What allows some people to escape their demons while others can’t shake them off? What mad inertia drives some, demonstrably resilient, people straight over cliffs to their destruction? I guess there are thousands, millions of individual answers to that question. I had a moment with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald the other week, wondering if they might whisper something, inspire some insight, as I stood by their grave with a meager offering of flowers. Wondering how things went so terribly wrong this side of paradise (although some of the answers to that question are blatant), but also wondering if things look remarkably different (and if there was any wisdom that they could share) from the other side of paradise.
I was met with little more than a cold March breeze and silence, but for the low hum of the roadside just beyond the graveyard.
Until . . . I turned my back to leave and a swirl of snow flurries began to fall. Not forecast, not expected, and not entirely welcome in March, but altogether beautiful. And this was my farewell from the Fitzgeralds. They were a puzzle to the end– and even beyond– but, by God, they had style. And it seems they have it still.
The stone at the foot of the grave, engraved with what is likely Fitzgerald’s most famous passage, from the end of The Great Gatsby.
A few more notes on the gravesite, the Fitzgeralds, and my visit:
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Rockville, MD: a very old church around which a modern sprawl has grown. The graveyard sits atop a busy intersection– a major artery in the morning commute into DC. Despite that, it feels quiet and respectful. The Fitzgerald headstones are set back from the road, close to the old church building, so they enjoy one of the more serene spots in the cemetery.
And “serene” well describes the moment I lingered over this gravesite– if it doesn’t describe the Fitzgeralds’ lives in the least. Their lives were too often consumed by mania– in Zelda’s emotional state, in Scott’s unquenchable thirst for alcohol– but their final resting place is peaceful. Its background music may be the rumble of the road and the back-and-forth and here-and-there frantic energy of the ambitious, but this small plot seemed impervious. I paused a moment on a Friday morning, I placed my flowers and bowed my head briefly, and I raised my head again to find that snow flurries had appeared out of nowhere. Within minutes, the sky grew heavy and the swirl picked up.
I moved on, eager to make use of the free morning I had, wary of what unforeseen storm might be blowing in to disrupt my plans, but also delighted at the beauty of the unexpected swirl and sudden cold. I jumped in my car and headed out into the Rockville Pike traffic, a boat against the current, but moving nonetheless.
“His name became an aphorism for meanness, but the base nature of Ebenezer Scrooge was inadvertently fashioned by failing light and an author whose eyesight was equally dim.” The Scotsman, December 24, 2004
Ebenezer Scrooge– his story is synonymous with Christmas these days, his changed fate is the stuff of redemption stories (“Christ was born for this” to be sure), and his hauntings both thrill our narrative nerves and warn us of our own shortcomings. Most of us roll our eyes when A Christmas Carol comes on TV for the umpteenth time in the wind up to Christmas, but it’s a tale well told and it probably deserves its stature as a holiday classic.
These days, Dickens is even recognized as a key “inventor” of our modern Christmas traditions. He and his Victorian age put a certain stamp and feeling on the holiday that we still embrace: carolers, Christmas trees, gifts and goodies, and a St. Nick who was less complex and more “festive elf” than the saint of years past and countries east. None of the traditions was new, but the packaging and cheer of it was differently polished and easily palatable. The general rallying cry? “God bless us, every one!”
Charles Dickens had a well tuned sensibility about what made for a good tale. But how funny would it be if this Christmas tale of his was founded on a misunderstanding? What if Ebenezer Scrooge was birthed by a mistake, a misplaced letter, and an imagination that barreled full speed ahead?
It’s said that Charles Dickens kept a diary. And that diary kept a secret about A Christmas Carol, which was published in 1843. While in Edinburgh in 1841, Dickens took a stroll through Canongate Churchyard (or Kirkyard, as the locals would say). It was evening and the light was dimming. He paused at the tombstone of an Ebenezer Scroggie (1792-1836) and mused at the inscription “A Mean Man.” What horrible person had this Ebenezer been, that his epitaph would be so harsh?
Not only did Dickens note this in his diary, but clearly he puzzled it over to the point that Ebenezer Scrooge was born and fully fleshed out in a tale that would delve into that miserly past but offer a redemptive future, if only Scrooge would take it. Poor, mean old Scroggie could finally be redeemed.
