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Talking Location With .. author Elizabeth Brooks
13th August 2020
#TalkingLocationWith… Elizabeth Brooks, author of The Whispering House, set in England.
Greenway Estate, Devon is the inspiration for the Byrne House, the building at the heart of The Whispering House
It’s funny to think I’ve only been to Greenway once, given how much time I’ve spent there in my head. Greenway is a National Trust property near Dartmouth, in Devon, and I went there one August day in 2011, during a family holiday to the English Riviera.
Whilst I was immediately struck by the loveliness of the place – the eighteenth-century house, the sloping lawns, the steep woods leading down to the river – I wasn’t immediately struck by inspiration. My son had just turned four, and my main emotions were: a) intense anxiety as he careered around the elegant rooms, and b) intense relief when we managed to leave without destroying any priceless objets d’art. Nevertheless, over time, Greenway lodged itself in my imagination and eventually sparked my second novel.
The Whispering House is a psychological mystery, set in the modern day (if the age Before Covid-19 still counts as modern), and it’s about two sisters who become fatally embroiled with the owners of an alluringly beautiful house.
I took a great many liberties with Greenway when I transformed it into Byrne Hall. The fictional house overlooks the sea rather than the river Dart, for example, and I have given the interior a draughty, echoey character, whereas the real Greenway is warm with lamps, rugs, sofas and books. The element that inspired me most, and which I have kept intact, is the Queen Anne style façade, with its symmetrical rows of windows, white stuccoed walls and pillared porch. I enjoyed the idea of pairing a serene, classical exterior with a dark, sinister interior. My novel concerns deception and seduction, after all, so this felt like a more promising place to start than some conventionally gothic mansion, complete with bat-infested turrets and ruined chapels.
I think my subconscious made the connection between Greenway and menace right from the start. The estate did, after all, belong to Agatha Christie and provided the location for several of her stories (Dead Man’s Folly and Ordeal by Innocence among others). All stately homes are inspiring one way or another – there’s nothing quite like the imaginative pleasure of wandering through a place steeped in history, thinking about the private, minute interactions that have taken place there and been lost to us forever – but the Christie connection gives Greenway an extra special frisson. My novel is not a Christie-style whodunnit, but it’s still a homage to her, and to a house steeped in mystery and story-telling.
I think it’s this sense of the past being only just out of reach, that impels me to write about ‘haunted’ houses. I put the word ‘haunted’ in inverted-commas because I’m not particularly interested in apparitions rising from tombs, or ladies in white gowns passing through walls. I’m much more intrigued by the way in which historical characters and events make their mark on a place, leaving traces – both material and atmospheric – that affect the present day. National Trust properties like Greenway are full of such traces – the vacated chairs, the empty clothes, the used pens, the photographs, books and private possessions – which fill their rooms to the brim with untold stories. Likewise, in The Whispering House, Byrne Hall mirrors its past and present inhabitants, and it’s only by coming to understand the place (from its lush gardens and charming façade, to its locked rooms and dusty attics) that my main character, Freya, begins to understand her own story.
As a writer, I am always looking for oblique ways in which to reveal character, and houses offer a helpful way in which to do this. If I told you, straightforwardly, “Mr Byrne has a secretive personality” I doubt you’d be as intrigued as if I told you, “Mr Byrne keeps the door to the attic locked at all times”. At a stately home like Greenway, it’s always the roped-off areas that fire my imagination most. When I first introduce Freya to Byrne Hall, it’s no accident that I have her stepping round a STRICTLY PRIVATE sign.
‘Greenway’ is a lovely name, redolent of sunlight and trees: much too pleasant for the house in my book. I chose the name ‘Byrne Hall’ as a discreet nod to those two great houses of literature – Thornfield and Manderley – which go up in flames at the end of Jane Eyre and Rebecca respectively.
As to whether a similar fate awaits Byrne Hall, my lips are sealed, but here’s to a long life for beautiful Greenway: “The ideal house,” as Christie herself described it. “A dream house.”
The Whispering House’ by Elizabeth Brooks is published in hardback by Doubleday
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