Houses that inspired writers

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 settingBude’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’.


Image thanks
Main photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash
Smaller image by Roman Fox on Unsplash

15 thoughts on “Houses that inspired writers

  1. 🙂 Lovely to read you again Libre Paley I enjoyed this. I’ve read many Dickens novels over the years but I wasn’t aware the great man had a summer retreat in Broadstairs…………I’m not surprised, London up to the 50s would have smog enveloping the capital for days when the weather conditions were contusive, people died, apparently this mixture of fog and industrial coal smoke would could be seen seeping out of keyholes gaps underneath doors………….apparently quite terrifying.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely. And nowhere is the fog more present than in Bleak House, almost a character, ‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.”

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  2. On a related note: on a walking tour of Edinburgh two years ago, I saw the cafe where Rowling, then an unknown, wrote a lot of a Harry Potter book.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In terms of inspiration, it’s hard not to see how Rowling must have been inspired by the Gothic fairytale feeling of much of Edinburgh. The Elephant House itself has something of an ‘other world’ feel.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We went to Greenway House and I just loved it. I think the fact that it was a sunny day and the way we chose to visit was by heritage steam train and a walk through the woods made it the more memorable. The only shame was we didn’t have much time as we didn’t want to miss the last return train. To catch it you had to press a big button on the platform so the driver knew to stop. You can also arrive by boat which would be equally fun. It truly is a beautiful spot. Parking is very limited and I think you have to book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, the arrival either by heritage train or boat – à la And Then There Were None, would make it perfect. It’s a long way from where we live but sounds like a must-visit.

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  4. “Last night I dreamt of Manderley”. Or was it something like that?
    Glad you enjoyed the summer with your kids.
    I took an almost 2 months break. Been to Paris. Strange. But I can’t really travel and blog at the same time.
    Hope all is well with you?
    🙏🏻

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was, thank you. Hope you are keeping well.
      Envious of Paris, or international travel of any sort right now. I have hopes for 2022 – though with everyone acting as if the pandemic is over…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Paris was our first trip in two years. Nice though a bit psychotic. Precisely because everybody is acting as if it’s over. It ain’t…
        Stay safe and make plans for 2022. (There is a catch 22 in that year but one never knows…)
        A bientôt Libre.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s the same here – acting as if it’s over. I can understand the urge, of course. Though the government here is reckless (also of course!) in encouraging this behaviour.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Reckless. hmmm. That sounds like a good definition of just about any government lately. (After ‘daft’ of course)

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Just caught up with a friend visiting from Thailand; she cannot believe how relaxed it here here. Visiting a sick and elderly relative, it’s made her so cautious.
              Could be another long winter…

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Not easy to plan trips these days…

                Liked by 1 person

  5. I never really considered landscape as inspiration for writing – for details in writing, yes, but nothing that influenced what I wrote.
    And I loved those examples – they make those writers human beings, don’t they?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point. There is something about the domestic, the reminders that even the ‘greats’ led lives, made choices in home, decor, location. And all that tells us something about them.

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