Dreams, Nightmares and Empty Signifiers

The English Country House in the Contemporary Novel

by Urszula Terentowicz-Fotyga (Author)
©2015 Monographs 268 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 7


Dreams, Nightmares and Empty Signifiers is the first study of contemporary literary representations of one of the most iconic topoi in English literature and culture – the country house. The book analyses nine contemporary novels, including Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, by situating them in a broader context of manorial literary tradition. Analysing the different traditions of the novel of manners, gothic fiction and postmodern metafiction, the book identifies three principal variants of the manorial topos, which expound the country house as the locus of varied, often contradictory meanings.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: Country-House Dreaming
  • CHAPTER ONE: “The Land Where Dreams Come True”: Julian Fellowes’s Snobs
  • CHAPTER TWO: The Palace of Art: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty
  • CHAPTER THREE: Subverting the Myth: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day
  • Conclusion
  • Part 2: Country-House Nightmares
  • CHAPTER FOUR: “The other, odder, rarer realm”: Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger
  • CHAPTER FIVE: “Everything had stopped when he stopped being able to imagine it”: Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter
  • CHAPTER SIX: “Evil plots do not happen here”: Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith
  • Conclusion
  • Part 3: The Country House as (Meta) fiction
  • CHAPTER SEVEN: “The emptiness, so soon to be filled”: Toby Litt’s Finding Myself
  • CHAPTER EIGHT: “The worrying air of cliché and unreality”: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child
  • CHAPTER NINE: An Artificial Place on an Artificial Island: Ian McEwan’s Atonement
  • Conclusion
  • General Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Index


Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable.

George Eliot Middlemarch

The country house is one of the most familiar symbols of the English national imaginary. As grand and imposing architectural landmarks, country houses have attracted millions of visitors over the centuries; as captivating settings in literature and film they have become an important part of the national memory and self-representation. All cultures have their unique symbols – artefacts, places, motifs and characters whose meanings and cultural functions prove more significant than those of other, more ordinary and conventional signs. Symbols travel across times and texts, their semiotic encounters tend to be exceptionally varied and, as a result, their role in the culture’s memory is more significant (Lotman 102–4). The English country house is clearly one of such defining symbols.1 Although in the last one hundred and fifty years its social and political role has diminished, it continues to function as a central topos of the national imaginary, an important part of the practical and the symbolic aspects of the everyday. The clichés of the present day, Peter Mandler argues, portray stately homes as the “country’s greatest contribution to Western civilization […] the quintessence of Englishness,” an expression of “the English love of domesticity, continuity and tradition” (Fall and Rise 1). But the concept, Jeremy Musson writes, is only deceptively familiar (7). Entangled ← 7 | 8 → in diverse strands of a long history, it can convey contrastingly different meanings and evoke very different contexts.

The very term “country house” poses some initial difficulties. Often used interchangeably with the notions of the “great house,” “historic house”, “treasure house” or “stately home,” it eludes clear-cut classifications.2 Musson defines the country house broadly as “the major residence of a landowner or the centre of a country estate” (7). David Littlejohn suggests a more detailed classification and describes the country house as:

a large private residence originally intended to serve as one family’s home for at least several generations; a house of 20 rooms or more, which rules out most farmhouses and vicarages, however old or picturesque; a house that, ideally, still contains furniture and art works handed down in the family, and contributes to the support of the local church, village, and countryside; a house that is set in its own surrounding gardens and parklands and is (or at least originally was) in part supported by its own agricultural estate of a thousand or more acres. (309–10)

The key elements in Littlejohn’s definition are the significant size of the house and its different ways of functioning: as a family home, as the centre of a large working estate and as the hub of the local community. These different functions reflect the complex social structure of the country house, its interlacing roles, relationships and places and explain why the manorial landscape came to symbolize the social microcosm, “a model for humane relationships on a larger social scale” (Wayne 173).

