Setting The Scene In Wessex - The 'Country House' Saga

The 'Country House' Saga In Local-Interest Literature & Drama 

THE literary genre we can call for short the country house saga is a development of the 19th-century genre known as the provincial novel. It narrates the ups and downs over the years of a person, family or other group who are tied to a country house, though sometimes the focus is on a critical moment, with the rest as back-story or flashbacks. There is no inherent requirement that this is restricted to grand country manors, i.e. stately homes, but until recently writers have preferred to write about these (rather than say, traditional farming families), no doubt for the opportunity to depict events on a larger scale - and perhaps a certain snob appeal. (This seems to apply to dramas in particular, where the grander the house the more 'cinematic' it is.)
The actual “era of the great country houses” when these novels are usually set timewise is not itself a precisely dateable period, but more of an all-purpose yesteryear stretching over several centuries well into the 20th, when death duties and other taxes forced sell-offs. Though the series that prompted this guide, the international success Downton Abbey, is not set or filmed locally, this series created by Dorset-resident actor-writer Julian Fellowes is part of a genre of country house sagas which has strong local presence, going back to Hardy and beyond.
Series creator Julian Fellowes posits Downton Abbey's appeal (with c.10 million viewers) as a welcome relief from a sea of "dreary" social-realist dramas. But this is an extension of a long tradition represented first by a genre of novels, and then when The Forsyte Saga proved a massive hit on BBC-TV in the 60s, also on screen. Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga itself had local-interest roots, and there are locally-set “country house” novels dating back to even before Hardy put "Wessex" on the literary map of England forever.
The “old country family saga” is a type of dynastic/historical saga which sees a landed family (usually wealthy) surviving through changing historical circumstances - usually of a “war and peace” nature. For this reason, many are set in the early 20th Century when world war loomed (with another just 20 years on), rather than the Georgian-Victorian era when many large country houses were built, or else acquired/rebuilt by new owners, usually representing post- Industrial Revolution “new money.” The genre typically depicts what were then socially turbulent eras, that can be dramatised as trials which the sympathetic aristocratic protagonists Sir John and Lady Mary stoically survive, showing themselves at their noblesse-oblige best (or worst, when the scion of the family Fails To Do His Duty).
Although few writers today (Fellowes, a Deputy Lieutenant of Dorset who owns his own "manor" house and is soon to become a Lord, is an exception) have any direct experience of this world, other authors have used modern research methods to recreate the social life of the time in detail. (Fellowes himself has been unable to fend off criticisms scenes were plagiarised from earlier works such as Mrs Miniver, Little Women, and Upstairs, Downstairs, as well as of anachronistically modern dialogue expressions.) With millions now able to trace their ancestry back to earlier times using online sources, there is a popular connection not available before. For the cast of the country house saga usually includes servants, villagers, and other non-aristocratic types who made up 98% of the population. This introduces a standard motif in English Lit, the Love Affair Between The Classes - here the Young Master may fall for someone Quite Unsuitable, quite beneath his station (as the phrase went), like a maidservant, a village girl, or a foreigner. (The occasional same-sex relationship appears discreetly in later works.)
As mentioned, the “old country family saga” itself is largely a 20th-Century development, but there are relevant earlier works which dramatise the lives of the landed gentry and their servants more according to the attitudes of the time - though here they are often unsympathetic characters.

The Era-Spanning Setting
Most works in this genre focus on a single distinct historical period. Opportunities here are limited to after the post-Reformation reconstruction period, when church buildings were rebuilt or converted, and drafty mediaeval castles gave way to luxurious stately homes, often retaining the 'Castle' name for continuity. There are several modern exceptions to this rule of starting with a single post-1540s era, and thus do not (cannot) focus on a particular stately home, but dramatise the (usually historically-accurate) experiences of a cross-section group of protagonists (high and low) through the ages. The best-selling 1987 novel Sarum by Salisbury-born 'Edward Rutherfurd' (=Francis Edward Wintle, 1948-) has the longest span of any historical saga (10,000 years up to 1944) focusing [in 896pp] on a single locality (Old Sarum and New Sarum i.e. Salisbury). It takes a more modern, socially inclusive view of history's dramatis personae, so country houses appear only latterly and are part of a more demographic mix of personal stories, which are either factual or research-based i.e. typical of lives of people at the time.
A similar approach, covering 1650-1988, is taken by Adam Thorpe's 1993 Ulverton, which is all set in 'Ulverdon' in the parish of 'Bursop' (fictitious and unlocated, but from a few real place-name clues possibly in West Wiltshire or Somerset). This is an experimental 'literary' novel with 12 dated chapters headed 1650, 1689, 1712, 1743, 1775, 1803, 1830, 1859, 1887, 1914, 1953, and 1988, with each in a prose style reflecting a typical viewpoint and documentary style of the time. Again, the focus is more modern, inclusive, and populist. The 1830 chapter for example deals with the anti-landowner Luddite riots by farmworkers opposing the introduction of mechanised farming. And lest the reader look down on the illiterate-yokel style of early chapters, the author in a later chapter lampoons the typical patrician “authorial” style as one of cultivated pretension.
Another experimental work, this one using a 'time-slip' approach to tell the story of one country 'seat' across the ages is Theo And Matilda by Lady Rachel Billington, best-known for her 1970s bestseller about women's changing role in traditional society, the century-spanning A Woman's Age. Theo And Matilda has five pairs of characters with those names involved with the same West Country site, "Abbeyfields," in 5 different eras, from early mediaeval to modern. (RB: “I bought a house in Dorset in 1968 mainly because of my admiration for Thomas Hardy's novels and this book owes something to the influence of the great man. Theo and Matilda first meet in Anglo-Saxon times (I studied Anglo-Saxon at university) when an early Christian monastery stands in the valley. They meet again during the frightening period of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. By the Victorian times, the ruined building has become a mental hospital and, finally, I bring Theo and Matilda together in a modern housing development.” ) The story thus covers the pre-Reformation periods of the building up of a church establishment, and then the post-Reformation re-purposing of a [Catholic] church site seized by Henry VIII in the 1540s, and its later rebuilding as a stately home with the same name.

