Old houses: do they live their memories?
This is the third in the series of posts about De Vries. It explores the role of ‘Sausage Hall’ in the novel, particularly whether the house itself can have influenced the course of events that take place.
Buildings fascinate because they are so much part of the era in which they were built – which means that, to a greater or lesser extent, almost everyone lives within some construct of the past. Buildings are also the backdrop to the events that take place within them. Can they remember these events, perhaps even absorb some quintessential miasma from them? It hardly seems fanciful to think so – such a belief is sometimes even embraced by officialdom. Thus, Gloucestershire Council in 1996, shortly after the conviction of Fred and Rosemary West, razed to the ground 25 Cromwell Street, scene of many horrific murders, ostensibly to stop souvenir hunters but also because its continued existence gave local people ‘the creeps’; and the council house where Myra Hindley lived with her grandmother and Ian Brady, where they murdered Edward Evans, was also demolished, though, curiously, only twenty-two years after Hindley and Brady were imprisoned. Manchester Council eventually found it impossible to let the house because successive tenants complained of a ‘dreadful sense of brooding’ there. Imagination or fact?
As a child, I visited Hardwick Hall – built by Bess of Hardwick, the ancestress of the Dukes of Devonshire – before it was taken over by the National Trust. Despite the famous adage ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’, the house at that time was dark and chilly and neither very clean nor in a good state of repair. There weren’t many visitors on that day – I think it was in early spring, probably just after the house had been opened up after the winter – and I was dawdling behind my parents. They had disappeared beyond the top of the shallow-stepped stone staircase that led to the first floor by the time I began to climb it myself. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that I was quite alone. I carried on up the steps – I was looking to my right at a large faded tapestry on the wall, apparently woven in greys and browns – when something brushed against my shoulder and my leg. It was soft, a fabric of some kind. In less than a second it had passed me. When I looked back at the foot of the staircase again, I caught a glimpse of a woman in a long, dark dress smartly walking away. Although subsequently no-one believed me, I was convinced that I had seen Bess herself. Had some essence of her survived, fostered perhaps by the sheer force of her personality? Had her spirit been left free to roam when her descendants decamped to the even grander house they built at Chatsworth? Since the National Trust took over the property, I have visited the house several more times, but never again felt any inkling of an uncanny presence there. Is that because in the process of undertaking much necessary restoration work, the National Trust has ‘sanitised’ it? (Like every other NT house, it now has a tea-room, a gift shop, cordons to keep you off the furniture and attendants everywhere.) Or is it because children really can see and feel almost imperceptible elemental forces that adults can no longer detect? I still don’t believe I imagined the whole thing.
When Kevan de Vries leaves Sutterton in a hurry at the end of Sausage Hall, he has come to detest the house, the location of some of the unhappiest events in his life. Even more sinisterly, he has discovered that it was the scene of much evil-doing in the past. Yet when he returns to it incognito seven years later, as well as his quest to discover his father’s identity it is the house itself that draws him. His fascination is in part empirical: he knows there is a large number of papers and artefacts stored within the house that are likely to yield clues about his paternity. But there is more to it than that: at some level, he feels that the house, scene of his childhood, youth and married years, carries a part of himself, however much he may have tried to deny it during his exile in St Lucia.
Perhaps that is the great collective secret shared by all buildings once they have been inhabited: like light years, they don’t just exist in the present, but within a continuum reaching right back to their foundation. They face both forwards and backwards: they absorb and are shaped by the loves, fears and hatreds of those who have occupied them. They have characters, sometimes charming, sometimes terrible. As they grow older, their personality changes: they possess their own powerful kind of DNA, incremental rather than fixed. They become companions, not just enclosures of living space. Kevan de Vries is the central human character in De Vries; but in every step he takes he is shadowed, perhaps even influenced, by Sausage Hall.
Identifying parents: deep-rooted desire or dismissible distraction?
As I said in my previous post, De Vries has three major themes: whether murder can ever be justified, why some people are prepared to risk everything to discover who their parents are/were and the secrets held by old houses.
Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the second theme. Why is it that a significant proportion of people who cannot identify their birth parents – such as those who have been adopted, or whose parents have been lost in war or some other catastrophe, or who have experienced the denial of parenthood by one parent (usually the father), or who are the offspring of a sperm donor or even who have been abandoned in early infancy – grow up with an insatiable desire to discover who their biological parents were, while others in a similar situation either display no interest in finding out or are actively hostile to the idea?
