My Life in Houses – Margaret Forster

I love books about houses. Novels about someone buying a house in the country, renovating it, finding the right furniture, creating a home, creating a garden, I love reading about that. I can’t stand reality TV shows about renovation though but maybe that’s just because I’d rather read than watch TV. I’m also a fan of Margaret Forster’s books so I was looking forward to reading her new memoir, My Life in Houses.

The book is structured in a series of chapters about the houses Forster has lived in. She was born in 1938, in Carlisle, in a house on the Raffles Council estate. This house represented a step up for her parents & they were proud of the hard work they’d done to get the house & then to maintain it. Margaret, however, was always looking at other houses, always slightly ashamed of living on a Council estate, especially as the Raffles estate had quite a bad reputation by the early 1950s. She spent as much time as possible in other people’s houses, looking longingly at the Edwardian villas on Norfolk Road, wanting what she didn’t have – a room of her own, mainly. She was a clever student & felt she deserved a proper study or at least a desk in her bedroom. The only time she ever really felt at home as a teenager was when she was alone in the house.

Margaret passed the entrance exam & went up to Somerville College, Oxford. She thought that living in college would be the culmination of her ambitions but she hated it. The noise, the other people so close by. Her furniture & belongings looked ridiculous in the spacious corner room. She soon moved into lodgings with a friend. The landlady, Mrs Brown & her sister, Fanny, who did all the work, were an odd pair but Margaret loved the house, imagining the many other women who had lived in her room over the years.

After Oxford, Margaret married the writer & journalist Hunter Davies. They lived in Hampstead, in a beautiful house owned by Mr Elton, an eccentric man who hated noise. Eventually, reluctantly, they had to move because they wanted to start a family. The house they finally bought, in Boscastle Road N W 5, was to be home for over 40 years. There were interludes in Portugal, when the children were small, & weekend cottages in the Lake District but it was Boscastle Road & eventually another house in the Lakes, in Caldbeck, that became the homes Margaret had always wanted.

The stories of the renovations at Boscastle Road show how much work is needed when your home is a Victorian wreck that Margaret hadn’t wanted to live in anyway. Gradually the house grew on them. The plan to move back to Hampstead as soon as they could afford it faded away & the Boscastle Road house became home. Even the trial of having a sitting tenant, Mrs Hall, wasn’t enough to deter the Davies’ from loving the house. They just had to come up with a way of moving Mrs Hall.

This book isn’t just a series of stories about house hunting & the benefits of one district of London over another. It’s really about what makes a house a home & the way that ideas about home have changed. One of the most moving themes is about the home as a haven. Margaret Forster had breast cancer twice in the 1970s & she describes so beautifully how she felt when she finally went home from hospital after the first lot of treatment.

Arriving home was in itself a healing process. Once I was inside my house the relief washed over me like a tide going out – I was on dry land again, secure within its familiar walls. And that’s how the house changed its significance for me. It took on a magical quality. If I stayed in my house, I’d be safe. I knew perfectly well that this was fanciful nonsense, but it was how I felt. Sometimes, in the weeks that followed, I’d be out on the Heath enjoying a walk when I’d be overwhelmed with an urgent need to be inside my house. I’d start walking more quickly, then almost run, and when I reached our front door my hand would fumble with the key in my haste to get into the house. Once inside, I’d stand for a moment with my back against the door, and the ordinary sight of the staircase ahead of me, a toy dropped halfway up, a basket of clean clothes lying on the bottom stair waiting to be taken up – all this would calm me. I was fine again, cocooned by the familiarity of the house.

One of my favourite Forster novels, Is There Anything You Want?, follows the lives of the women who attend a cancer clinic. I listened to it on audio, read by Susan Jameson, & found it very moving. I had no idea, then, that Forster had suffered from cancer. Only a few years later, the cancer returned, necessitating another mastectomy & this time, chemotherapy.The cottage in Caldbeck near Windermere was the healing place this time, a place where Margaret & her family would spend half the year rather than just the odd weekend.

This cottage had been built to withstand the full force of the wild winds coming from the west and so it was dug low into the ground. There were only two small windows – one in the living room one in the bedroom. Not much could be seen from them but views were not the point: keeping the wind and cold out was more important. That first night, there was a tremendous wind, howling and roaring all around, but the cottage stood firm, not a rattle to be heard. It hunkered down, just as it had done for two hundred years, and being inside it felt secure and safe.