The listing of local-interest works below is by when the work is mainly set, rather than when it was written.

Tudor & Elizabethan Wessex (1485-1603):

The difficult Dissolution period of the 1540s is covered by a central episode in Theo And Matilda by Lady Rachel Billington [see above]. This is when the first county-manor houses as we think of them began to appear, and the Wessex region has a number of buildings dating from this period which have been used as Tudor-period locations for screen dramas. The BBC's adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall was set elsewhere but used Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire and Montacute House on the Dorset-Somerset boundary as part of its mix of palace and manorial settings. It takes its title from the Wiltshire manor house of Wulfhall, where Jane Seymour was born. The Other Boleyn Girl, Peter Morgan’s 2008 feature remake of the Philippa Gregory novel used Lacock Abbey to portray Whitehall Palace. Montacute House and Athelhampton House, which is partly Tudor (built c1500 in Gothic style), were used as locations for the 1998 film Elizabeth.

The 17th Century:
A few works have used the 17th C. as a backdrop. On the one hand, there were few grand stately homes as we think of them today (e.g. no indoor plumbing). On the other hand, this century has the “war and peace” appeal to novelists and dramatists of almost continual political upheaval, kicking off with the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605, a full-blown civil war in the middle, followed by a regicide and a Puritan republic, religious refugees being persecuted, emigration to America, coups and counter-coups etc. Some works written in the late 19C and early 20C deal with displaced 17C aristocrats, though the treatment is more romantic than historical, and the character focus mainly on aristocrats who are usually in some rapport with the king.
A more recent example, evidently based on modern research, and focusing more on the basic landowner class, is Pamela Belle's 'Wintercombe series' (1988-) about a rural Puritan Somerset family, the St. Barbes. Events are seen through the eyes of the abandoned wife, Silence, who now runs the Wintercombe estate (based on an actual house). The time-setting runs through several generations and the main political events of the century. Wintercombe is set in the 1640s (the Civil War), Herald Of Joy in 1651 (when the future Charles II escaped through the area), A Falling Star in 1685 (Charles II's death, the Monmouth Rebellion etc), and Treason's Gift in 1688 (the run-up to the 'Glorious Revolution', i.e. William of Orange's accession).

The 18th Century:

In the Georgian “Squirearchy” era, the heyday of the country-landowner MP and JP, the novel form was still just developing. One pioneering work (a rare example of a near-contemporary, rather than historical, setting) written in the mid-18C was Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1705-54), the “Father of the English Novel.” Fielding spent part of his early life in north Dorset (at the old Rectory in East Stour, also his first matrimonial home), and became High Steward of the New Forest, and is thought to have drawn on his observation of country life for his 1749 contemporary satire, which is mainly set somewhere in Somerset (no doubt for legal reasons), and covers around twenty-five years. Fielding had a social conscience (he actually married his maidservant when he got her pregnant), and expressed this in a scathing view of the Squirearchy. Both the famous 1963 film version scripted by playwright John Osborne and the 1997 BBC TV version of Tom Jones were shot partly in Dorset: the 1963 version at Cerne Abbas, Minterne Magna, and Cranborne Manor, and the BBC miniseries version at Mapperton and Parnham manor houses.
From the mid-17C on, Portland Stone was a major source of stone for large buildings like manor houses, and Portland itself features in several novels. The novella Friend Of The King (1930) by Sarah Pearce takes its title from the fact the manor land was granted by George III, who held a late wedding anniversary celebration there. Set 1798 in and around Pennsylvania Castle manor-house [pictured] on Portland, it concerns a blackmail threat on the life of the Governor (a grandson of the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania) of this ancient Royal Manor, who was then building the house as its first stately home. And ex-Dorset resident Claire Hunter's “Dainton Family Saga” novel-sequence, beginning with Island Of Stone and Fiercely The Tempest, is set in Portland as well as Purbeck and the American Colonies from 1781 through this same period, to 1803.

