In Sarah Waters’s new novel, a ghost story set in rural Warwickshire in 1947, the aristocratic owners of a crumbling Georgian pile, Hundreds Hall, are tormented by a poltergeist that seeks out and exploits their individual weaknesses. Waters is best known for what she calls her “lesbian Victorian romps”, genre pastiches such as Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. Despite appearances, however, The Little Stranger is different. Even more than its predecessor, 2006’s bleak, Blitz-ravaged The Night Watch, it is a political novel, in the sense that the house at its centre is a symbol of postwar society in weary flux. Quite intentionally, and with great élan, The Little Stranger resurrects a form which, like the Ayres of Hundreds Hall, has been on its uppers for decades: the country-house novel.
You do see them occasionally, of course, like badgers or eight-track cartridges. Lucie Whitehouse had a minor hit last year with The House at Midnight, about a bunch of university friends who gather at the Oxfordshire mansion one of them has just inherited: “Three storeys high, it reared up out of the night as if it were facing the darkness down.” Bad stuff happens – surprise! – as it does in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Dead Man’s Folly and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (to name just a few of her manor-house murder mysteries) and the novel to which Whitehouse is most obviously paying homage, Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion (1987). There, the cursed house is Wyvis Hall in Suffolk, which its heir, one Adam Verne-Smith, has renamed Ecalpemos (read it backwards) and turned into a commune.
There are two main traditions of country-house novel. One of them, the one these novels have in mind, is the Gothic tradition, which extends back to what is usually thought of as the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s preposterous The Castle of Otranto, and takes in Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, Bartram-Haugh in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre, Bly House in The Turn of the Screw, Manderley in Rebecca, et al. Clearly, we can add The Little Stranger to this list on the strength of its supernatural concerns and properly Gothic interest in the idea of genealogical decay (the Ayres have reached the end of the family line).
But Waters is equally interested in the other tradition, what we might call the social tradition. The heyday of the great houses and landed estates of the English ruling class was ended principally by an agricultural crisis: from the 1870s until 1945, Europe was hit hard by poor harvests and plummeting wheat prices. Novelists mostly responded to this by idealising country houses either as “great good places” (the expression comes from a Henry James short story of 1900 about a weary writer who is suddenly transported to a sublime dream-house retreat) or linchpins of the collapsing feudal order.
As a child, James was obsessed by Joseph Nash’s series of lithographs Mansions of England in the Olden Time. “These delicious old houses,” he wrote in his journal, “in the long August days, in the south of England air, on the soil over which so much has passed and out of which so much has come, rose before me like a series of visions.” These visions float through his novels: Gardencourt in The Portrait of a Lady, Poynton in The Spoils of Poynton, Fawns in The Golden Bowl. The country house stands for harmony and community and psychic refuge from modernity – a bit like Howards End. “High-born she might not be,” observes the Forsterian narrator of that house’s devoted owner, Ruth Wilcox, yet she possesses “the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow . . . that wisdom to which we give the clumsy name of aristocracy”.
Of course, the country-house novel most notorious for its slack-jawed celebration of aristocratic values is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945 but reissued in a revised form in 1959 with an introduction apologising for its excesses. As Martin Amis has observed, Brideshead “squarely identifies egalitarianism as its foe and proceeds to rubbish it accordingly”. But fear of the Age of Hooper, of encroaching suburbia and a world where “things might be safe for the travelling salesman” is so widespread in early 20th-century English fiction that it is not fair to beat Waugh over the head without also mentioning writers such as Christopher Isherwood (whose 1932 novel The Memorial ends with dilapidated Vernon Hall being sold off to a middle-class manufacturing family from the Midlands, the Ramsbothams: “Mrs Ramsbotham would probably not bring it back to life. She would like it better dead”); Elizabeth Bowen (who, in The Heat of the Day, has aristocratic Stella visiting her lover Robert’s family home and observing: “You could not account for this family by simply saying that it was middle-class, because that left you asking the middle of what?”); and H G Wells (the hero of whose curious state-of-the-nation novel Tono-Bungay returns to Bladesover, the country estate where he grew up, only to be appalled by its parvenu occupants and their “new books in gaudy catchpenny ‘artistic’ covers”).
Actually, Tono-Bungay is more complicated than that. Bladesover is based on Up Park on the Sussex Downs, where Wells’s mother, Sarah, was housekeeper. Wells’s sympathies in the novel – a socialist satire on empty consumerism, with only the first part set in Bladesover – are defiantly below-stairs. The complicating factor is that its hero, George Ponderevo, a projection of Wells himself, comes to value the house because of the liberal education he received in its library. So the house stands for culture and the abolition of what Wells called “the peasant habit of mind”.
Many Edwardian novelists, like Wells, saw themselves as sociologists or, to paraphrase Ford Madox Ford, historians of their own time. Country houses, representing as they did society in microcosm, were central to their Balzacian project. John Galsworthy’s The Country House was published in 1907, two years before Tono-Bungay. Disregard its flimsy plot, and it’s an almost fly-on-the-wall account of life at Worsted Skeynes, whose owner, Horace Pendyce, can see only too clearly that “the country is changing, changing every day [ . . . ] Country houses are not what they were. A great responsibility rests on us landlords. If we go, the whole thing goes.” Still, perhaps, when the Pendyces do go, visitors won’t be forced to breakfast on game pie and cold partridges “in various stages of decomposition”.
Other examples abound. Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow (1921) satirises the country house-as-artistic-salon. (Crome is modelled on Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire, where Lady Ottoline Morrell held court.) Ivy Compton-Burnett wrote nothing but dialogue-heavy, anachronistic-feeling country-house novels, admitting that she had “no real or organic knowledge of life later than about 1910”. And there’s an Anglo-Irish wing to the genre that accommodates novels such as M J Farrell’s The Rising Tide (1937) and Bowen’s The Last September (1929), concerned with the tension between the outgoing Protestant gentry and the rural Catholic peasantry. (Like so many fictional grand houses – Poynton, Manderley, Thornfield – Danielstown in The Last September ends up being torched.)
Hundreds Hall in The Little Stranger survives, but the building left standing at the close of the novel is a grim parody of its former self. Its land has been sold off to developers, and the one remaining maid, Betty, has found a better-paid job in a factory. If it’s lucky, Hundreds will end up as a hotel or a teacher training college, the fate of most country houses after the war. If it’s unlucky, it will be demolished. As for the Ayres . . . that would be a revelation too far. Let’s just say that the narrator, a doctor called Faraday, whose mother was a nursery maid at the house, is exposed as an agent of social electrification.
What now for the form, when most of James’s “delicious old houses” are owned by the National Trust and English Heritage? The answer has to be: well, a fair few aren’t. A fair few are owned by the likes of Christopher Foster, the failed and self-deceiving businessman who last year set fire to his family home in Shropshire, killing himself, his wife and his daughter. There are plenty of stories like Foster’s waiting to be imagined – modern stories about greed and debt and empty aspiration. A novelist’s subtle touch would elucidate them better than a thousand colour-supplement articles. Who will take them on?
John O’Connell is a former books editor of Time Out
“The Little Stranger” is published by Virago