From Brideshead to Saltburn: why we can’t get enough of country house stories | Fiction

From Brideshead to Saltburn: why we can’t get enough of country house stories | Fiction

At no point in the past 400 years has anyone campaigned for more stories about posh people in country houses. It wasn’t as though I had spotted a gap in the market. At times when I was working on my novel, The Kellerby Code, I would gaze about me in a kind of dizzy grief as I remembered Brideshead Revisited and The Remains of the Day and Downton Abbey – and Saltburn, The Crown and, to be honest, even The Traitors. Surely I wasn’t going to toss another one on the pile? A large part of me despises the genre. Why would I – why would anyone – continue to write about that stuff?

In fact, the first idea for my novel came over a decade ago, reading The Code of the Woosters and wondering if Jeeves ever feels class rage. I was invaded by an image of Jeeves in his underpants on a squeaky single bed. He’s staring bitterly through the gloom at patterns on a rug and recalling the day he decided to give butlering a go. There’s custard and maybe a bit of blood on his cummerbund. Jeeves lies back muttering and wonders if he can really do it all over again tomorrow, clean up whatever pointless shitshow Bertie cooks up for him. He imagines his master’s throat in his grasp and falls asleep.

Of course, the joy is that Wodehouse doesn’t delve in this way, and it makes him an outlier in the field. The prose is spun sugar, the plots are sculpted from air and there are even meta-gags about how much exposition the author should “bung in” for readers joining late in the series. It’s pure silliness and that’s more than enough: you wouldn’t ask Mr Bean if he had considered therapy (although the teddy). To Wodehouse, country houses and butlers are merely fond remnants of an innocently dappy time.

Why doesn’t Jeeves just throttle Wooster? Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in an adaptation of a PG Wodehouse story. Photograph: ITV Plc

There are many possible reasons why they didn’t feel like that to me. When I was reading The Code of the Woosters, I was broke and tutoring extremely wealthy and frequently awful children in Mayfair and Chelsea. The mother of one of these children had started to use me as much for odd jobs around her immense townhouse on Kings Road as for teaching: I ruined a wall trying to hang a TV; I had a triumph with a flat-pack desk; I chased down a Bedlington whippet that had quite understandably tried to escape. The children also spoke of me as an interchangeable member of staff or, as the eight-year-old daughter called us, “slaves” (lol, clanger!).

Two further, largely insignificant moments during this period have stayed with me. First, I did a residential week tutoring a boy in the holidays at his exquisite stately home. One day the boy took me fly fishing. Every time I cast a line, my fly got caught – snagged on a branch and a generations-deep sense of inferiority. It was humiliating; I actually blushed. Then the boy patted me on the shoulder supportively and after a small pause, I said – to a 10-year-old, mind – “Thank you for that.” Now, I admit it felt good – I needed that pat – but at the same time it does something to the old dignity, being patted by a 10-year-old infinitely wealthier than you and thanking him for it.

Second, I went to a friend’s fancy family home for a few nights and happened to coincide with a dinner party. It was the sort of dinner party with waiters. As I wafted down from my bedroom, his father, assuming I was staff, started giving me instructions vis-a-vis the decanters, the crockery, the placement. Again, I took it on the chin, and got down to it for about 40 minutes.

What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I explain I wasn’t a waiter? Why did I thank the heir for his pat? Perhaps the blinking rows of identical windows, the endless landscaped gardens, the assembled balance of brick and horizon were sufficient to initiate marrow-deep instincts for deference. Or perhaps I had learned from the scores of butlers, servants and footmen trooping across countless canonical pages that there was dignity in submission. Perhaps it’s just my inclination.

In any case, this question is more productive for a novel than merely observing how annoying posh people are. Why do we put up with it? Why doesn’t Jeeves just throttle Wooster? Why did ITV’s Downton Abbey slay during a period of austerity?

These novels, films and TV shows set on grand estates strike us differently when most people can’t buy a flat, and Thomas Piketty tells us inherited property is the greatest engine of social division. More than that, the Arcadian English ideal simply cannot survive when we discover slavery in the deeds. So what is to become of the country house story?

When I was writing my novel during lockdown, I was also watching Boris Johnson doing his Woosterish voice; meanwhile, the statue of Edward Colston was being torn down and chucked into Bristol harbour. There was a confluence of rages. In general, I’m not a huge fan of violent books, and never thought I would write one, but credit where it’s due: the gore came quite easily after watching Boris talk about flattening the curve.

Similarly, in Laura Wade’s play Posh and Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, there are marked amounts of frenzy and fever: perhaps this is merely the signature mood of the contemporary country house tale. Where Waugh documented the solemn erosion of English paradise – “there was now no armour glittering through the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the green sward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled” – we’re more blood and crime and Barry Keoghan with his feller out. And that’s no bad thing.

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The houses – Pemberley, Brideshead, Waverley – are totems of various forms of power, and the novels explore what that power feels like between people in private. I used to get furious reading Brideshead Revisited for various reasons, but especially because the young, humble Charles Ryder himself has a butler when he goes home. (Are you kidding me?) In fact, it shouldn’t matter. He is awed, excluded, seduced and sometimes repulsed by Brideshead; it is a relatable mess of the emotions many of us experience. Who hasn’t felt the depletion of being outsized by money, or charm, or beauty, or success?

This is why I think the stories persist: the passing embarrassment most of us feel all the time, the feeling that a possible life is hidden beyond an avenue of Scots pine; that our ambitions and hopes about ourselves will never meet the invisible realities of their fulfilment; that we may never enter a room and be completely and convincingly ourselves. The stories continue because the feeling does. (Not in Wodehouse, of course: he persists because he ignores all that.)

The houses survive, too – and the houses look good. They’ve aged well – they were built to age. The maturing mazes, the stone steps worn almost to earth, the lichen adorning statuary: they accrue beauty as well as value, and also new meanings. Today when we look, they hum with violence, anger and confusion. How could we not write about that?

The Kellerby Code by Jonny Sweet will be published on 21 March (Faber, £14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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