By Joanna Roughton.
After years of trying, I feel we may be making progress. My two keenest readers have both, almost simultaneously, put aside childish things.
I am talking literature here, source of several arguments around our dining table. For too long, my daughters – and those two bookworms in particular – have confined their reading to children’s literature.
Just when I think Jacqueline Wilson (the Queen of pre-teen pap) can’t possibly have written any more books, another tale of marital breakdown, blended-family angst, siblings from hell, and playground delinquency appears on a bedroom bookshelf.
So finally, after aeons of nagging, the Classics have appeared. Glory be.
To my delight, Agnes, 12, is half way through (and approving of) Pride and Prejudice. Ten-year-old Gwendolyn is, with mixed success, tackling Wuthering Heights.
Since both these novels have powerful and memorable depictions of places, it set me to thinking about how the home is represented in novels.
Talking to my husband – proud owner of a first class degree in English literature – I was left in no doubt as to his opinion.
“Homes in fiction tend,” he said, “to be places of misery.”
Why should that be, even if true?
My husband says it’s because novelists tend towards melancholia, and happy homes tend to be dull (for the purposes of a story).
Certainly, you can think of plenty of classics which portray the home as a setting for events both dramatic and morose.
Charles Dickens did a good line in baleful homes. Bleak House is so riven by hatred and squabbles that it physically collapses at the denouement. Satis House in Great Expectations isn’t much nicer. It’s the home of Miss Havisham, with its stopped clocks, rooms frozen in time, both prison and memorial to thwarted love.
The Brontes aren’t much jollier. The eponymous Wuthering Heights is like no farmhouse in North Yorkshire I know. Wind-blasted, mullioned, a dark and dreary place – but at least Emily didn’t find room for a madwoman in the attic, leaving that to her sister Charlotte and her creation of Thornfield Hall (Jane Eyre).
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca gives us Manderley and its noxious servants. Brideshead Castle (Brideshead Revisited) is the setting for Evelyn Waugh’s examination of declining family fortunes. And, if it’s not family dysfunction, then there’s plain horror.
Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula is living proof that the home is where the heart is, while Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baskerville Hall (as in The Hound of…) sounds like it could do with a makeover.
But there are, of course, many honourable and heart-warming exceptions. Who can read Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie and not feel a warm glow about a family of eight crammed into a cottage. Open fires, no smoke alarms, no father for that matter.
Barton Cottage in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility has none of the grandeur of Pemberley (Pride and Prejudice) or Mansfield Park, but the Dashwood women turn it into a wonderful home.
But big homes can be happy homes too. Thinking about Blandings Castle puts a smile on my face. P.G. Wodehouse is a bit of an acquired taste, but worth persevering with.
The recent TV adaptation, starring Timothy Spall and Jennifer Saunders, captures the spirit of Blandings brilliantly. It’s a country house without murders or mischief. If you can think of others, do let me know. I feel a HRF list coming on!