7 Manor House Novels Set in the 20th Century

7 Manor House Novels Set in the 20th Century

Wednesday, 30 October, 2019

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

Between the two world wars, society changed dramatically, especially for the British aristocracy. Their beloved traditions — the ones that let them perch atop the social food chain — began to crumble. The hierarchy that helped their world make sense started to fracture and flatten. The sharp distinctions between the various social classes and — good heavens — the sexes were beginning to blur. In the post-war economy, the moneyed class soon realized the drafty old piles they’d inherited from their toff families required way more financially than they could give.

These seven novels set between WWI and WWII feature houses that should have provided a safe haven for the characters from the rest of the world, were it not for the tension, the close quarters, the haunted feelings, and… muuuurder.

These stories reflect the changing times and show all too clearly how a home that had previously been a comfort could become fraught with genuine peril. What’s torture for the characters is jolly good fun for us. In addition to country homes in England, these books take us to grand old estates in Australia, Spain, Scotland, and the United States.

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Urn Burial (Miss Fisher Mysteries) - Kerry Greenwood

Urn Burial
> Kerry Greenwood

The Phryne Fisher mysteries are a bracing combination of cozy-mystery tropes and brazen feminism. Phyrne is all about women’s rights and is firmly anti-discrimination, which makes her an equal-opportunity lover, an openness that leads to all kinds of romantic entanglements. Plus, she’s a glamour girl with a champagne glass in one hand and a lady-like revolver in the other.

In this installment, Phryne and her lover Lin Chung join a house party at an old friend’s estate, a Gothic mansion called Cave House. The house, an amalgamation of several architectural styles at odds with each other, is an eyesore: ‘Even the fog could not disguise the monstrous oddity of Cave House.’ Phryne, the infamous lady detective, is never truly on holiday. Soon, she’s investigating death threats against their host and dealing with a housemaid’s murder — as well as combatting the other guests’ prejudice against her Chinese paramour.

Phyrne’s search for answers takes her into the dungeons of the house and the nearby limestone Buchan caves — with some quality time for romance with the soigné Lin Chun along the way. As only Phryne can, she gets her culprit and her man. {more}

It took determination to be really strange. That, or absinthe before breakfast every day.” — Kerry Greenwood

The Angel’s Game - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Angel's Game
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The story is set in Barcelona of the 1920s and ’30s — a volatile city populated by anarchists, communists, monarchists, and people merely trying to eke out a living. Our hero David Martin lives in an abandoned mansion — alone — writing sensationalist novels under a pseudonym and exploring the shadows of his imagination.

To escape a painful past and troubled present, he hides in the words and worlds of books. But his house may be haunted by more than his flights of fancy: Within a locked room, he finds mysterious photographs and letters that imply the house has secrets. When an enigmatic French editor makes him an irresistible offer — money, fame, power — to write a one-of-a-kind book, David agrees, and his life takes on deeper shades of darkness.

The atmosphere of this novel — of a city and a character on the brink of something — pulls you into its world from the very first page. It celebrates the magic of books as it braids together the threads of secret-fueled intrigue, dangerous passion, heart-rending tragedy, and the enduring bonds of friendship. The Angel’s Game is part of the thoroughly engrossing Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The author has said that he wrote these to create a labyrinth and that we’re invited to enter at any point. {more}

The whole of Barcelona stretched out at my feet and I wanted to believe that, when I opened those windows, its streets would whisper stories to me, secrets I could capture on paper and narrate to whoever cared to listen… — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day
> Kazuo Ishiguro

This novel opens in 1956, and it seems like it’s going to tell the story of a sentimental, post-war road trip with sweet reminiscences and fond memories, gentle countryside, and conversations with convivial locals. Then it reveals itself to be something more meaningful and heartrending.

Our hero Stevens is an English butler in a stately manor house in the country. He has the very stiffest of stiff upper lips. When he receives a letter from a former member of the household staff, he decides to take a ‘motoring trip’ to Cornwall to visit his old friend.

A relic of the old world manners of the country house, Stevens believes that the way he served humanity was through his service to his ‘great gentleman’ Lord Darlington. Stevens’ life has been molded by dedication, service, and, most importantly, duty. But his memories force him to reconsider the role that Lord Darlington — and by extension, Stevens himself — played in the events leading up to World War II.

This story is framed by the grand issues of WWII, but it’s an intimate look at one man struggling to live by a code that is woefully out of touch with what it means to be human. In the end, it’s difficult to judge Stevens too harshly and impossible to not want the best for him. {more}

They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity.’ — Kazuo Ishiguro

The Lake House - Kate Morton

The Lake House
> Kate Morton

You are going to love Alice Edevane. In the summer of 1933, she’s 16-years-old and on the razor’s edge between being a little girl and a young woman. She’s bright, too inquisitive for her own good, and devoted to writing stories. But on midsummer’s eve, in the throes of her family’s glamorous annual party at their country estate of Loeanneth, Alice’s little brother Theo disappears. From that moment, Alice’s life is forever changed. The tragedy creates permanent fault lines in the family, and they abandon their Cornwall home forever.

