Readers and viewers seem endlessly fascinated by the English country-house genre. From classic and award-winning novels such as The Remains of the Day,
Howards End, or Mansfield Park, to the mysteries of Agatha Christie and P.D. James, to television epics such as Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey, they offer both the writer and the reader a concentrated glimpse into a rarefied social milieu, one that often prompts both romantic intensity and social commentary. Although many of these works are historical in nature, they nevertheless seem relevant to contemporary society, especially when (as in The Uninvited Guests) the author obliquely or explicitly comments on historical behavior and attitudes through a modern lens.
What is the attraction of the country house as a setting for fiction, whether on page or screen? According to Blake Morrison, writing in The Guardian, "what draws them to a country house setting is the space it offers for everything to happen under one roof; the house of fiction has many rooms, but country house fiction has more rooms than most." It also, Morrison goes on, offers writers a defined canvas on which to explore issues that have resurfaced in British literature for centuries: these include the definition of "Englishness," the fascination of illicit sex, the idea of rightful ownership, and the cheek-by-jowl coexistence of very different social classes.
For the reader, there's also the undeniable "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" attraction to many of these novels, especially when the wealthier classes get their comeuppance in one way or another. As Lev Grossman writes in Time about the recent (and not-so-recent) fascination with this genre, "It's a contradiction that's oddly impossible to resolve: we loathe and decry the 1%, but at the same time we're very sentimental indeed about the box they came in." In other words, the English country house story, with its numerous attractions to writers and readers alike, is liable to persist at least as long as the venerable structures that give the genre its name.
This article, by Norah Piehl, originally ran as the "beyond the book" story to Sadie Jones's The Univited Guests about which Norah writes, "Jones pulls readers into the drawing-room with what appears at first to be a classic English country-house tale, but winds up becoming something quite a bit darker, and thoroughly unexpected. Using the country house novel as a commentary on social class is nothing new - what's surprising and innovative about this one is the particularly daring and delightful ways in which Jones does so. This many-sided novel, which constantly confounds and even dashes expectations, is not for everyone; but for those who like their reading with a dash of surprise and a soupcon of satire, The Uninvited Guests will be very welcome indeed."
Image: The cast of the original Upstairs, Downstairs