“Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay again...” begins Daphane du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). The Rebecca of the title is long dead when we visit Mandalay, the mansion near the sea where Rebecca lived with her husband Maxim de Winter, to where comes the unnamed narrator of the novel, a young lady’s assistance, who is not even a patch on the sophistication and elegance of Lady Rebecca, which the housekeepers Mrs Denvers would be only too happy to remind her.
In Rebecca, Rebecca comes alive through Mandalay, the house. There’s Rebecca’s room which no one visits, there’s her writing desk with the papers bearing her initials, and there are her clothes. Rebecca is so alive in Mandalay that the narrator of the story cannot even utter her name there. And when, in the end, the protagonists deal with the memories of Rebecca, the house had to go, burnt into ashes. The same fate meets the house with a shameful history in Jane Eyre.
Houses and their architecture have a curious connection with fiction, especially in the tales of horror and gothic. Even the very word ‘gothic’ is borrowed from architecture. The first gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), a horror tale set in the castle of the title. Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets, and hereditary curses.
Says Wikipedia: Gothic architecture is a style of architecture that flourished during the high and late medieval period. It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights refers to the house where the tragic drama of doomed love is played out. Without the house, which changed hands several times, the story of Catherine and Heathcliff would never be the same. And, the room where Cathy’s ghost visits the narrator, and the table where etched are the names of the doomed lovers, would never be so dramatic.
In Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), the Notre Dame cathedral is as much a character as the poor hunchback. Quasimodo cannot exist without the church which shelters him, and which prompts him to help Esmeralda. A church bell never tolled so loudly as it does at the end of the novel.
In case of The Phantom of the Opera (1910), Gaston Leroux’s novel cannot exist without the existence of the Paris opera, a grand structure designed by architect Charles Garnier, which was opened in 1875. Leroux’s tale may be imaginary, but the opera is bewilderingly real and Leroux describes it with all its opulence and mystery.
In the recent times, architecture comes to play an important role as a ‘plot device’ in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels, especially The Da Vinci Code. Here the Louvre Museum plays such an important role. The novel cannot exist without the museum. And, the revelation of the novel comes at another architectural site — The Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland.
In Northanger Abby, Jane Austen goes to satirise the whole gamut of the gothic romance genre, only to create a gothic novel herself.
In E M Forster’s Howards End (1910), the house becomes the symbol of dying aristocracy. When the house is finally handed over to the Schlegel sisters, an entire era comes to an end.
In A House for Mr Biswas (1961), a house for V S Naipaul’s protagonist is a sense of belonging.
In Shame (1983), the house where Omar Khayyam was born to the three sisters, and which contains a murderous dumb waiter, is representative of a country oppressed by fundamentalism.
In Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli (1977), the haveli is the symbol of patriarchy which the protagonist of the novel must face and survive.