I read a review of this book that complained about the detached way that Forster writes about her life. I didn’t find her writing to be detached at all. She seems very clear-eyed about herself, even brutally honest about her snobbery as a child & the way she looked down on her childhood home, taking for granted her good fortune. I was very moved by the later sections of the book where she writes about her cancer treatment & the effect that it has had on her. Her writing is restrained, matter of fact, unsentimental. She’s more sentimental about houses than about her health. Several times she describes her anguish at leaving a loved home but other setbacks that might seem more personal are described dispassionately. I also enjoyed her thoughts on the importance of houses to the women she has written biographies of – Casa Guidi to Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Menabilly to Daphne Du Maurier. Margaret Forster has used the idea of home to structure this story about her life & the houses she’s lived in & I found it an enjoyable, moving book.

Fletchers End – D E Stevenson

Fletchers End (cover picture from here) is the kind of book that I put down after reading with a very satisfied sigh. I’m continuing my exploration of Open Library’s holdings of Stevenson novels &, again, this is destined to be a favourite.

Bel Lamington is engaged to Ellis Brownlee, her boss at the firm where he’s a partner. Their romance is told in the novel, Bel Lamington, which I haven’t read. I seem to be making a habit of reading Stevenson’s books out of order. It doesn’t seem to matter though, as she’s very good at filling in the back story. Bel & Ellis are looking for a house in the country to live in once they’re married. Ellis’s work will keep him in London but neither want to live there. They find Fletchers End, a beautiful but neglected house near the village of Archersfield. Bel sees it first, with her friend, Louise Armstrong, & immediately falls in love with it.

The house had belonged to a Miss Lestrange, a difficult, spiky woman who enjoyed playing her relations off against one another. She left the house to her nephew, Roy, a naval officer, who had neglected the house & let it fall into a state of disrepair. The housekeeper, Mrs Warmer, lovingly cares for the house & dreads the day when someone buys it & she has to leave. So far, no one has been brave enough to take it on, with the window frames rotting & the unkempt garden. But Bel can see past the superficial problems & is in tune with the heart of the house. She loves the feel of the rooms & is enchanted by a definite though mysterious scent of violets in the drawing room. Ellis & his architect friend, Reggie Stephenson, look the place over with a more practical eye but Ellis knows that he will buy the house if Bel wants it & they soon arrive at a price with the absent owner through his lawyer, Mr Tennant.

While work proceeds on the house, Bel & Ellis are married from Louise’s home which she shares with her father, the local doctor. They decide to spend the winter in Bel’s tiny London flat as Ellis’s business is demanding & he needs to be on hand. One of the partners is ill & the junior partner, James Copping, is inexperienced & floundering more than a little. Bel agrees to go back to work as James’s secretary & she enjoys mentoring the young man & feeling that she’s earning her own money & helping Ellis at the same time. They enjoy their winter in London but by spring, the house is ready & waiting for them to really begin their married life.

Roy Lestrange turns up one day to see what has happened to his old house. He’s charming but irresponsible, dedicated to his career but with no real feeling for the house or his aunt. He’s the kind of man who takes what he wants & worries about payment much later. Louise seems to be quite smitten with him, which worries Bel, as she discovers on a visit to Oxford, just how selfish Roy is. Louise is a beautiful girl who has had many suitors, chief among them Alec Drummond, who they met on a visit to Scotland. Louise is fond of Alec but won’t marry him because she can’t respect him. He’s the heir to a respected firm selling whiskey & spirits but spends all his time fishing & hunting. Alec stays with Bel & Ellis one weekend & the true story emerges. The business is in dire straits & Alec has come to his senses & is determined to turn things around. Louise realises just how much she loves Alec but he won’t consider marrying her when he has so little to offer.

Meanwhile, Bel is delighting in Fletchers End & all it has to offer. She & Mrs Warmer share a love of the house & soon, plans are afoot to resurrect the garden. Since the renovations were done in the drawing room, the scent of violets has vanished but Bel soon forgets about this little oddity with so much else to think about. Bel buys a portrait of the original owner of the house, Mrs Violet Lestrange, & a bureau from Roy & is pleased to think that the benevolent old lady, wearing a posy of violets in the portrait, is home again. However, the discovery of a will written by Miss Lestrange, leaving the house to another member of the family, threatens to send all Bel & Ellis’s dreams crashing down.

