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The Big House novel

The Big House novel is a peculiarly Irish phenomenon and is based on an Irish reality, namely the big house where the landlord (often English) lived, surrounded by the poor Irish peasants. The novel, as written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was about the situation that then prevailed. However, it continued on into the twentieth century, well after the big house had all but ceased to exist, at least as a social phenomenon. There were several early exponents, mainly though certainly not exclusively women. The best-known may well be Maria Edgeworth and her best-known big house novel is undoubtedly Castle Rackrent, published in 1800 and set in 1782. Nineteenth century novelists in this genre include Somerville and Ross, particularly their Big House at Inver, Charles Lever, William Carleton, particularly his The Squanders of Castle Squander and Lady Morgan.

In the twentieth century, while there have certainly been conventional big house novels, there have also been ones that aim to mock or subvert the concept. Though, of course, not a novel, Brendan Behan‘s The Big House, originally a radio play and later a stage play, even has the big house as a character. Aidan Higgins‘ first novel, Langrishe, Go Down shows the decline of the big house culture, a theme that will be found in other twentieth century big house novels. John Banville‘s Birchwood shows the decline of the inhabitants of the big house, with lunacy, chaos and death to the fore. Elizabeth Bowen‘s Last September takes this one step further, by having the big house symbolically burned down at the end. Other novels in this genre include Molly Keane‘s Loving and Giving, Good Behaviour and Time After Time, Padraic Colum‘s Castle Conquer, Joyce Cary‘s Castle Corner and A House of Children, based on his own upbringing, Mervyn Wall‘s Leaves for Burning, Julia O’Faolain‘s No Country For Young Men, David Thomson‘s Woodbrook, Jennifer Johnston‘s How Many Miles to Babylon?, William Trevor‘s Fools of Fortune and Thomas Kilroy‘s The Big Chapel. Paul Murray‘s An Evening of Long Goodbyes blows the idea apart.

Books on the Big House novel

Jacqeline Genet: The Big House in Ireland
Vera Kreilkamp: The Anglo-Irish Novel and the Big House

Other links

< The Big House’s place in Irish fiction and our cultural psyche
Anglo-Irish big house