My first boss and his wife had three adopted children, each with different biological parents from the others. They were adopted in the 1960s, when adoptive parents had minimal contact with the biological parents and the latter had very limited rights. Adoption societies of the time made it clear that they were facilitating a ‘clean break’ from the natural parent (usually the mother) who had offered the child for adoption. Often the mothers were very young and coerced into giving away their babies by the demands of their parents and the disapproval of society as a whole. It was considered shameful to be an unmarried mother and the welfare state did little to help girls and women who found themselves in this predicament. The prospective mothers were often sent to unmarried mothers’ homes when they began to ‘show’. Spalding had such a home, Carisbrooke House in Haverfield Road. The girls who came to it were probably from other towns; similarly, Spalding girls would be sent to towns some distance away. Soon after the birth, the baby was adopted and the girls would return home as if nothing had happened – though the experience cruelly curtailed their education and there was little psychological support for the trauma of having had to relinquish the child. The headmistress of Spalding High School was considered to be very progressive for allowing one of my classmates to return to school after she had a baby. The year was 1969.
My boss’s two adopted sons showed no interest whatsoever in their biological parents. Like Kevan de Vries, they entered the family business at a young age and enjoyed the privileged lifestyle and well-heeled standard of living it offered. His adoptive daughter felt differently. She went to huge lengths to track down her biological mother and eventually settled in the USA, where her mother had emigrated, and changed her name to the name her mother had entered on her birth certificate. Despite having been brought up in a loving and affluent household, just like the two boys, she was never able to identify with the adoptive family.
During the same period, issues of parentage frequently became more convoluted, not to say dishonest, when the woman was older and married to a man who was not the father of the child. Divorce carried a stigma almost as powerful as unmarried motherhood, so few women would choose it; on a more practical level, most divorcees and abandoned wives were forced to live in penury. This was decades before British law changed and became almost always in favour of the woman if she had children and Britain became the ‘divorce capital of the world’. The alimony awarded by courts was usually meagre and little attempt was made to force defaulting husbands to pay.
A woman who bore a child whom she knew or suspected not to be her husband’s therefore commonly passed the baby off as his. Some husbands were complicit, knowing the child not to be theirs but still preferring to raise it as their own rather than end the marriage; others were genuinely taken in by the wife’s claims. As an adult, a friend suspected that the child of one of her neighbours was in fact her half-brother. The boy was small and fine-boned, with tight black curls like her own and those of her two siblings. The mother was a tall, heavily-built woman with fair skin and hair whose other children all looked like her. My friend later discovered that it had been an open secret in the neighbourhood that this boy was her father’s, but the woman’s husband had accepted responsibility for his upbringing and treated him exactly like the others.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some early efforts were made to identify fathers reluctant to acknowledge their children and make them contribute to their maintenance. Proving paternity was, however, largely based on the results of blood tests: it was possible to prove that a man was definitively not the child’s father, but, unless he had a very rare blood group, not to prove conclusively that he was.
The advent of the much more reliable DNA tests – though the earliest ones were not as reliable as claimed at the time – helped women to assert who the child’s father was, be believed and consequently obtain financial support, which became much more robustly enforced by the law than previously. Even more crucial, however, was the shift, from the 1970s onwards, in social attitudes towards parenthood. Gradually the stigma of being born outside wedlock was removed. More and more couples elected to have children without marrying and if they subsequently split up they were much more likely to agree on joint care – or at least joint financial support – for the children.
Kevan de Vries is fifty when De Vries begins. During his lifetime, the whole spectrum of social attitudes towards children not born to a conventionally married couple takes place. Viewed in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that as a young man he is happy to have his mother and grandfather sweep the question of his paternity under the carpet, whereas in middle age he develops a burning desire to understand the identity of his missing parent, even at the risk of losing his liberty and physical contact with his own son.
A brief footnote: John and Limming were the first and middle names of one of my close relatives. His mother named him after her own eldest brother, who was gassed in the First World War, and the father who refused to acknowledge him. She was determined that he would carry his father’s last name in some form, even though it was denied to him as a surname. He spent his whole life hating it and would omit it from official documents whenever possible.