The 19th Century:
The new century saw the English landed gentry cut off from Continental spa holidays by the Napoleonic Wars, leading to the Regency-era 'spas' like Lyme Regis, where the gentry would rent large houses in and around the town. One near-contemporary account of this is Jane Austen's last novel Persuasion [1816], which is set c1805 and 1814, when Navy officers were returning from the wars ready to marry and set up house. In this case, the situation is the last chance for the spinster younger daughter of a baronet who has no home she can call her own. (The various film and tv versions often use country houses near the key location of Lyme.)
The spread of the Industrial Revolution to the countryside brought machinery-smashing riots and this in turn brought an official backlash. The most famous case of this, the 1834 Tolpuddle Martyrs, when 6 Dorset farm workers were transported to Australia by the local landowning squire-JP for the crime of swearing a secret oath, became the foundation of the British trade union movement and the basis of several plays and a 3-hour feature shot largely in Dorset, Bill Douglas's 1986 Comrades. The owners of the large country houses remain either minor characters or villains in these works. Dorset resident Caroline Stickland (1955-) set her 1988 A House Of Clay partly in 1830s Dorset, dealing with industrialisation's impact on Dorset folk, while her 1990 The Darkness Of Corn is also set in the 1830s, at a village near Bridport. Her 1993 follow-on An Ancient Hope is set in the 1840s-50s, and her 1986 The Standing Hills is set in the 1860s, near Sherborne.
A near-contemporary work is the progenitor of the “Wessex Novels” of Thomas Hardy [1840-1928], Far From The Madding Crowd [1872], set in the 1860s. It concerns a young woman who inherits a farming estate and her changing preference for a partner - alternating between 3 classes: landed gentleman, dashing soldier, and humble shepherd. The 1967 film adaptation was shot mainly in Dorset, using Bloxworth manor house near Athelhampton, while the 2015 version used Mapperton House as Everdene farm. Hardy's later tragic social-realist work Tess Of The D'Urbervilles deals with the more unpleasant side of master-servant relations, as a young woman sent to claim 'poor relation' status with a wealthy local landowner is taken advantage of. The most recent screen adaptation, for BBC in 2008, was shot partly in Dorset. Though his focus was usual on the servants for whom he had more sympathy, Hardy's other novels sometimes deal with country gentry, as in some of his “Wessex Tales” short stories (6 filmed by BBC-TV in Dorset in 1973). His initially unsuccessful first novel Desperate Remedies even has a “lady's maid” in a country house forced to share her mistress's bed.
Though a country house is not the main setting, there is an 'upstairs/downstairs' component of John Fowles's 1969 bestseller The French Lieutenant's Woman, set in 1867 mainly in Lyme Regis (where Fowles lived).
We could also list here two films on Queen Victoria's private life at stately homes like Osborne House on Wight, the 1997 Mrs Brown, which was partly set and shot there (with Wilton House near Salisbury used for other interiors), the latter also appearing as various palatial homes in the 2009 The Young Victoria, written by Julian Fellowes.

The 20th Century:
It is in novels written and set in the 20th Century that the 'country house' saga proper develops. This largely due to the opportunities for a “war and peace” background of two world wars spaced a generation apart (with an economic crash in between offering further plot possibilities). The world wars also enforced change on the secluded and apparently upstairs/downstairs static world of the Victorian-Edwardian eras. However many provincial country-life novels now focus on a broader range of characters across the class system, often with village or farm life to the fore, and the goings-on at the local manor house there mainly to provide plot development. (A familiar modern example due to the BBC-TV version would be Lark Rise To Candleford, from Flora Thomson's pair of autobiographical novels.)
Some works in true 'country saga' style span much of the century. The 'Swallowcliffe Hall' series of novels [2005-] is about 'a country house through history' [late 19th and 20th C history], by Jennie Walters, who spends part of her year in Dorset; it has a fictional locale but the covers feature Creech Grange, while the author says 'the description of my fictional Swallowcliffe Hall was based on Kingston Lacy'.
Other works are more rooted in particular decades of the century:

