By Christina Hardyment Bodleian Library, 240pp, £25/$40
American screenwriters are fond of the term “precinct” to refer to the location where most of the action takes place. It comes from cop shows, but can also be used to refer to coffee shops, offices, even a house. But when novelists set their stories in houses, they run the risk of being dismissed as “domestic”, a strange insult given that the lives of most writers (and readers) – with a few famous exceptions (Hemingway, Kerouac) – are primarily domestic.
In her new book, subtitled Twenty Famous Fictional Dwellings, Oxford-based author Christina Hardyment initially addresses this potential criticism not through the books she is studying but via her own circumstances: “When most women my age were throwing off the domestic shackles of centuries, I was having babies, collecting sewing machines and embarking on a book about the history of household technology.”
Hardyment presents the domestic, then, as a choice. It’s clear she is most drawn to writers, male and female, who have made the same decision. This is fine as a starting point, but some of her other decisions seem more suspect. Of course it’s necessary to come up with some rules for inclusion to keep this book to a manageable length and for it to serve its secondary purpose as a list of locations to visit (there’s a list of real-world locations that inspired these fictional places in a gazetteer at the back). But this prevents the book from being as interesting as it could be.
The first decision Hardyment makes is to limit herself to British and American novels (and locations), which is understandable given the book’s length, but not including, say, Kafka’s castle or the various properties of Proust’s Combray does feel like a loss. The houses included also have to be famous, and she includes most of the novels one would expect (Rebecca, Bleak House, Brideshead Revisited, Cold Comfort Farm). But she makes a decision about genre too, and this seems a little odd, weakening the last part of the book. Hardyment is a fantasy fiction fan, and follows, uncritically, the belief of the fantasy novelist Ursula Le Guin that narrative fiction is moving inexorably towards this genre, concluding her tour with Peake’s Gormenghast, Tolkien’s Bag End and JK Rowling’s Hogwarts. One doesn’t have to be a literary snob to be dismayed by this contention, even in a coffee-table book intended for a popular audience.
Hardyment tries to make a connection between Hogwarts and the previous locations in her book, noting how Hogwarts is essentially a “powerful castle” like the one in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, and describing Sir Walter Scott as the JK Rowling of his age.
But in choosing this route, Hardyment shies away from more interesting questions. Hogwarts is a comforting fantasy: it’s essentially a film-set in prose and there is no real psychological depth to the characters’ relationship with their surroundings.
Hardyment acknowledges in choosing these locations that she has rejected other strands of British fiction, including novels set around country houses (she mentions Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and McEwan’s Atonement, but you could also add Alan Hollinghurst’s Corley Court in The Stranger’s Child or Hundreds Hall from Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger) and what she dismisses as “dystopian apartment blocks and suburban dreariness” in such novels as JG Ballard’s High-Rise, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Julian Barnes’s Metroland and John Lanchester’s Capital. But she also ignores contemporary crime fiction, surely the genre most dependent on location. As one of the best chapters in the book is about Sherlock Holmes and 221B Baker Street, this feels like a glaring omission.
It’s clear that Hardyment is aware of the limitations of her structure and throughout the book more interesting ideas leak out whenever she deviates from the stricter confines of her project. Her chapter on Brideshead Revisited has some fascinating observations about Waugh’s Catholicism and just how important it was to this novel in particular, and an almost apologetic afterword undercuts her earlier contentions about how the best fictional locations in recent times are to be found in fantasy.
Having shunted social history to the side for the majority of the book, Hardyment quickly sketches how it would be possible to view the last 50 years as first seeing the rejection of the domestic, along with the embrace of the automobile, and then the property boom creating a situation where renting is normal for the majority of young people (the absence of shared-accommodation urban stories in this book is another weakness), and how this is causing writers to feel nostalgic for the homes of their childhoods.
While there is much to admire in this book, it feels in places oddly empty, a house stripped bare for new owners rather than comfortingly overstuffed with the past.