I loved this book. I loved the descriptions of the house, the renovations, the revival of the garden, all of it. I enjoy books about old houses being rescued, especially when there’s a gentle hint of the supernatural (that scent of violets). There’s lots of description of the house & talk of the original owners, the fletchers who made arrows in the original dwellings, two houses that were combined long ago & now had only the two small staircases & the rather odd proportions to indicate that they had ever been separate dwellings.

As Bel went up to bed, she paused on the halfway landing and listened to the silence. She loved the silence of Fletchers End. Then, after a few moments, she heard the old house whispering to itself … a curious sighing sound, a gentle creak … all the little secret sounds that an old house makes at night! You could imagine that you heard the rustle of a silken gown – but you know it was really the soft night air in the leaves of the aspen tree outside the staircase window.

Bel is a lovely heroine. She’s almost incredulous at her good fortune but never forgets to be grateful. Her life before marrying Ellis had been lonely & financially precarious but she can’t quite realise that she has found safe harbour. Fletchers End is a comforting book that drew me in to an enchanted world of old houses, country life & romance.

The House on the Cliff – D E Stevenson

The House on the Cliff (cover picture from here) is the story of a young girl who is left with nothing when her mother dies but finds herself & a future in an old house at the seaside.

Elfrida Ware is trying to make a living as an actress. She’s not a very good actress but her father, Frederick Thistlewood, was on the stage & her mother, Marjory, worked behind the scenes & there doesn’t seem to be very much else that she can do. Frederick has long since left his family & Elfrida & her mother have been living precariously in a boarding house run by the flamboyant Miss Martineau. Marjory has just died & Elfrida’s latest part is in a not very good play. She’s only staying because of her infatuation with the leading man, Glen Siddons.

Miss Martineau sees an advertisement in the paper from a lawyer looking for Marjory Thistlewood &, knowing Elfrida’s story, encourages her to go along & find out what it’s all about. Elfrida reluctantly goes to see Mr Robert Sandford & discovers that she has inherited Mountain Cross, her mother’s family home. Marjory’s parents had disowned her when she eloped with Frederick Thistlewood & her father never forgave her. After his death, her mother desperately wanted to get in touch but all Mr Sandford’s enquiries were fruitless. Now, old Mrs Ware is dead & Elfrida has inherited Mountain Cross. Mr Sandford advises Elfrida to sell the house as there’s very little money or land. Her grandfather had lost money on bad investments & sold off most of the land. Without the farmland, there’s no way to make the house self-supporting.

Elfrida decides to go down to Devonshire & see the house. She’s missing her mother, unhappy at the theatre & Miss Martineau has advised her to forget about Glen. Leaving London seems to be the best plan so, Mr Sandford’s nephew & junior partner, Ronnie, drives Elfrida down to see Mountain Cross. Elfrida immediately loves the house & is warmly welcomed by all the locals. The housekeeper, Emma Chowne & her husband, Ernie, are very welcoming & seem keen for her to stay on. Even when Elfrida confesses that she has no money, the Chownes offer to stay on for the use of their flat in the house & the chance for Ernie to raise pigs. Ernie was traumatised by his wartime experiences & doesn’t speak. He feels uncomfortable anywhere but at Mountain Cross & Emma, who talks constantly, is happy to have them both settled in a familiar place.

Elfrida soon settles in to life at Mountain Cross. She knows she will have very little income when her grandmother’s estate is settled but she begins to make a few improvements, knowing in her heart that she will never be able to leave. Everyone in the village wants to make life easy for her. A local man offers to tidy up the overgrown copse & be paid in timber. She’s welcomed by the local gentry who had been a little apprehensive about an actress coming among them. Of course, as soon as Elfrida puts on tweeds & a pearl necklace, she’s one of them, even though she has grown up living a very different kind of life. This is a D E Stevenson novel, after all. Nothing truly awful ever happens (if you don’t count Elfrida almost drowning, not once, but twice).