-The Edwardian Era
One author writing in the “Wessex pastoral” Dorset-dialect idiom with a near-contemporary setting and a focus more on the ordinary (usually impoverished) villagers was Orme Angus, the pen name of a Wareham-resident former teacher, J.C. Higgenbottom (1866-1919). Angus wrote a series of realist novels 1900-09 about rebellious heroine Sarah Tuldon, set in the village of “Barleigh” which Rodney Legg's Literary Dorset calls “a thinly disguised Bere Regis”: Love In Our Village, Sarah Tuldon, The Root, Sarah Tuldon's Lovers. His 1902 Jan Oxber deals with the hero's being exiled to Australia after a conflict with the local gentry (according to the NY Times review, the local Squire seduces his young wife). Writing in a similar post-Hardy vein was Irish expatriate novelist ME Francis alias Mrs Francis Blundell, who had moved to Dorset in the 1880s: The Manor Farm, Hardy-On-The-Hill, Galatea Of The Wheatfield, etc. These exhibit, according to Baker's 1932 Guide To The Best Literature, “a keen eye for unvarnished nature.” Leclaire's guide adds, “Poor country folk esp. well painted.”
Also near-contemporary is E.M. Forster's 1910 novel of a selfish landed family which comes to grief over an inter-class affair, Howard's End. Forster often visited Dorset with members of the Bloomsbury Group, and it has a passage on the Purbecks as offering the great vista of England's countryside (spoilt only by the appearance of redbrick modernity in the shape of Bournemouth along the bay). John Galsworthy had been a pupil in Bournemouth, and for his 1906-21 novel-sequence The Forsyte Saga, he made his grand old English family originally farmers and builders from “Hays, Dencombe, Dorset,” who had made good in the Industrial Revolution which displaced the old Squirearchy's landed gentry. This branch of the Forsytes is said to have been inspired by the Mowlem family of builders who turned Swanage into "little London by the sea," though Dorset as a setting gets only passing mention.

-Pre-WWI Era
More works appear as we move beyond the Edwardian Era [1901-10] to the years just before WWI, no doubt due to its fin-de-siècle appeal, depicting a gentrified world which we know (but the characters don't) is about to vanish. (What happened to the staid prewar upstairs/downstairs world was that many servants left for another kind of “service” - the men went off to war, often never to return, and the women often left to fill jobs left by male clerks, waiters etc.) Modern historical novelists planning a multi-volume saga would be retrospectively attracted to this era as the lull before the storm - offering a “War And Peace” epic literary effect with opportunities for dramatic irony, giving the earlier Edwardian scenes the poignance of a vanished age. The character focus of course here needed to be the aristocracy, making them for the first time the sympathetic principals.
The first work in the Sheridan Family saga by 'Elizabeth Darrell' [Bournemouth resident Edna Dawes], At The Going Down Of The Sun (1984), is set on a Dorset estate at “Tarrant Royal” (based on the Tarrant villages area in East Dorset). This story of a landowning Dorset family involved with military aviation is set mainly in WWI but opens in that last prewar summer of 1914 as that society begins to change forever, with “an overpowering sense of loss of an innocent and carefree life that could never be recaptured”.
Many other such multi-volume era-spanning novel sequences start in the pre-WWI era and continue on from there into the next war, and perhaps beyond. In fact, the longform country-house saga ultimately becomes the story of the 20th century, seen through the eyes of a landed family and their friends, staff and neighbours. For example, the Dorset resident bestselling romance novelist 'Nicola Thorne' (Anne L'Estrange, writing as"Rosemary Ellerbeck") created a 6-volume saga of a titled Dorset family who intermarry with a “yeoman” family. Set at "Wenham," a village between Dorchester and Blandford, the saga begins in late Victorian times but mainly covers the 20th C., through both world wars. The first of these was her 1991 The People Of This Parish, with its sequel the 1992 The Rector's Daughter. And Golden Lads And Girls (1999) by Angela Lambert (1940-2007), a social historian, tv presenter, art critic, and novelist (best-known for A Rather English Marriage), spans six decades. A girl and boy growing up on neighbouring country estates in 1911 Dorset find a secret rapport with one another, but find the innocent, magical world of their “Edwardian Summer” together taken away by a world war, then adult responsibilities, and then another world war, and old age as a country landowner trying to keep the old dreams alive in a new postwar world. Her Kiss And Kin, which has a related theme of love in old age and won the 1998 Romantic Novelist Award, is also part-set in contemporary Dorset.

