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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 EIGHT: “The worrying air of cliché and unreality”: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child


Chapter Eight“The worrying air of cliché and unreality”: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child

In contrast to the playful, contemporary setting of Litt’s book, Alan Hollinghurst’s 2011 novel The Stranger’s Child opens with a nostalgic look into the past and promises a traditional narrative of a “sumptuously furnished ‘country house novel’” (Tonkin). Rich in intertextual echoes, “beautifully written, ambitious in its scope and structure, confident in its execution” (Parker P), it was greeted almost unanimously as a literary masterpiece. With a nearly century-long temporal sweep, reaching back to 1913 and forward to 2008, the novel was praised for its investigation of “changing social, sexual and cultural attitudes” (Kemp) and masterful storytelling on a par with “the best Victorian novels“ (Banville). Yet the book’s purportedly traditional form and seemingly familiar setting are deceptive. Hollinghurst’s reconstruction of the past is far less traditional than the formally unobtrusive narrative promises, his engagement with the country-house tradition more complex than the nostalgic, slow-paced opening might suggest.

The first part of the novel, entitled “Two Acres” and consisting of twelve sections focalized by different characters, is set on a long country weekend in the late June of 1913. The languid, summer days make the dramatic centre of the narrative; they will be revisited, recollected, interpreted and misinterpreted by different characters in the subsequent parts of the novel that cover almost a century. Hollinghurst recreates the pre-war class-conscious England and traces the changes that come after the First and Second World Wars...

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