The theme of this collection – houses and homes of all kinds and our emotional and intellectual bonds with them – has taken on a grim topicality over the last few weeks, as millions of people across the world suddenly find themselves enclosed in dwellings to which they seldom give much contemplative time, beyond wondering whether now might be the moment to have the boiler overhauled. For those of us who usually work from home – which includes most writers – the daily routine has barely changed at all. How odd to hear our friends fret and fuss about a way of life that suits us so well, most of the time.
Lives of Houses concentrates mainly on writers and the structures in which they have lived and worked. There are contributions on a few other creative professions, including a charming piece by Julian Barnes about Sibelius’s rural hideaway, Ainola (named after his wife, Aino); an essay by Gillian Darley about Sir John Soane’s endlessly fascinating house-museum, which she regards as a work of three-dimensional autobiography; another by Lucy Walker on Benjamin Britten’s various residences in Aldeburgh; and a rather dry article by Susan Walker on a Roman ruin in North Africa, the House of Venus, which sits a little awkwardly here.
Otherwise, the leading players of these essays are women and men of letters: Samuel Johnson, Yeats, Auden, H G Wells, Disraeli, Penelope Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Bowen, Edward Lear and others. There are two pieces about Auden, of which the more enjoyable is by Seamus Perry, on the poet’s ‘NY nest’ at 77 St Mark’s Place. Auden was fascinated and moved by animals and their nests: a friend recalled him watching birds flying ‘home’ on the Lower East Side and smiling at how ‘cosy’ they would be. As almost every fan of Auden knows, he was a monstrously sloppy and unhygienic housekeeper, who was once astounded to hear that not every adult male pees in the kitchen sink. His friend Charles Miller recalled the Olympic-standard squalor of the poet’s Manhattan gaff:
An oval platter served as ashtray, heaped with a homey Vesuvius of cigarette butts, ashes, bits of cellophane from discarded packs, a few martini-soaked olive pits, and a final cigarette stub issuing a frail plume of smoke from the top of the heap, signature of a dying volcano. This Auden-scape reeked of stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit, Wystanified tenement tang.
That ‘toe jam’ is exquisitely disgusting.
The other essay about Auden, by Sandra Mayer, is devoted to his Austrian home in Kirchstetten. This is less engaging, and lapses occasionally into higher guff (‘a deep impression of unanticipated intimacy – not born of false expectations of authenticity but stillness, smallness, ordinariness; the absence of spectacle and commodification’), though it does have some decent commentary on Auden’s collection About the House (1965), in which he meditates on the traditional functions of specific rooms and his feelings about them.
While the standard of the contributions varies, the general level is high. Roy Foster writes well about Yeats’s tower of poetry, Thoor Ballylee, while Jenny Uglow is hugely engaging on the subject of Edward Lear’s Villa Emily in San Remo. She points out that, like Auden, Lear was entranced by the idea of nests – the Villa Emily was a nest he built for himself in his sixties – and she picks up the word herself in describing the workings of his creativity: ‘the characters arrived without a summons, nesting in his imagination. The hybrid beings, vociferously alive, became internal markers.’ And Uglow notes, beautifully, of one nonsense poem, ‘always there is the threat of falling, of breaking into pieces like those final, separate letters of the alphabet, with their spearing exclamation marks’.
To my mind, the two outstanding contributions are by Alexandra Harris and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Harris’s essay is entitled ‘Moving House’, and it begins by recalling the practice, commonplace throughout Europe from the Middle Ages until the 20th century, of mass movements of tenants from one set of lodgings to another as leases, which ran from one quarter day to another, expired. ‘Flitting days’, they were called, and Thomas Hardy wrote in Tess of the D’Urbervilles about the ‘fever of mobility’ they generated (the expression ‘do a moonlight flit’ was still common in my childhood).
From this starting point, Harris flits across countries and art forms. She writes evocatively of the paintings of rural life produced by Vincenzo Campi in the 1580s, including one depicting the Italian Moving Day, which fell on the feast of St Martin, in accordance with the grape harvest. ‘A high wind is whipping through trees that struggle against a thunderously dark sky,’ she writes. ‘This is the opposite of an idealised composition.’ Campi was one of the pioneers of still life, ‘painting teeming material worlds with … greedy urgency’. There follows a motley crew, from Marcel Duchamp and Sir Walter Scott to Charles Lamb and John Clare. Finally, Harris settles on the melancholy case of William Cowper, who experienced a change of address as a spiritual devastation: ‘The building before him was an external version of the desolate ruin he had often imagined to be deep within him.’
My favourite essay, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s ‘At Home with Tennyson’, is both a bravura work of close reading and a highly sensitive study of the poet’s loyalties, yearnings and fears about homes and homelessness. Tennyson, he demonstrates, was profoundly touched by the idea of home and ‘was equally good at evoking home when it existed only as an idea, as in “The Lotos-Eaters”, where so much of what the speaker broods over – “roam”, “foam”, “honeycomb” – has the word “home” flickering through it like a nagging but elusive memory’. Douglas-Fairhurst is yet another of the essayists here to be attracted by the word ‘nest’: Tennyson produces a ‘voice that is keen to create a nest of words for itself but also appears to be nervously eyeing up the lines of each stanza like a little set of prison bars’. This is criticism that draws quite close to the status of poetry.
Lives of Houses is an enjoyable and at times outstanding gathering of idiosyncratic voices. If there is to be a sequel, and let’s hope there is, how about making space for some of the following? T E Lawrence’s Spartan cottage at Clouds Hill, or (better) the unexpectedly fine dwelling he restored and decorated for his archaeologist colleagues at Carchemish, just before the Great War; Ruskin’s retreat, Brantwood, near Coniston Water; Ezra Pound’s cage in the detention centre at Rapallo; Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and his weird essay ‘The Philosophy of Furniture’; and, in France, Proust’s cork-lined bedroom, the miniature hermetic kingdom of Des Esseintes in Huysman’s A Rebours, Flaubert’s monastic country house and Alfred Jarry’s insane Paris apartment, just half a storey high, and his (in-Seine?) riverside hut in which he would sleep on a hammock strung from the rafters during the frequent floods… Enough for now. Stay safe, stay home.