‘Lives of Houses’ is a lovely book to savor while you’re stuck at home

Michael Dirda

THE WASHINGTON POST – For much of the country, sheltering in place over the past weeks has been a wearisome but essential civic duty. We don’t want to get sick ourselves, and we don’t want to bring any sickness to others. So we stay home. It’s the right thing to do.

But where or what is home? According to one old saying, home is where the heart is, and, according to the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer song, it’s anywhere we hang our hats. A much less elegant truism can be traced back to hokey versifier Edgar A Guest: “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.”

Having done heaps and heaps of living in Casa Dirda this March, how could I resist Lives of Houses, a recently published collection of essays derived from a 2017 conference held at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing? Edited by the biographers Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee, the wide-ranging volume investigates the residences of “writers, politicians, composers, collectors, artists“, in short, “men and women who have shaped and recorded the history of their houses through their own work”.

The book’s contributors are as distinguished as its two editors and include novelist Julian Barnes writing about the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ home Ainola; historian David Cannadine on Chartwell, where Winston Churchill lived; Yeats biographer Roy Foster describing the poet’s richly symbolic but clammy and inhospitable tower retreat Thoor Ballylee; and Jenny Uglow on Edward Lear’s Villa Emily in San Remo.

A few of the best essays, however, aren’t about famous people. Margaret MacMillan – former warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford – re-creates the warmth and security of her Toronto childhood in My Mother’s House.

“In the winters (was there always snow and ice in those days?) we came into the kitchen in skates, just off the rink that our neighbour across the back fence made every year. She never minded. We argued, talked about the day, and watched for the warning signs that my two youngest brothers were about to fight as each slipped lower in his chair better to be able to kick the other.”

In another fine piece the award-winning novelist Alexander Masters learns how people become “unhoused” by talking with the homeless at the Matthew 25 Mission.

Elleke Boehmer, professor of world literature in English at Oxford, addresses the trauma of cultural and personal displacement through the example of African writer Dambudzo Marechera, whose short story collection, The House of Hunger, won the 1979 Guardian First Fiction Prize. Marechera wrote much of the book while living in a tent in a meadow near Oxford, from which he had been expelled for violent and asocial behaviour.

An expert on Benjamin Britten, Lucy Walker notes that this world-famous composer viewed himself as a regionalist, intending his music primarily for the people of his hometown of Aldeburgh. Laura Marcus – Goldsmith’s Professor of English at Oxford – reminds us that HG Wells’ mother worked as a housekeeper at Uppark, where underground service tunnels connected the kitchens and the main house. Years later, when her son came to write The Time Machine, his Morlocks dwell in subterranean darkness and feed on the effete Eloi of the surface world.

Virginia Woolf, notes Hermione Lee, once compared a woman’s nature to “a great house full of rooms,” where most people only see the public reception areas, while “in the innermost room, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.” Many footsteps, though, have trod the winding stairs and passageways of Sir John Soanes’ London home, which the neoclassical architect stuffed with paintings, sculpture and every kind of bric-a-brac. In tracing the private museum’s 200-year history, Soanes’ biographer Gillian Darley quotes from its current deputy director, Helen Dorey, who happens to be a friend of mine. At that moment this imposing and labyrinthine mansion suddenly seemed almost homey.

To introduce the sorrowful life of World War I poet and composer Ivor Gurney, Kate Kennedy writes, “There are websites, if you know where to look, full of images compiled by anonymous people with a passion for breaking into derelict asylums and taking photographs, the creepier the better.” Gurney was certified insane in 1922 and passed the rest of his life in mental hospitals, dying in 1937. Deeply attached to his native Gloucestershire, he never saw its countryside again except as familiar, heartbreaking place-names on an Ordinance Survey map.

Two of my favourite essays, by Seamus Perry and Sandra Mayer respectively, offer guided tours of WH Auden’s apartment at 77 St Mark’s Place in New York, where the poet lived between 1954 and 1972, and his late-in-life Kirchstetten house in Austria. Auden famously united minimum attention to his living conditions with maximum regard for routine and order. He wore the same suit day after day, padded around Manhattan in carpet slippers and utilised his kitchen sink as a toilet. Composer Igor Stravinsky called him “the dirtiest man I have ever liked.” Relying on literary journalism to pay his bills, Auden toiled at his desk every day from 9am till 4 or 5pm, then sat down to a well prepared dinner promptly at six and toddled off to bed as early as 9pm, sometimes shooing guests out the door. In Austria, the poet acquired a yellow Volkswagen, eventually used as the getaway car in a series of robberies committed by a longtime lover.

Let me close with one final tidbit: Did you know that Disraeli, Churchill, Sibelius and Yeats all burdened themselves for years with stomach-churning debt to purchase and maintain their dream houses? Recent home buyers in Washington will doubtless chime in, “Been there, done that.”