Book of the day: Pride and Prejudice (no doubt the first of many mentions)
Huddled in three layers of clothing, willing the fire to take at last, and scrambling through the laundry basket for a clean pair of socks, I shiver my way through the early mornings in the ice-box of my imaginary castle. Our poêle à bois needs replacing and Winter is unkind to stone houses with poor insulation and no central heating. Over time we have grown used to the cooler temperatures but sometimes I do miss our little appartement in Geneva, where the heat rising from the flats below could, at times, create almost tropical conditions in the depths of Winter.
As much as I loved Geneva, buying a home in city so wealthy that, unlike the gold-paved streets of Dick Whittington’s imagined London, the streets here (particularly those next to the train station) really are paved with diamond-like shards that sparkle at night, involves the quirk of a ninety-nine year mortgage that my husband and I decided to forgo. We would also have been several million Swiss francs short of any asking price (not having any millions at all, and consistently forgetting to buy a lottery ticket). We looked further afield instead, to the surrounding suburbs in France, and found our family home on our first attempt. Here we have lived, surrounded by dust and half-finished DIY projects, for nearly four years. Our son has ruled it for two. Evidence of his dominion is scattered everywhere, mingling with the dust – we are not expecting visitors.
The deeds state that our house was built in 1850, but then so was every other house in the surrounding area, according to official records. However busy and prosperous a year that would have been if true, our home, like the majority of her neighbours, is lying about her age, and may be up to two hundred years older than she claims (that’s a good beauty regime…). The outline of the building appears on maps dating well before 1850 and our stone mason believes the thickness of the walls betray their secret. The reason for the 1850 label is bureaucracy at its least interested: it was simply the year (or thereabouts, there may well have been some rounding with this extent of official inaccuracy) when Napoleon Bonaparte (or more probably a laquais, given his decease in 1821) finally got round to documenting this particular corner of France, no doubt as part of his ‘Code Napoléon’ of 1804, which set about replacing the (greatly muddled) feudal laws and lore. Ordinary houses that in all probability could not provide a date of origin were gifted 1850. Simple and merciless, it is clear to see how he tramped over such swathes of territory.*
My lovely uncle, who was an expert on listed buildings, believed that our house had upwardly mobile social aspirations and dreams of grandeur. There are several imperfect stone features (cracked, chipped, or broken in two) that he believed would have been originally intended for one or other of our house’s grander neighbours, perhaps even a local chateau, but which, upon being declared unfit for purpose, became a ‘seconds’ piece, and ended, up, somehow or other, as embellishments in our own home.
The Austenite inside me can’t help but remember an essay I was tasked with writing for my A-Levels: a commentary on Jane Austen’s use of buildings to reflect their inhabitants. Nothing from school ever being thrown away in case it should prove useful at a later date (as it would have been now), it is seemingly one of the only items still living at my parents’ house, so, oh no! I have had to dip into Pride and Prejudice again…the horror!
What, then, do Austen’s buildings say about her characters? The ever lovely Mr. Bingley’s eagerness to rent (and continue to rent) Netherfield Park (itself a ‘good house’) shows his disinterestedness in raising his social status and throwing off the shame of his origins in trade, by owning an estate. (Incidentally he spent a whole thirty minutes in looking around first, which is twice as long as our viewing – how indecisive of him!) The neo-classical Rosings Park is a ‘handsome modern building, well situated on rising ground’. Just like Lady Catherine it looks down on everyone from its lofty position, but its newness, combined with Mr. Collins’s vulgar boasting of costs (the windows, the fireplace…) reveal the de Burghs as coming from ‘new money’, and as having more of it than taste. In contrast Pemberley, also perched on ‘rising ground’, highlights Mr. Darcy’s station, but Elizabeth Bennet’s assertion that ‘she had never seen a place for which nature had done more’, firmly establishes Mr. Darcy on his pedestal, and justifies women everywhere (myself included) in falling hopelessly and irrevocably in love with him (thank you very much, eighteenth-century tradition of moralised landscape design!).
What then, might my house reveal about me? It is an unfinished work in progress – messy and dishevelled – as am I, most unashamedly, but as yet I hope that we are both still unspoiled, with the potential to be better. We certainly both have our quirks – our house has a most haphazard layout, and odd half-levels between certain rooms, and I, myself, have always been a rather jumbled and disorganised individual. Unlike my house, I have yet to lie about my age, although I do confess that turning 29 again this June is a tempting plan. I have no dreams of grandeur of which I am aware (apart from those which result in my becoming Mrs. Darcy), but I certainly feel like I too possess a few ‘seconds’ about my person (imperfections make us unique…). Finally, although our house is also ‘well-situated on rising ground’ I know that I will never look down on all I survey (like the odious Lady Catherine), since our lofty view compromises only our own crumbling outbuildings – the only person I can therefore ever look down upon is myself!
*I have worked this out aided by the tales of a helpful local (probably our mason), my translating husband, and a bit of the internet; it is basically accurate but I would hate to be relied upon as an authority on this subject. If I have erred horribly, please forgive me, or, better yet, please correct me!
Mots du jour:
selon ma maison – according to my house poêle à bois – wood burner appartement – appartment/flat laquais – lackey