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Upstairs’ downfall: The decline, death and afterlife of the English country house in five ghost stories

The stately homes of England, how beautiful they stand, To prove the upper classes have still the upper hand. – Noël Coward, “The Stately Homes of England”, 1938

From the grand halls of the aristocracy to the homely manors of the gentry, the country house has been an enduring feature of the English landscape for centuries. Its inhabitants have likewise long been conspicuous on the English social scene and this is reflected in fiction. Despite urbanisation and the major social changes that have taken place in Britain since the Second World War a fascination with this class of people, their way of life and their houses has remained. One only has to think of the most popular British period dramas for confirmation.

However, there has always been a darker and more fantastical strand in English literature based around the country house and its inmates. Often these stories comment, obliquely or directly, on their decline. Gothic literature has told of the decline of great and powerful families since its inception in The Castle of Otranto. As in The Fall of the House of Usher these families are often connected inextricably with their houses, those places in which their dubious deeds are done and their secrets hidden. Like growth, decline is perennial, but also gradual. A novel such as Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, published in 2009 and made into a film in 2018, uses the decline of the English country house after the fact to comment on a particular historical moment in retrospect. The stories in this list can be used to chart the long, melancholy withdrawal of the murky waters of gentility and class deference. 

“Squire Toby’s Will” by Sheridan Le Fanu (1868)

Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is today best remembered for “Carmilla”, an early and seminal contribution to the vampire genre. Robert Aickman, himself a notable author of “strange stories” (see below), wrote in his introduction to The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories that “Squire Toby’s Will”, “tells us only that conscience is a pecking vulture that ever waits its chance to feed”. This is true, but Le Fanu also deals with two constant anxieties for the ruling classes – inheritance and loss of prestige. It is the story of three members of the Marston family of Gylingden Hall in Yorkshire. 

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Squire Toby, dead sixty years by the time of the story’s narration, is the archetypal English country gentleman of the Georgian period, with a glass of port in one hand and a horsewhip in the other. As in the most famous haunted house in English literature, Castle Elsinore, things are “out of joint” at Gylingden. Toby’s eldest son, Scroope, is not the model of a hearty rural squire but, according to his father, “a jack-an-ape”, with “nothing handy, or manly, nor no one turn of a Marston in him”. The squire’s second son, “Handsome Charlie”, is his preferred successor. When Squire Toby dies and Charlie inherits Scroope’s birth-right, a chain of supernatural events is set into motion which will lead ultimately to the dissolution of the Marstons and their family seat. 

Scroope is “slightly deformed”. As unsavoury as it is for modern readers, for much of history physical deformity was seen as an outward sign of inward evil, or a sign of a supreme supernatural being’s displeasure. This may hint at some fatal flaw within the Marston family – Squire Toby is after all a man on whom “a good many curses” have been laid. There is the suggestion that the family’s decline is fated. The plot turns on a will hidden away in a room at Gylingden named “King Herod’s Chamber” after a tapestry that once hung on its walls. The parallel between the biblical king’s self-serving slaughter of male infants and the theme of the betrayal of the first-born is clear, suggesting a predestined fall from grace. From the very beginning of the tale we know that Gylingden is “abandoned to decay.” We also learn of more prosaic reasons for its decline. Squire Toby “left behind him an amount of debts and charges” and had “very nearly […] run the estates into insolvency.” 

We are made aware of progress and changing times. As the story opens the narrator recalls how he used to glimpse Gylingden from the top of the stagecoach, an antiquated form of transport in England by 1868. The Marstons’ “Saxon chapel” may attest to their time-honoured place in the English landscape, but the ultimate beneficiaries of their wealth are their servants and the middle-class professionals who help them to fight over the hall that now lies derelict. Le Fanu uses the supernatural to explore greed, pride and conscience, but also to warn against the dangers of complacency, of carrying on as always without adapting to circumstances.  

“Squire Toby’s Will” is available for free online.

“The Prescription” by Marjorie Bowen (1929)

Marjorie Bowen (the pen-name of Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long) knew poverty as a child and financial insecurity in her youth. As such she brings a notably different perspective to the English country house and its denizens. In this tale the reader and characters are on the outside, looking in. The narrator, John Cuming, promises an “extremely up-to-date ultra-modern ghost story”. Mrs. Janey has invited a group of friends to her new house for Christmas. As entertainment, she organises a séance, and one particular guest makes more than one eye-opening discovery as a result.

