My new suspense novel Façade – published today – is a twisty psychological mystery described by one reviewer as ‘family noir’ because, behind the polished veneer of this family and their Georgian home, nothing is as it seems.
For this publication day blog, I’m making a change from talking about the plot, characters and what really happened at The Old Rectory and I’ve written this reflection on what it’s like to live in a Georgian house and the meaning of home.
Wander into any gift shop and you’ll find dinky vintage plaques, perhaps on lime-washed board, with a seaside theme, bearing the single word HOME. In literature and in life, there’s a mythology attached to the idea of ‘home’. One of the most popular is ‘Home is where the heart is’. But what if that wasn’t true of your home? What if some members of a family are dark-hearted? Where is home then?
Sometimes we confuse houses with home but not all houses are welcoming cottages with roses around the door. What if a house offers no sanctuary? Or perhaps a tragedy occurred there and grief has seeped into the fabric of the building.
Confession time – like the family in my novel, I live in a two hundred year old Georgian house. (Not the one in the photo). My house isn’t grand like The Old Rectory and we were lucky to find it long ago when house prices were in a slump. My job was relocating from London to Hampshire, my husband took a redundancy package which, added to the proceeds of our London house, helped us to afford it.
Our new house was dilapidated and our finances were already stretched to the limit as I was the main breadwinner while my husband looked after the kids and fitted a small business around their needs. Renovating the house took years. First we dealt with the damp, the rust, the leaking roof, dodgy electrics, bowed exterior wall and the well that flooded the cellar every time it rained.
Until the mid-twentieth century, part of our property had been a shop. Later it was badly converted into a granny annexe. Upstairs the only way to cross the landing was through the family bathroom. We remodelled the old shop into living accommodation and infuriated our kids by removing the second staircase and stopping them racing up one staircase, through the bathroom and down the other.
Heating this ancient house with its rattling sash windows, perma-damp cellar and loft that can’t be insulated costs as much as running a small factory. It’s on a busy main road where lorries rumble past all day long. But I love the house and hardly notice the traffic. Throughout the years when I worked insane hours, commuting and travelling with my job, I never felt I was truly inhabiting my home. It was as if I was clinging onto the edge of it by my fingertips. Later I came to realise that you can’t fully ‘own’ a house that’s two hundred years old. So many people have been there before you and left their mark on it.
One quirky feature of our house is the decorative mouldings, designed and installed by French prisoners of war. These were seamen who’d been captured during the Napoleonic Wars and were kept imprisoned in a nearby chalk pit. In the daytime they were allowed out to work at their trades and houses being built at the time benefited from their skills and craftsmanship. I believe the walls of ancient houses absorb the stories of everyone who has lived and worked there.
When I began writing my novel, Façade, a grander Georgian House, The Old Rectory wheedled its way into my imagination and demanded to sit at the centre of the story. I remembered novelist Tim Pears (award winning author of In The Place of Fallen Leaves and The West Coast Trilogy) once telling me that he grew up in a Georgian rectory. I asked him what it was like. and he described a similar sense of connectedness with the past:
I grew up in a tiny village in Devon in a huge house, a Rectory with twenty-seven rooms. It was as if we grew up with one foot in the twentieth century and the other in the eighteenth (if without the servants.) Seldom-used rooms each had their own eerie atmosphere; a corridor led to darkness; alone, one's voice travelled and came back quivering with fear. Years later, I watched David Lynch's incredibly spooky Lost Highway and experienced a traumatic return to childhood, that big house pregnant with unseen souls.
The fictional Old Rectory in Façade is the family home of the Stapletons and, in the opening scene of the book, their toddler son, George, drowns in an ornamental fountain in the garden.
The house becomes steeped in tragedy and takes on a different meaning for each family member. The rectory looks grand from a distance but is decaying from the inside along with its owners Max and Miriam Stapleton, who have succumbed to grief, denial and dementia. Their daughter, Rachel runs a property business which has a superficial gloss of success but its true financial position is quite different. She soldiers on in a career she dislikes out of a sense of duty to support her parents in the elegant home they refuse to leave. Silence about the past creates a barrier between Rachel and her partner, Jack, and daughter Hannah. Meanwhile her sister Imogen, who was married to a once-famous boy band musician has lost touch with reality and no longer recognises truth or the value of anything. Each character is searching for home without knowing where to find it.
The Old Rectory keeps a brooding watch over the family conflict and imposes its own demands, as this extract shows:
All of a sudden Rachel had a feeling she was not alone. Her senses on high alert, her ears tuned in to long ago sounds of birdsong, roadworks, blaring rap music and a child’s rippling laughter. From the corner of her eye she thought she glimpsed a small figure near the old playhouse and felt something brush against her leg. Her stomach somersaulted but when she looked down, it was next door’s cat, Monty. She gathered him up in her arms, holding him tight against her chest and feeling his rapid heartbeat keep pace with her own. He struggled and mewed before settling into her embrace.
The feeble sunshine painted The Old Rectory’s rear windows into reflective mirrors and the house seemed to whisper to her, as if re-establishing its claim: mend me, fix me, love me. She gave Monty a final hug and set him down on the path.
The Old Rectory has become a character in the story in its own right. Perhaps, if the other characters bothered to listen, it could impart some of its centuries-old wisdom about life, family and the meaning of home.