by Phyllis Richardson
Phyllis Richardson is the author of several books on architecture and design, and in this, her latest compendium, she writes knowledgeably about the great fictional British houses we have come to know intimately over the last four hundred or so years. She also scrutinizes the actual bricks and mortar structures that inspired many well-known novelists to create their most memorable stories.
What do people’s homes (grand or otherwise) say about their characters, wealth and standing in society? Writers have repeatedly posed these questions in their works of fiction, and their observations have rarely failed to engage the reader’s imagination.
Richardson highlights the layout, location and other more intimate aspects of these houses in some detail – no dingy niche, winding staircase or flying buttress is left unexamined. She is particularly good on the dwellings behind Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Her chapter on Charles Dickens rediscovering Gad’s Hill Place while on the road to Rochester, and gloomy Satis House, the Gothic pile he dreamt up for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations is exceptionally good. Facts such as Virginia Woolf basing Orlando on Vita Sackville-West and her family’s great Tudor home, Knole, were well-known to me, while others, like Thomas Hardy designing his own writer’s residence, less so.
Some chronicles are inevitably more interesting than others (your favourites are likely to be determined by your taste in reading), and I found myself skimming over certain architectural details. There are, however, fascinating descriptions of Groby Hall, the inspiration behind Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End; Menabilly, Daphne du Maurier’s beloved home, on which Manderley from Rebecca was based; and the numerous settings used by Agatha Christie in her popular crime fiction novels. In fact, there is plenty here to interest most, if not all, lovers of literature.
Houses of Fiction can be perused at leisure or read in several sittings. Either way, it is entertaining, often witty and well worth your time.
NB This book was funded directly by readers through the website Unbound.