, and inside the novel’s shape. Which makes me think of another variant of the country house tradition—all those children’s novels of the mid-century where a door in an old house leads through into the past (Philippa Pearce’s superb Tom’s Midnight Garden, Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time).
These moved and excited me hugely when I was a child. They made me feel that the past was close at hand, in the next room: and that feeling has never left me, although it’s tempered now of course by an adult’s awareness that the past is also irretrievably lost. In a novel you can make this idea, that the past is close at hand, literally true: between one page and the next, you can move back in time across 40 years, as I did in The Past, or 300 years—as you do in Peculiar Ground.
LHH: Old houses (mansions and cottages alike) are haunted: obviously they are. I’m not talking about transparent ladies wringing their hands and headless knights. But just as you and I are present in what we write, the masons and carpenters who make houses are—in some way that I’m not going to try to define—always still there. And so are the people who have lived in the rooms. Hauntings can be consoling—a sense that the past hasn’t been entirely lost. Frightening too, of course. The whole gothic tradition, of creaking doors and guttering candles and eerie whimperings coming from the deserted wing, has to do with our anxious sense that as living beings we have usurped the dead.
“Old houses (mansions and cottages alike) are haunted: obviously they are. . . The masons and carpenters who make houses are—in some way that I’m not going to try to define—always still there.”
TH: In the rather stolid and unlovely Edwardian terraced house in Cardiff where we lived for 30 years, there was a cupboard on the landing on the top floor which was papered inside with the original wallpaper, and the inside of the door was still painted in brown imitation wood grain (a strange fashion—painting wood doors as imitation wood). And we couldn’t afford to change all the awful old carpets in the house for a long time, so when I vacuumed I crushed the cardamom pods spilled by the Pakistani family who’d lived in the house before us. These were my ghosts, made manifest in material objects. They were there to remind me: in case I ever thought the house was mine.
LHH: Yes. Historically, the great country houses were built for their owners’ self-aggrandisement. But in fiction the owner of such a house can seem reduced by it. A human is such a piffling, ephemeral thing when set against a centuries-old cliff of pilastered stone. Think of Thackeray’s degenerate old Sir Pitt shuffling through Queen’s Crawley in his grubby dressing gown, or Mervyn Peake’s Titus, lost and scared in the fantastic labyrinth of Gormenghast.
TH: Perhaps that helps with the distinction I was trying to make earlier. James and Bowen and Yeats are all preoccupied with the romance of the idea of the country house, and they’re moved by that idea, but they don’t mix up the idea with the actual incumbents. They don’t romanticise the aristocrats themselves, living inside the idea, the form of life—in fact as you say there’s wonderful rich comedy to be had from the contrast (I’d forgotten the quite wonderful Sir Pitt). Yeats writes: “maybe the great grandson of that house, / For all its bronze and marble, ’s but a mouse.” Whereas Waugh transfers his aristocratic romance to his characters, he actually makes them romantic—gothic, extravagant, different from ordinary people.
We haven’t mentioned Mansfield Park. Which is so wonderfully not intoxicated with the grandeur and romance of its big house—makes you feel its convenience and its privilege, yes absolutely, but also its boredom, its oppressions, the dullness of the people living in it. All this radical critique—and funny too! (And as a clinching addition to the critique, Austen points out that the money to sustain Mansfield comes from slavery.)
LHH: Houses last longer than people. So do things outside them—trees and gates and goldfish ponds. And so do the banal, ignorable things inside them—doorknobs that a child (now grown and gone, or dead, even) once bashed his head against, and the odd gloves that get forgotten in the drawer in the hall-table.
Both my parents died in the five years before I began writing Peculiar Ground. Clearing out their house, I felt I was killing them all over again. My brothers and I divided up the decent furniture pretty amicably. It was the rubbishy stuff that was heartbreaking. Seeing how dried flowers and souvenir mugs and dog-chewed straw hats, which had been meaningful as part of a home, were reduced to junk once removed from it. Looking at a pebble my mother had treasured—why? I had no idea.
TH: A house is a metaphor for a life without even trying. Because we don’t only live our lives inside our skin, we express them outside ourselves in the spaces we occupy, the daily things we use and touch, the paths we wear around our rooms, the possessions we treasure. This is why displacement and exile must be such profound agony (or sometimes, under certain circumstances, liberating). And then when life ends, the miscellany of items woven into meaning become, as you say, so much “rubbishy stuff”—which is heartbreaking, indeed.
There’s some very significant close fit, it seems to me, between the way we are all embodied in our possessions and the way fiction assembles the illusion of life through its painstaking reclamation of material bits and pieces. In its magical act, perhaps, fiction reclaims the meanings that are always being dispersed and lost in life. I do strongly feel that. Does it sound like too much to ask of fiction?