-WWI And After
WWI itself did not produce the flood of war novels that WWII would. One later [1950] novel by a writer who did fight in the wars was Ralph Bates's historical novel Dolphin In The Wood. The title refers to a WWI airplane, but the main story is “the first-person narrative of a young Englishman born in a quiet village at the beginning of the twentieth century ... full of evocative regional detail,” [20th Century Authors]. This final novel of an expatriate writer of Hemingwayesque books is set in Dorset and Wiltshire before and through WWI. The theme of being haunted by the past also appears in the 1925 novel Bindon Parva by the Irish cleric and prolific novelist 'George A. Birmingham' [James Owen Hannay, 1865-1950], who wrote the novel while staying at Lulworth Cove in 1923, the title being based on a real abbey ruin above the Cove. The book is now hard to find, but evidently has an unusual 'take' on the genre. Rodney Legg's Literary Dorset: "a parson of a Purbeck parish who celebrates communion with his dead parishioners, an unseen congregation of all classes who span the centuries and whose lives and doings he feels are absorbed into the very fabric of the building."
This fits our framework here for, if there was no 'country seat' manor, the one other local “big house” would be the Rectory. Sebastian Faulks's 1993 WWI novel Birdsong ends with an epilogue in 1979 as the protagonist's grand-daughter visits Dorset for a peaceful holiday in the countryside. Scenes were shot at Highcliffe Castle manor house outside Christchurch in 2015 for Series 4 (set post-WWI) of ITV's ongoing Mr Selfridge drama serial, as the flamboyant American entrepeneur leased it as a country house 1916-22, and was later buried in the local cemetery alongside his family. (He also planned to build a bigger castle-style manor on nearby Hengistbury Head, but ran out of funds after buying the land.)

-The Interwar Era
With the aristocracy also hit by war losses (the life expectancy of a young officer at the Front was 6 weeks), invitations now went out more frequently to eligible bachelors even if they were of a lower social standing. The “country-house weekend” became more common, involving mixed groups, and some authors got a direct taste of the high life this way. In Evelyn Waugh's 1944 Brideshead Revisited [see also below], the main story, set up as a “flashback,” harks back nostalgically to an interwar Golden Age, EW having spent time prewar at Dorset country houses such as Canford Magna outside Poole. Fortune Of The Creeds (1980) by a local author, ex-officer David Petri (1924-), opens in 1944 Normandy with a young officer needing some mental diversion reciting to the regiment's new padre the saga of his how his family came to own a magnificent estate in Dorset.
PG Wodehouse as a young man spent time at a country house near Lyme Regis as a weekend guest of relatives (with 3 eligible daughters) of the future Queen Mother, the Bowes-Lyons family. Later his satiric Jeeves & Wooster series would often be based on the duo staying at country houses near the boundary between Dorset, Devon, and Somerset, in novels such as Thank You, Jeeves (1934) [mainly set 'Chuffnell Regis' Dorset] and his final novel Aunts Aren't Gentlemen [US title The Catnappers] (1974) [set 'Maiden Eggesford' near “Bridmouth-on-Sea”].
Another satiric series, the annual [1933-60] 'Barsetshire' novels of Angela Thirkell (1890-1960) do not centre around any stately home - as the series title (copied from Trollope's Salisbury-Cathedral inspired series) indicates, the setting ranges over an entire fictional county. But stately homes and their owners are the keynotes in some of the novels, like Pomfret Towers (1938) and Enter Sir Robert (1955). AT reportedly used Galsworthy's The Country House as research. (We're not listing Trollope's highly regarded "Barsetshire Chronicles" series here as the settings seem to be mainly urban, based on Salisbury. This also applies to Salisbury-based Susan Howatch's bestselling "Starbridge" 6-volume saga.)
Another creator of a lengthy satiric-novel sequence, Anthony Powell, based an earlier novel, From A View To A Death [1934], in part on memories of his Salisbury boyhood, where his father was in the army. (AP lived 50 years at a country house he bought outside Frome.) His “most rural novel,” this is set in and around the country seat of an eccentric family, and concerns a local feud over shooting rights which gets out of hand.
A Dorset stately 'pile' is the setting of a more recent seriocomic trilogy (which has been compared to works by Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith) by Joyce Windsor. Kent-born JW settled in Dorset then in 1982, when widowed, moved to Wight “to die,” but discovered a community of writers there and turned author herself. Her A Mislaid Magic (1994) is set at 'Gunville Place' manor, an 'ugly Dorset pile' which 'stands on a ridge of Dorset downland overlooking the Vale of Blackmoor,' in the Sturminster Newton area. Young Lady Amity, the widowed Earl of Osmington's youngest daughter, is a plain-jane dreamer growing up in the shadow of Mayday fertility icons like the Cerne Giant and the Dorset Ooser. The plot develops with a plan to raise renovation funds by holding an arts festival on the estate. The 1924-5 events are told in flashback, the story then moving forward to 1937 and on through WWII. After The Unicorn (1996), the sequel, is set post-WWII, when the heroine has settled in a house on the village green, observing her sisters and cousins marry among the eccentric aristocracy. Arriving In Snowy Weather (1998) completes the saga with a plan to save another country seat, "Hindlecote Castle."

