Stories Set In Country Houses

Great Britain

950

The 2018 Bryant & May novel will be set in a country house, as I thought it was high time I gave Agatha Christie a bit of a going over. Adrian Tinniswood’s excellent book ‘The Long Weekend’, on life between the wars in the English country house was a big help here, because he describes the kind of life that continued in such grand manses among the ‘top ten thousand’ – although I have to say that a lot of their weekend parties sound horrible. There’s a particularly ghastly photograph of Cecil Beaton dressing as a field full of rabbits that makes me want to run a mile.

But the setting for a country house murder is always going to be fun because of the sheer extravagance of this world. And when you think about it, there are a surprising number of books that use this medium. The ones I came up with are; Brideshead Revisited, The Remains of the Day, Atonement, several Mitford novels (clearly the world Nancy knew a lot about), The Secret of Chimneys and The Mysterious Affair At Styles, both by Christie, the Blandings novels, The Moonstone, The Shooting Party, East Lynne, A Handful of Dust, A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh and, I suppose, Bleak House. One could legitimately include Gormenghast in the list too.

The film Gosford Park had great fun at the expense of a country house party, as did a remarkable satire called Savages which depicted the rise and fall of civilisation in a day and a night, and which is set exclusively in a country house.

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The country house is both a world in microcosm and a prison. It reveals social rules and excites by breaking them. The new country houses are owned by Russians and dot.com millionaires, and their owners often expressly try to recreate the past life of the country house, with its arcane and unspoken boundaries of class and wealth. From the outside they seem like magical places but often they induced nervous breakdowns in their owners.

Books and films with a single setting are called ‘Precinct’ stories, and greatly appeal to writers because they provide a controlled environment in which the characters can move – but they’re much harder to pull off than they at first seem, as I’m now finding out!

11 comments on “Stories Set In Country Houses”

  1. Alexander Gent says:

    Speaking of grand manses, I am just starting a major re-read of your short stories, suckered in by the new e-editions and a desire for a healthy dose of nostalgia. While starting one of my favourite collections again I read your throwaway comment about writing a Britannica Castle novel.
    Oh my stars and garters! Please let this be so. I know I sound like a ridiculous gushing fanboy, but those two stories in Flesh Wounds inspired me to try and fall in love with Mervyn Peake’s glorious creation and also to embrace China Mieville’s Bas Lag world and even to dabble in writing something so dense and self-contained.
    I do hope that you are not just teasing those of us who love that glimpse into another world.

  2. admin says:

    I’m not teasing you Alexander – I’ve written it.

    Watch this space for upcoming announcements…

  3. Brooke says:

    Dear god, no! Please not another english country house mystery/novel. Nothing is more boring, especially when written by Christie, who couldn’t develop a plot or a character if her life depended upon it. As a former philosophy undergraduate, I know boring, and in college I had to slog my way through BR, etc. because I wanted a high passing grade. However, I have no excuse for reading Christie except the ignorance of youth.

    If you find writing a B&M country house mystery hard going, serves you right. Arthur is trying to tell you something–stop before it’s too late.

  4. Ken Mann says:

    As Dr Who producers realised decades ago, when the base is under siege you need fewer sets.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I agree about the ghastliness of the sound of the parties. Laurie King has Mary Russell opt for some quiet hours in her host’s library over joining other guests (although she does get trapped into a bird shoot with dire consequences). I put it down to arranged marriages. If you’ve been pushed into a marriage with someone barely personally acceptable then a wild weekend where you can sneak into a more desirable bed is something of a tension release. Not that I approve of such behaviour, of course.

  6. admin says:

    You do realise, Brooke, that I’ll be completely undermining the whole thing?

  7. Roger says:

    Not much of Bleak House takes place in the country, actually, and if you’re going to go back as far as that or to The Moonstone, why not go back further, to Austen or even Tom Jones? Peter Dickinson’s A Pride of Heroes is a fine examination of a country-house crime novel, as are some of his other books. Some of Saki’s short stories look at rather different country house parties.

  8. Brooke says:

    “You do realise, Brooke, that I’ll be completely undermining the whole thing?”

    Yes, I get your side-ways humor; I read Seventy-seven Clocks. But I still think writing a send-up of the country house mystery is a cheap shot–like writing a holiday story in which Tiny Tim is a height-challenged drug dealer.
    However, if you’re publishing in 2018, the novel won’t be in the US until 2019 and I’ll be in a nursing home by then.
    Sorry to be so foul tempered–my only excuse is the upcoming Friday events.

  9. John Griffin says:

    Having re-read all Marple and a tranche of Poirot, some of Christie’s work is savage and rousing; fortunately you often know within a few pages what you are getting, and yes there is a lot of dross, but some of her mid-life stuff is good.

  10. Mamunia says:

    I can’t wait! Nice to have something to look forward to.

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