Historical Fiction Week: Guest Post by Iona Grey

The next guest on my Historical Fiction Week is Iona Grey, author of the stunning Letters to the Lost, Winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2016. Today she stops by to talk about houses and their role in Historical Fiction:

I’m currently hard at work on my second book, and taking a welcome break to drop in to Alba’s fabulous blog and say hello! I’m at the stage of the book where it feels a bit like living underground and coming up for air every now and again, blinking stupidly in the daylight, but I can’t really complain as the (imaginary) place where I’m spending my days is a huge and beautiful eighteenth century house in the rolling Herefordshire countryside. There are far worse places to be!

As well as writing I’ve also been doing a few pieces of promotion for Letters to the Lost (which has recently been released in France and Germany) so I’ve been thinking a lot about setting and theme, and realising all over again how important houses and the concept of home are in my writing. In Letters to the Lost the small house on Greenfields Lane not only provides sanctuary to both Jess and Stella, but the link between the present and the past. Houses endure in a way that the people who pass through them cannot, though I love the idea that the lives that are lived within their walls leave an impression, and the events and emotions that are experienced there can echo down the years. I also like examining the way in which some things change and others stay the same, and how time and memory can give significance to things that might appear quite ordinary at first glance. 

So, with all this uppermost in my mind as I write my own book, I’ve been thinking about fiction I’ve loved where the present and the past collide against the beautifully evoked backdrop of a house. Here are my top five.

The Go Between L. P. Hartley

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ For me that’s the most intriguing, promise-laden first line ever, matched only by the poignancy of the book’s last line when Leo finally returns to Brandham Hall. What comes between the two is a story that is told through the filter of memory, but which vividly conjures up a sweltering summer and a grand country estate in its heyday at the very start of the twentieth century – an era which will bring devastating change.

Rebecca Daphne Du Maurier

Another contender for the prize of ‘most magical first line’. A brief but brilliant opening chapter leads the reader down the tangled drive to Manderley, the house that stands at the heart of the story, and our interest is immediately, irresistibly hooked. We’re desperate to know the chain of events that have led to such a beautiful house being abandoned, and the glimpse the author gives us of how it used to be is both poignant and persuasive. Has anyone ever read the first chapter and not got any further? I seriously doubt it!

Carrie’s War Nina Bawden

I read this when I was about seven and think it was probably my first introduction to dual time frame novels. I can still remember the shiver that went up my spine when I read the opening paragraph (with its echoes of Rebecca, though I didn’t know that at the time) in which Carrie dreams about going back to the house she last visited as an evacuee, thirty years before. The story itself is gripping, but for me it was viewing it through the frame of the present, and seeing the changes that the years have made on the setting, that made it truly heart-wrenching (and instantly turned me into a dual time-frame addict!)

The House at Riverton Kate Morton

I read this on holiday when it came out in 2007 – almost exactly thirty years after I read Carrie’s War – and it was a bit like coming home! I believe (and I might be wrong about this – let me know!) that it marked the start of the resurgence in the dual time-frame/house-as-character genre, which was excellent news for me! I think this remains my favourite of Kate Morton’s books. In it the elderly Grace doesn’t go back to the house itself but to a film-set recreation of it, but the emotions it evokes in both character and reader are just as powerful.

Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh

The title says it all! This has got to be my favourite ever past-present juxtaposition, when cynical, world-weary Charles emerges from his hut in the army training camp he arrived at in the dark the night before, and says, ‘I’ve been here before.’ I’m part of the generation who discovered the book through the Jeremy Irons/Anthony Andrews TV series, which was lit up weeks of dreary Sunday nights when I was about ten years old, so I can never read the exquisite Chapter One, when Charles arrives at Brideshead for the first time (‘on a cloudless day in June, when the hedges were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer’) without hearing the theme tune. Or without a lump in my throat. 

What are your favourite fictional houses, or your most memorable journeys back to places from the past? I’d love to hear them!

Thank you Iona for such an interesting post. It's true that houses or places sometimes play such an important role as a character in novels. One example that comes to my mind now is The Silk Merchant's Daughter by Dinah Jefferies, where a French villa in French Indochina is central to the life of a m├ętisse. 

About the book:

Title: Letters to the Lost
Author: Iona Grey
Published: April 23rd 2015 by Simon & Schuster UK

Blurb: 1943, in the ruins of Blitzed London…

Stella Thorne and Dan Rosinski meet by chance and fall in love by accident. Theirs is a reluctant, unstoppable affair in which all the odds are stacked against them: she is newly married, and he is an American bomber pilot whose chance of survival is just one in five.

…He promised to love her forever

Sixty years later Dan makes one final attempt to find the girl he has never forgotten, and sends a letter to the house where they shared a brief yet perfect happiness. But Stella has gone, and the letter is opened by Jess, a young girl hiding from problems of her own. And as Jess reads Dan's words, she is captivated by the story of a love affair that burned so bright and dimmed too soon. Can she help Dan find Stella before it is too late?

Now forever is finally running out.

Letters to the Lost was one of my favourite reads of 2015. There was not a single thing I didn't love about this book. It had me in tears in public more than once. It was heart-breaking but also uplifting. Extraordinarily beautiful, Letters to the Lost is one of those books you simply cannot miss.

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