The ruins and restored palace in Santa Margherita de Belice
on which Donnafugata was based
Maybe you saw this recent article about 'the house that time forgot' - a perfectly intact home of the 1930s, family life preserved as if in amber. It is a gift for anyone writing about that era, and I'd love to visit. Books with houses at their heart have always intrigued me – like the labyrinthine Donnafugata in ‘The Leopard’, or Manderley in ‘Rebecca’. When the house is so alive that it functions as a character in its own right, it adds richness to a story, and tells us so much about the human characters (how they live, their aspirations, what they are hiding – whether that’s the madwoman in the attic or the disintegration of the aristocracy).
Still from Visconti's film
In ‘The Poetics of Space’ Gaston Bachelard explored the meaning of these domestic spaces, pondering the ‘shells and doorknobs, closets and attics, old towers and peasant huts’ and finding in the most ordinary places a beauty and poetry. These shelters and homes take on a sentient life:
Watercolour by Nicholas Phillips, inspired by ‘The Leopard’ http://www.nicholasphillips.co.uk/gallery_i-v.html
‘A lighted lamp in the window
Watches in the secret heart of the night.’
Lamps keep vigil for people on the road home. ‘Every chalice is a dwelling-place’. Bachelard rifles through drawers, chests and wardrobes:
Piles of sheets in the wardrobe
Lavender in the linen.’
(Every time I read those lines, I sigh with longing. Orderliness is in short supply in the homes of writers with animals and/or small children …).
It wasn’t until recently that I realised how large a part domestic spaces play in my work. In ‘The Perfume Garden’ one of the characters writes: ‘Your home is within you. You carry your place in the world.’ (Perhaps it’s not a surprising hope for me to pass on to a character - as an expat, the idea of ‘home’ of putting down roots is heady).
I’d love to hear about your most memorable houses – whether that’s real or fictional. This week I’m returning to the
UK to stay at my grandmother’s
house – she arrived there as a young bride, and refused to leave her home of
seventy odd years in her last months. It is the oldest house in the village –
the same vintage as the pub which bears the legend ‘1607’ on its lintel. Its
orchards are now hemmed in by housing estates, and I suspect this may be the
last time I see the house before a developer buys it and destroys it.
It is going to be quite a task, dismantling the house. Like many of her generation, Mamgu threw nothing away. The cellars are full of dusty jars of preserves and earthenware no one has touched for decades, the drawers crammed with linen saved for ‘best’ and a lifetime’s collection of ceramics and paintings line the walls. She was 96 when she passed away, and all her finest years were played out in that house and its grounds - now overgrown and run wild, a magical kingdom when I was a child. In an age when we are all so mobile, and many are global nomads, that permanency is hard to imagine – and I think there might just be a story there. Learning how we lived is just one element in researching our stories, but it is a rich and wonderful one.
Thank you for welcoming me to The History Girls, and I am looking forward to getting to know you all. In the meantime, have you written about a house you know and love? What would your dream house be? And which is your favourite house in literature?