Fast forward 70 years: Alice has enjoyed a career as a best-selling author, but she’s never forgotten Theo, nor has she laid to rest her suspicions about who was behind what happened that night.

One day, Sadie — a London detective exiled to Cornwall by her superior officer after a troubling case — stumbles on the abandoned house, frozen in time. Feeling lost and eager to redeem herself as a detective, she’d determined to find out what really happened at Loeanneth. Eventually, the timelines collide, bringing Sadie and Alice together to unearth the stunning truth.

This is a ghost-less ghost story: Every character is haunted by the events of that fateful midsummer’s eve. The disparate threads of this lush, wistful story come together for a very satisfying ending. {more}

Mother objected to Alice’s habit of caressing her pocketed book because it made her look ‘shifty, like you’re up to no good,’ a description Alice had decided she didn’t mind one bit. — Kate Morton

The House Between Tides - Sarah Maine

The House Between Tides
> Sarah Maine

It’s 2010, and Hetty’s life is kind of a mess. She has a boyfriend who’s just a little too controlling, and she’s still reeling from the recent deaths of her parents and her grandmother. When Hetty inherits a ruined estate called Muirland House in the Outer Hebrides, she flees London and her day-to-day worries to lose herself in a possible new future. She plans to transform the crumbling mansion into a 5-star hotel.

But then a skeleton is found buried under the floorboards in the conservatory. The search to identify the remains takes Hetty deep into the isolated community of Muirland Island and her family’s history.

The story nimbly alternates between 1910 and 2010 timelines, drawing parallels between the modern characters and their ancestors — and demonstrating that social strife and heartbreak repeat through time, just like the cycles of the seasons.

This book has everything we want in a story set on a crumbling estate: dark family secrets, passionate love that drives people to foolish acts, betrayal, loyalty, class wars, and the healing power of nature. {more}

‘And beyond there be dragons!’ he had said, his eyes glinting in the way she had grown to love. It was his refuge, he had said, a place of wild beauty, a special place, with endless stretches of bone-white sand, vast skies, and the sea — an ever-changing palette. — Sarah Maine

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitgerald

The Great Gatsby
> F. Scott Fitzgerald

Who wouldn’t want to be a guest at one of Gatsby’s glittering, raucous Jazz Age parties?! There was champagne and dancing under the stars, intimate tête-à-têtes over cigarettes and coffee, and rubbing elbows — and other body parts — with the beautiful people.

America was on an upswing of prosperity after World War I. With enough ambition and the right connections, anything was possible.

Set in the posh Long Island of 1922, this lean, poignant novel is an examination of yearning, regret, and the corrupting power of privilege. It’s the story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his perilous devotion to the alluring (but only on the outside) Daisy Buchanan. To demonstrate that he’s worthy of her attention, Gatsby buys a grand mansion in West Egg. When he and Daisy are reunited, their relationship sets off a chain of events that corrupts everyone around them in concentric rings of betrayal, heartbreak, disillusionment, and regret. {more}

The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard — a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. — F. Scott Fitgerald

Crooked House - Agatha Christie

Crooked House
> Agatha Christie

When millionaire Aristide Leonides is poisoned, the victim’s sensuous, much younger wife is the prime suspect. But everyone at Three Gables — the crooked house of the title — has a motive for murder. This stand-alone has perfect pacing and a wickedly winding plot that keeps you guessing until the end. When that end comes, it packs a truly disturbing punch.

The cases solved by Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple can be chilly and intellectual, but this novel is fraught with passions barely held in check and resentments honed like fine crystal.

The ostensible hero of the story is Charles Hayward, the fiancé of one of the suspects and the son of a Scotland Yard commissioner. He pokes around the family, asking painfully inappropriate and impolite questions. The suspects are archetypes that have been fleshed out in all their messy human glory: the tutor with ambitions, the misunderstood younger wife, the competitive sons, the spinster aunt, the precocious little girl, and Charles’ fiance, the alluring Sophia. As Charles slowly becomes acquainted with his future in-laws, he drags their dark secrets and personal failings into the light.

We love it in print and audio, narrated with gripping voice acting by Hugh Fraser. {more}

… we drove up a long curving drive, flanked with rhododendrons, and came out on a graveled sweep in front of the house… The curious thing was that it had a strange air of being distorted, and I thought I knew why. It was the type, really, of a cottage. It was a cottage swollen out of all proportion. It was like looking at a country cottage through a gigantic magnifying glass. The slant-wise beams, the half-timbering, the gables: It was a little crooked house that had grown like a mushroom in the night. — Agatha Christie

What’s your favorite inter-war manor house novel? Share in comments!

Top image courtesy of Jan Saudek.

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From classics 'Jane Eyre' and 'Northanger Abbey' to Agatha Christie and Tana French, the creaky halls and haunted histories of manor houses are the ideal backdrop for secrets, ghosts, betrayal, and romance.
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