Of late, every book I’ve read has had at its heart a house that acts like a main character. Jamaica Inn was followed by Quincunx House in William Trevor’s Death in Summer, and then the extraordinary Blackwood family home in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
In Jackson’s strange and unsettling book a house is carefully, lovingly, drawn for the reader. It is worked with such precision that we know intimately its drawing room with the two tall windows, the golden-legged chairs, the harp, the mirrors, the Dresden figurines on the mantelpiece, the blue silk curtains, which are fourteen feet long. But Shirley Jackson was also expert at manipulating readers, and by halfway through the novel I had realised that nothing is so meticulously evoked except for a very good reason.
Many of the best-loved novels in the English language have been set in memorable houses, and I have often wondered whether this is really their most powerful ingredient and one of the reasons they continue to endure. For most of us the fictional love affair with houses began with children’s books like The Secret Garden, in which the six-hundred-year-old Misselthwaite Manor stands on the edge of the moor. Its housekeeper, Mrs Medlock, tells the orphaned Mary that there are ‘near a hundred rooms in it, though most of them’s shut up and locked. And there’s pictures and fine old furniture and things that’s been there for ages, and there’s a big park round it and gardens and trees with branches trailing to the ground.’
The professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis ‘was the sort of house that you never seem to come to the end of, and it was full of unexpected places.’ What child would not love such a house? In Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, Moonacre Manor has the most enchanting bedroom in all of fiction, and the estate and its troubled history drives the story.
Daphne du Maurier’s greatest fictional house was Manderley, and Jane Eyre has given us Thornfield Hall. Evelyn Waugh created the unforgettable Brideshead Castle to haunt Charles Ryder, while across the Atlantic F. Scott Fitzgerald designed an opulent mansion from which Jay Gatsby would pursue Daisy.
The relationship between human beings and dwelling places is complex. Primarily for shelter, once that box has been ticked what we have is a space that stands as silent witness to all the intimacies of our daily lives. As Marguerite Duras has observed, ‘It is only inside a house that we are truly alone. In a garden, there are cats and birds; one is not alone there, and out in the world there is always the chance of being observed’.
I have loved creating fictional houses, pouring as much effort into bringing them to the page as I have my human characters. And I am always interested in the ways people behave around houses and the objects that fill them. Take, for example, a recent visit to Ikea, where I observed a middle-aged couple with two teenagers in tow – a boy and a girl, both lanky, dressed in crumpled shirts and flip flops. On the way out the group paused beside a white utilitarian desk while the girl touched a corner, prised open a drawer with her fingertips.
The parents leaned protectively towards both desk and girl, and the father reached for his wallet. Their body language spoke of hope that the purchase of the desk would result in homework completed, examinations passed, a young adult life on track for success and independence. Elsewhere in the store, couples lingered in kitchen settings, reinforcing their yearning, their optimism. It was impossible not to wonder what became of those feelings once they took their purchases home.
Inhabiting is the most intimate experience. I look back to houses I have lived in and left, houses bought, rented or shared, houses built only of words and explored through fiction, and find that I still carry most of them with me. Aside from the physical reality of plaster walls, tiled roofs and sash windows, there are the weirdly constructed, multitudinous, and multi-layered spaces one enters during sleep, private cities of dream houses that, with few exceptions, could never be made to resemble habitable dwellings in the waking world.
There are houses I have aspired to and lost, others I have renovated, shuffled furniture in, adorned with hand-sewn curtains and stencils. Houses in which my dreams were stunted, or became unbearably vivid, others whose perfection I did not realise until they belonged to someone else. Houses in which I packed suitcases, laughed until my ribs ached, wept inconsolably, failed, succeeded, wrung my hands, threw down my guitar at midnight to stare ghost-like into the empty street.
The houses of childhood remain particularly potent, and I am fortunate to still have access to two of them. Of the lost houses of childhood, fragments persist – here a window, there a cupboard, or a scrap of blue-grey wallpaper, and sometimes they find their way into my fiction. Certain rooms are magnified in memory, especially those in which I have been unhappy; less clear to me are those in which life has ticked by to the comfortable clatter of teaspoons, the pop of champagne corks, the slow quiet breath of sleep.
There is so much dreaming involved in the act of inhabiting, and businesses like Ikea are built on and cater to the innate yearning in each of us to inhabit our own castle. But writers, too, over time have been tuned to this universal human need. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard quotes the poet Vincent Monteiro: Who has not deep in his heart / A dark castle of Elsinore. The houses they have given us have occasionally been blessed with a tower room and a moat. There have been locked rooms, dusty attics, and silent housekeepers aplenty, and in at least one of them a lighthouse flashes in an upstairs window. Time passes, and still more time, but to those of us who have loved them these fictional houses may prove more durable than those made of bricks and mortar.