"What do you think, Ralph?" said George. "For or against the egregious grotesqueries of the Victorians?"...
"I suppose what I feel," said Revel, after a minute, "well, the grotesqueries are what I like best, really, and the more egregious the better."
"What? Not St. Pancras," said George. "Not Keble College?"
"Oh, when I first saw St. Pancras," said Revel, "I thought it was the most beautiful building on earth."
The rise and fall and rise again of high Victorian style marks the passage of a tumultuous century in The Stranger's Child. From St. Pancras railway station in London to the fictional Corley Court, the fate of exuberant Victorian ornamentation tracks the evolution of aesthetic taste. At the opening of the book, breathless sixteen-year old Daphne is full of enthusiasm about what she's heard of Cecil Valance's family estate, Corley Court. "'Do you have jelly-mould domes?' she wanted to know... 'I imagine they're painted in fairly gaudy colours?'"
Hollinghurst's Corley Court could have been modeled around one of many High Victorian Gothic homes, such as the country house called Tyntesfield, a National Trust property near Bristol which was remodeled as a High Victorian Gothic fantasy for a fertilizer tycoon in the 1860s. Tyntesfield has a Gothic fireplace rather like the one at risk of removal in part two of The Stranger's Child. There is also a private chapel and an oak-paneled library. (To see panoramic images of this magnificent house, take the BBC's virtual online tour or visit the National Trust Virtual Library.
St. Pancras railway station in London is an iconic landmark of the High Victorian Gothic period, designed in the 1860s by William Barlow (who engineered the station portion) and George Gilbert Scott (who constructed the elaborate façade, which housed an attached hotel). There are striped Venetian arches, gargoyles, tile mosaics, and ironwork filigree of every description. Architectural references are made to medieval English structures (hence the "Gothic" component - cathedrals and castles), at the same time homage is paid to the capabilities of nineteenth-century mass production and industrial design. (For more images, visit the BBC's Pancras Gallery.)
Victorian architecture fell out of favor after World War I; elaborate ornamentation was renounced with the same vehemence as corsets, rhyming poetry, and prudishness. In The Stranger's Child, a Bloomsbury-esque designer (Eva Riley) goes around Corley Court painting things white and boxing in the old jelly-mould domes in the library to make way for more modern spaces. But in the end, the things that are boxed in are spared further degradations. Underneath the false ceilings, the domes still exist. Even St. Pancras survives; after escaping demolition in the 1960s it has gone on to become one of the most famous Victorian buildings in London. In the spring of 2011 a new luxury hotel opened in its space, the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel, fully restored to its Victorian splendor.
This article was originally published in November 2011, and has been updated for the
August 2012 paperback release.
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