Johanna Lane on childhood inspiration
February 10, 2015
Every Sunday when I was a child, my family drove from our Dublin suburb to County Wicklow, to the house that my maternal ancestors built in the 17th Century, and re-built after it had been destroyed by a fire in the 19th. Leaving behind the busy city, my parents, brothers, and I passed through the gates and up the oak-shaded avenue, until the house emerged. Then we went back in time.
My grandmother and my great-aunt waited for us with afternoon tea: cakes and sandwiches spread out on the long, mahogany table in the dining room. We were not, on those afternoons, children of the 1980s, but children of a much earlier time. We knew we had to behave. It was written on the centuries old walls, the heavy furniture, the enormous gilt-edged mirror hanging at the end of the room, a room that hadn’t changed since my great-great-grandparents were alive.
After tea, when the weather was good, we played outside. The gardens were a warren of flowerbeds and hedges and fruit trees, a perfect place for hide and seek. When the rain forced us indoors, the house was almost as full of possibilities as the gardens, but I didn’t like to be alone there. I was certain that the ghosts of my ancestors were watching me as I ran down those halls, their halls. I still remember one of the most frightening moments of my life, a cousin locking me in an upstairs room with the lights off. I felt a terror I haven’t felt since, even on the rockiest of flights or the nearest of motorway misses.
The house was sold when I was twelve. I was too young to realise what we were losing, but at university I became obsessed with Irish ‘big house’ novels (though my family’s was a small house in comparison), Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September and JG Farrell’s Troubles in particular. But I loved any novel that focused on a special house – Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Forster’s Howard’s End, Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day – or that had simply been imbued with specialness by its inhabitants, like the seaside cottage in which the Ramsays holiday in To The Lighthouse.
When I set out to write my first book, a big house novel was the obvious choice, but I didn’t want to try to mimic the books I loved; I wanted to write a contemporary version, a novel that could only have been written with everything we know about Ireland’s recent political history, and about the economic boom, the Celtic Tiger, which has profoundly changed the Irish landscape both figuratively and literally. In Black Lake, a Dublin woman marries a man from a fading estate, Dulough (‘black lake’ in Irish). She moves from the city to the country, bringing her thoroughly modern sensibility with her. Though she loathes Dulough’s origins and though she is fiercely nationalistic, she can’t help but fall in love with her new home. When they run out of money and are forced to turn the estate into a tourist attraction, she feels as violated as her husband. What she finds is that it was easy to condemn the past in the abstract, but when you live it, it’s a whole different story.