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Imaginary Houses

Like most of my books, my new novel The Stranger's Child has a lot about houses in it. There are two principal ones, both dating from the late-Victorian period, but very different from each other. The first that we see, in the summer of 1913, is "Two Acres," a small but romantic Arts & Crafts house on the northernmost edge of London, its large garden abutting on the countryside. It is a place that will be memorialised in a poem of the same name by Cecil Valance, heir to a much bigger and more challenging house, Corley Court, a red-brick Gothic pile in rural Berkshire. The detailed imagining of these places gave me much pleasure, and was also integral to my sense of the book's meaning.

Now that the book is out, I find myself thinking again about my long-term project to collect and annotate the imaginary buildings in other people's novels.Now that the book is out, I find myself thinking again about my long-term project to collect and annotate the imaginary buildings in other people's novels. Clearly different writers bring different degrees of architectural knowledge and alertness to the matter of writing fiction. Some novelists, such as Thomas Love Peacock, in his Regency novels of ideas, or Edith Wharton, in her portraits of the Gilded Age, show real expertise, and questions of architectural taste sometimes become part of the subject of their fictions. Others, like Dickens, have little or no interest in architecture as such, but create intensely imagined buildings, like Miss Havisham's menacing Satis House or the childlike fantasy of Wemmick's Castle in Great Expectations. Many writers are somewhere between, appreciative but quite reasonably thinking of the house as a stage set, a swiftly painted backdrop for the more important and detailed matter of the human drama: Henry James, for instance, has a savorous sense of the atmospheres of houses, both aesthetic and moral, but provides much less than you might think in the way of concrete detail.

This sparseness of exact description of course encourages the reader's imagination to work — and an interesting analysis might also be made of the ways in which readers picture houses in books. My own experience is that, unless given very precise instructions, my mind will automatically equip a novel I'm reading with aspects of one or two houses I knew early in my life: for instance, an old farmhouse under the Berkshire Downs, in the heart of the south of England, where I spent a lot of time as a child, does involuntary service as the holiday home in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the view of hills beyond the hedge at the end of the garden being replaced quite naturally by a view of the sea from a Scottish island. That the house in the novel was itself based on a house in St Ives in Cornwall, 400 miles away, where the Stephen family stayed when Virginia Woolf was a girl, says something of the persistence and adaptability of such ideas in both the reader's and the writer's mind.

I've always written a lot about houses in my own novels, not out of a calculated decision that the books needed lots of architectural description, but because an awareness of buildings generally is quite strong in my view and experience of lifean awareness of buildings generally is quite strong in my view and experience of life. Since childhood, I seem always to have been looking at them, and exploring them, and been very susceptible to their idiosyncrasies and atmospheres. Like many middle-class English families (my father was a bank manager), we got in our Morris Oxford and went off to look at castles, cathedrals, country houses. I know I developed early on a memory for buildings, whether seen in reality or only in photographs, could date any British building pretty accurately, and shown a photo of a cathedral tower could name it without hesitation.

This wasn't just precocious connoisseurship — I was also a practising architect from the age of 6 or so. Coming downstairs from the house above the bank I begged sheets of different coloured paper from the bank typists, and on these I made plans for country houses of my own. They belonged really to the category of ideal buildings, unregulated by expense or any kind of practicality. When I reached the edge of the sheet, I borrowed some tape, attached another one, and flung out a further wing, a ballroom or library. After puberty I discovered Frank Lloyd Wright, and the baroque palaces were replaced by ground-hugging horizontal designs with open-plan interiors — this was the '60s, when many things would change, and an interesting time to be a teenage architect. I became something of a modernist, and for several years really thought I was going to be an architect, only going off the idea when I started to find out about the much less appealing practical aspects of the job. To me architecture was fundamentally a form of romance.

At the age of seven I had been sent off to a boarding school situated roughly where I placed Corley Court in The Stranger's Child. It was a very different sort of house from Corley, not a so-called Victorian monstrosity but a small Jacobean manor-house that had been added to later on in the same style: the additions were largely at a lower level, and so the two ranges of the building were linked inside by little flights of stairs, double flights on the upper floor, joining theatrically in the middle; on the ground floor you entered the dining-room from the hall on to a pulpit-like balcony, from which the stairs swept down on the left to the floor of the room. The main staircase of the old house was a massive dark oak newel stair the whole height of the building. It wasn't an outstandingly beautiful or interesting house but it was an extraordinary space for a boy's imagination to inhabit, if it felt inclined to.

