Unreal Estate

Book Bag: The Best Imaginary Castles

Who says our most beloved places have to be real? Novelist Johanna Lane lists several favorite moated-and-turreted locations that only ever existed in the authors’ minds.

I’ve always loved books in which the place the characters live plays as much of a role in the narrative as the characters themselves. So when I came up with the idea for my first novel, Black Lake, I created Dulough, a neo-Gothic castle on the west coast of Ireland, where I spent much of my childhood. Dulough is based on a real-life castle called Glenveagh, but I also drew some inspiration from my favorite castle novels:

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe.

I encountered The Mysteries of Udolpho when I took a Gothic novel course as a student at St. Andrews in Scotland. One of the coolest things about the class was that we were discussing the Gothic novel in real Gothic buildings. Published in 1794, The Mysteries of Udolpho is the mother of the genre. Heroine Emily St. Aubert gets stuck in an Italian castle. Supernatural scariness ensues.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.

Jane Austen’s only Gothic novel, and allegedly the first novel she finished (1798-99), which means that, impressively, she wrote it in her early twenties. Northanger Abbey wasn’t to be published in her lifetime, but only after the success of her other books. It’s great fun because of the meta aspect: the main character reads The Mysteries of Udolpho and begins to see Gothic intrigue everywhere.

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth (pronounced Mar- eye- a). Published in 1800, it’s the first “big house” novel, a genre peculiar to Ireland. The big houses were the homes of the Anglo-Irish, the abhorred British ruling class, that dominated the landscape. A satire about English landlords, Castle Rackrent is told from the perspective of Thady Quirk, a Catholic worker on the estate.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Though not strictly a castle, Danielstown is one of the aforementioned “big houses.” If Castle Rackrent invented the genre in 1800, just over a hundred years later, Elizabeth Bowen wrote what’s considered the quintessential big house novel. This book embodies the deep ambivalence of the Anglo-Irish, who no longer felt British, but were not accepted by the “natives.” It is set during the Irish Civil War, when the IRA stalked the Anglo-Irish, who responded with a mixture of fear and indignation.

Brideshead Revisted by Evelyn Waugh

I chose this because it’s the novel from which I took the epigraph for my book: Charles Ryder, the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, says “I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited, as mere lodgers and short-term sub-lessees of small importance in the long, fruitful life of their homes.” I love this sentiment because it articulates how ironic it is that families create these great houses to demonstrate their own importance, but their houses almost always outlive them—and their family line.

Next on my castle reading list: Kafka’s The Castle.

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Johanna Lane grew up in Ireland, staudied English literature at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and earned her MFA at Columbia University in New York, where she lives now.