I recently got back from a home-exchange holiday in Shropshire. We stayed in a family home at the foot of the magnificent, Caer Caradoc. A tortoiseshell cat, a goldfish and a flock of chickens were our charges for ten days. Staying in someone else's house is a very personal experience. A casual look through kitchen and book cupboards reveals the family's class, level of education, political persuasions, eating habits and which shops they patronise. It just turns out that most home-exchangers are middle-class, well-educated, and have theoretical leanings to the left. Not unsurprising considering it takes a certain democracy of spirit to share your home with people other than friends or family.
During my break in England I was invited to a Pony Club reunion at an old country estate called The Mynde, in Herefordshire. From the ages of six to fourteen my sister and I were keen members of the pony club and pony club camps were held at The Mynde every summer. The drive to the house is a mile long and an aristocratic residence has been on the site since the 13th century. It is still owned by a family with royal connections and was recently on the market for 15 million pounds. In pony club days the house was derelict, partially razed to the ground by fire. But its grounds are inextricably linked with halcyon days of childhood; swathes of emerald fields, gnarled oaks, swans on mirrored lakes and the sound of ponies hooves mingling with the smells of equine sweat, saddle-soaped leather and Bazooka Joe bubblegum from the tuck shop.
I love a deep-rooted sense of place and preferably a crumbling country mansion at the heart of a novel. When I moved to Holland I was homesick and often dreamed of that sun-dappled drive to The Mynde; a road that led to my 'land of lost content.' To assuage those feelings of not belonging I reread novels like Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Wideacre (Phillippa Gregory's trilogy before The Boleyn Girl) and imagined that I was the homecoming heroine in the story. Novels in which the house is almost a character, not just a backdrop have always grabbed me and perhaps this can be traced back to my early experiences of The Mynde. Right now I'm reading Longbourn, by Jo Baker; Pride and Prejudice retold from the point of view of the servants. It introduces another aspect of the country house, the unseen toils of the servants. Downstairs folk paddling away like a swan's webbed feet, keeping up the calm, serene elegance of upstairs folk.
Often the crumbling mansion has sinister aspects too. Manderley was so interwoven with Rebecca's life it had to burn down so that the new Mrs De Winter could reign supreme. Eel Marsh House in The Woman in Black, reveals Alice Drablow's past and without the house we would know nothing of her tragic life. So maybe there's a ghost or two rattling about The Mynde and perhaps it's a little girl wearing elephant-ear Jods, galloping her Welsh Mountain pony towards the furthest edges of the demesne.
Are there any early experiences that have influenced your reading choices? Could you describe a character just by writing about their home? What is your favourite literary house?