Monday, June 8, 2009
"Now, and so long ago" : visiting Green Knowe
I guess it's a bit of cheat post, but I've been scanning in old photos lately, and came across my photos from when I visited Lucy Boston's Manor House (the real life Green Knowe) in 2004. So instead of reviewing my own favourite book (The Children of Green Knowe), I thought I'd take you on a fangirl tour of the actual place. To be less irritating, I'll just let you imagine the "squee!" that comes after each photo.
In 2004 Paul and I honeymooned in England. Mid-winter in England, possibly not everyone's idea of romance, but much more suited to my wardrobe and complexion than yer tropical paradise. My main aim of the trip (err, apart from, you know, kissing and stuff), was to visit Lucy Boston's Manor in Hemmingford Grey. I'd been a major fan of Lucy Boston's books ever since I first read Nothing Said (one of her lesser-known works) as an 11 year old. My email is email@example.com, my cat is named Tolly. If we'd had a baby girl I wanted to name her Linnet, but Paul put his foot down at that point. I was supposed to be doing Honours in English the next year and was intending to write my thesis on the Green Knowe series. That plan didn't exactly work out, when I discovered that Honours isn't about writing what you want to write, but rather writing what your supervisor wants you to write. I know, I was naive. So I quit, and obviously the fates were smiling on me, because I quit just in time to get my fees back.
Lucy Boston's daughter-in-law Diana Boston lives in the Manor now, and takes tours through the place by appointment. It was all a bit tenuous; Diana had been away so emails were not being answered, I was trying not to hope too much to see the place...but the day we were due to leave Cambridge I finally got an email, and we were in!
When we arrived at the Norman manor it was freezing, but the light was beautiful and the whole place seemed to glow in the cold air. That's me below at the gate with wearing my uber-warm coat (known as Obi-Wan) and sporting my travel-plaits.
My diary says "Am plaiting hair in an attempt to stop heinous knots, while also managing to look like Mum in 1970." (Bloke in a Welsh pub called me Pocahontas. He may have called me a few other things, but he had beer and an accent and a beard and it all combined into "Mumble mumble mumble Pocahontas mumble mumble.")
We were taking the tour with 2 other couples, one of which had 2 kids. They were the perfect age, about 10 & 12, and they were so interested, though they hadn't read the books.
When I arrived at the front door, it was like stepping into the story. I looked down the hall and like Tolly I saw myself in the mirror at the end of it:
"The entrance hall was a strange place. As they stepped in, a similar door opened at the far end of the house and another man and boy entered there. Then Toseland saw that it was only themselves in a big mirror...He almost wondered which was really himself."
Looking around at the rafters, I saw what Tolly saw:
"...wherever there was a beam or an odd corner or a doorpost out of which they could, as it were, grow, there were children carved in dark oak, leaning out over the flowers. Most of them had wings, one had a real bird's nest on its head, and all of them had such round polished cheeks they seemed to be laughing and welcoming him."
Next was the sitting room, with the patchwork curtains:
And the picture embroidered with hair (no really, it looks like a drawing but it's embroidered completely in hair):
And the manuscripts of some of her novels:
We stood by the fireplace where Tolly's Great Grandmother told him stories. A fire was burning in the fireplace:
In The Children of Green Knowe when Tolly sees the fireplace for the first time and is trying to establish his place in huge house, he asks Granny "Are these our flames?...I mean, are they our own?" and she replies, "The blue ones are yours and the orange ones are mine." As we warmed up a bit by the fire, Diana said to me: "The blue flames can be yours, but the orange ones are mine." I felt like I'd been given some sort of lovely gift.
As we went upstairs, so many objects from the books popped out at me; most notable was the donkey's head from Guardians of the House:
stunning patchwork quilts, and floorplans of how the house had been restored through many incarnations since it was originally built in the 1130s. The other 2 couples had come because Lucy's amazing quilts, and because of the history of the house; it's one of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in Britain. Granny's room was obviously where Diana sleeps - can you imagine living in a Norman manor? Being so present and factual in somewhere so tethered to fiction and the past?
