Big Houses, National Heritage, Post-War England and the Gothic?

By Laura Vivanco on

In Brave New Causes: Women in British Postwar Fictions Deborah Philips and Ian Haywood discuss a

specific sub-genre within the field of romance fiction, which can be termed 'the country house romance'. In these novels written by and for women, it is the country house and the tradition it represents that is as much an object of desire for the heroine as the hero [...] the house [...] stands as an emblem of 'Englishness', of a British tradition that must be secured and maintained.

Such novels articulate an anxiety about the possibility of sustaining the traditions embodied in the country house, which was widely perceived to be threatened by the onslaughts of the war and of taxation, bureaucracy and death duties imposed by an unsympathetic postwar Labour government. (42)

They note that

the Gowers report, published in 1950, but commissioned in 1948, to investigate the fate of the British country house [...] recognized the notion of 'stewardship' of the national heritage by the upper classes and acknowledged, in language very close to that expressed by the heroes and heroines of romance fictions, that:

the owner of a great house who lives in it today and admits the public to see it has a burdensome, anxious and in some respects uncomfortable way of living, which few would choose except under the influence of a sense of duty.

This sense of the 'duty' of stewardship recurs in romance narratives centred around a 'great house'. The desire to keep the house in the family is expressed not as a wish to hold on to the privileges of inherited wealth, but more as a service to the nation, an obligation which only those born and raised to it can properly undertake. As one heroine remarks, ownership of the house is understood as an inherited and genetic obligation: 'House of the Pines was in our blood. It wasn't so much that it belonged to us. It was more that we belonged to it.' (43)

That's a quote from Jan Tempest's House of the Pines, published by Mills & Boon in 1946. I can't help but think, firstly, of the recent controversy about the National Trust, which preserves many such large houses, and its recent

report, which considered how the lucrative proceeds of Britain’s imperial past had helped build and furnish 93 trust properties, provoked furious headlines in the autumn, with some Tory MPs and media accusing the trust – one of the UK’s biggest charities – of perpetuating “Marxist” or “woke” views. (The Guardian, 11 March 2021)

Secondly, I wonder if any of the anxieties about Englishness and English heritage, which are expressed explicitly in these contemporary romances and linked to country houses, contributed to the depiction of the great house elsewhere in romance. In Georgette Heyer's The Quiet Gentleman (1951) the great house, Stanyon, is a significant factor in the attempted murder of its war-hero owner, Gervase. He, it should be noted, having secured his property, roundly dismisses left-wing ideas of the kind which Heyer may well have associated with "an unsympathetic postwar Labour government." Gervase, it should also be observed, is "uniformly courteous, good-natured, kind, forgiving, warm and humble but also dashing, intelligent, witty, humorously resistant to his family’s antipathy and a strikingly competent fencer [...]; he stands as a model of alternative masculinity and aristocracy" (Hirst 114-115). He is, it would seem, the kind of aristocrat who would be considered a worthy custodian of the nation's heritage and an embodiment of Englishness.

Hirst's recent article discussing The Quiet Gentleman argues that this novel has Gothic elements and I can't help but wonder if the conditions which prompted the emerge of 'the country house romance' in the 1950s also contributed to the new wave of Gothic romance which emerged in the 1960s. Obviously those belong to a much longer tradition, but I wonder if the postwar context and the associations of large houses in that period also played a role. I've not read many of them, so I'm very much not an expert on them and, as Lori A. Paige mentions in this video about her book on the Gothic romances, there's not been a lot of research done on them, but Amanda Jones's recent article on Victoria Holt certainly suggests that her Kirkland Revels (1962) was influenced by some other debates at the time: "the contemporary scandal of consigning unmarried, pregnant, yet sane women to Victorian-built asylums, exploring these socio-political anxieties in the context of the Victorian Lunacy Acts, the 1957 Percy Report and the 1959 Mental Health Act." I don't think it's totally ridiculous to suggest that post-war anxieties about the nation's heritage in the form of its stately houses may also have contributed in some way to the development of the Gothic romance.


Butler, Patrick. "National Trust report on slavery links did not break charity law, regulator says." The Guardian. 11 March 2021.

Hirst, Holly. "Georgette Heyer and redefining the Gothic romance." Georgette Heyer, History, and Historical Fiction. Ed. Samantha J. Rayner and Kim Wilkins. London: UCL Press, 2021. 105-118.

Jones, Amanda. "Madness, Monks and Mutiny: Neo-Victorianism in the Work of Victoria Holt." Neo-Victorian Studies 12.1 (2019): 1-27.

Paige, Lori A. "Romancing the Gothic - 300 years of Gothic Romance with Lori A. Paige." Video on YouTube. Romancing the Gothic. 11 January 2021.

Philips, Deborah and Ian Haywood. Brave New Causes: Women in British Postwar Fictions. London: Leicester University Press, 1998.

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