The house “stood in the grounds of one of those large estates which are now so frequently being broken up.” This is a highly significant comment on the status of the English country house between the wars. The casual use of the phrase “one of those” and the “frequently” attest to the gradual attrition that saw more than 1000 country houses demolished in the 20th century, according to historian Giles Worsley. The once “notable” family that owned the estate is “now extinct and completely forgotten”, replaced by the likes of Mrs. Janey, who “knew nothing about the neighbourhood nor anyone who lived there, except that […] it was very convenient for town”. In such stories, though the world of the middle classes is comfortable, the real thrill of the narrative is produced by glimpses of a more romantic time and lifestyle. This middle class interest in the lives and trappings of the aristocracy is also found in non-supernatural works of the early to mid-20th century, such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando or Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. 

Bowen’s story repeatedly contrasts modernity, practical, bland and inoffensive, with the fading romanticism of the past. Cuming finds the séance “banal” in Mrs. Janey’s “bright, brilliant, and comfortable dwelling”. Set at Christmas, a time of gentle amusements, “The Prescription” shows how even notionally solemn or frightening activities, such as attempting to contact the dead or telling tales of their return, have become nostalgic parlour games for the middle class. By extension, the pains and passions of the vanished gentry are now little more than entertainment for those they might consider their social inferiors. It is fitting that though a haunted house is central to the narrative it is kept distant from both the reader and characters until the end, when it appears derelict and ready to “be pulled down and the land sold in building lots.” In “The Prescription” we see the country house and its occupants gradually fading into history. Yet fascination with the lives lived within their walls and a glamour surrounding them remain for those who live in more prosaic times and places.

“The Prescription” is available in Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings, edited by Tanya Kirk and published by The British Library. Read Peter’s review of Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings.

“A Recluse” by Walter de la Mare (1930)

Walter de la Mare, author and poet, wrote some of the most haunting ghost stories in English literature. His work is a bridge between the antiquarian tales of M. R. James and the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman, yet his style also owes something to that other poet and gothic touchstone, Edgar Allan Poe. At the beginning of “A Recluse” we learn that Montrésor, a “charming freehold Residential Property” is up for sale. This advertisement prompts Mr. Dash, protagonist and narrator, to recount the story of the unsettling, puzzling few hours he spent in the company of Montrésor’s former owner, Mr. Bloom. Fans of classic horror will note that the name of the house references the vengeful narrator of Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado”. We learn early on that it was Mr. Bloom himself who renamed his home, but the name rather degrades the house with a suburban nouveau-riche air. Certainly, it suggests the centrality of the house to the narrative. It also hints at Mr. Bloom’s ulterior motives for tempting in a guest.

Mr. Dash, driving home through unfamiliar country, is drawn to Montrésor from his first glimpse:

[…] it looked back – with a furtive reticence as if it were withholding itself from any direct scrutiny behind its widespread blossoming chestnut trees. ‘We could if we would,’ said its windows, as do certain human faces […]

Mr. Bloom’s house is certainly full of the treasures that its name suggests, and de la Mare lovingly describes many of them, down to the colour-coordinated books in the library. However, just as Dash and Bloom’s tense interactions are a kind of social charade masking hostility from the former and predatory glee from the latter, the beautiful things that Mr. Bloom owns are little more than decorations to distract from the base wrongness of Montrésor. Mr. Dash notes the lack of wildlife around the house; there is “curiously little bird-song” despite the time of year and “a sorry little array of half-made, abandoned martins” nests’ under the roof. The forlorn barrenness contrasts with Mr. Bloom’s family crest, a pelican feeding its chicks. This image is a reference to a Catholic symbol of self-sacrifice. It was once believed that, in times of scarcity, the pelican would use its own blood to feed its young. Mr. Bloom himself has no young, and, even before any supernatural occurrences, it is clear that Montrésor is little more than a house of the dead. Mr. Bloom exclaims: “She’s there!” after telling Mr. Dash of his sister’s death, only to point to her portrait. He also gives Mr. Dash the room in which his secretary lately died in which to spend the night. Believing servants to be a “foreign element”, Mr. Bloom lives alone. Mr. Dash concludes that, fixated on the occult, Mr. Bloom had brought ‘guests even more undesirable’ into his home.   

“A Recluse” is part of the classic “character turns up at a strange house” tradition of horror. However, all of its facets are so well-crafted and strange that it never appears clichéd. We never learn exactly why Mr. Bloom is poised to leave Montrésor, his family seat of two centuries, or why he is so keen to tempt in Mr. Dash. Yet the build-up of images suggests that this is the story of a man, and his house, devoid of something vital, and their attempt to gain whatever that vitality may be from a passing traveller. 

“A Recluse” is available in Out of the Deep and other Supernatural Tales, published by The British Library.

