I wanted to be a writer from the earliest age but if that wasn’t possible then I wanted to be a location scout for films, searching out houses for shoots. It’s taken me many years and many novels to realise that I am more obsessed with houses and a sense of place than most people. It is at the centre of my writing process and sometimes, I find, gets in the way and I have to remind myself to tell the story and not get drawn into what the right catches are for 16th Century Jacobean windows. 

When I’m writing I start with the house, building it up from the floor plan which I draw in my notebook. Sometimes the house is huge and grand – as with my new novel The Stargazers, which features a crumbling stately home, Fane Hall, that has been allowed to fall into disrepair and is dying throughout the course of the novel. Sometimes it’s small and basic – like the Bosky, the holiday home in my tenth novel The Wildflowers. If I can move through the house feeling as though I know vaguely that it is real then the reader believes in it too. With The Stargazers I used my lifelong obsession with crumbling houses – the time a friend and I broke into the grounds of an ancient manor house in Dorset is a highlight – to get the sense of the place right. But more than that, I like the order that making the house a character in the novel affords you: you can see why other writers do, too. Property as part of our identity is such an obsession in this country, whether it’s browsing Rightmove like it’s a part-time job to wasting money on Georgian House sticker books in a National Trust giftshop at the weekend. (I, alas, fall into both categories). 

Here are five of my favourite English houses in books, favourite not necessarily because they’re the most iconic but because their evocation on the page is central to why I love the novel.

  1. Howards End: EM Forster  ‘It isn’t going to be what we expected. It is old and little, and altogether delightful – red brick.’ The ur-book-about-houses book, because of the house’s symbolising of the themes of the novel and because of Mrs Wilcox, the original spirit animal. I first read Forster when I was too young to fully appreciate him yet I’m glad, because over the years every time I return to Howards End I find another way in to the story that resonates with me and where I am at that point in my life. It is not only the kind of book that leaves you understanding the age in which it’s set more completely, it is an awfully good read: its themes of ownership, property, identity, class, love and British mores are combined with a deceptively cracking plot and characters you really love (By contrast there is no one you really love in Brideshead, the other ur-house book)
  2. Coming Home: Rosamunde Pilcher There is no one better than Rosamunde Pilcher at bringing a fictional home alive. This is my favourite of her novels because of the way she writes about WW2 and Nancherrow, the magical, rambling, comfortable, Cornish home of the Carey-Lewis family. Pilcher lived through WW2 and experienced great loss and this sense of the house at the centre of these young people’s turbulent, often tragic lives is not only richly enjoyable, it is easy to overlook how great the accomplishment of this 1000-odd page novel is, how powerful the story of those she lost. 
  3. No Voice From the Hall John Harris – this is a deliciously odd, dark, rich memoir, ‘an odyssey through country houses following the last war’. The author, an architectural historian, organised the landmark 1974 V&A Destruction of the Country House exhibition which laid bare the stark reality of the decades of neglect upon hundreds of country houses. He grew up exploring – sometimes not in the most legal of ways – crumbling stately homes, sleeping in abandoned bedrooms surrounded by broken china and exquisite carving and this book details, chapter by chapter, his encounters with various houses, some of them later lost forever. It was one of my most helpful sources for The Stargazers. 
  4. The Light Years: Elizabeth Jane Howard A good house in a novel is sometimes a character in its own right, sometimes a blank canvas to enable the action to begin and Home Place, in the Cazalet Chronicles, is just such a house. Those of us who have thought for decades that EJH deserves to take her place at the top of the tree of late 20th Century novelists are having their day now – we grin with pleasure, sometimes through gritted teeth, when others tell us there is simply nothing like the Cazalets for combining historical fact, jaw-dropping plot – often based on EJH’s own life – and the sense of a time and place trapped in aspic, an upper-middle-class family before the Second World War. Mostly, it is the characters, though. There are moments with Clary, Zoe, Miss Milliment and others where I’ve had to shut the book, the pain of their experience is so real. She knew her world, and the world of a house and a family in 1937 is incredibly, fascinatingly real.
  5. The Secret Staircase: Jill Barklem I know there are lots of Brambly Hedge fans at Mr B’s and this is for them – one of my favourite houses of all time is the Old Oak Palace, the home of Lord and Lady Woodmouse which the vastly underappreciated Jill Barklem creates in exquisitely detailed and hyper-realistic cross-section. I love all the homes in Brambly Hedge. In The Secret Staircase, Primrose and Wilfred discover a winding flight of stairs that leads to a long-forgotten section of the house: dusty attics and nurseries stuffed with old toys and clothes, and a vast, magnificent room carved in wood and stone, hung all over with cobwebbed tapestries and paintings, and with two golden chairs on a little platform. Nothing is explained, it is left as a mystery, and like all great stories it is that mystery and complexity that elevates it into a fascinating story, whether you are six or sixty.