Stories Set In Country Houses
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.
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!