Hardwick Hall

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.

An extraordinary woman

Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick

Last Saturday we had visitors and the weather looked very uncertain. We therefore abandoned plans to take them to the cotton mill at Styal (which involves quite a lot of walking about outside) and instead headed for Hardwick Hall.
Hardwick Hall

Hardwick Hall

As it happens, this is one of my favourite old houses. I’ve visited it several times, on the first occasion as a schoolgirl. I was surprised on this latest visit to learn that it was acquired by the National Trust shortly after its last domestic resident, the Duchess Evelyn, died in 1960, as I had assumed that I’d originally seen it before the Trust got to work on it (it was very run-down and gloomy then), but I must have been wrong. I suppose it must take years to restore an old house as large as this. Actually, I loved it when it was a bit dirty and dilapidated, though I appreciate that it couldn’t have been left like that. Yet it was very atmospheric; I really felt as if I might have met Bess of Hardwick herself coming down the stairs.
Bess would have been an extraordinary woman at any time, but her achievement was unique in the Elizabethan age during which she flourished (she died when she was 81, and actually spanned almost the whole of the Tudor period). She was born during the early years of Henry VIII’s reign and died five years after James I succeeded to the throne. Of relatively humble background – her family were minor gentry – she gradually made herself one of the most powerful women in England through her four marriages, each husband being richer and more influential than the previous one. I’m not sure how she managed to circumvent the laws about women’s property actually belonging to their husbands that pertained at the time (and for centuries afterwards), but I suppose it must have been something to do with the terms of her widow’s jointures. However she managed it, by middle age she was a very wealthy woman in her own right, with an income of £9,500 p.a., of which we are told that she spent £8,500. By comparison, the humblest labourers on her estate were paid a penny a day.
A graphic detail from the frieze around the grand reception room

A graphic detail from the frieze around the grand reception room

Bess’s last husband, George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, was for many years gaoler to Mary Stuart (an unenviable task), and Hardwick contains examples of embroideries that Bess and the exiled Scottish queen worked on together. She and Mary clearly got on well. One of the most famous portraits of Mary hangs in the gallery at Hardwick. Bess also succeeded in maintaining good relations with Elizabeth I. There is another portrait there of Elizabeth, wearing an elaborate dress that Bess presented to her as a New Year’s gift.
I’m certain that Bess would have been a very difficult woman to live with. Obviously always a strong-minded character, by the time she married Talbot her character had hardened into obduracy. Hardwick Hall was indisputably her house, not her husband’s (they also owned the forerunner of Chatsworth). She proclaimed this by having the initials ‘ES’ (for Elizabeth Shrewsbury) carved on its castellations. Hardwick was built right next to the old Hardwick Hall, a much less splendid house, where she had lived as a child. Although she took some of the stone from the old hall to use in the new one, the old one was never demolished: its ruin still stands. She and George Talbot (he also proud and intransigent) did not enjoy a happy marriage and at one point were formally separated. Elizabeth I instructed them to live together again, to set a good example, but it is doubtful if this instruction was carried out in the spirit, if indeed it was observed in the letter.
Bess eventually became the grandmother of Arbella Stuart, who had strong claims to the throne and grew up at Hardwick. As a young woman, she was a semi-prisoner there. Recent excavations have discovered an Elizabethan exercise book which may have belonged to Arbella. This item, obviously, had lain concealed for very many years, but almost everything there is contemporary with the building of the house. The reason that I like Hardwick Hall so much is that the wall-hangings, artefacts and furnishings are more or less as they were in Bess’s time. This is because it was successively used as a hunting-lodge and to accommodate a younger branch of the family, especially after the later Chatsworth was built.
Hardwick is evidently one of the most popular of the National Trust houses; it is almost always thronged with visitors and has been impressively restored by the Trust over the last half century; the loss, especially to me, of its former compelling ambience is a very small price to pay for preserving such a beautiful old house. And I’m certain that, if it were possible to visit it late on a dark winter’s night, it would still be easy to imagine Bess moving down the broad, shallow stone stairs, her rich silk dress swishing slightly as she went.
I really felt as if I might have met Bess of Hardwick herself coming down the stairs.

I really felt as if I might have met Bess of Hardwick herself coming down the stairs.

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