My character, selon ma maison…

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

21 thoughts on “My character, selon ma maison…

  1. I had never thought about JA’s buildings being a cmmentary on their occupants’ social standing – very interesting. Perhaps I shall have to force mysef to re-read P & P – again…

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  2. The recently-discovered crate (found hiding under one of the spare beds) containing all your essays/coursework is already top on the list of things we’ll bring next time we drive over. All part of my de-cluttering drive, but it will unfortunately add to your clutter… I do remember improvements in MP, and it brings to mind the wonderful passages in Fanny Burney’s ‘Cecilia’ about the amazingly extravagant improvements they carried out in those days.One step – or room – at a time…

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  3. Interesting. I had never thought about buildings in books and their relationship with characters.

    I live in a rented flat that’s always a mess – a fact that I can’t even blame on children. So I guess that means I’m rootless and chaotic? Sounds pretty accurate actually.

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  4. Our house has an 1850 date, but I wonder if it’s older – a maison de bourg that had a wheelwright’s workshop on its ground floor. As our village has been recognised as one actively involved in sheltering and hiding Jews during WW2 I wonder what stories the house might have to tell. Maybe, if I ever get round to writing another novel, I could do some imagining. Mind you, I really ought to do something with the first novel!

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    1. How interesting, it may well be older, and with probably heaps of fascinating tales. I am intrigued by your mention of a novel…has it been published? I’d love love to know more about it…plot, period etc. It is such an accomplishment, published or not, and something that I would love to achieve some day.

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      1. It’s not been published, as quite honestly, having written it I didn’t know what to do with it next. I could self-publish, but that seems like cheating (though it worked for 50 Shades…)
        It’s a romance/bit of amystery/girl moves to France story – sort of Erica Hill type story. My mother read it and said it was okay, but there was too many descriptions of food and too much sex for her liking. Not that there’s much sex, and it wasn’t described in any detail! My friends enjoyed it.

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      2. Well, published or not it’s still an enormous achievement! How long did it take you to write? I think I would be far too embarrassed to write a sex scene (especially one that my family would read) so I think that you are a brave lady! 😉

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  5. This made me smile. Not only for the reason that we could never have ‘both’ married Mr Darcy, but also for the fact that, as I write, my long-suffering husband is taking down part of a newly painted ceiling to reveal some two hundred year old ‘horrors’!

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