“The Unsettled Dust”, by Robert Aickman (1968)

By the post-war period the decline of the English country house had accelerated. Many houses had been requisitioned by the government during the war, robbed of their privacy. One year after the publication of “The Unsettled Dust” inheritance tax, also known as “death duties”, peaked at 85 per cent, siphoning private wealth into the public purse. After the Labour Party’s election landslide in 1945, the founding of the Welfare State and the opening up of university education, the privileged position of the landed gentry was looking increasingly anachronistic. However, the country pile found an afterlife of sorts as a tourist attraction. Aickman’s tale is very much inspired by his extensive experience in conservation (he was a founding member of the Inland Waterways Association and is remembered as one of the saviours of the British canal system). The story takes the form of a report written by Nugent Oxenhope, Special Duties Officer for the Historic Structures Fund (a National Trust-style organisation). Oxenhope details his visits to Clamber Court, home of the Brakespear family, and the strange experiences that lead to a grim and melancholy conclusion.

The Brakespears were once important enough to have produced “the only Englishman ever to be Pope”. The only surviving Clamber Brakespears are two sisters, Olive and Agnes, who open their house to the public every summer. Clamber itself is in good repair, though a thick dust lies over all the surfaces inside. Oxenhope at first thinks that the dust is produced by “some dusty new industry”, the effects of an outer modernity settling down upon the beautiful interior spaces of the aristocracy. The relationship between the narrator and the sisters is ambiguous; he is at once their guest and their landlord. There are frequent references in the text to how the Fund views its “tenants”, those who were at one time landlords themselves. Agnes Brakespear sums up their position:

Our lives have ceased to be our own. We are unpaid curators. The nobility in Poland who have had their estates stolen, are sometimes permitted to go on curating a few rooms in their former houses. Though in England it is dressed up, that is our position, and nothing more.

“The Unsettled Dust”, like “The Prescription”, uses the supernatural to provide a counterpoint to the banality of modern bureaucracy; the Fund’s response to hauntings is to set up a “Psychic and Occult Research Committee”. Aickman, a notoriously conservative romantic, clearly equates the supernatural and the lives of the aristocracy, presenting them as oppositional to what he sees as the dull emptiness of modern society. 

“The Unsettled Dust” is available in The Unsettled Dust, published by Faber & Faber.

“At Lorn Hall” by Ramsey Campbell (2012)

Like “A Recluse” Campbell’s story utilises the classic set-up of the interloper finding himself, quite by accident, in an increasingly disturbing situation. Lost in the rain, Randolph turns up at Lorn Hall, ancestral home of Lord Crowcross. Finding an audio guide and an honesty box, he decides to wait out the storm and take the tour of this seemingly deserted mansion. In an inspired use of technology in a supernatural story, the audio guide is narrated by the last Lord Crowcross, whose portraits, apparently self-painted, adorn almost every room. What follows is a combination of Campbell’s signature corner-of-the-eye writing, in which the reader is never quite confident of the reality of the protagonist’s experience, and some welcome exploration of the British class system.

Some may find the social commentary in this story heavy-handed. Crowcross’ comments on the “Red-handed skivvies” who worked in his kitchens and his insinuation that his visitors are of ‘their kind’ may seem like the words of a stock wicked nobleman, yet we must remember that the country house was spawned from a world of deference and inequality the consequences of which linger to this day. Randolph’s anxiety to not be identified as coming from the same stock as the servants reminds us that 21st century Britain is still far from being a classless society. As in the other stories the theme of inheritance comes to the fore, with Campbell hinting at the misogynistic aspects of aristocratic life. Furthermore, there is a reference to slavery in the story which is timely; in 2013 English Heritage released a whole book examining the links between British country houses and the slave trade. 

Though “At Lorn Hall” may wear its politics on its sleeve it is also part of a long tradition of mistrust shown towards the aristocracy in Gothic literature, from Otranto to the novels of Ann Radcliffe to Dracula and beyond. In a subgenre such as the ghost story, often seen as a conservative art form practiced by well-heeled ladies and gentlemen such as Edith Wharton and M. R. James, Campbell’s more overt social criticism is refreshing. Not only does it suggest new directions in exploring the afterlife of the English country house, but it does so whilst fitting neatly into the tradition.  

“At Lorn Hall” is available to read for free at Nightmare Magazine. 

Lewis Hurst blogs on horror and supernatural fiction at The Uncanny Man

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1 reply on “Upstairs’ downfall: The decline, death and afterlife of the English country house in five ghost stories”

A creepy country house is, for me, an essential part of any ghost story. It gives it the atmosphere.

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