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Phyllis Richardson’s House of Fiction

November 19, 2014

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Phyllis Richardson’s House of Fiction

Phyllis Richardson’s House of Fiction includes a chapter on Hardy.

Read an extract here...

Thomas Hardy houses

Early on in my research for The House of Fiction I came across a mention that Thomas Hardy had been an architect. I thought this was a brilliant piece of news, as it brought him closer to my theme about the connections between fictional houses and authors’ own experiences. Of course all writers will have lived in a dwelling of some kind, but I am interested in those who made houses an important part of the atmosphere of their novels. I began the project with ideas formed from the eponymous novels – Howard’s End and Brideshead Revisited – and Jane Austen’s preoccupations with people inheriting (men) and being turned out of (women) great family houses. I saw that Walter Scott showed similar concerns for houses and estates, like Tully Veolan in Waverley and Ravenswood Castle in The Bride of Lammermoor, that were somehow lost to their rightful heirs. And though many authors have gone on to acquire large houses along with their growing success, some, like Scott, like Walpole before him, and others on my list, invested their own houses with something of the appeal of those they had invented in their stories. Others lived in, visited or coveted places that had a lasting influence on their renderings of domestic interiors.

It doesn’t seem as though Hardy was ever particularly fond of architecture as a profession, though he did win some prizes. But his hours of looking and sketching will have made him more aware than most people of the comparative crudeness of a cottage roofline against, say, the elegance of a well-made frontage, an elegant elevation. I think Tess’s initial view of the d’Urberville mansion, where ‘Everything looked like money – like the last coin issued from the Mint’, is especially telling.  His precision in describing Bathsheba’s house is also worth noting: ‘a stone building of the Jacobean stage of Classic Renaissance…and of a proportion which told at a glance’ that ‘it had once been the manorial residence upon a small estate.’ He mentions the ‘fluted pilasters, worked from the solid stone…an arch, some gables and other unmanageable features still retaining traces of their Gothic extraction’ (81).

Having read such detailed passages in the novels, I was keen to learn about Hardy’s architectural notions. However, his first published essay, ‘How I Built Myself a House,’ is more lighthearted than proscriptive. (How it made its way into The Sacramento Daily Union newspaper in California in 1865 I have yet to learn.) It was originally published in Chambers Journal the same year, and it explains why the fictitious narrator and his wife, Sophia, decide to leave a ‘highly-desirable-semi-detached villa’ in the London suburbs and design their own new-build home. In the London house, he says, ‘we had no room for our friends when they visited us, and we were obliged to keep our coal out of doors.’  He goes on, ‘if we managed to squeeze a few acquaintances round our table to dinner, there was very great difficulty in serving it.’

So when child number three arrived, the couple decided to build their house, which ‘was to be of some mysterious size and proportion, which would make us both peculiarly happy ever afterwards.’ The essay was written with tongue in cheek, but it certainly suggests that Hardy had at least sat in on a few meetings with over-excited clients ready to embark on the 19th century equivalent of Grand Designs. At this point he was not yet married or engaged, but he knew what having the right home could mean to people.

For me, that contrast between rich and poor, between the Durbeyville cottage and the d’Urberville seat, between accommodation in the Malthouse and Boldwood’s mansion, creates a tension masterfully engaged by Hardy, like violin strings plucked to quavering. Without resorting to caricature, he manages to highlight different conditions and expectations between characters so that some seem wholly claustrophobic in their small dwellings, while others find immeasurable comfort in a warm, dry country kitchen.

So when Hardy went on to build Max Gate, one would expect some kind of perfection, at least a literary perfection. But part of the immense appeal of Max Gate must be, as with any writer’s house, to know that it helped nurture the inventiveness that Hardy’s readers have always admired. It’s not perfection, or a covered window, but knowing whether that fireplace, that stair, that corner was filled with further meaning. And whether it was in looking through that window that he thought, ‘The sky was clear – remarkably clear – and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse.’

In Hardy’s essay, John and Sophia find an architect, Mr Penny, who is known for ‘designing excellent house for people of moderate means,’ a statement that even in the 21st century would set a home-buyer’s heart to fluttering. Except that the rooms are too small, the added porch nearly blocks up a window and the whole thing runs into hundreds of pounds of ‘extras.’ Plus ça change, you might say.

Phyllis Richardson is crowd-funding her book ‘House of Fiction’ with the publishing company Unbound. You can pledge to preorder her book here: http://unbound.co.uk/books/the-house-of-fiction

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