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.
Image: The cast of the original Upstairs, Downstairs
This article was originally published in June 2012, and has been updated for the
January 2013 paperback release.
Click here to go to this issue.
This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access become a member today.
Discover your next great read here
Harvard is the storehouse of knowledge because the freshmen bring so much in and the graduates take so little out.
Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!
Solve this clue:
and be entered to win..
Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.
Your guide toexceptional books
BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.