Books Articles

Four memorable houses in novels

From stately grandeur to divine decadence

1. Against Nature/Against The Grain (A Rebours)

By Joris-Lark Huysmans (From £7.79, Penguin Classics). Sick of humanity, decadent aesthete Jean Des Esseintes decides to shun Paris for good. He retreats to a house in the country, carrying out intellectual and sensual experiments and decorating to his obsessively exacting standards. But since he’s “refined to the point of malady,” it’s anything but easy. In one particularly memorable scene, displeased by the dull colour effect his newly purchased tortoise has when placed on the carpet, he’s compelled to turn the poor creature into a work of art, encrusting its shell with dazzling precious stones.

2. Atonement

By Ian McEwan (£6.99, Vintage Publishing). The Tallis family country house may be big but it’s certainly not beautiful. Its “bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic” style is “charmless to a fault.” But it nonetheless features all the trappings of upper-class wealth – lake, library, fancy fountains – which highlight the class divide between Cecilia Tallis and housekeeper’s son Robbie while propelling their tragic courtship forward.

3. The Remains Of The Day

By Kazuo Ishiguro (£8.99, Faber & Faber). An English country house also features heavily in Ishiguro’s post-war-set study in emotional repression and regret. Stevens, the reminiscing narrator, is an ageing butler at the grand Darlington Hall, where he has worked tirelessly for 34 years. The splendour of the house embodies the idea of ‘greatness’, a concept that is immensely important to Stevens; but this is his tragedy, too: he is so totally committed to his job and maintaining formality that he lets the love of his life – Miss Kenton – slip through his fingers.

4. The Go-Between

By L.P. Hartley (From £7.79, Penguin Books). 12-year-old Leo – now an old man recounting his memories – recalls the long, languid summer he spent at Brandham Hall, the luxurious family seat of his school friend, Marcus. Out of place in the wealthy environment – “for the first time, I was acutely aware of social inferiority” – he is soon transfixed by his friend’s beautiful sister, Marian, and readily agrees to carry secret messages between her and a local farmer, unwittingly – at least, initially – facilitating their love affair.

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