Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Anna Campbell Touts the Stately Homes of England
posted by Anna Campbell
My last blog a month ago (although because I’m going away, I only wrote it yesterday – with all these time warps, I’m starting to feel like Doctor Who!) was hijacked by the blog fairies. It was meant to be about how visiting stately homes relates back to my writing but it ended up just being about setting in general with a final twist where I talked about a castle I’d used in CLAIMING THE COURTESAN.
But, blog fairies, away with you today! Hi, diddly, dee, it’s stately homes for me!
There’s something magical about stepping into a house that has been lived in for hundreds of years. In the best old houses, you feel all that family history around you. It’s an odd and wonderful sensation to enter a space where generations of people have walked and broken bread and loved and laughed and cried. I’m a history nut from way back and that vivid connection with people of the past is one of the best feelings I know.
Of course you can get that feeling elsewhere that the past is still alive and present. Battlefields. Churches. Historic towns. But a house is so central to a person’s life. A house is where people reveal their most secret selves. In ages past, people were born and married and had their children and died in their houses. There’s something intimate about being in a domestic space. Somewhere people eat and sleep and interact with their family. Even now, if someone invites you to their home, they’re making a gesture to let you into their lives.
These stately homes were often closely interwoven with the larger world. The aristocrats who built somewhere like Blenheim (not that I find Blenheim an intimate experience—it always strikes me as a public gesture of self-aggrandisement more than somewhere you’d want to live) or Castle Howard or Ham House were at the center of their universes. They were confidants to kings, they were politicians, they guided the church and education and trade. Even if they weren’t involved in administering Britain and its empire, they ran little kingdoms on their estates. So you get a feeling of a whole society from one country house.
Often, the houses are breathtakingly beautiful. Clearly a Marxist would consider the wealth these people had at their disposal obscene. But riches on that scale offers an experience outside most people’s reach. I’d argue many of these aristocrats had taste and education and they used both to make their houses glorious. Go to Syon Park in London, still owned by the Duke of Northumberland, and see the Robert Adam interiors. Go to Ham House in Richmond and marvel at the original fabrics with their exquisite embroidery from the time of Charles II. Or visit the lovely gardens at Penshurst in Kent, especially in spring when the orchards are a riot of color and scent. Aesthetically, these experiences are not to be missed!
For a writer, other experiences are at least as valuable as the luxury and beauty that fill these houses. The feeling of cold uneven flagstones beneath your feet in the kitchens. The smoothness of a polished mahogany banister under your hand as you sweep down a magnificent staircase. Well, all right, I’m in my ratty travel gear so perhaps ‘sweeping’ is too strong a word! There’s the dank smell of a moat through an open casement window, something I discovered when I went to Ightham Mote in Kent which is one of the most romantic places I’ve ever been.
All this sensory detail adds another dimension to writing. It’s something I try to include in my historical romances so my characters are living and breathing people moving through a world full of concrete, realistic detail. In a way, I’m trying to create that link with a vital past that I feel when I’m in my favorite stately homes.
Do you like to visit old houses? Why? Do you have any favorites? Not necessarily in Britain. There are old houses in Australia that give you a wonderful insight into how our ancestors lived. I’m sure there are plenty in America. I’d love to know if I’m the only old house fanatic here!