The summer holidays with my children seem a long while ago now, and I’ve neglected this blog terribly. Sorting through the photos, I can be grateful all over again for the places we visited here in the UK. A trip to William Wordsworth’s childhood home near Cockermouth in the Lake District was one highlight. It’s no stretch to understand how the poet was inspired by the local landscape.
When I travel, I often take a book to read that was inspired by my destination. Herman Koch’s The Dinner when visiting Amsterdam, for instance, or Mary Renault’s The King Must Die on a trip to Crete, so a perfect context for treading around the ruins of Knossos.
This time, more quirkily, I took with me The Lake District Murder by John Bude, recently republished for the first time since the 1930s. The book is dated, certainly, the writing style somewhat stiff and stilted. The cultural differences seem aeons and thousands of miles away, not ninety years and ninety miles (from here)… It gave a fun peek into the past. Then there’s the setting – Bude’s novel was set around Derwent Water, the nearest lake to our campsite. With shady ridges over expansive waters, the Cumbrian lakes are captivating. Yet there’s always a sense of something darker that lies beneath, the force of nature that made – can still make – this district a tough place to live and to farm. Not coincidentally, England’s Lake District continues to inspire a raft of mystery and detective books.
Landscape has long inspired writers. But then there are writers and books that derive inspiration, more specifically, from houses and buildings. This is not a case of grand cities and outstanding natural locations that inspired writers – the way, say, Cuba inspired Hemingway, or St. Petersburg Dostoevsky, not even the way Sussex’s Ashdown Forest prompted AA Milne to pen Winnie-the-Pooh. No, it is something more domestic altogether. A few examples are below.
Menabilly near Fowey on the south coast of Cornwall was rented (rather than owned) from the Rashleigh Estate by Daphne du Maurier. Near abandoned when she set up home there with her family, du Maurier brought it back to life. She famously made it the basis for Manderley in Rebecca. I remember reading in an autobiography (Margaret Forster’s Daphne du Maurier) of du Maurier’s heartbreak at leaving the home she called “my Mena” after her lease on the house expired. There are some great photos in an article here, and in the opening chapter of Rebecca, in the dream of an idyllic memory, the house is described thus:
“There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and the terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand. The terrace sloped to the lawns, and the lawns stretched to the sea…”
Still in England’s West Country, a place I have not visited but would love to is Greenway House, Agatha Christie’s Devon home. As is fitting for the Queen of the stately country home murder mystery, it looks marvellous, and the setting of her story ‘Dead Men’s Folly’ – a murder game set in a grand Devon house that turns into the real thing. One for my ‘must visit’ list.
It is more debatable whether Fort House in Broadstairs, Kent, the summer retreat of Charles Dickens in the mid-19th century, inspired the writer’s satire of society and legal bureaucracy Bleak House, as was rumoured to be the case. That did not stop the place being re-named as ‘Bleak House’ at some point. Although like the fictional House (or houses) of the story, Fort House was not necessarily bleak at all. Dickens was reportedly very fond of the seaside town of Broadstairs, enjoying sea views from the house’s tall windows (a change from the pervasive ‘dense fog’ of London). We know that he wrote instalments of David Copperfield there, partly set in the Kent capital of Canterbury. And perhaps the real-life dwelling had similarities with its fictional counterpart in its “delightfully irregular”, labyrinthine, and cluttered interior set within the “perfect neatness” of its walls. Certainly, it’s a fine example of the sort of comfortable, bourgeois Victorian home Dickens may have aspired to in his insolvent childhood.
One of the benefits of living near to West Yorkshire is being able to visit the landscape and also the houses that provided inspiration to the Brontë sisters, such as Ponden Hall near the small village of Stanbury. Lying just a mile or two from Haworth, the Hall said to have been a basis for Thrushcross Grange in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and possibly an inspiration for Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. As a simple rectangular farmhouse building, it does, however, seem a lot more humble than the stately Thrushcross Grange – a counterpoint in the novel for the more modest and moorland house of Wuthering Heights. Perhaps, having grown up in the relatively simple middle-class houses church houses then provided for a members of the clergy, the Brontës found it quite grand when they were hosted at Ponden Hall as children.
For me personally, though, the house better fits the description and setting of Wildfell Hall, described, when Helen Huntingdon returns to live in it, as “an old house, which was built of grey stone… gloomy. Its gardens were surrounded by a stone wall,” desolate in its condition, and in its setting. The place, remote in its day, speaks of Helen’s character – a place that takes a tough woman to inhabit, one searching for silence and solitude, yet providing her with ‘a haven’.