Eleven Bellevue Gardens by Rachel Hore
Eleven Bellevue Gardens, the North London setting for my new novel, is two hundred years old and possesses a shabby grandeur that suggests it still dreams of its Victorian heyday. Then it was home to well-to-do middle class families whose children played on trim back lawns under the vigilant eyes of their nannies, whilst their mothers took tea in one another’s drawing rooms and organized dinners or charity whist drives. Its modern occupants are an assorted bunch, down on their luck most of them, but they still sense the presence of the past in the layout of the rooms or the creak of a floorboard in the night. There’s a long and noble tradition of an old house being an effective setting for a novel.
Let’s think about houses for a moment. When we pick up a pencil and unconsciously doodle it’s very probable that we’ll draw a house. Usually we associate houses in our minds with safely, warmth and family life. A house is an incredibly potent symbol. But for some people it’s the opposite; their vision of a house might be a place of awful memories, of torture and abuse.
From outside, even a pleasant, ordinary house at night with no lights can appear brooding and sinister. Apply thunder and lightning to the scene, or mist, and maybe a couple of bats and it can look terrifying. Just the place for a tale of spookiness or horror. Think of Eel Marsh House in The Woman in Black and shudder. Then there’s the house that’s become a ruin, like Mandalay in Rebecca. In fact researching this piece, I was surprised to find how many houses in famous novels are places of unhappiness. Are happy houses, like happy families, too alike to write about, I wondered?
Here are some happy houses in novels: Bag End in The Hobbit, many of Jane Austen’s houses, the Suffolk farm in Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper. I’m sure you can think of more. Often they are somewhere the protagonist has to leave behind for the course of the narrative and longs to return to. Sometimes, the house represents happiness and safety to arrive at after much suffering. Following the horrors of Eel Marsh House, Arthur Kipps retreats to the pleasant comforts of Monk’s Piece. Susan Hill deliberately subverts this archetypal happy ending, though. Monk’s Piece cannot save Arthur from the long reach of the woman in black.
The house on Bellevue Gardens is a comforting abode. In recent times, it has been a place of sanctuary. If there are spectres then they’re benevolent ones, happy children, maybe, whose ghostly laughter still echoes through the rooms or a busy mother, the sound of her silk dress still swishing on the stairs. The house exudes a reassuring atmosphere that makes its inhabitants feel safe. The building itself is solidly built despite its shabbiness, has stood there for centuries. It’s a stable point in the lives of its current inhabitants who have experienced too much change, too much fear in their lives. This is why when it is threatened by developers it represents such a loss.
Old houses have their own tales to contribute in a novel, a whole cast of past characters to draw on, to add depth and richness and context. You can read these stories in stone steps worn by many feet, a brass doorknob dulled by the grasp of many hands or in a window frame buckled by a wartime bomb. ‘Others before you have endured pain and suffering, too,’ a house might whisper to its newest occupants. ‘You are not alone.’ In such books the house itself might become a character, yielding up secrets when it’s ready: a room behind a false wall, a lost earring under a floorboard, an old diary in a forgotten cupboard.
The House on Bellevue Gardens has its secrets too. Turn the pages to find out.