6 Classic Novels Set in Memorable Manor Houses

6 Classic Novels Set in Memorable Manor Houses

Tuesday, 29 October, 2019

This week, we’re celebrating the sometimes spooky, often isolated, always irresistible atmosphere of stories set in imposing manor houses.

Exploring the meaning of home has long been compelling territory for storytellers. What’s more fun — for the writer and the reader — than messing with characters by making them orphans (Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist), burning their house to the ground (Gone with the Wind), forcing them to leave their homes (Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz), or giving them the home of their dreams, only to prove that reality falls short of the fantasy (The Great Gatsby)?

In literature (and life), a home is often seen as a reflection of a person’s status, motivation, and values — a nifty shorthand for conveying what’s important to a character, and that physical description of a character’s surroundings put us right there with them.

In the books described below, the houses influence the action and change the trajectories of the characters’ lives. The protagonists of these stories, whether they realize it or not, are all looking for a home — a soft place to land where they can reveal their true selves.

We’ve included all three Brontës here for two important reasons: (1) Their books are engrossing, beautifully written, and groundbreaking. If the plots seem cliché, that’s because the Brontës invented them and everyone since has picked up the baton. (2) Among their three novels, there are nine distinctive manor houses that affect the plots, influence the characters, and provide singular settings for the action.

Some of these books could easily fit in the Gothic category; we’ve labeled them ‘classics’ because they’ve been adored by readers for centuries. The oldest is Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, and the most recent is from just before World War II: Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. The characters and distinctive settings in these novels have made them part of our pop-culture vocabulary, and none of the books on this list has ever been out of print.

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Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre
> Charlotte Brontë

Poor Jane! She’s routinely oppressed, thwarted, belittled, and tortured for our reading pleasure. To start, she’s orphaned and sentenced to live at the luxurious Gateshead Hall with an aunt and cousins who literally wish she were dead. They remind her every day that the books, the velveteen window seats, the pretty china plates are not hers, and she is forbidden to take pleasure in them. Then she’s locked in the red-room — a chamber little Jane is sure must be haunted — for a crime she did not commit. It’s a dark moment for our heroine, and it’s a relief (for all of us) when she’s sent to Lowood School.

Sure, it’s a barren, drafty, hard-edged old pile governed by draconian rules and inhabited by half-starved urchins from equally unwelcoming homes. But Jane’s tenacity and belief in her own inherent value help her survive the icy winters and meager meals of Lowood for nearly a decade. Ready to rise above her circumstances, she’s hired as a 19-year-old governess at Thornfield Hall, ‘a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat,’ with gray battlements, a vast meadow, and ‘mighty old thorn trees.’ At last, Jane begins to feel at home — but this is a 19th-century novel, so her tranquility is not meant to be.

At Thornfield, love is found and lost, damaging secrets are kept and revealed, and Jane is forced, again, to comfort herself and find the strength to stand on her own. Only then can she find her true home.

It was a fine autumn morning; the early sun shone serenely on embrowned groves and still green fields; advancing on to the lawn, I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. It was three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look. Its grey front stood out well from the background of a rookery, whose cawing tenants were now on the wing: they flew over the lawn and grounds to alight in a great meadow, from which these were separated by a sunk fence, and where an array of mighty old thorn trees, strong, knotty, and broad as oaks, at once explained the etymology of the mansion’s designation. — Charlotte Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights
> Emily Brontë

Let’s make something clear: Wuthering Heights is not a love story. It’s a disturbing, grasping, claustrophobic exploration of jealousy and revenge played out in two family homes located within spitting distance of each other on the desolate moors of Yorkshire. There’s not a hint of sunshine in the tale or the setting, and that’s what makes it so potent.

The plot tells the life story of Heathcliff, a mysterious orphan who is adopted by the patriarch of the Earnshaw family. The Earnshaw’s farmhouse, called Wuthering Heights, is a hard environment for hard people: dark, cold, situated atop a windy rise. As children, Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw become inseparable and obsessed with each other — the un-love story that makes moody teenagers swoon.

Across the way, is the family home of the Lintons. Known as Thrushcross Grange, it’s the wealthiest estate in the area. Lower in the valley and closer to civilization, it’s a soft, bright, warm home for soft people. When Catherine breaks Heathcliff’s heart by taking up with the son of her civilized neighbors, Heathcliff runs away.

When he eventually returns, Heathcliff exacts his grinding, intricate plan of revenge on everyone who wronged him. Ghosts, betrayals, dramatic revelations, and unreliable narrators abound.

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones. — Emily Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Brontë

Anne seems doomed to be the sometimes forgotten Brontë, but this novel is essential reading: Most literary critics hail it as one of the first feminist novels. It also happens to be a rollicking good read.

The story centers on Helen Graham, a woman struggling for independence and a safe, happy life for her son. On the run from a shady past, she takes up residence in the previously neglected Wildfell Hall.

Helen is a beguiling riddle to the townspeople, the subject of intense curiosity and judgment. She soon becomes a favorite topic for tongue-wagging over tea. Beautiful, but unmarried, distant and self-contained, she’s an artist who sells her own paintings to make a living… how dare she?

