House of Fiction by Phyllis Richardson is an unusual book that caught my eye in a bookshop. The author explores the role of houses in English literature. She begins with what is generally considered to be the start of the novel and really only considers “great” houses and not the living conditions of the poor as reflected in fiction. She shows the change in how society regards these great houses as reflected in the books she has chosen to write about and also how the houses that the authors were familiar with in their own lives influenced their writing. This is quite a long book and a large number of books are considered – there are also lots of pictures to illustrate the text (I was reading a paper copy of the book).
I thought that the idea of this book was great but I almost foundered at a very early stage. The first few chapters consider authors I have never read and thus I wasn’t really engaged with what the author was saying. We start, more or less, with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy which is a book where I never got past the first few pages when I tried it and then she concentrates on gothic novels which I also haven’t read. I felt that I needed more knowledge of these books to get the point of what the author was saying. There were a few more instances during the book when I came adrift (Walter Scott, JG Ballard to name but two). I suggest that you check the title page of this book to ensure that you have a working knowledge of the majority of authors before you start.
When we did get to authors I know the book was interesting, and occasionally illuminating, but I did find that I knew quite a lot of what she said from biographies of the particular writers – I read a lot of biographies and others may not have so this might be more ground-breaking thinking them.
I did find the idea of the book fascinating and there were some interesting insights into how houses have been used in fiction and how the author’s experiences colour the writing. I am not sure, however, that I really understood the overall message of the book and I didn’t find that the narrative style really engaged me – it wasn’t dry exactly but it didn’t make me want to reach for the book again quickly after I had put it down.
I think that the book was selective in the authors it chose, which it had to be for reasons of space, and also in the types of houses in literature it considered. There was nothing about the houses of the poor such as those in Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. There was nothing about country cottages or the growth of suburbia and when high rise towers are mentioned there are few examples of books set there. There is also nothing at all about children’s literature. Obviously, these limitations are the author’s choice but I think that less detail on some authors and more variety of houses considered might have widened the scope and interest of the book.
This was an interesting idea but I am not sure that the author really pulled it off – maybe it was always too ambitious. Lucy Worsley recently wrote a book about Jane Austen called Jane Austen at Home which told the author’s life story by relating it to the houses in which she lived. Margaret Forster wrote her biography this way – My Life in Houses tells her life story according to where she has lived. Both these books are well worth reading but they have a narrower scope which maybe makes them more successful.