The practice of inviting guests down for the weekend also became the basis for many a detective novel, where one or more of the guests is murdered, often for reasons involving an old feud or family secret (cf Julian Fellowes's own Oscar-winning Gosford Park script, whose success allowed him to buy his own Dorset manor house,). This deadly "weekend house party" story setup was common up to WWII, e.g. Ngaio Marsh's 1942 'Inspector Alleyn' mystery Death And The Dancing Footman, set in a wintry 1940 at "Highfold Manor, Cloudyfold, Dorset". Unnatural Death (1927, US title The Dawson Pedigree) by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), who was schooled in Salisbury and also had Bournemouth connections, has WWI veteran turned sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey investigate a death at a country house in Hampshire - or is it Dorset? In this subgenre, the locale was often vague, presumably to avoid speculation (and possible litigation) that the mysterious deaths and family scandals were inspired by those of some real landed family living nearby.
E.C. Bentley's novel Trent's Last Case, regarded as an early classic of the country-house-murder whodunit for its plot twist eluding the amateur-sleuth hero, has an unlocated fictional setting, which was only later given some geographic reference point (a “quiet corner of Hampshire” near Bournemouth) when the stage version was adapted for the screen in 1952. Unlike the saga, the detective story's timespan is compressed down to days, though the back story - of financial ruin, family-scandal cover-up etc. - can stretch back decades.
In the straightforward multi-volume saga format, Nicola Thorne's “People Of This Parish” novel-sequence about the titled Woodville family continues into this era with In This Quiet Earth [1998], Past Love [1998], and A Time of Hope [1999]. Joyce Windsor's 2003 Keeper Of Swans is set in a less prestigious country retreat, “The Glebe retirement home in a quiet corner of Dorset,” where at a 1997 reunion, 5 old acquaintances mull over where it went wrong for them back in 1970.

Nonfiction works are often not classed as literature, but there is a tradition of first-person country-life diary-based writing which can overlap with the country saga genre. For example, the published journals of Frances Partridge CBE (1900-2004), a member of the Bloomsbury set of writers and artists, describe her life at a large communal Georgian farmhouse, Ham Spray House [now a Listed Building] in northern Wiltshire, from before WWII to 1960. The house was originally bought in 1924 by Bloomsbury-set writer Lytton Strachey for himself, his friend painter Dora Carrington and Ralph Partridge, who became involved with Frances there. The 1995 Christopher Hampton film Carrington tells of the tragic 1932 end to this experiment in communal living which prefaced her marriage to Ralph. The journals chronicle their life at Ham Spray House till his 1960 death. Frances was a professional translator and the journals are succinct in their detail of the everyday realities of the literary life. These were published as Memories (1981) [covering up to 1933], A Pacifist’s War (1978) [WWII], Everything To Lose (1985) [1945-60], and Hanging On (1990) [1960-63], together with associated books of portraits of some of the other Bloomsbury set members who stayed at the house.

-WWII And Postwar Eras
Nicola Thorne's “People Of This Parish” novel-sequence ends with her WW2-set In Time of War [2000]. Elizabeth Darrell's continuing Sheridan-family saga set in the Tarrant villages area of east Dorset continues into WWII with her And In The Morning (1986), spanning 1939-44 and set partly in war-torn Europe and partly at home, covering the wartime vicissitudes of the estate owners. Her We Will Remember (1995) is set postwar (all the Sheridan family novels take their title from the same Laurence Binyon war-remembrance verse.) Evelyn Waugh used what became a common device in novels and films, a contemporary WWII time-frame to set up flashbacks to the “lost days” of peace. Captain Waugh himself was posted near Sherborne, and his wartime-flashback novella Brideshead Revisited was probably inspired by seeing Dorset stately buildings taken over for the war; though the house is in west Wiltshire, the title is thought to derive from Bridehead Manor near Bridport.
After the war, George Millar, a former secret agent in WWII France, settled on a 1,000-acre estate at Sydling St Nicholas [west-central Dorset], which inspired him to turn away from his usual brand of writing (nonfiction war and travel books) and write his 1950 novel Through The Unicorn Gates. Though set in fictitious “Woottonshire,” with Thirkell-style whimsical place-names throughout, it portrayed a setting that was, says Legg's Literary Dorset, for his neighbours all too recognisable. (Its “Unicorn Gates” shown on the original dustjacket are also reminiscent of the Lion Gate and Stag Gate on the Charborough estate north of Wareham.) Having kept the estate of 'Wayke's Newbourne' going after being widowed in WWI, the indomitable Lady Tramore keeps it going through wartime and then postwar austerity, despite unhelpful and even hostile neighbours.
Award-winning Japanese-English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 The Remains Of The Day is the prewar-flashback tale of a Salisbury-area stately home, “Darlington Hall.” The story is told by a hidebound head butler trying to rationalise unquestioning loyalty to the English class system - now broken by a war which exposed the owner's fascist leanings (a not unusual situation then). The events of 1918-53 are recalled by the hidebound butler as 1st-person narrator while on an unsuccessful 1956 sentimental journey ending one dusk by Weymouth Pier, where he contemplates the ordinary life he has missed out on by his devotion to the dated concept of a life in “service” as head servant of a grand manor house.