Unlike Thornfield and Wuthering Heights, Wildfell Hall is not haunted by ghosts or memories, but it is damp, unwelcoming, in disarray — a reflection of the town’s attitude toward Helen and Helen’s own state of mind when she arrives. Even the garden has given way to weeds, and a boxwood shrub carved into a swan ‘had lost its neck and half its body.’

Anne Brontë’s writing style is a little more accessible than her sisters’, and much of this novel feels quite modern. Helen, our struggling heroine, is equal parts 19th-century stick-in-the-mud and badass role model: courageous, honest, determined, self-contained.

Near the top of this hill, about two miles from Linden-Car, stood Wildfell Hall, a superannuated mansion of the Elizabethan era, built of dark grey stone, venerable and picturesque to look at, but doubtless, cold and gloomy enough to inhabit, with its thick stone mullions and little latticed panes, its time-eaten air-holes, and its too lonely, too unsheltered situation — only shielded from the war of wind and weather by a group of Scotch firs, themselves half blighted with storms, and looking as stern and gloomy as the Hall itself. — Anne Brontë

Rebecca - Daphne DuMaurier

Rebecca
> Daphne du Maurier

Even if you’ve never read this melodramatic tale, you’ve probably heard the iconic first line: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ It’s a wistful longing for a time and place that are gone forever, spoken by the unnamed female narrator who dreamily drifts through her days on the English country estate of Manderley.

When we first meet her, we learn her life has taken a very nasty turn, then she flashes back in her memory to bring us up to speed: Swept off her feet in Monte Carlo by a wealthy Englishman, she’s now married and has found herself installed as the mistress of Manderley. She’s quickly intimidated by her new residence: its size, its staff, its decor of opulent family heirlooms.

Isolated on the estate, with only the ominous housekeeper Mrs. Danvers for company, the new Mrs. de Winter soon falls prey to her own insecurities and imagination. Does her husband really love her? How can she compete with his dead — and in death, perfect — first wife?

This is a weird and wonderful story and features a murder, a fire, a costume party, two sunken ships, and a series of betrayals, including Mrs. Danvers trying to incite our heroine to jump out a window.

The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea. — Daphne DuMaurier

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
> Jane Austen

This beloved novel features a disarming cast of sisters and parents and cousins and townsfolk who all bring their idiosyncrasies to bear in this tale of life and love in the 18th-century English countryside.

At the heart of the story is the Bennet family. They don’t have much money, but they do have five daughters and a burning necessity to marry them off to husbands as soon as possible, all the better to secure everyone’s futures. The relentlessly kind and beautiful Jane is smitten with Mr. Charles Bingley. Silly wild-child Lydia falls into a desperate infatuation with the dashing Wickham. And Elizabeth — clever, fond of reading, sharp-tongued, not interested one whit in dumbing herself down to find a husband — meets Mr. Darcy. She immediately deems him too arrogant, too condescending, too proud and swears to loathe him forever.

This is the proto-romantic comedy, and you’ll root for the Bennets and Darcy and Bingleys to find their hearts’ desire, while you will detest both the obsequious cousin Mr. Collins and the domineering snob Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy woos girl, girl rejects boy — and then there’s a turning point, thanks to the natural beauty found at the estate called Pemberley.

It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills… She had never seen a place where nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. — Jane Austen

A Room with a View - E.M. Forster

A Room with a View
> E. M. Forster

The story opens in the Pension Bertolini in Florence, an inn for traveling English gentlefolk that is so British, ‘it might be London.’ We meet Miss Charlotte Bartlett — chaperone, stifled, judgmental, lonely — and Miss Lucy Honeychurch, her niece, on a trip abroad for finishing. The inn and their rooms — significantly, without a view — are a disappointment to both Charlotte and Lucy. The travelers are further disillusioned by the other guests at the inn who are deemed unfortunate by the uptight Charlotte; she holds particular ire for the uninhibited Mr. Emerson and his fanciful son George.

Despite Lucy’s intentions to be good — that is, to be quiet, humble, respectable — our heroine is almost always in a muddle. She lives a tidy, ordered existence, but she’s naturally curious and, deep down, wants to fight against a society that labels overt kindness as indelicate. When she plays Beethoven on the piano with heated passion, it inspires another character to remark: ‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.’

But nothing — not a scrape with death, nor a stolen kiss in a field of wildflowers — gives Lucy the courage she needs to defy convention. She returns to the cool, well-understood drawing room of her family home at Windy Corners in Surrey and succumbs to the comfort of a respectable fiancé and an conventional life. But, as we all know, books are powerful things, and the chance reading of a passage in a scandalous novel jolts Lucy out of her muddle. What she does next unbalances Lucy and everyone around her in the best way possible.

The situation was so glorious, the house so commonplace… the only addition made by his widow had been a small turret, shaped like a rhinoceros’ horn, where she could sit in wet weather and watch the carts going up and down the road… and yet the house ‘did,’ for it was the home of people who loved their surroundings honestly. — E.M. Forster

What are your favorite manor house classics? Tell us in comments.

Top image courtesy of Greg Willson.

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