Julia Lee tells us about her love of atmospheric houses that feature in books she has enjoyed throughout her life, and which have helped inspire one of the key locations in her debut children’s novel, The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth.
It was one of the great disappointments of my childhood that I didn’t live in a house like Green Knowe. (Other disappointments were that I couldn’t fly, or talk to animals—at least, not so that they took any notice.)
But back to Green Knowe—an ancient house and garden by a river, full of history, magic, tame birds and friendly ghosts. When I found out that Lucy Boston, the author of The Children of Green Knowe, was describing the house where she actually lived, I couldn’t get over her luck—or my envy.
Illustrations of Green Knowe by Peter Boston.
I grew up in a modern semi, in a road of identical houses, on the outskirts of London. So disappointing when it came to exploration, although we tried! No secret passages, cobwebby cellars, or attics stuffed with generations of junk and the odd piece of hidden treasure. No ghosts, or time-warps back to previous eras, either— our home was brand-new when my family moved in. Whenever we went on a trip I’d gaze longingly out of car and train windows, and make up stories about what it would be like to live in the places we passed. Country cottages, mansions, follies, farms: they all fed my hungry imagination.
I think this was why I’ve always loved books that centre around a house. Old favourites include The Secret Garden’s Misselthwaite Manor, with its long corridors and haunting night-time crying. Or Helen Cresswell’s Moondial, where heroine Minty slips through time when she visits an old manor-house. Another time-shift story, Penelope Lively’s A Stitch In Time, features a Victorian house which has become a rather unloved seaside holiday-let—but I longed to stay there!
As I got older I enjoyed the spoof-spookiness of Northanger Abbey, and the wonderfully haunting Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, amongst many others. I still get excited when I discover another “house” novel I’ve missed, or a new one is published. They always set me wondering about the places that inspired their authors.
Menabilly in Cornwall, one of the houses that went into Daphne Du Maurier’s creation of Manderley
Hardly surprising, then, that when it comes to my own writing, I really love being able to create a house—any house I want, anywhere I want—out of thin air. The Great Hall at the heart of The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wigglesworth looks “as if a child had tipped everything out of a brick-box, determined to build a house, however strange the result.” I wanted it to be rambling in the extreme, a hotch-potch of eras and architecture, with plenty of scope for secrets and hiding places.
I like touring old houses, and now I can call it research. Give me a guide-book that includes a floor-plan and I’m in heaven! But there are always areas that are off-limits. When I make up a house I can go into every room, and poke around the stairwells and cupboards and corners to my heart’s content.
The walled kitchen garden at West Dean, with cottage and glass-houses.
Image: Jim Buckland.
As I worked out what my heroine Clemency got up to, first below stairs and then venturing beyond the servants’ quarters, I had no trouble picturing her surroundings. A pink drawing-room and a blue-drawing room; stuffed tigers and stuffed birds; a round tower full of trophies; a Victorian kitchen garden laid out with elaborate neatness. I may have overdone the double double staircase in the hall, though, as I can’t find anything quite so complicated in real life.
Here’s a modest example: the Winter Palace, St Petersburg.
But then the Great Hall isn’t based on any real place. I enjoy making things up too much to limit myself to that. I’m sure that houses I’ve visited and read about and seen on screen have gone into the mix, with ideas and images stored somewhere in the back of my brain. Gosford Park and Brideshead Revisited, perhaps, though not Downton Abbey, as my book was completed before that ever came to our televisions.
I must say that the working parts of a big house—nurseries, kitchens, pantries, passages—fascinate me far more than the grand public rooms. Because I strongly suspect that had I lived in Victorian times, like Clemency, I would have been toiling away below-stairs, rather than lounging about above.
Julia Lee has been making up stories for as long as she can remember. She wrote her first book aged 5, mainly so that she could do all the illustrations with a brand-new 4-colour pen, and her mum stitched the pages together on her sewing machine. As a child she was ill quite a bit, which meant she spent lots of time lying in bed and reading (bliss!).
Julia grew up in London, but moved to the seaside to study English at university, and has stayed there ever since. Her career has been a series of accidents, discovering lots of jobs she didn’t want to do, because secretly she always wanted to be a writer.
Julia is married, has two sons, and lives in Sussex.
Find out more about Julia on Twitter.
NOTES ON IMAGE SOURCES
• Peter Boston illustrations: www.polymathperspective.com/?=175
• Photo of Menabilly: www.dumaurier.org/memories.html
• Winter Palace staircase: www.saint-petersberg.com/palaces/winter-palace
• The walled garden at West Dean College – image taken by Jim Buckland the Head Hardener at West Dean College, West Sussex