Except that, as the kirkyard tale goes, Scroggie wasn’t a mean man. In fact, by some reports he was quite the bon vivant. Scroggie, who was a vintner and corn/grain merchant, was actualy a Meal Man. Dickens needed better glasses.
You can’t verify this story, I’m afraid. Scroggie’s grave marker was removed in 1932, during kirkyard redevelopment. However, you can read more about Dickens and Scroggie here.
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you can enjoy your own stroll through Canongate Kirk and Kirkyard. It’s quite a beautiful church on the Royal Mile, close to the Houses of Parliament and Holyrood Palace. Back in September, I found myself strolling the Royal Mile and happened into the church. It was a slow day, and a young docent was eager to bend my ear about the bright and beautiful space. Interestingly, the space is especially bright and beautiful because of it’s sad past.
The church was built in 1690, with a Dutch gable to the façade. It’s simple and elegant, and just a little different from everything around it in Edinburgh.
The interior was to be refurbished in the late 1930’s, but WWII intervened and a war time of belt tightening and serious endeavors put that on hold temporarily. In December of 1945 the work was started, and it was finished in 1952. This is significant because, according to the docent, it changed the tone of the work done. The parish, as the United Kingdom, had suffered and lost much during the war. The number of young soldiers who did not return home was a wound that would be long in healing. And so the decision was made that the interior space must be light and bright, must be cheerful and uplifting– a reminder that, though sorrow was heavy, the world was a beautiful place and this was a space for rejoicing as much as grieving.
Still today, the interior of the church uplifts. To me, it has a nautical sensibility, at least in its coloring (though it’s possible that I’m influenced by the sea gull cries that are heard over the skies of Edinburgh– a constant subliminal reminder that you are in a port town nestled by the North Sea).
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, it’s worth your time to take a peek into Canongate Kirk. I guarantee that you won’t leave saying “Ba Humbug”!
A very merry Christmas and happy holiday season to you all! (And may God bless us, every one!)
While we are on the topic of the Bronte sisters (or, at least, we were two weeks ago), there’s one more thing I should mention– an especially juicy tidbit. Are you listening? Jane Eyre may be inspired by a true story.
This isn’t news in North Yorkshire and the cozy city of Ripon that I once called home. Just around the corner from Ripon, roughly two or three miles from the roundabout at the edge of town, lies a beautiful old manor house by the name Norton Conyers. It is a handsome medieval squire’s home, dating back to the 1600’s, which has remained in the possession of one family (the Grahams) for nearly 400 years. That’s an achievement!
However, the house had fallen into disrepair of colossal proportions: rain poured in, wood-boring beetles swarmed, and very little of the grand house was heated. Thankfully, Sir James and Lady Graham, when they inherited the home, decided to undertake the many years of work that were required to bring the house back to its intended glory.
There are grander houses in North Yorkshire– Harewood House and Newby Hall are close by– but none with such an “eerie” (Eyre-y?) claim to fame.
Charlotte Bronte visited the home in 1839, possibly while she was a governess to another wealthy family. According to long-held stories, there was a secret attic at Norton Conyers and a mad woman (“Mad Mary” some called her) was kept there. Little more is known with certainty–but the tale has long been whispered, and the assumption has been that this local story is what gave rise to Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre.
I only got wind of this rumor in my last year in Yorkshire, but I thought it would be fantastic to have my book club make a visit to Norton Conyers after reading Bronte’s novel. (This is the book club that my husband dubbed “the book and bottle club,” as he could always tell how well we’d liked and really discussed the book we had been reading by how quickly the book was tossed to the curb and the wine bottles predominated the night. I’ll neither confirm nor deny the truth to that.)
I placed a call to Norton Conyers, ready to hatch my brilliant plan, only to find that the house was closed to visitors for some time while renovations were being made. Some long time, as it turned out.
My sorrow at that news is everyone else’s good luck today, as the extensive restoration work has now been completed and the house does have some (limited) dates when it is open to the public. AND THERE IS MORE. Here’s the kicker: as the renovations began, a secret staircase was discovered, boarded up, dusty, and narrow, with 13 rotting stairs, and hidden behind a hollow panel wall. That staircase led up to a small, windowed room at the outer edge of the attic. According to Sir James Graham, the stories of such an attic, and its captive, seem to date back to about 60 years before Bronte’s visit.