Inspired by Du Maurier's Rebecca [filmed by Hitchcock] with its famous opening line "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again", and its predecessor Jane Eyre, the genre also overlaps with the historical-romance novel, with the young heroine going to stay at a large house concealing a great secret. Romance novelist Linden Howard's 1982 Enchanted Island is nominally set a century before, at a large house on an islet off the west Dorset coast. It concerns a shipping heiress who goes to work as governess there as she is fascinated by the strange house with its dense subtropical foliage and its manmade 'Grotto of Atlantis.'

Natasha Solomons, who lives in North Dorset, has contributed several recent works to the genre, mostly set in the decade before and after WW2. Her 2010 Mr Rosenblum’s List (published abroad as Mr Rosenblum Dreams In English) has a Jewish-German immigrant buy a North Dorset estate postwar where he wants to build a golf course on the slopes of Bulbarrow Hill, as the final step in his dream of becoming a respectable landed English gentleman. Her 2011 The Novel In The Viola, retitled The House At Tyneford in the US, is based on Tyneham, the Dorset hamlet the military expropriated in WW2 and never returned to the locals as promised. The 14C local manor house Tyneham House, which had been held since the 17C by the Bond family, was requisitioned by the RAF, then left derelict postwar, and is now a ruin. Told from the viewpoint of a Jewish-emigre parlourmaid then at the manor house, the novel has been described as "an elegy to the English Country House ... a love story set during the final years of Tyneham village and the last days of the country-house era ." Her 2013 The Gallery Of Vanished Husbands, about an abandoned wife, is also part-set in Dorset, this time in the 1960s, where she meets a reclusive artist. Her 2015 The Song Collector, published in the US as The Song Of Hartgrove Hall, is also largely set at a Dorset stately home, with the protagonist recalling how he returned to the Fox-Talbot family estate at war's end as in old age he faces the forced sale of his ancestral home 50 years later.

Postwar death duties meant many stately homes had to open up to the public, while others were sold off to 'new money' belonging to those in “trade.” This was the premise of To The Manor Born, a popular 1979-81 BBC-TV [and then radio] sitcom series which was also novelised. "Grantleigh Manor" in the story is situated north of Lyme Regis, as is its real-life version, the Cricket St. Thomas estate, which was used onscreen for the house exteriors and grounds. The estate's own story was told in series creator Peter Spence's 1976 memoir Some Of Our Best Friends Are Animals, on establishing a wildlife safari-park zoo in the grounds.
Heritage conservation became an issue in the 1970s and another popular old-versus-new comedy which made it to TV [as a 6-part BBC miniseries] was Tom Sharpe's 1975 sex-and-politics satire Blott On The Landscape, which is thought inspired by the outcry over a plan to build a local bypass near Bridport, where Sharpe lived in the 1970s. The plot deals with the fuss over the plan to build "a motorway to the West" through the stately home of a complicit Tory MP.

The 'country house weekend murders' detective-story setup proved popular enough to survive into modern times when a stately home was likely no longer home to local aristocrats, but to a surrogate closed community. Inspired by family visits to the Purbeck area of Dorset, bestselling crime writer Baroness PD James has several local-interest examples of this. In her “Commander Dalgleish of Scotland Yard” series, The Black Tower [1975] is based at a stately home in use as a monastic convalescent home near a clifftop folly-tower. The 1987 ITV version used the real Clavel Tower [painted black] overlooking Kimmeridge Bay, and as the main setting of “Toynton Grange” (“an enclosed world seething with malice”), nearby Encombe House. Her 1982 'Cordelia Gray' private-eye mystery The Skull Beneath The Skin is obviously based on Brownsea Island, set on a Dorset islet which is the home of a repertory theatre company and has a 'Castle' style stately home. PDJ's 2008 [final?] Dalgleish mystery The Private Patient is set at a Dorset country house, Cheverell Manor, which has become a cosmetic surgery clinic, but nonetheless hides old secrets which lead to murder.

The 21st Century
In popular fiction, the light-hearted 'country village' saga (which always has some scenes involving the local manor house and its denizens), the whimsical comedy-of-manners subgenre begun in the 1930s by Angela Thirkell, continues into this decade with the ongoing “Turnham Malpas” series (15 books so far) by former teacher Rebecca Shaw, whose own central-Dorset home village no doubt provides some inspiration. These tell of the social experiences of a couple who, like the author and her husband, have retired to a now-upmarket thatched-cottage village. This includes encounters with the owners of the two main “big houses,” the Rectory and nearby “Turnham House” stately home. Shaw also produces a related series set in the nearby small town of “Barleybridge.” The less whimsical, more straightforward, approach to the country-life saga is represented by the novels of Sarah Challis, who began writing while working at Sherborne School for Girls, and lives at Stourton Caundle nearby. In the first, Blackthorn Winter, 2004, again the focus is on the “incomer” from elsewhere who must adjust to village social life.

