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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 SIX: “Evil plots do not happen here”: Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith


Chapter Six“Evil plots do not happen here”: Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith

The two novels analysed hitherto in Part Two balance between the codes of the novel of manners and gothic fiction. In The Little Stranger, the mores and manners theme dominates the first part of the novel, while the gothic atmosphere creeps in hesitantly, held back first by the Ayreses’ urge to keep up the appearances and then by the narrator’s rationalizing voice. A Spell of Winter engages with gothic codes in a more unequivocal way and offers the whole spectrum of gothic themes: family mystery, burdensome heritage, madness, murder and incest. Both novels, however, preserve the element of country-house dreaming. In Waters the idealized visions of manorial reality are carried on by the nostalgic memories of Mrs Ayres and wishful thinking of Faraday, in Dunmore by the hopeful, if ultimately thwarted, dreams of the grandfather and George Bullivant. In Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, as in A Spell of Winter, a gothic atmosphere suffuses the represented world yet the dark tale is undiluted either by memories of a harmonious past or by manorial dreaming.

Fingersmith is divided into three parts; the first and the last one are in the voice of Sue Trinder, an orphaned pickpocket, raised in the London Borough, the second in the voice of Maud Lilly, a young lady living in a grand country house. Sue Trinder, raised by the adoptive mother, Mrs. Sucksby, is convinced to help a handsome but penniless...

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