Elfrida soon has several suitors. Ronnie Leighton is obviously smitten but conscious of the fact that he’s very much a junior partner, has no money & is living with his widowed mother who expects him to marry a childhood friend called Anthea. Lucius Bebbington is a neighbour who is kind & helpful with gardening & then Glen Siddons arrives with his neglected young son, Patrick, in tow & settles down for a visit. She even has a visit from her cousin, Walter Whitgreave, who has lived in Canada most of his life & was once considered to be old Mr Ware’s heir. Elfrida’s lack of money is always there in the background but there’s a fairytale ending that puts everything right.

The House on the Cliff  is a gentle story with all the elements that I enjoy in D E Stevenson’s books. I especially loved the house. Books with houses in them always interest me & even though Elfrida doesn’t transform the house, the house, the countryside, the sea & the people she meets transform her from a lonely, tired waif into a young woman with a future, a home & a family. The Chownes are also wonderful characters. Old family retainers who know all the family secrets & are fiercely loyal to Elfrida from the moment she arrives. The House on the Cliff  was published in 1966 but the atmosphere is very 1930s. This seems to be true of all the Stevensons I’ve read so far. Unless they’re set very specifically during the war, they all seem to be set in the 30s.

I read The House on the Cliff thanks to Open Library. I’ve only just discovered Open Library thanks to a mention in this review of Stevenson’s The English Air at Fleur’s blog. When I investigated, I found many ebooks available for loan, including several Stevensons that I haven’t read & that are out of print. It’s free to sign up & you can read the EPub or PDF ebooks on an ereader that uses Adobe Digital Editions or, if you search on an iPad or tablet, you can read the ebooks in iBooks or Overdrive (thanks to a YouTube video for helping me with this! What did we ever do without YouTube?) I now have yet another wishlist in Open Library with titles by Stevenson, R F Delderfield, Ruth Adam, Angela Thirkell, Catherine Gaskin & Elizabeth Goudge (including her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, recently read by Cornflower). The books have been scanned from library copies so there are a few glitches (y came out as v) but The House on the Cliff was perfectly readable & I’m so glad to have had a chance to read it.

Just borrowed

I’ve just borrowed two beautiful books from work & wanted to share them. Daphne Du Maurier at Home is by Hilary Macaskill. I’ve reviewed her book on Charles Dickens at Home here & this new book is in the same style. Daphne Du Maurier’s novels were very often inspired by places, most especially houses in Cornwall like Menabilly & Kilmarth. From her first home in Fowey (which you can see on the cover) to Menabilly, the house she coveted & was eventually able to lease, to Kilmarth, her last home, place was very important to her. Menabilly was famously the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca.

Menabilly also provided the inspiration for her historical novel The King’s General which was set during the English Civil War. In this picture, Daphne is looking up to where a bricked up room containing a skeleton was discovered in 1824. This incident was the spark that led to the novel. Daphne Du Maurier at Home  is a lavishly illustrated book describing all Du Maurier’s homes & the books she wrote while living in each of them.

I’ve been immersed in the Anglo Saxons lately. I’ve been enjoying Michael Wood’s latest documentary series, Alfred the Great & the Anglo-Saxons, which led me back to Asser’s Life of the king & Justin Pollard’s more recent biography. This beautiful book by Nicholas J Higham & Martin J Ryan is perfect for anyone who’s interested in the Anglo Saxon world. I read a review in one of my archaeological magazines & thought I would borrow it before taking the plunge & buying it (I’ve been a bit reckless in my book buying recently. I’ll have to do a confessional post when all the loot turns up).

The book is a synthesis of information from historical & archaeological sources. As well as the narrative proper, there are sections called Sources and Issues with more in depth information about topics such as the Staffordshire Hoard (above) that was discovered in 2009, King Arthur, the Anglo Saxon cemetery at Spong Hill & the various settlements at York.

The illustrations are beautiful, from detailed maps & plans of archaeological sites to the great works of art, jewellery & manuscripts of the age such as the Vespasian Psalter above. I want to read it from cover to cover but it would also be an excellent introduction to the Anglo Saxons or a book to dip into on a specific topic. The authors acknowledge a long list of friends & colleagues who read & advised on different chapters as the book is obviously based on the work of many scholars past & present. I know I’m going to have to have my own copy, it’s just a matter of time.