Recent news headlines document how Britain is moving towards a more deeply divided society while much of the countryside is still owned by a few aristocrats. It may be that the sentimental nostalgia of the now-ended Downtown Abbey will be followed up by more hard-edged depictions of the widening gulf, a return to the grim old days of a few haves and many have-nots.


Many older manor houses were ruined in the civil strife of the 17th C. (An illustration from an old edition of The Children Of The New Forest, by Captain F. Marryat.)

The 1995 film Restoration takes its title from the 1660s era, when Puritan austerity ended and there was a return for the nobility to luxurious living. To this end, it used two Dorset manors, Mapperton House and Forde Abbey. (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.)

Rowland's original illustration for Henry Fielding's 1749 satire Tom Jones: the Squire finds Tom, an illegitimate baby, in his bed, and announces the foundling is to be raised as if he were his own son, in his manor house.

The 1963 film of Tom Jones used two Dorset manors as the homes of the male and female protagonist: Cranborne Manor and Cerne Abbas' Abbey Farm House. (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.) Minterne manor nearby was also used to portray the estate grounds.


Pennsylvania Castle manor-house on Portland, built c1800 for the Governor of this ancient Royal Manor. Portland Stone was a favourite in designing large buildings from the mid 17C on. Like many other manors, its design evoked the medieval castles such manors often replaced.


The 1995 BBC-produced telefeature version of Austen's Persuasion: note the Georgian country house in the background, representing the prize of a good marriage.



From the 1979 Polanski version of Hardy's Tess Of The D'Urbervilles: the innocent milkmaid Tess is sent to the big house to claim status as a "poor relation."


The genre also overlaps into the historical-romance novel. This tale of a heiress's fascination with a strange country house on an island of its own off Dorset is nominally set in the 1880s.








Cricket St Thomas

(Mouse-over the image to see the nonfiction account of the rescuing of the manor house used as the sitcom's filming location.)


Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Victoria and Albert's seaside residence, seen in the 1997 film Mrs Brown.

One noticeable trend in recent decades is that local stately homes will often appear in the screen versions of country-house novels even if the novel is set elsewhere.
For example, Several Jane Austen dramas (mostly set in eastern Hampshire or Surrey) used local stately homes for their TV adaptations. BBC-TV's hit 1995 Pride And Prejudice used Luckington Court near Lacock preserved village as 'Longbourn,' the Bennet family home. Ang Lee's 1995 Sense And Sensibility starring Emma Thompson used Montacute House in Somerset for the house where Marianne falls ill and nearly dies, plus several Salisbury houses: Mompesson House played the house where the family stay on their London visit, and nearby Wilton House's Double Cube Room was used for the London ball scene, while another much-used location, Trafalgar Park south of Salisbury, played Barton Park. The 1996 Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow used Mapperton Manor [as Randalls, and Hartfield back garden], West Stafford House [now Julian Fellowes's own home], Crichel House ['Abbey' interiors], and Came House outside Dorchester [as Hartfield]. See our Jane Austen page for more info.

R. F. Delderfield's 1972 To Serve Them All My Days is set at Bamfylde School in the West Country 1918-41, but the 1980 BBC tv adaptation was filmed mainly in Dorset at Milton Abbey, a Tudor building which became a stately home on its post-Reformation sale, and then a boarding school in the 1950s, when it became a home-away-from-home for the staff, like the protagonist here.
Julian Fellowes's 2010 directorial effort From Time to Time, from Lucy Boston's popular 1950s "Green Knowe" novels about a boy discovering that his ancestral home is a portal to the meeting figures from the past, used Athelhampton House [below] (plus the writer-director's own stately home, West Stafford House), as "Green Knowe."

Athelhampton House in mid-Dorset, used in Julian Fellowes's just-released From Time to Time, adapted from Lucy Boston's popular 1950s "Green Knowe" novels. It has appeared in many productions, from Dr Who to Elizabeth, its best-known screen role being as 'Cloak Manor' in the 1972 Sleuth.




Cricket St Thomas manor, as seen in BBC's To The Manor Born


BBC's 1992 comedy-drama series Mulberry, about the power struggle between a difficult elderly chatelaine left alone in her big house and her mysterious new 'manservant', used a 17C manor, High Hall house near Wimborne as the central locale. (It was cancelled before its supernatural aspect became obvious - that her servant was an emissary of Death).




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