The storied house

The lodge at Gliffaes Country House, Crickhowell. Photo image © C A Lovegrove

Inverted Commas 19: A sturdy sense of itself

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.

Though I’ve yet to read the collection with which this quote is associated — from Alice Munro‘s own introduction to her Selected Stories, 1968-1994 — I’ve always loved the concept of a storied house ever since I came across it, heaven knows when.

Yes, sometimes readers feel their way through a story as though they’re on a journey through a tangled wood or on a path through an unknown country; but I’m someone to whom the image of a narrative like a storey’d edifice appeals very strongly.

Maybe it’s because I’m fairly visual; because I’m drawn to urban and suburban environments, happy to stand outside a building and admire its architecture; because I love gardens with an arrangement of ‘rooms’ where one can pause and take in one’s surroundings.

Tailor’s Court, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

Maybe it’s also because I can appreciate the process of writing that an author undertakes (even if I’m crap at it myself) that I understand Munro’s simile: while there are writers who can compose a story by starting at a given point and wander, following the clew where it takes them through the labyrinth of their imagination, the process of editing nearly always forces them to consider structuring their narrative in a more ordered way.

But it’s not just the writer who contemplates this construction.

And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.

And this is why I like being a reader and why I enjoy revisiting particularly engaging novels. I think of a few recent titles I’ve enjoyed that have even featured a building where part of the plot entails exploring its spaces: Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood, for example, with its decaying house in Thetford Forest; Ann Radcliffe’s Castle of Mazzini hiding secrets in A Sicilian Romance; the New Bookshop off Curzon Street in Garth Nix’s The Left-handed Booksellers of London. (Susanna Clarke’s newly published Piranesi promises all this too.) And if and when I return to them there’ll be features I hadn’t noticed before, or doors I now have the key to.

It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

In my discussion about Gothick novels I focused on castles and their ilk, noting their likely origins in human psychology and their emergence in dreams: and in fact those dreams born from our unconscious — even when they lack a conclusion (because we often wake up before the moment of resolution or revelation) — really do construct their own edifices as though built out of their own necessity, and not just to shelter or beguile us.

And that’s why the storied houses which we call novels can seem so right to me: they tap into that unconscious that nestles deep inside us; and maybe even into that underground stream that Jung called the Collective Unconscious.


More quotations can be found under the tag Inverted Commas

15 thoughts on “The storied house

  1. That’s interesting – because that’s the way I construct my novels. Like a house.

    It’s an inherent feature of plotting with Dramatica, as I do, because the path through the story is like exploring a floor of a house at a time, so that everything gets investigated that is relevant for the story, and yet there is still a linear order through it – imagine the path you’d follow to make sure you got into every nook and garret.

    It leaves a feeling of completeness to the writing, and, I hope, to the reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Metaphors are great, Alicia, aren’t they, but they do have their limitations. I do like the notion that stories are constructed like buildings — my classical music training is largely founded on the concept of forms (sonata form, theme and variations, rondo etc) which I see visually as suites of rooms or a storeyed dwelling — yet I’m constantly using alternative metaphors.

      A favourite is the tapestry, especially when I talk of strands and threads and textures; another is collage; and so on.

      The thing is we have to be careful when applying spatial concepts to what is a branch of the arts that spools out over time. Narrative is common to literature, drama, opera, dance, games, song, instrumental music, lies, dreams; and these essentially play out in time and are received by our senses and appreciated over time.

      So, your idea of tracing a path through your storied house, exploring a floor at a time, neatly combines space and time, possibly explaining why it’s so satisfying an approach. Thanks for the confirmation!

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        1. Yes, apologies for the ambiguity, Alicia — I had a look at Dramatica’s website and their precepts there are quite detailed — but it’s clear that the concept is a common one.

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          1. I find it helpful to be that organized – even though the system takes years to learn, and is sometimes obscure – especially because I have a damaged brain. So I can work with a small piece of the plotting or the characterization or the actual writing, and know that the pieces are set up to connect properly once I’ve created them.

