The importance of setting in a novel – and an insight into mine

Having an identifiable setting in a novel is key for helping the reader feel grounded in the space and time of the story. For that to happen, the writer must establish the novel’s time period, cultural climate, geography, and interior and exterior locations. This kind of world building is especially essential in genres like science fiction and fantasy, where the setting could be vastly different to what we’re familiar with, but I think it is also vital for historical fiction, because stepping two hundred (or two thousand!) years into the past is still stepping into a world unlike our own.

My historical fiction series, A Matter of Class, takes place during the first half of the 19th century and the first instalment, A Class Apart, is set in rural Ireland in 1828. I have placed a lot of emphasis on constructing the setting in the book so that the reader will feel comfortable within the environs of a country estate – encompassing a manor house and its grounds, as well as a local village, tenant homes and farms – and within the mood of the time, which entails a good deal of tension between the upper classes and lower classes, with the Irish tenants believing that the land should not be in the hands of the Anglo-Irish landowners.

In such a setting, the manor house is more than just a building; it is a symbol of affluence or oppression, depending on your viewpoint. In a way, it is like a major character in the book and hence I have given it a name: Oakleigh Manor. The house serves as a backdrop to the developing relationship between A Class Apart‘s two protagonists, Bridget and Cormac: Bridget is heiress to Oakleigh while Cormac works as a stable hand on the manor grounds. The disparity in their social standing is clearly defined through their connection to Oakleigh.

The manor house being such a crucial component of my book, I wanted to come up with a way to introduce readers to it from a visual perspective. And I found it last month when I attended a friend’s wedding at Palmerstown House in Co Kildare! I was completely awed by the architecture and throughout the day felt like I was walking around Oakleigh itself. Afterwards, I got in touch with the staff and they agreed to let me come along last Friday and take photographs of it. I’ll admit I got a bit carried away and snapped over two hundred pictures, which I then struggled to whittle down for inclusion in this post!

I should note that Palmerstown House was built in 1872, whereas three previous generations have already lived in Oakleigh by the time A Class Apart begins in 1828, therefore some elements of the building design might not match the era. However, I think the feel of the place is nonetheless quite similar. So carry on to catch a glimpse into the setting of my book! (Of course, Palmerstown House functions as a wedding venue which means there are some traces of modern technology in the photos that I couldn’t avoid but you can use your imagination to edit out those bits…)

A Class Apart opens with Bridget and her mother returning to Oakleigh after having spent seven years away in Dublin. The first thing they would see on their arrival would be the entrance to the manor grounds, which leads onto a long, winding avenue:

Palmerstown House entrance

To visualise it exactly like Oakleigh, in place of the stonework there would be red brick, and the avenue would be gravelled instead of tarmacked.

Once their carriage reaches the top of the avenue, the space widens out in front of the manor house, where all the servants are assembled to greet their mistress on her homecoming:

Palmerstown House top of the avenue

Picture the rows of servants lined up here: maids, footmen, stable hands (including Cormac!), gardeners, and even some of the local farmers and cottiers.

When Bridget and her mother emerge from the carriage, they lay eyes at last upon Bridget’s childhood home:

Palmerstown House front facade

Well, not quite. Oakleigh is built of red brick and is a good bit larger, with another floor and an attic above what you see here. But take in the majesty of this building! It’s just gorgeous.

Stepping through the front door, Bridget and her mother come into the grand entrance hall which is dominated by a striking mahogany staircase:

Palmerstown House staircase

I sigh every time – imagine the swish of long skirts brushing each step… Oakleigh doesn’t have a gallery above like this so its staircase is longer and goes straight up instead of angling off to the sides.

Tired after their lengthy journey from Dublin, Bridget and her mother retire to their bedchambers to refresh themselves:

Palmerstown House four-poster bed

Four-poster bed!

Palmerstown House four-poster bed with curtains

Four-poster bed with curtains!

One of the things Bridget loves most about Oakleigh is looking out her bedchamber window at the vast expanse of nature on every side, with its manicured gardens giving way to green fields:

Palmerstown House gardens

So beautiful and peaceful. Although if you squint you can see the blue sign marking the beginning of the M7 motorway in the distance…

Meanwhile, the servants depart the open space at the front of the house and scurry back to their duties. The focal area of activity below stairs is the kitchens:

Palmerstown House kitchen

Now the snooker room, you can tell that this was once the kitchen by the brick ceiling and tiled floor.

Palmerstown House wine cellar

No manor house would be complete without a wine cellar.

The indoor servants always keep an ear out for the ringing of a bell and, if summoned, will navigate their way through the belly of the house by means of the servants’ stairs (and not the magnificent staircase in the entrance hall):

Palmerstown House servants' stairs

The servants’ stairs at Oakleigh are not so bright and airy as this – conditions for servants have improved over the years!

Palmerstown House bells

I squeaked with excitement when I saw these. The bell pull system was quite ingenious really!

Cormac, being a stable hand, returns to the stables to resume his work:

Palmerstown House stables

These are a bit different to the stables at Oakleigh, where the stalls are all housed within one building.

 I took so many photos that I found it hard to choose the best ones so here are a few more to look at:

My sincere thanks to the staff at Palmerstown House for facilitating my visit. I hope you enjoyed taking a tour around this 19th century house and gaining an insight into the setting of my own book. Do you have any favourite pictures? I’d love to know what you think!

2 thoughts on “The importance of setting in a novel – and an insight into mine

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