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!


Christine Wells said...

Ah, Foanna, I'm with you all the way on stately homes. I often think a world without man-made beauty would be like a world without romance novels. Politically correct, but not nearly so much fun!

I've been trying to think of the stately homes I like the most. Apsley House was very impressive but not for the reason most people would find it interesting. The Duke of Wellington collected an impressive array of china and plate, which is the main attraction for me.

And I know it's terribly tacky, but I adore the Royal Pavillion at Brighton. It's so gaudy it has a beauty of its own.

Donna MacMeans said...

Anna -

I loved, loved, loved your blog and wish I could be in England to visit the stately manors and castles. How fabulous that many have been preserved for centuries and not torn down to make way for another parking lot!

Here in the states, the best example I've seen of stately homes is the so-called "cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island. These were fabulous houses used only six to eight weeks of the year by the rich families of the barons of industry (nineteenth century). Not only do you get a feel for the vast wealth, and egos, of the inhabitants, but a tour through the home also shows the ingenuity of a population that existed without benifit of electricity, refrigeration, or central heating yet still managed to "get the job done."

I'm using one of the Newport homes, Marble House, in my current work-in-process. You can't visit these places without having them filter into your work in some fashion.

Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy said...

Foanna and everyone else who hasn't been here,

If you ever make it to California, you'll have to take a tour (they offer 3) of Hearst Castle. This house and its 2 or 3 surrounding guest houses are the ultimate in over-blown and gaudy indulgence (24 karat gold tiles around the indoor pool is only a minor example) but FUN to see! I went to college in nearby Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and had a friend who led tours there in the summer.


Michelle said...

I always drag my family to at least one "old" house whenever we go on vacation, but I rarely remember the names of the houses or people who lived there. (I'm lucky to remember all my family's name on some days:) But I love the feeling when you walk through. Like you are part of history again for just those couple of minutes. We recently visited Valley Forge in PA, and I walked throught the house George Washington stayed at for a short while during the war. I felt so special thinking my hand was touching the same rail that his hand touched. It's just an connection.

Helen said...

Hi Anna sounds like you are having a great time I wish I could be there I love old houses and buildings and I love the way authors always give you a real feeling for what the houses and buildings were like by the way they describe them. I used to work in a very old building many years ago in the city of Sydney in George St with a basement and rooms upstairs that were not used and I liked to roam around them when I could it is part of the national trust and I always loved it. It was a bank when I worked there but I think it is empty now.Have Fun at the conference all those that are going I wish I could be be.
Have Fun

Anna Campbell said...

Hello, diehards! Most of the Banditas are in Dallas with me - we had a great dinner out last night and talked ourselves silly (for me, that doesn't take long!). Thanks for your comments on my post. I'd love to go to Hearst Castle, AC. It's always had this gothic sort of glamour for me. The Rhode Island places sound fabulous, Donna! Christine, I've been to Apsley House - strange, I found it rather cold and impersonal but you're right about the china being unbelievable! Michelle, that feeling of having a personal connection to history is exactly what I love about old houses. You put it beautifully! Helen, I am having a lovely time although I'm looking forward to coming home next week and staying put for a little while. Living out of a suitcase is losing its charm big time! Loved the story of you roaming this old building in Sydney! Almost like a ghost yourself. Having a great time in Dallas. Wish you girls could be here!!!

Anna x