The best novels about houses

Lucy Hughes-Hallett Author Of Peculiar Ground
By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Who am I?

I’m fascinated by houses and the memories that haunt them. I grew up on a private estate in rural England where my father worked. When I was little I knew a witch. She rode a bicycle, not a broomstick: she cured my warts. The trees I played under were planted when the big house belonged to the 17th-century statesman and historian, Lord Clarendon. I knew storytellers who performed in the local pubs – part of an oral tradition that goes back millennia. I moved to London, but I kept thinking about those rural enclaves where memories are very long. I set my novel in that beautiful, ghost-ridden, peculiar world. 


I wrote...

Peculiar Ground

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett,

Book cover of Peculiar Ground

What is my book about?

It is the 1660s and a wall is being built around a great house. Wychwood is an enclosed world, its gardens adorned with fountains and its park bisected by avenues, a world where everyone has something to hide after decades of civil war. Three centuries later, as another wall goes up overnight, dividing Berlin, there is a house party at Wychwood. It is 1961: the times they are a-changing. 

From the award-winning author of historical works - including The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio, which won the Costa Biography Award, the Duff Cooper Prize, and the Samuel Johnson Prize - comes an ambitious, beautiful, and timely novel. Game-keepers and witches, gardeners and property-owners, 17th-century dissidents and 20th-century refuge-seekers people this compelling story about the passage of time, about migration, and about how those who wall others out risk finding themselves walled in.

The books I picked & why

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The Leopard

By Giuseppe Di Lampedusa,

Book cover of The Leopard

Why this book?

Lampedusa could make a dish of macaroni cheese voluptuous and a basket full of peaches revolutionary. This author had a wonderful appreciation of the pleasures of the senses, and a great gift for making sensuality politically significant. 

In 1860 the palace of Donnafugata, the summer retreat of a fictional family of Sicilian aristocrats, is remote from the cities where Garibaldi and his followers are precipitating a nationalist revolution, but the chill of impending change is in the air, along with an anticipatory nostalgia for the decadent beauty that is passing away. 

Politically radical Prince Tancredi and his bourgeois sweetheart devote long, languid summer afternoons to exploring the palace’s empty wing. Seldom can descriptions of crumbling plaster, cobwebbed chandeliers, and dusty floorboards have been so charged with erotic glamour, ideological ambiguity, and a melancholy acknowledgment that all things must pass.


Le Grand Meaulnes

By Alain Fournier,

Book cover of Le Grand Meaulnes

Why this book?

Clumsy peasant schoolboy, Meaulnes, and his friend – the narrator of this haunting story – get lost, and happen upon a great house, deep in the woods, where a phantasmagorical fancy dress party is underway. Everything at ‘the lost domain’ is topsy-turvy. Children are in charge. The passage of time is suspended. Social inequality has been erased.   The time the boys spend there is dream-like, disconcerting, life-spoiling because nothing can ever be so strange and marvelous again.  

Later, after much searching, Meaulnes make his way back, but the domain is like youth itself. If you return, it will be to find everything drabber than you remembered,  and the people you adored merely human. 

This book is even greater than its reputation.  Generally thought of as one of the last works of romanticism, a celebration of illusion, it is actually clear-eyed, tough-minded, bracingly truthful about the inevitably of disillusion. Alain-Fournier was killed in action in the first weeks of World War I at the age of twenty-seven. No going back for him.


The Glass Room

By Simon Mawer,

Book cover of The Glass Room

Why this book?

Set in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, this story of a newly-married couple overseeing the construction of their dream home is as clean-cut, luminous and full of hints of fragility as the building itself – a modernist cube of glass. The husband is rich, the wife excited by her new role as patron.  Their architect -  a sharply observed portrayal of a tetchy artist who will insist on sticking to his vision regardless of his clients’ doubts – wants to make them a masterpiece, and he does.  But the husband is Jewish.  We are in the 1930s.  Glass walls are not going to keep them safe. 

In lucid, elegant prose Mawer conjures up central European culture in those edgy, febrile years when artistic and intellectual energy were so vital, and politics were so deadly.


Ulverton

By Adam Thorpe,

Book cover of Ulverton

Why this book?

Not just one house, this time, but houses - a whole village in fact.  Adam Thorpe’s dazzlingly inventive novel is the story of a rural community over three and half centuries, narrated by a chorus of different voices.  Human dramas proliferate: love affairs, murders, executions, violent uprisings. But as people come and go, things stay put, outlasting them. An adulterous eighteenth-century lady is confined to her shuttered bed-chamber, forbidden to go down the creaky old stairs. Fifty years later a garrulous carpenter, reminiscing in the pub, describes the cutting of the wooden scroll that finished the banister of the new staircase he and his mates have built in the Hall, once that lady’s home. Two generations later a consumptive young lawyer, taking down the testimony of dozens of Luddite machine-breakers, visits the Hall, notices the stairs, judges them dark and old-fashioned. Time passes again and a 20th-century television cameraman leans against a gate, made by that same carpenter. We even know from which tree it was cut.   

Thorpe’s novel is formally adventurous but thematically stay-at-home, a boldly new-fangled way of honouring permanent, ancient things – wood, weather, the material world on which humans depend.


Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë,

Book cover of Jane Eyre

Why this book?

One of the best-loved of all novels is – among many other things – a book about houses.  

When Jane’s cruel aunt wants to punish the child she locks her in a room. There’s nothing particularly dreadful in there – it’s the room itself that is terrifying. When Jane is sent to Lowood School it’s the building’s situation, in a pestilential marshy valley, that is killing the girls. When she takes a job as governess to Mr. Rochester’s ward, the peculiar layout of Thornfield Hall should have immediately alerted her to the psychodrama of which she is becoming part. A pleasantly normal ‘gentleman’s residence’ downstairs, crowned with gothic battlements at the level where the imprisoned mad woman lurks, it is a house of secrets and hidden spaces. Whenever Mr. Rochester, wooing Jane out in the garden, looks up at its looming bulk, his face darkens.  

Reader, she marries him, but the semi-happy ending is shadowed by the setting for the couple’s reunion.  We are told that Ferndean, where they will be living ever after, is death to anyone who settles there.  Charlotte Bronte’s novel is housed within appropriated gothic traditions – architectural ones among them – but is so emotionally forthright and intelligent it still feels new-minted.


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