We saw the room where Lucy ran a music club for RAF soldiers during WWII, where they sat and listened to music on the biggest gramaphone I've ever seen:
Diana put on a record for us:
As the crackly music filled the room, I could feel how important it must have been for those young soldiers, with their futures so uncertain, to sit there and feel part of "so enduring a past". That's always what interested me most about Lucy Boston's books, the notion that individual identity and belonging is significantly shaped by a sense of continuity with the past – a sense of oneself as a link in a temporal chain of family, events and landscape. Even more so, her books present this feeling of ‘owning’ the past as valuable heritage as a necessary one to an individual’s security and confidence in their sense of self and belonging. It's what I was going to write my thesis about.
When we reached Tolly's bedroom, Diana asked me to close my eyes (having established myself as bookfan of the group) and placed a small object in my palm. "What do you think it is?" she asked. Being a very calm, collected and sensible woman, I squealed "IT'S TOBY'S MOUSE IT'S TOBY'S MOUSE!!!" And it was:
She showed us the chaffinch cage, and the crack in the floorboards where Tolly finds the key to the toybox, and then the toybox containing Toby's sword, Linnet & Susan's doll, the book of Aesop's fables, and a box. I was quitely off my nut by this point. Lifting the box, Diana asked us to guess what was inside. So everyone looks at me, and I go blank. Finally I worked it out, it was Alexander's flute! And of course, there was the lovely rocking-horse (you can see the excited arm of the little girl as she spots it):
We wandered back downstairs, me almost in tears in a the-books-are-real haze, and Diana allowed us to take photos as she didn't have as many postcards to hand as usual. I spotted a few more objects from the books - the Triton's head and the Persian glass were especially beautiful.
When I mentioned the 1980s tv series of The Children of Green Knowe that isn't available anywhere to buy, Diana said she might be able to get a copy from the BBC and post it to me back in Australia. I offered to give her my life's savings and my firstborn if she could (she very nicely said just cost price will be fine), and a few months later was reliving even more of my childhood, on video. Looking for a link to the old tv series, I just discovered this - could it be true? A film? Be still my beating etc! Must investigate further. So many squees...
But back to my story. At the close of the tour the 2 kids were very excited - having a couple of eager young ones along somehow made it even more special as we all got caught up in the story, and when they begged their parents to buy them the books at the end of the tour, I went all misty.
If you're in Cambridge, book in a tour at The Manor and visit Hemmingford Grey. Stay at the Willow Guest House like we did, it's cute. Paul and I were dogged by places only having twin beds available on our honeymoon (how romantic), and it happened here too, but that wasn't their fault, and the rooms were warm and angle-ceilinged. Have the house-made sausages at The Cock (I think they served them for breakfast at Willow too). Take your kids. Diana tells a wonderful story and really makes the books come alive. Even for an old fogey like me.
I'll leave you with my favourite passage from The Children of Green Knowe. It's Christmas Eve and Tolly and Granny have just finished decorating the tree. I had this feeling visiting Lucy's Manor, a sense of all times present and accessible in one moment:
"As they rested there, tired and dreamy and content, he thought he heard the rocking-horse gently moving, but the sound came from Mrs Oldknow's room, which opened out of the music room. A woman’s voice began to sing very softly a cradle song that Tolly had learnt and dearly loved:
Lully Lulla, Thou tiny little child
By by, Lully Lullay
O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling
For whom we sing
By by, Lully Lullay
'Who is it?' he whispered.
'It's the grandmother rocking the cradle,' said Mrs Oldknow, and her eyes were full of tears.
'Why are you crying, Granny? It's lovely.'
'It is lovely, only it is such a long time ago. I don't know why that should be sad, but sometimes it seems so.'
The singing began again.
'Granny,' whispered Tolly again with his arm through hers, 'whose cradle is it? Linnet is as big as I am.'
'My darling, this voice is much older than that. I hardly know whose it is. I heard it once before at Christmas.'
It was queer to hear the baby's sleepy whimper only in the next room, now, and so long ago. 'Come, we'll sing it too,' said Mrs Oldknow, going to the spinet. She played, but it was Tolly who sang alone, while, four hundred years ago, a baby went to sleep."