03 November 2023
Novelist Louise Davidson looks at Gothic literature’s obsession with the country house
Louise Davidson is a gothic novelist, and her debut novel The Fortunes of Olivia Richmond was inspired by National Trust Property Sunnycroft House in Shropshire. The two story redbrick Victorian Villa provided the inspiration for Mistcoate House, which Louise sets deep in the Norfolk wilds, and surrounded on all sides by deep woods, it’s the setting for a story about tarot, fortune telling and speaking to the dead.
Lovers of gothic fiction know that the key to a truly frightening read is its location and there is no setting more gothic than the English Country House.
On the surface, it is not hard to see why. English country houses are often large, sprawling affairs surrounded by large areas of land. A symbol of wealth, taste, refinement, and respectability, it was also an isolated labyrinth of empty rooms. A setting that was, in fact, perfect for a gothic story. But it was not always this way.
By the early Victorian period, the previous popularity of the gothic had waned, with a greater literary focus placed on social realism. The extreme emotion and melodrama of gothic literature were synonymous with poor taste and brutishness and by the early 1800s, Gothic had become the sensationalist basis of pulp fiction for the uneducated whose lack of gentility meant they enjoyed blood curdling tales of mad monks and threatened young women. Show how did the gothic country house emerge at all?
Yet, it was this emphasis on respectability that allowed the gothic to re-emerge. Suddenly, the respectable Victorian house became a focus of scrutiny. In an age where every man’s home was his castle, kept quiet and comfortable by the woman of the house – the ‘angel of the hearth’ – what did it mean when that darkness was located within the house itself? What darkness lay behind that veneer of gentility? Suddenly, there was a new way of exploring human transgression and where better for this to happen but in the homes of the wealthy and influential?
It is also worth noting that there has always been a great literary tradition of female gothic writers, all with a preoccupation with the home. Consider then the gothic country house from a Victorian woman’s perspective – as both a home and a cage. In the role of the ‘household general’, according to Mrs Beaton, it is the woman’s responsibility to create order out of the chaos of a home, to ensure comfort, convenience, and safety.
By setting a gothic story in a large country house, with its many rooms, small army of servants and high expectations, the writer is not just utilising the useful nature of the country home, they may be reinforcing the frightening idea that, try as you might, you have no real control at all, which many Victorian women must have felt acutely.
Another interesting reason for the efficacy of the Country House as a gothic setting is its use as a metaphor of the human mind. Rooms can hold memories, frightening desires, and dark secrets, where a protagonist can either confront the dark parts of themselves, like in Jane Eyre, or be overwhelmed almost to the point of madness, like in Rebecca or The Turn of the Screw.
Indeed, the use of the country house often reinforces a sense of the uncanny, where a place or person that should be familiar quickly becomes threatening and unrecognisable. Through this, we see both Victorian and modern anxieties about our own minds. Surely, we think, we must know ourselves and those closest to us? But there lies the fear – what if we do not? Just as Stevenson’s use of the gothic city acted as an allegory for the external corruption of a soul, so the gothic Country House provides a clear metaphor for inner darkness. What happens when we look inward and find a monster within? What do we do when the call is coming from inside the house?
These questions have haunted me since I started studying history and the gothic. When I sat down to write my own novel, I knew I wanted to include the quintessential gothic country house but with a difference. Mistcoate House follows many of the old gothic conventions: it is isolated, steeped in local lore, and hides dark secrets. When she arrives, the protagonist, Julia, hopes to find her redemption but, in order to achieve this, she must confront the ghosts from her past that haunt her – and see if she can save the other members of the household from their own spirits of lives-past.
In The Fortunes of Olivia Richmond, the house feels haunted because the people inside it are surrounded by their own phantoms of failure, anxiety, and fear and Julia must seek out the answers to the dark mysteries in the house before she can begin to address her own ghosts of the past. But when her livelihood relies on Mistcoate House’s inhabitants, can she really afford to uncover the monsters that dwell within Mistcoate’s locked rooms? And would the reader count her as one of them?
The Fortunes of Olivia Richmond (Moonflower Publishing) is published in hardback at £18.99
Love gothic fiction? Read how acclaimed novelist Laura Purcell drew on the sometimes gruesome reality of the Victorian theatre to write her novel The Whispering Muse.