I’m currently re-listening to an audiobook of a very light-weight novel about a late-teen in the mid 1950’s who’s family owns a massive house dating back to Medieval times, with a huge extension by Inigo Jones.
The original motivation for listening was simply to deal with insomnia, but I was immediately engaged, given the parallels with the ridiculous privilege I had 25 years back of spending a summer living at Great Dixter (home of garden writer Christopher Lloyd), which happens to be a Medieval manor extended by another British architectural hero, Edwin Lutyens.
Amongst all the embarrassing teenage angst in the novel, there were a couple of profound ‘light-bulb’ moments for me. The first is when a friend recommends that the main character get out of the house, on the understanding that ownership/custodianship of such a house must kind of mess with your head. The first time I listened, this point struck me like a thud on the skull with a paving mallet. I had a sudden revelation of the burden that Christopher Lloyd must have carried for most of his life, to keep the house in the state in which he had inherited it.
The tyranny of it all struck me deeply – navigating a path through a genuine love for such a house and the inescapability of responsibility to it. And trying to reconcile the understanding that the house defines who you are, and the gratefulness you’d feel for been given such a distinction, with the opposite need to carve your own self-definition, fueled by a suspicion that to it’s not quite valid – that it’s kind of lame – to be defined by a building, and one that has defined your family for generations.
I can witness directly to the phenomenal seductiveness of custodianship of such a building. On my last day of that first period with Christopher Lloyd, he and I were sitting outside his favourite fish-supplier in Hastings discussing the future of Great Dixter. He told me that what he’d really love is for it to remain a family home – for my wife and I (for instance) to take up residence and raise a family there, but that it simply wasn’t a possibility, given the large amount his own money required to keep the house going. I fully confess, in the interest of the argument, to feeling a bit like Bilbo Baggins who, in the first movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, sees his precious ring again, and momentarily turns into a monster who’s long, greedy fingers lunge forward, totally possessed by a lust for ownership.
But after this recent revelation I’ve come to wonder whether custodianship of such a wonderful old house is a blessing or a curse. It’s perhaps therefore not surprising that the main character in my novel has recurring dreams of the house burning down. This lead to the second light-bulb moment (though after a significant delay).
To save you reading the book, the house eventually does burn down.
Several years later I picked up Adam Nicolson’s book ‘Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History’ (the author being the grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and the family member with current rights to reside in the now National Trust-owned, and world-renowned, property), and was astonished to find that the very first sentence of chapter one reads ‘I have often dreamed of Sissinghurst on fire’. He goes on to say ‘As I see it burning, I am sure I am dreaming of the framework of my life rotting in the heat…. Sissinghurst is the shape of what I am’
The coincidence was too great, and I couldn’t help but pester the author for more info. I emailed him wondering if the ‘love’ between Christopher Lloyd and Great Dixter may have been “…akin to the love between he and his mother – that of mutual, but manipulative, affirmation. Certainly it’s a love without any freedom of escape.”
In his reply, he explained that for him “The house is like a third parent: loved, resented, rebelled against, nurtured, despised, adored. The secret I think is not to be trapped by it, to let it be the loving parent not a vengeful one. It is the most perfect example of the poisoned nipple: you drink in the toxins with the milk. And who can separate those?”
I guess that’s one life-complication I’ll never now have to face. But by golly I crave the connectedness to place that both my main character, Christopher Lloyd and Adam Nicolson have had the privilege of knowing. Come to think of it, that’s largely why I garden.
(The audiobook I was listening to was The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice. Don’t bother reading (or listening to) it unless, like me, you’re a total Dixter tragic, and like to splice it into the narrative of the book, just for the sake of indulging your passion…)