Bronte, apparently, took an extraordinary amount of inspiration for Thornfeld Hall (in Jane Eyre) from Norton Conyers. There is the broad, dramatic staircase that anchors the house, the rookery, the battlements of the roof, and the large hall that was filled with family portraits (though this is common to stately homes). But, of course, it is the secret staircase that seals the relationship between Thornfeld and Norton Conyers.
Who was the mad woman at Norton Conyers? Was “Mad Mary” just a catchy moniker or is she an identifiable historical figure? Sadly, no one seems to know the details, and I doubt that they ever will. It would be nice to restore that voice to the story, to understand what took place at Norton Conyers . . . but it’s a story clouded by centuries of intervening years and the sticky cobwebs of secrecy and shame. Was it a case of illness (mental or physical) that the family was simply trying to deal with in an age when there was no humane medical or social model to help the infirm? Was it a case of abuse? No one knows anymore. But Bronte has left us with a fine story to sort out what might have been. A story that, true to Bronte’s time, doesn’t deal particularly delicately with the mad woman, but does delve into the struggles of the other people caught up in the drama.
It was a great story– still is– but it left it to later generations to release that mad woman from her attic. And, though it’s a story for another day, I’ll say that this makes me think of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the early 1900’s. A modern tale, but still fraught with excess, madness, and tragedy. . . and a mad woman in an attic. More stories I’ve read, characters (real and fictional) that I’ve loved, and houses I’ve toured. But, as I say, that’s a story for another day.
To read an article in The Telegraph about Norton Conyers and the Bronte connection, follow this link: Norton Conyers.
A very good short video from the BBC on Norton Conyers and its restoration can be found here: BBC.
To make a visit, contact the property directly: the home is open a limited number of days each year, but the home and gardens are also available for a wedding venue. (Just don’t choose the “Mad Mary Package”! Just kidding . . . I’m pretty sure that’s not on offer.)
Tonight, I’ll be tuning in for To Walk Invisible — the BBC drama about the Bronte sisters that is featuring on PBS Masterpiece. If your passing knowledge of the Bronte sisters is simply that they were successful writers, then you’ve missed a huge swath of their story– the entire furtive, formative swath. The part that was hard, ugly, and, literally, doomed . . . but literarily resilient. But then, could you have expected anything else from a family that lived on the atmospheric Yorkshire Moors and created such stories as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre?
I think you could not.
It might be smart for me to watch tonight’s show and then write this post about the Brontes– both to refresh my memory about their story and to comment on the show itself. But I’m at the computer now, and so I write. Also– before the show has the opportunity to retouch my memory of a trip to the Bronte Parsonage at Haworth– I’d like to tell you what I remember about my trip there, because it had quite an impact on me.
Confession: I was never a big Bronte fan. My sister was the impetus behind our trip to the Bronte’s home. I didn’t dislike the Brontes, I just hadn’t spent much time with them. I probably thought their brand of gothic fiction was more outdated than classic. I was wrong.
But I didn’t see that until I visited their home and learned more about their lives. The conventions of gothic had nothing on the actual lives of the Bronte sisters. Dark, atmospheric tales weren’t just a hook for catching a reader, they were faithful incarnations of the harsh realities of life in Haworth (and at the Bronte home).
Their mother and two sisters died young. Their brother died in young adulthood– of illness and addiction. Emily died four months after her brother; Anne died the next year; Charlotte died six years later (but still only 38 years old). Their father outlived them all, by many decades.
He was quite the exception for the village of Haworth. In the 1800’s, the village was a gloomy place and the average life expectancy was less than 30 years old. There was no real sewage system in Haworth. Sewage often ran in the streets and tainted the water supply. What water there was to start with– which wasn’t much and was of bad quality. Finally– just to add some grim to the grime– the overcrowded city cemetery, which grew more overcrowded each year and had very bad drainage, sat (still sits) at the top of the city hill, further poisoning the town. That is a recipe for death by death.
