THE ROMANCE OF THE HOUSE
I love the story of the French poet who, having long yearned for a house in the
country with a small garden, decided at the age of seventy that he would simply
acquire it without cost.
First came the house, complete with attic and wine cellar. Before long there
were flower-beds, a kitchen garden and the ‘little wood’. He lingered over
their various beauties in his poems, and took enormous pleasure in every aspect
of his estate. So thorough was his imagining that a heavy, unseasonable frost
would bring on an attack of anxiety for his vines. When his poetry was
published, he received an earnest letter from a reader, offering to work there
for him as an overseer.
Recently, I have been spending time in a house grand enough to boast an ‘east
wing’. Its kitchen garden has miles of weathered walls lined with carefully
espaliered fruit trees, and there is a dove cote high up in a corner. Perhaps
the house’s greatest charm is a series of hidden corridors, a warren of narrow
spaces behind the wainscot where servants once went about their chores unseen.
Like the French poet’s country seat, this wide grey house – two floors above
basement rooms – is entirely built of words.
Daydreaming houses may be the least troublesome way of owning property. Whole
sections of a staircase can fall without me having to reach for the white
pages, and when the chimney smokes, or rats nest in the needlepoint chairs, I
can shut the door and take my cup of tea elsewhere. Not only that, but when I
move out, the house will not haunt me.
The French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, has said that houses are in us as
much as we are in them, and I am endlessly absorbed by the relationship we have
to our houses, and by the way memory can return us to previous dwellings in a
There has been at least one house that I cried over when we left it. I was
unusually happy there and, looking back, perhaps I sensed that in the world
beyond its front gate, happiness would never again be quite as uncomplicated or
intense. Parting with it, although voluntary, was painful, as was the knowledge
that it began to alter from the moment we crossed the threshold. Fortunately,
I have never been back to look at it, so in my mind its charm remains intact.
There was another house we lived in and then left, and although it was not the
most beautiful abode, it was the setting for momentous events. For a long time
it returned to me in dreams, and wandering through its rooms I was disturbed to
find them filled with oversized wardrobes and bulky chests of drawers. I did
revisit this place later, coerced into it by a friend, and found it just as in
my dreams – crammed with unsuitable furniture and unrecognisable as the place
that had once belonged to us.
Even rooms in which I have been unhappy still hold a profound fascination.
Perhaps it is a slightly voyeuristic urge: I want to understand the person I
was at that particular moment, and it is as if the walls and floors and
ceilings might offer clues to where I went astray.
For years, any time I happened to be in Sydney, I would revisit the place where
I was living when I last saw my father; it was a conscious decision driven by
an unconscious, irrational urge. Each time, I found myself standing in the
street feeling lost and baffled. The place did not know me, and I no longer
knew it. What had happened there had nothing to do with space and everything to
do with time, the terrifying brevity of our lives. As soon as I was able to
grasp the fact that the bricks and mortar had nothing to tell me, I put an end
to the pilgrimages.
The house where I now live is, I think, indifferent to me. It has no notion
that I admire its architraves, or that I can sit for an hour and watch the
light move across one of its creamy walls. On a quiet day it has an aura of
stillness that is quite mesmerising. I often wonder, though not in a morbid
way, whether this will be the last house.
Bachelard also says it is desirable for us to keep a few dream houses up our
sleeves, places that we will inhabit later, so much later that, in all
probability, the move will never come to pass. As a writer, I’m in and out of
dream houses all the time, but lately I have begun to set aside a few special
ones for the future.
For once these houses are not made of words but of bricks and stone and
plaster, albeit in various stages of decay. I found them when I was driving
through Ireland, beautiful ruins with the reek of history and the allure of
irrecoverable stories in their ivy-clad facades and fallen floors.
One that aches for restoration yet is probably beyond it stands in Rathnure,
County Wexford. Built in 1770 by the Carew family, Castleboro House is said to
be haunted by the ghost of Lady Carew, who died after rushing into the burning
building to retrieve her needlework.
As well as Castleboro, there are many semi-derelict yet beautiful cottages,
gatehouses, even castles, all in urgent need of repair. On quiet mornings at
home, even when I should be writing, I find myself musing on the possibility of
their future rescue. As dream houses, they are perfect, as building projects,
impossible, but that seems to be what both Bachelard and the poet had in mind.
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