Houses are built of brick, wood, stone, snow – and no doubt numerous other materials.
Homes are a far more complex matter and say a great deal more about us than the raw ingredients of the actual structure.
Pictures on the wall. Photographs on a table. Books on the shelves. The colour of a lampshade, the choice of a cushion, a particular chair – all betray our affections, our tastes and, in truth, our bank balances.
I’ve always been a bit obsessed with houses. I love looking at them, keeping abreast with market trends, upturns and downturns, new builds, conversions – the lot. I come from a long line of house obsessives from my paternal grandfather, through my father and have even managed to produce a son pursuing a career in estate agency. Clearly, it’s in the blood.
Lately, as I am contemplating moving home, starting to view houses, I’ve become even more of an obsessive.
Which has led me to think about houses in novels. How much do we find out about the homes our protagonists live in?
Sometimes, a great deal.
Take Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House – well, yes, clearly the house is central to the plot and the characters’ lives pivot around its centrality. Carol Shields in her wonderful novel, Unless, pays a lot of attention to describing the house her first person narrator, Reta Winters, lives in and the fact that Reta addresses such detail conveys much about her affections and the importance of her home and family life.
The house is a hundred years old, a simple brick Ontario farmhouse that has been much added on to by its several previous inhabitants and by us….the large square entrance hall has a Swedish wood-burning stove on the left-hand side which we installed during the bitter winter of 1986 …
Muriel Sparks’ The Girls of Slender Means features the May of Teck club, a London hostel housing young lady residents immediately post war and the house is indeed of acute importance to the plot. The opening of the novel captures precisely an image of the hostel:
windows of the upper bedrooms overlooked the dip and rise of treetops in Kensington Gardens across the street …. these upper bedrooms looked down on the opposite pavement on the park side of the street, and on the tiny people who moved along in neat-looking singles and couples, pushing little prams.
Anita Brookner’s novels pay attention to houses. To rooms, their furniture, light and shade. In one of my favourites, A Closed Eye, the reader is told a great deal about the enormous house which Harriet insists her husband buys and yet when they move in:
Furniture looked stranded on expanses of pale blue carpet which she now saw should have been pale green: Freddie’s Persian rugs, over which she had tripped continually during the first year of her marriage must now be laid end to end until she plucked up the courage to change the whole room.
Yet throughout the novel, in spite of her desire for the large house, Harriet continues to yearn for that small empty room of her own devising in which she might read unpretentious books, think unpretentious thoughts, even eat unpretentious meals. That empty room becomes a leit-motif, a symbol in the novel and at the very end Harriet says My life, she thought, an empty room.
19th century novels don’t seem to concern themselves much with describing houses. Perhaps it was because most people did not choose their homes. If you were Mr Darcy or Mr Woodhouse you simply inherited a stately mansion. If you were poor, you lived and worked in someone else’s house. If you were an unmarried woman you either stayed at home, lived with a married brother or became a governess. In Jane Austen novels, key events so often seem to take place outside – in gardens and parklands – rather than in rooms. In Mansfield Park, a stark contrast is shown between Fanny’s family home in Portsmouth and the grandeur of Mansfield Park where she goes to live, but it is more the mismanagement of that modest Portsmouth accommodation that is described rather than the house itself: the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca’s hands had produced it.
Fanny does seem to have forgotten that Mansfield Park has a retinue of servants running the place whereas her mother lacks a single one …but we get the idea!
My own novels are as obsessed with houses as I am! Miller Street SW22 has a specific focus on one house which was modelled on my first flat – or rather on the converted late Victorian house in SW15 with me owning just a very small slice of studio flat, the smallest and most modest of the apartments.
And if you were in our village in Gavalochori, Crete, I could point out the two houses which inspired my description of the two homes in the Greek island section of my first novel, Counting the Ways. In The Legacy of Mr Jarvis, the house plays a crucial part of the plot, almost a character in its own right and I loved being able to indulge in describing the dilapidated large seaside home in my fictional Sea View Parade. Memories of such houses and streets were drawn from childhood when we used to visit grandparents on the south coast and spent seemingly endless hours driving in a stuffy car along rainswept sea fronts from Brighton to Peacehaven et al and back again.
The Odyssey of Lily Page, my next novel, also makes great use of a house and I have made several visits to the streets of Islington N1 to pick out the road for my fictional Alfred Street. The house is elemental to the plot, providing a kind of crucible for events and the cover image will certainly reflect that. I don’t think I consciously consider a house as central to the focus of my novels – but there certainly seems to be a pattern there!
In the meantime, I need to finish the novel! The last couple of chapters are the hardest, I find – so many resolutions of plot needed, but the pace has to be controlled as otherwise there is too much drama on every page!
Thus, houses are very much part of the fictional world my novels inhabit – and my actual life is similarly intrigued – especially for the next few months with the hunt on, looking for my next house to render into a home.