One more thing–possibly important if you are a Bronte– the village cemetery sits in front of the parsonage. Death on your doorstep: a fine thing to wake up to each morning.
So, if you were a Bronte sister, you grew up in a village where infant mortality was sky high and people of every age had a tough go of it. You lived at the edge of the wild and harsh Moors, quite a distance from any large, urban centers. Your prospects in Haworth were not so very good, your childhood playground was a cemetery, the wind howled, your preacher father married and buried a revolving door of friends and neighbors, and nothing in life was easy, not even a kettle of water for your tea.
No wonder your brother became an addict; no wonder your relatives passed young. No wonder your imagination turned to a rich inner world to pass your days . . . but a world of disquieting stories.
I’m sure tonight’s program will teach me a good many things about the Bronte family that I did not know. I am eager to learn. My first visit to Haworth was around 2006– so my memory is a little fuzzy on details, but not on the overall impression. I’d already been living in Yorkshire for a year, and loved the environs, so it’s not surprising that what struck me most about the Bronte home was the town, the general environs in which this family lived. It was the perfect setting for a gothic tale.
It was a grey, atmospheric day the first time I visited Haworth. The town was picturesque and compact. I remember winding up the cobbled street, passing a sweet shop, a tea room, a pub. Passing tourists. Seeing the tidy parsonage, and its dreary graveyard, at the top of the hill. All perfectly picturesque– especially as you stand at the crest of the hill and look down at the winding street of town, the stone shops and home fronts, and the rolling hills around it.
If you want to see a bit of what my eyes saw, here’s a short YouTube video that will give you a quick glance at Haworth and a view from the top of the town. ( Be warned–the narrator does drone on at the end of the video, “blah blah, polar bears, blah blah”– just ignore that bit. He also says “Withering” Heights, repeatedly– hard to ignore, but try.)
BUT– for all of the beauty, as the grey clouds swarmed the day of my first visit and the air ran chill, I gathered up all I had learned about life in Haworth in the 1800’s, and what I remembered of some of the haunting elements of the Bronte sisters’ tales, and I saw the town differently. I saw the graveyard at the pinnacle of the town, I saw the run off and sewage coursing through the streets below, I saw Branwell (the addled addict of a brother) watching death wash over the streets from the dark pub window. The town itself seemed a little Jekyll and Hyde to me.
Haworth seems like a tale well told, but hard-lived. An amazing place to visit, for certain.
I’ll leave you with two things, below. The first, a portrait that I saw in the parsonage– rather famous– which Branwell painted of the three sisters who survived him. I love (and loathe) it for the fact that Branwell had originally painted himself into the portrait, but (for what reason?) decided to erase himself out of it. It is no subtle erasure. What he leaves is worse than a gapping hole in the middle of the painting: it’s a spectral ghost of himself that (for me, at least) becomes almost more of a focal point than the remaining likenesses of his sisters! I suspect that this will in some ways ring true with the Bronte family story I watch tonight. The ghost of Branwell, the presence of death and despair in Haworth, is largely the energy that created the Bronte stories.
The second nugget I leave for you is a YouTube video that acts as a teaser for the production To Walk Invisible. Enjoy!
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.
We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it. We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.
We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.
But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.
“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” ― Dickens, A Christmas Carol
When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–an uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted. It was the right sort of house for that: imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.
I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.
But then nothing happened.
Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.
Still, nothing happened.
After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened. What a rip off! I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!? Not a fair trade off if you ask me.
But ghosts are people too; they have their own agendas. I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life. It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life. What was Christmas like for them? Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver? Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage? Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?
And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area? Was the occupation oppressive or a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals . . . who must have been haunted already by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war.
And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II. What about those Christmas dinners? Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark? Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe? Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me. I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.
And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided, like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.
Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either. I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.
It’s better not to know, I tell myself.
Still, I want a ghost for Christmas. I can’t shake that feeling. It’s part of the old house package.
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” -William Faulkner
I had a ghost once, a few years ago.
I know, I know–just hear me out. This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances. The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening. For that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening (the story becomes infinitely more plausible at that point). And one more thing–the children aren’t around. If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.
I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts).
So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story in a few days. That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined. It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.
Meet me here then, if you dare, and I will tell you my story.