Throughout literature houses, or buildings where people have converged have become central elements and powerful symbols in the creative process.
According to Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space ( La Poétique de l’Espace, 1958), the house becomes the representation of the universe. It can also be examined as the manifestation of the soul through the poetic image.
Houses in literature are often places of intimacy which can hold memories, experiences, they can also keep secrets, and arouse sensations, merging into the action by becoming a witness, accomplice, and even instigator of events. In any case, the symbolic value of houses cannot be underestimated.
It would be impossible to mention all the houses in English literature. The aim of this brief overview is to bring our attention to the importance of houses by reminding us of some of the most significant literary houses, which have become part of our collective unconscious.
We could start with the Herot, the Mead Hall in the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, which J. R. R. Tolkien recreated as Meduseld (meaning mead hall in Old English) in Middle-earth, a richly decorated meeting and gathering hall for the King and his advisors. Herot was both a seat of government and as royal residence, symbolizing civilization and culture, wealth, safety, and merriment, in contrasts with the darkness, danger, and evil of the swamp waters inhabited by the monster, Grendel.
Our next stop would be at the The Tabard Inn, in the London borough of Southwark, which accommodated the numerous pilgrims on their way to their annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, fictionalised by Geoffrey Chaucer in the The Canterbury Tales. The Inn keeper, Harry Bailly, accompanies the pilgrims on their journey and proposed that each tell two tales on the way to Canterbury.
Hamlet’s tortured speeches, Ophelia’s singing, his father’s ghost, the deaths of Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet himself, are inseparable from the place where they took place, Elsinore Castle, in Denmark.
The novel which is considered to initiate the gothic genre is set in and called, The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole. Many more gothic novels are set in singular buildings, such as Count Dracula’s dark and ruined castle inhabited by vampires, recreated by Bram Stoker.
Moving to the early 19th century, Jane Austen writes about more stately and luxurious houses, such as Pemberley, the fictional country estate owned by Mr. Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice. The beauty of the house plays a key role in Elizabeth Bennet’s attitude towards Darcy and leads to her reappraisal of her first negative opinion of Mr. Darcy.
The middle and end of the 19th century and Victorian literature saw a return to somber abodes, after a brief period of delightful Regency homes.
The Bronte sisters resumed the gothic atmosphere in their characters’ dwellings. Wuthering Heights is the name of the inhospitable farmhouse where the story unfolds, and Thrushcross Grange, where the pleasant Lintons lived, represents comfort, peace and refinement.
Thornfield Hall, is the unforgettable gothic mansion which Jane Eyre describes thus on her arrival as governess:
‘I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. It was three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look. Its grey front stood out well from the background of a rookery, whose cawing tenants were now on the wing: they flew over the lawn and grounds to alight in a great meadow, from which these were separated by a sunk fence, and where an array of mighty old thorn trees, strong, knotty, and broad as oaks, at once explained the etymology of the mansion’s designation.’
Thornfield was allegedly burnt down by Bertha Mason, the first Mrs. Rochester. Towards the end of the novel, Jane returns and finds it a ‘blackened ruin.’
In the sequel, All Hallows at Eyre Hall, Richard Mason begins the narration by describing Eyre Hall, a house Jane Eyre rebuilt on the grounds of her beloved Thornfield Hall.
‘The carriage swayed its way up the birch lined driveway towards Eyre Hall, tunnelling through the ghostly morning mist. The muggy air reeked of wilting foliage and soggy earth as the carriage halted abruptly, and the coachman closed and barred the heavy yard gates. The vehicle rocked as he leapt on, spurring the horses back into movement. Seconds later, I stepped out unsteadily onto crunchy gravel, adjusted my cloak and hat, and looked up to the rebuilt mansion for the first time.
Twenty-three years had passed since my last visit to another house in this same spot, when I was bitten by a raging lioness fighting to preserve her offspring and her reason.’
Eyre Hall has a central role in the novel, having witness the events which have occurred in the last twenty-two years, since Jane married Rochester. Eyre Hall will continue to witness the surprising events that will lead up to Rochester’s death, and thereafter.
Another unforgettable fictional dwelling is Satis House, the sinister mansion where Pip meets the spellbinding Estella, and the enigmatic Miss Havisham, is as powerful as any of the characters in Great Expectations.
Manderlay, the house where Max de Winter lived with Rebecca, and his nameless second wife and narrator of Rebecca, is one of the most famous houses in 20th century literature, and one of the most memorable novels written by Daphne du Maurier.
Brideshead Castle, where Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the aristocratic Lord Marchmain’s family mansion, takes his eccentric Oxford friends to meet his family, still breathes the atmosphere of pre-war England, while passively observing changing times, recreated by Evelyn Waugh, in 1945.
Harewood House, seen from the garden. It has featured in both the television and film versions of Brideshead Revisited
Not all novels are set in houses, and houses many not even be significant elements in a novel, but when the character’s abode is central to the action, it becomes one of the most enduring elements in the novel.
I hope that readers of All Hallows at Eyre Hall, Volume One of the Eyre Hall Trilogy will feel they have been walking along its corridors and up the stairs into the bed chambers, or sitting in the drawing room by the fireplace, or looking out of the windows towards the wintry landscape. Perhaps they even feel the ghosts of Thornfield lurking around, as Jenny Rosset, one of the characters says to Richard Mason:
‘I was at Thornfield, as you know, but I’ve never been to the new house. It’s in the same spooky place. I bet it’s full of them ghosts I heard at Thornfield. They live in the tree trunks and earth caves around the house. They whisper in the night, sometimes they come out and play mischief.’
Which are your favourite literary houses?
In case you don’t remember all their names, there is a much longer list of fictional houses here.