My next boarding-school was in a much bigger country house, near the south coast in Dorset, an old place repeatedly rebuilt, most spectacularly by Sir Charles Barry, soon after he'd designed the new Houses of Parliament: he added a gigantic Gothic great hall, long gallery and entrance tower, and can never have imagined that a century later terrified adolescent boys would be abseiling from the tower's roof. I was always very interested and excited by this house, which as well as its showpieces had bewildering attics and backstairs, and cellars so extensive and labyrinthine that they had bit by bit to be bricked up. For a history project I made measured drawings and plans of it. If the late-60s mood of disaffection meant that many boys hated the school, this was also the time of a great change in taste, as Victorian architecture came under serious enough threat to require organised defence. My own teenage rebellion, in a way, was to join in that new enthusiasm for Victorian buildings, enlarging the one I already had for Victorian poetry.My own teenage rebellion, in a way, was to join in that new enthusiasm for Victorian buildings, enlarging the one I already had for Victorian poetry. Now it could be acclaimed as a kind of generational dissidence, a turn in the tide of taste that had gone so fiercely against all things Victorian in the years between the wars. In The Stranger's Child I tried to make the history of Corley Court a record of such reversals in taste, fortune, and social history.

The most impressive house I have designed so far is probably Hawkeswood, in my previous novel The Line of Beauty, the home of a Rothschild-type banking grandee, and like a number of real Rothschild houses built in the excitingly alien style of a French château in wooded country not too far from London. Much more central to that novel, however, was the Notting Hill house where a large part of the action unfolds. In the months after I first moved to London 30 years ago, Kensington Park Gardens was a street I'd walked along several times a week on my way to the local swimming-baths, and it impressed me with its scale and aloofness, and made me wonder about the lives that might be lived in it. When I brought my own fictional young man, Nick Guest, to London, the street seems to have appeared in my mind almost involuntarily as a place he might aspire to. In fact it is the home of a university friend who is himself an object of longing, so the house takes on in advance an aura of eroticised magic, and of a strange privileged intimacy with something, in fact any number of things, that Nick can't in the end have. The house is itemised floor-by-floor at the outset, in the way that he appraises it and takes imaginative possession of it. I hope that by the end of the novel, when Nick is expelled from this deceptive paradise, the reader feels as unthinkingly familiar with the lay-out of the house as he or she would be with a house they lived in, or had once lived in, themselves. The wonderful but ungraspable thing, which is in fact a great imponderable mystery of all fiction, is that anyone who's read the book, whether or not they know the street and the kind of house, will have invented their own unique version of it, since everything in a novel is envisaged afresh, in more or less detail, by every single person who reads it. This is one of the things that makes the fictional house so potent, as an expression of our memories and dreams.

÷ ÷ ÷

Alan Hollinghurst is the author of the novels The Swimming-Pool Library, The Folding Star, The Spell and The Line of Beauty, which won the Man Booker Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His latest novel is The Stranger's Child.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Swimming Pool Library (Vintage... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  2. The Folding Star Used Trade Paper $10.50
  3. The Spell New Trade Paper $14.50
  4. The Line of Beauty Used Trade Paper $5.95
  5. The Stranger's Child
    Used Hardcover $10.50

2 Responses to "Imaginary Houses"

    Stephen O’Donnell October 20th, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Wonderful piece. I, too, love houses of all scale and scope. And I was also an overly ambitious architect as a a young child. Growing up mainly in California, I didn't often have direct communion with the sort of structures that would properly fire my imagination, but I completely understand the comment that, for some of us, architecture is a form of romance. Certainly all the hours pouring over floor plans of the palaces of Tsarskoe Selo or those of the Petit Trianon - or many other evocative if less impressive places - were filled with a definite passion.

    Stephilius October 22nd, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Lovely piece. I was precociously architectural, myself, designing improbable palaces as a young child. So I can easily agree that architecture is a "form of romance". Indeed, I've often found myself quite giddy - over - floorplans.

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