Sunday, June 14, 2020

Summer books: 3

Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee (eds), Lives of Houses
Published by Princeton University Press

The art critic John Russell said that the best way to educate oneself was to visit other people’s houses. There you would find the essence of the owner, and there would always be a place of focus (it might be the library, or the dining table, or the mantlepiece full of invitations, or the tray of drinks) that would reveal the person’s character and could, if one was lucky, open up new worlds. We hope for something like that, perhaps, when we visit writers’ houses that are open to the public – Hardy’s Dorset cottage, or Jane Austen’s Chawton, or the town house where Dickens lived for a few pivotal years.

This book is collection of essays (mostly by literary scholars and historians) and poems about houses once lived in by writers, artists, composers, and one architect. These essays bring out, often very movingly, how important these houses were to their occupants. Among the highlights for me are Felicity James’s essay focusing on Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, the house that confirmed for him how a life in the country had made him into a poet (the cottage is also the subject of a memorable poem, ‘Home at Grasmere’); James tellingly shows how for the Romantic poets, home was often the focus of nostalgia. W. B. Yeats’s tower at Ballylee, damp, inconvenient, problematic in many ways, but a vital symbol for Yeats and the inspiration of more great poetry, is the subject of an evocative essay by Roy Foster; the piece reveals how the tower fulfilled the poet’s need for a domestic link to Irish history. The houses in Tennyson’s life, so important, so celebrated in the contemporary press, but ambivalent to the poet (as were other houses, like the looming ‘dark house’ of his dead friend Arthur Hallam in his poem In Memoriam) are analysed by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Ainola, the Finnish country house where the composer Sibelius spent his last, silent years, famously not producing the eighth symphony for which so much of the musical world longed, is the subject of a moving piece by Julian Barnes.

Many of the occupants drew deeply on their houses and their locations, as Wordsworth and Yeats did. Some were grounded in their homes through family succession – most clearly, Elizabeth Bowen, recalled by Hermione Lee. To the novelist, Bowen’s Court, the family ‘big house’ in Ireland, meant so much. The tensions of the Anglo-Irish life are still vividly present in many of her books, but Bowen’s Court itself is gone, a bare patch of grass now, a house of air. In stark contrast are the writers and artists who struggled to settle down. Edward Lear seems to have spent much of his life as a lonely wanderer, then built his ideal home in Italy, only to suffer the spoliation of its setting soon after the house was complete. And Lear’s story, told by Jenny Uglow, was a happy one compared to that of poet and composer Ivor Gurney, who as an adult never really had a home at all and spent the last 15 years of his life in the bleak confines of the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford. As Kate Kennedy points out in her essay on Gurney in Dartford, the poet’s native Gloucestershire meant so much to the troubled poet-composer that a day there would have been worth years incarcerated in Dartford; only the arrival of Helen Thomas with a bunch of OS maps of Gloucestershire gave him some imaginative relief.

Lives of Houses is full of such anecdotes and insights – about the role of the great house of Uppark in the life of H. G. Wells, about Auden at Kirchstetten, Disraeli at Hughenden, Britten at Aldeburgh. Gillian Darley contributes a rich piece about Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – a house to read like the leaves formed by Soane’s ingenious fold-out picture-frames, a town house that seems to have been caught in the act of turning into a ruin, a building that is also an autobiography. Most moving of all, perhaps, are the people recalled by Alexander Masters in the essay ‘Fear of Houses’, men and women whom circumstances made homeless and for whom this state of homelessness produces reactions from longing for four walls to terror at the confinement brought by a life within closed doors. Fortunate are those with a home they can call their own; fortunate are those who can learn from other people’s houses.

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