            It’s hard to explain, and I never recommend anyone else do what I do because of the learning curve, but boy does it pull some interesting things out of my brain!

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            1. Not everyone can cope with an unstructured way of working, and it sounds as though you’ve found something that works for you which is excellent news. Theoretically I like structure, but I tend to kick against any system that appears too tyrannical — or at least stick my tongue out at it!

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            2. Hehe – as the kids say: I USE it for MY purposes – it doesn’t tell me what to do. It’s like a set of prompts that doesn’t leave anything out. I have full control over how, when, and where I use the material I generate that way – and anything else I think of – but I hate losing pieces, and this helps.

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  2. Architects have their own version of string theory. Their version uses actual strings as they try to plot (anticipate) the journeys the occupant of the building, under design, will have to make and to design the building to make these journeys as efficient as possible. Hence the use of strings (which naturally form the shortest distance between any two points). I’m simply thinking aloud here but wondering if the story/building metaphor extends not just from building to story but also from story to building. Both are a matter of plotting.

    As well, of course, as from storey to storey.

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    1. Hah, that architects’ string thing is a modern version of Ariadne’s thread for Theseus in the minotaur’s labyrinth, isn’t it! And like those boards that detectives are supposed to set up on their walls with red thread joining up photos of victims, suspects, murder weapons and places. In fact, virtually any diagrams — sociograms etc — where connections and paths are drawn in.

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  3. The Munroe quote is new to me but I found myself nodding in recognition as I read it. When I’m reading the images in my imagination as the story progresses probably equate most naturally to that feeling of wandering through a house. There is feeling of living within a different space as you read and I love the idea of looking out at the real world through the windows of the story. This is has given me a lot to think about and explore further. Thank you, Chris.

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    1. I’m hoping this resonates with a lot of other readers too, Anne. I’m reminded constantly of the quote, now a meme, by aphorist Mason Cooley: “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” It’s particularly pertinent to our present lockdown situations but your image of “looking out at the real world through the windows of the story” fits Cooley’s aphorism perfectly.

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  4. Very interesting! I really like this way of looking at stories. I frequently hear people explaining how well developed characters support a good story. Less I hear how good it is when a story has a strong sense of structure and place, and yet I find I am drawn to this kind of narrative. I think I first found it in Lord of the Rings, especially the first book, with the Shire, the wilderness around Weathertop, Rivendell and then of course Moria. I reread the Fellowship of the Ring more than the other books of the trilogy because I just adored the spaces the story inhabited and wanted to “go” there again.

    Of course there’s another way to see it too, where the place in which a story is set sort of becomes a character in its own right. In JK Rowling’s Order of the Phoenix Hogworts seems to come alive to the extent that the School itself appears to collude with Dumblefore’s Army against Umbridge and shuts her out of the Headmaster’s office.

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    1. You’re right about the setting often becoming a character in the tale, Jo. I’m reading Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi at the moment and it’s all about individuals peopling a structure, with the House being part of the dramtatis personae. Middle Earth, Hogwarts, Gormenghast — hard to imagine the story playing out somewhere else without it changing its nature completely.

      I do like structure — it helps establish things as finite — but it can of course be constricting. Still, where works of art are concerned they’re all time-constrained or spatially contained anyway; but naturally it’s what we place within the structures (people, themes, images, movements, speeches, action) that should draw the attention.

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      1. I’ve never thought of structure as being constricting before but I think I understand what you mean. I love hard science fiction because all that I know of real science immediately becomes part of the story structure. In my mind the structural basis for such stories expands hugely and I get a massive kick out of that. However, in space opera less emphasis is placed on science, real and theoretical, so the story can then do more without these contstraints and it still works so long as it is internally consistent.

        You’re quite right about what happens within a structure being important and rightly drawing attention. I feel that a good structure grounds these people, themes and actions and perhaps gives more meaning to them.

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