Friday, January 6, 2017

Those English People and Their Big Houses

Yes, fellow Americans, we know that the English have big, beautiful houses, and we must admit we are jealous. On this side of the pond we have Biltmore, and a few notable domiciles in New England, and that's about it. Nobody tours stately 250-year-old homes in the Midwest, although we wish we could! What's with this British love of the rambling 40-room Georgian manor in Wiltshire?
Image result for georgian manor home in england
Now I ask you -- how easy would it be to write a cool children's story in that setting?
Which leads me to the point of this post (in case you were wondering): Isn't it interesting how the English write children's stories set in big old country houses? Just think:
1) C.S. Lewis put four siblings in an old rambling country house during WWII with Professor Digory Kirke.

2) Lucy Boston, about whom I've written before (here and here), puts her boy Tolly into an ancient home, adds some magic and time travel and a few bad characters, and creates a lovely children's classic series.
Image result for lucy boston's house
Lucy Boston's actual spooky old house in Cambridgeshire
3) This past week, our dear fellow-blogger Kezzie (from England) introduced me to yet another such series, John Masefield's Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights. I spent a few days watching all the episodes of the TV adaptation of The Box of Delights on youtube. It was delightful! It was made in the 1980s when the BBC didn't have lots of cash, and the special effects are more akin to Dr. Who with Tom Baker than Star Wars, but I just loved it. The boy Kay Harker (as you would expect) goes home for Christmas vacation from boarding school to his guardian's home -- a big, stately manor in the country -- and from there experiences the usual good guys and bad guys, time travel, magic and mayhem, a handful of friends for company, and a narrow escape from danger in the end. Perfect!

That's three. One would be an anomaly; two a coincidence; three a pattern.

Why do the English like to use their old crumbling mansions as settings for children's stories? What in the English psyche tends this way? Do they dream as children of going for a vacation to such a creepy old place? Is The Old Rural Mansion somehow entrenched in the English mind as a place of childhood delights? I wish I knew! I confess to jealousy; I wish I'd grown up in a land where such houses were there for the looking-at around each hedgerow bend. I wish my grandma lived in a dank, mammoth residence with fourteen fireplaces for warmth and we spent each Christmas there. How would my inner child be different if that were true?
Seekings House, the setting for "The Box of Delights"
For me, setting comes first when I write. I must know where something is happening before I can see who is there and what they'll do. Oh for settings like England's! We have delightful places in the states too, but I love old houses most particularly, and I find myself rather stymied in creating realistic locations for stories in my mind. One must write what one knows, and sadly I don't personally know any big old drafty (draughty?) homes with secret passages, servants' quarters, a nursery in the eaves, and a tunnel to the garden.
One exception is a home my uncle's family lived in when I was a child. It was in rural Virginia, an historic home with a boxwood garden in the rear. It was called Federal Hill, and I had to inquire of a cousin where it's located. (There are quite a few "Federal Hill"s in Virginia.) When I look into it more, perhaps I'll share about this house because I did have a lovely time there, and I was the perfect age (maybe 4th grade?) for adventures and hide-and-seek in the garden. Maybe our American settings aren't so boring after all? One can hope.


  1. I'm with you all the way! I also loved C.S. Lewis's description of his own childhood and playing in the attics of his big old home. I've got to watch some of those programs you mentioned! I also wondered about this phenomenon of the English and their love of old houses. I figured they would take them for granted, but they seem to be just as charmed by them as we are. Yes, perfect for a children's book setting!

  2. I have no answers- just to say that we LOVE Box of Delights here! I read the book with the boys long after I'd watched it as the grainy BBC series as a young person myself. Jo was actually very afraid and under his bedcovers when the wolves were running! I'm not sure that the old rambling pile is the whole story- Enid Blyton is all country cottage with gate at bottom of garden and lots of excellent stories are set in Blitz-torn London.

  3. On Planet Real, we English tend to live in tiny houses. I think that's why we like to visit these big, old places. Few of us would actually like to live in one. The heating bills must be enormous! An Australian friend of mine was very embarrassed when her family were flying over to visit her. She had to warn them that, when she opened her front door, they would be able to see her back door. A couple of years later, she actually went back to live in Australia. Part of the reason was her dislike of her small house!

  4. I'd far rather read a book set in an English home than in an orphanage. It's more pleasant to imagine myself wandering around Highclere Castle than Dickens work house.


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