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Dreams, Nightmares and Empty Signifiers

The English Country House in the Contemporary Novel


Urszula Terentowicz-Fotyga

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.
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CHAPTER FIVE: “Everything had stopped when he stopped being able to imagine it”: Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter


Chapter Five“Everything had stopped when he stopped being able to imagine it”: Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter

Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, published in 1995, shares a number of themes and motifs with The Little Stranger. Both are set in rural England, in a decaying country house buffeted by social and historical turbulence radically changing the manorial landscape. In both, the plot focuses on the disintegration of the family dramatized in the relations between different generations and between siblings, a brother and a sister. Dunmore, like Waters, uses the courtship plot to portray the demise of manorial reality and undermine an idealized vision of the country house as the centre of a community. Futureless reality is reflected in the motif of broken lineage, though in A Spell of Winter the theme is given a much darker and sinister meaning. Both novels conclude with an image of an empty estate, deserted by its inhabitants and left to the vicissitudes of nature.

A Spell of Winter tells the story of siblings, Cathy and Rob Allen, who grow up together in an isolated, decaying country house. Their mother abandoned them when they were little; their father, broken by grief and loneliness, eventually dies in an asylum. The kids live a secluded life with their grandfather, an Irishman, who made his fortune in unclear circumstances. Inspired by the dream of settling down in a traditional, English, rural community, he married his daughter to an Englishman and bought...

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