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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 7th November 2013
‘They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills.’

Jane Austen’s description of Pemberley – the great house of which Elizabeth Bennett was to become mistress as the wife of Fitzwilliam Darcy – is hardly an in-depth architectural critique of one of the stately homes of England. Of course, that wasn’t the novelist’s aim; it was enough to offer a glimpse of Elizabeth’s future mansion and the impression of the wealth and power that she would soon wed.

It is said that Austen based her description on Chatsworth, and the description certainly fits, though other houses, including Harewood House, Renishaw Hall and Lyme Park have been used by film and television to stand in for it. This Christmas, Chatsworth will again feature in the television adaptation of P D James’ ‘Death comes to Pemberley’. And, of course, not too long ago Newby Hall stood in for another Austen mansion, Mansfield Park.

Of course, it’s illogical to expect writers to describe buildings except in so far as they contribute to plot and setting. It may be that the visions we have of great houses in literature owe more to film and television adaptations than to the descriptive powers of the original writer.

We all know, for example, what Brideshead looks like – it’s Castle Howard. But is it? Evelyn Waugh’s protagonist Charles Ryder says, ‘We drove on and in the early afternoon came to our destination: wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, and avenue, more gates, open park-land, a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened before us. We were at the head of a valley and below us, half a mile distant, grey and gold amid a screen of boscage, shone the dome and columns of an old house.’ It could be Castle Howard – the dome and columns are right – but the landscape and lodges aren’t. But why should it be? Novelists take what they need from life and use it imaginatively.

Another Evelyn Waugh house is Hetton Abbey, setting for ‘A Handful of Dust’. Unlike the classical Brideshead, this is Victorian Gothic, built in 1864, a period deeply unfashionable when the novel was written. Its owner, Tony Last, loves it; ‘There was not a glazed brick or encaustic tile that was not dear to Tony’s heart . . . the general aspect and atmosphere of the place; the line of its battlements against the sky; the central clock tower where quarterly chimes disturbed all but the heaviest sleepers; the ecclesiastical gloom of the great hall, its ceiling groined and painted in diapers of red and gold, supported on shafts of polished granite with vine-wreathed capitals, half-lit by day through lancet windows of armorial stained glass.’ A visit to the churches at Studley Royal and Skelton-on-Ure will quickly give you the flavour, while Carlton Towers, south of Selby, could be Hetton’s double.

Another fictional Gothic building, Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’, has more solidity; it ‘displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality . . . the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously to heaven.’

More peaceful is Anthony Trollope’s description of Hiram’s Hospital in the ‘The Warden’, first of his Barchester novels. It’s based on the Hospital of Holy Cross in Winchester: ‘The London road crosses the river by a pretty one-arched bridge, and, looking from the bridge, the stranger will see the windows of the old men’s rooms, each pair of windows separated by small buttresses . . . The entrance to the hospital is from the London road, and is made through a ponderous gateway under a heavy stone arch.’

Yet more ecclesiastical – yet less described – is the church at Fenchurch St Peter near The Wash, scene of Dorothy L Sayers’ ‘The Nine Tailors’. Described as her detective Lord Peter Wimsey as ‘like a young cathedral’, it has a splendid hammer beam roof with angels : ‘Incredibly aloof, flinging back the light in a dusky shimmer of bright hair and gilded out-spread wings, soared the ranks of angels, cherubim and seraphim, choir over choir, from corbel to hammer-bean floating face to face uplifted.’ The description is probably based on the great angel roof of St Wendreda’s Church in March, Cambridgeshire.

One writer who really knew about architecture was Thomas Hardy, who trained in the profession. In ‘A Laodicean’ his hero, George Somerset, is an architect, a version of young Hardy himself. Coming to a Cornish village, he finds ‘a recently-erected chapel of red brick, with pseudo-classic ornamentation, and the white regular joints of mortar could be seen streaking its surface in geometrical oppressiveness from top to bottom. The roof was of blue slate, clean as a table, and unbroken from gable to gable; the windows were glazed with sheets of plate glass, a temporary iron stovepipe passing out near one of these, and running up to the height of the ridge, where it was finished by a covering like a parachute.’ Unsurprisingly, he, an architect of advanced tastes, hates it.

No one reads novels for the architecture – but the architecture is often an integral part of a novel, and we can conjure up our own houses, castles and abbeys. Perhaps novelists help us all to become imaginative architects.

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