Old Houses in Novels
Have you ever been alone in a great old house and felt something? Like maybe the place is haunted, or it’s humming with history. Either something living has been hidden away, or something dead has refused to leave. Even if you live in this place, it’s not yours; you simply get to inhabit it
Weird stuff happens in these buildings, and people get weird there. Perhaps that's why many of my favorite books take place in old houses. I often write about old houses in my own fiction. There are mysteries and conflicts built into the walls.
I would like to share seven of my favorite old manors, mansions, and castles, and the way they almost become characters in the stories they're a part of. I've also selected some musical accompaniment for you.
The Likeness by Tana French
I’ve already gone on about Whitethorn House in my last post, and reading it prompted this one, so I will simply reiterate that this setting is a wise play: who can resist the gothic draw of a young woman entering an old house that is hers to roam and to be haunted by?
“Around me the house seemed to have tightened and drawn closer, leaning in over my shoulder; watching; focused.”
“...and our footsteps rang and echoed till it sounded like the room was full of dancers, the house calling up all the people who had danced here across centuries of spring evenings, gallant girls seeing gallant boys off to war, old men and women straight-backed while outside their world disintegrated and the new one battered at their doors, all of them bruised and all of them laughing, welcoming us into their long lineage.”
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Of course, there is the ultimate, the Harry Potter series. We’ve got more magical buildings than we could ever hope to list—don’t get me started on the coolness of 12 Grimmauld Place or The Burrow—so I will focus on Hogwarts. The castle was built in the late Early Middle Ages (c. 993) and consists of seven storeys, according to the Harry Potter Wiki (which fortunately did not exist when I was in middle school, or else I never would have emerged from the ether—even now it’s difficult not to get sucked into the vortex). Hogwarts is quite literally haunted, with ghosts milling about. Pictures don’t appear to be looking at you; they are looking at you.
It’s built with J.K.'s own brand of altruistic magic. Says Dumbledore, “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” The building itself is sentient and aligns itself with good, which is demonstrated when it locks Dolores Umbridge out of the Headmaster’s Towers. Good castle. It is the ultimate home for orphans, with food appearing on the table and plenty of secret (read: forbidden) places to explore . . . and to hide.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Another icon. The best possible amenity of an old house is a portal to another world. Who didn't spend hours pushing on the backs of closets and cupboards as a child? I personally knew my own home, built in the 1970s, wouldn't have such a thing, but any house over a hundred years old was fair game.
“It was the sort of house that you never seem to come to the end of, and it was full of unexpected places.”
“And after that—whether it was that they lost their heads, or that Mrs. Macready was trying to catch them, or that some magic in the house had come to life and was chasing them into Narnia—they seemed to find themselves being followed everywhere, until at last Susan said, “Oh, bother those trippers! Here—let’s get into the Wardrobe Room till they’ve passed. No one will follow us in there.”
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Talk about secrets. Mary Lennox finds her freaking cousin tucked away in the back of Misselthwaite Manor. Also, it seems pretty likely that the uncle’s dead wife is haunting the place. Honestly, I think the garden is overrated compared to this hundred-room house.
"It seemed as if there was no one in all the huge rambling house but her own small self, wandering about up-stairs and down, through narrow passages and wide ones, where it seemed to her that no one but herself had ever walked. Since so many rooms had been built, people must have lived in them, but it all seemed so empty that she could not quite believe it true.”
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Thinking about I Capture the Castle now, I may just need to reread it. When I first discovered it, I swore to tell no one about it because it felt too personal. I felt that the story was about me. But I’m something resembling a grown-up now and I’m okay with you guys knowing about it. I kind of recognize that other people relate to the story, but I'm pretty sure I'll always love it more than any of you. Not that it's a competition.
Two sisters live with their depressed father and eccentric stepmother in a decaying castle in England. They’ve run out of money since they bought the castle, so their lifestyle is humble and relatable. The heroine, Cassandra, spends her days writing in her notebook and generally hanging out around the castle. She’s left to her own devices and her own imagination, and she makes the most of it. She daydreams about whether it would be better to be Jane Eyre or to be in a Jane Austen novel. She sunbathes naked on the top of the turret without fear of being seen, but she's able to see what’s happening below.
“I have just remarked to Rose that our situation is really rather romantic - two girls in this strange and lonely house. She replied that she saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud. I must admit that our home is an unreasonable place to live in. Yet I love it. The house itself was built in the time of Charles II, but it was grafted on to a fourteenth-century castle that had been damaged by Cromwell. The whole of our east wall was part of the castle; there are two round towers in it. The gatehouse is intact and a stretch of the old walls at their full height joins it to the house. And Belmotte Tower, all that remains of an even older castle, still stands on its mound close by. But I won't attempt to describe our peculiar home fully until I can see more time ahead of me than I do now.”
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I've read this book four times and am itching to read it again. I could go on about it forever, but I'll stick to Thornfield Hall.
What is really significant about this house is what it's hiding. Like all good, old houses, there is a forbidden area. Jane is not to go up to the third floor. If somehow you haven’t read Jane Eyre yet, I won’t reveal the secret; the rest of you know what I’m talking about. This secret makes the house itself inherently alive, and sinister. And yet this is the place where Jane finds happiness and love. In a gothic novel like this one, nothing can be purely good. Everything is complicated. And then Thornfield, along with its complication, is destroyed, and the characters start fresh in a new house. I’ve never been fully satisfied with this ending. The new house is gloomy and unfamiliar. I bonded with Thornfield, with the gardens, with the fireplace where Mr. Rochester and Jane had conversations and fell in love.
"All these relics gave . . . Thornfield Hall the aspect of a home of the past: a shrine to memory. I liked the hush, the gloom, the quaintness of these retreats in the day; but I by no means coveted a night's repose on one of those wide and heavy beds: shut in, some of them, with doors of oak; shaded, others, with wrought old-English hangings crusted with thick work, portraying effigies of strange flowers, and stranger birds, and strangest human beings—all which would have looked strange, indeed, by the pallid gleam of moonlight."
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Though a good read in its own right, Rebecca strikes me as a poor man’s Jane Eyre. Young, poor woman marries older man, the first wife is a lurking, lingering presence haunting the home, there is a part of the house where the heroine must not go, and then the house goes up in the flames. But we love Jane Eyre, we need more Jane Eyre. So I’ll let it go.
Like many of the authors in this list, du Maurier based Manderley off of an old house she discovered and fell in love with. Then she bought it on impulse. I relate, Daphne. I would've done the same thing.
“The peace of Manderley. The quietude and the grace. Whoever lived within its walls, whatever trouble there was and strife, however much uneasiness and pain, no matter what tears were shed, what sorrows borne, the peace of Manderley could not be broken or the loveliness destroyed . . . It would lie always in its hollow like an enchanted thing, guarded by the woods, safe, secure, while the sea broke and ran and came again in the little shingle bays below.”
Of course there are others. Every Jane Austen novel, for example. But I couldn't be bothered to go over Mr. Darcy's Pemberley or any of the others. They don't speak to me.
There are some short stories too that I highly recommend: "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allen Poe, the fairytale "Bluebeard", "House Taken Over" by Julio Cortázar. What are your favorite fictional houses?