As many writers and critics have demonstrated, the country house represents a unique combination of built form, social structure and particular style of living. It stands for “a synthesis of architectural quality, social intention and a way of life based on the ownership of land” (Cornforth Country Houses in Britain 3). The precedence of social and cultural functions over the actual architectural form is emphasized by John Cornforth, who argues that both castles and palaces should be seen as country houses, provided they are or were both centres of estates and family homes: ← 8 | 9 →

Blenheim is a palace but is a country house; Berkeley is a castle, but, because it is furnished, it counts as a country house; but Stokesay Castle, although on an estate, has been uninhabited for many years and is more of an ancient monument than a country house; Warwick Castle and Cirencester Park are both on the outskirts of a town but, because they are parts of estates, they are accepted; however, Peckover House, Wisbech, and Mompesson House, Salisbury, never had land with them and so, although they are historic houses, are not included here. Similarly, I have not included houses whose principal interest is in their association with notable people, unless they have estates. (Country Houses in Britain 3)

In the amalgam of public and domestic functions, the practical and the symbolic come together. Country houses, Mark Girouard writes, were essentially “power houses – the houses of the ruling class” (Life 2), built to enhance the ability of the owners to influence local and national politics. They were not just buildings but “formidable statement[s] […] about wealth, authority and status” (Wilson and Mackley xvii). Though built for show, to impress onlookers and testify to their owners’ position, power and influence, they were also designed as domestic space, the seat of the landed dynasty, in which the grand, comfortable setting spoke of the family’s prestige, security and pedigree.

At the heart of the manorial imaginary lies a vision of the country house as a grand, impressive residence that functions as home as well as the centre of an estate and the local community, that combines natural beauty with the comforts of civilization, that is respectful of tradition yet representative of its time, that at its best coalesces architectural perfection and patronage of arts with the functionality of a rural estate. The great mansion thus combines the qualities that are traditionally considered as opposite, even contradictory: private and public, family and society, nature and civilization, art and agriculture, show and functionality. It may be said to represent in a unique way the qualities of the centre and the periphery. It is both distant, bucolic and communal and powerfully central, regal and elitist. It stands for the local community and the whole nation, for the family and the ruling class, for domestic privacy and imperial structures of power.

The value of the country house lies in its rich and varied legacy, in complex and often contradictory meanings that have accumulated throughout the ages and found ways into contemporary culture. The ubiquity of the country house in English history, culture and literature means that its meanings evolved in very different times and circumstances and the ← 9 | 10 → concept has acquired a plethora of senses that reflect these various contexts, concerns and traditions. The manorial landscape can thus be seen as a productive nexus in the tapestry of narratives, an important generator of meanings in English cultural memory, a “melting-pot of texts and codes, belonging to all kinds of languages and levels” (Lotman 194) that contemporary narratives complement and dialogue with.

Literature is perhaps the most vibrant testimony to the semiotic vitality of the country house. Ever since it appeared on the literary scene in the country-house poem, it has been one of the most important and characteristic topoi of English literature. It has featured in countless texts, forms and genres, in Renaissance poetry, in Jane Austen’s novels of manners, in the gothic tales of the Brontës and Agatha Christie’s detective stories. Although the manorial landscape has had periods of less intensive life, it has never completely disappeared from the literary scene.

Recent decades have brought another wave of renewed interest in the country-house setting. Any attempt at periodization of literary history is fraught with difficulties and in some ways arbitrary. In the case of literary representations of the country house, with its continuous, highly intertextual life, the task is even more difficult. “Contemporary” literary history has been located variously from the early 1970s (Childs), mid-1970s (Tew), mid-1980s (Finney) or late 1990s (Bickley). Although the exact years vary, most critics agree that the 1980s brought a new wave of writers, very different from their predecessors. Granta’s 1983 list of best young novelists, Peter Childs argues, often serves “to mark a watershed in the postwar British novel, flagging up the time at which an old guard gave way to a new generation, a large number of who have since become the celebrated stalwarts of contemporary fiction” (1–2). The work of this generation of writers, Brian Finney explains:

constitutes an exciting departure from most of the fiction published in England since the Second World War. It is both innovative in its methods of narration and more ambitious and wide ranging in the material it takes for its subject. It offers thoughtful and fictional responses to a period of profound change in everything from international power relations and the spread of global capitalism to England’s sense of national identity and the conception of subjectivity in a poststructuralist climate. (1)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
contemporary English novel gothic fiction postmodern metafiction novel of manners
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 268 pp.

Biographical notes

Urszula Terentowicz-Fotyga (Author)

Urszula Terentowicz-Fotyga is Assistant Professor of English Literature and Culture at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin. She is the author of a book study on Virginia Woolf’s novels (2006). Her main research interests are modernist and postmodernist fiction, semiotics of space and urban theory and representation.


Title: Dreams, Nightmares and Empty Signifiers