To Eyre is Human

norton cony attic room Getty Images
The secret attic room at Norton Conyers.

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.

Norton Conyers

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.

Panel hiding staircase

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.

The staircase that leads to the attic room. . . and that led to a classic novel.

 

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.)
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All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost*

(*Originally posted December 17, 2015)

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.

 

ghosty snow house moon
A foggy winter night at “the castle.”

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.

dsc_0113

“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

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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.

DSC_0300 - CopyBut 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.

Staircase between floors/apartments
Staircase between floors/apartments

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.

chistms carol page

 

Halloween: This Old House

The house in Germany:  although we’ve packed up and left it, it hasn’t left us.

dsc_0148-halloween-copy

Images of autumn and Halloween are starting to flood the internet, and I’m sitting here in Florida thinking that it’s still too hot to plant pansies, wear a sweater, or start the full-on (and often pumpkin inspired) baking frenzy that I feel compelled to throw myself into this time of year.  (I bake in the autumn the way birds migrate: I can’t help myself, it seems to be woven into the fabric of my being.)

I love my new environs in Florida, for all of the reasons this place inspires love:  the dolphins I’ve watched in the past week; the great horned owl who graces our backyard; the glistening bay, beach, and boat docks that I walk to with my dog every evening.

But the interminable summer is a little frustrating for a girl who loves four seasons.  So today, I give you this wistful image– the old house in Germany in a tinted Halloween mashup.  Old, creaky, spooky, beautiful . . . and autumnal.

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Boo!

Happy Halloween!!

 

 

* JNW’s Halloween Challenge

There Is A Small Medium at Large

Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae, the psychic, in the movie Ghost.
Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae, the psychic medium, in the movie Ghost.

Well, my traveling friends, it’s true: there is a small medium at large.  You know how, when you travel, you are met with  new and unexpected experiences?  That’s the draw of it, right?  This is also true when you move to a new region–there are sure to be interesting developments, to be moments of “Oh, wow,  that’s never happened to me before.”

Any number of moments, really.   But here is one for your consideration.

The red stone house in Germany
The red stone house in Germany

As you know, we’ve just moved back to the States from Germany.  And if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I was sorely disappointed that the very old stone house we lived in there wasn’t haunted, even though we had enough ghost stories under our belts already.  Anyhoo, as we packed up to bid Germany goodbye and we planned our new life in Florida, we gave up any hope of supernatural tales.  In fact, in our last weeks, we were told that the old German house used to be called Villa Sunshine by the locals.  Not much spooky there.

So off to sunny Florida, where sangria and surf are the norm and atmospheric tales stay at bay.

Then again . . . we hadn’t even gotten to Florida before a Floridian friend was in contact and, on hearing where we would be renting our house, said “Hey, that’s the neighborhood with the psychic, isn’t it?”  zoltarfull02

Was it?  We didn’t know.  Honestly, we didn’t care.   But weeks later, as we moved into the new digs, we found ourselves on the lookout.  Any odd-birds in the neighborhood?  Anyone walking around in a turban, looking like Zoltar the fortune teller?

Our curiosity was peaked, but we had no idea what we might be looking for.  There were no “Sister Rosa, Palm Reader” signs in front yards–the Home Owner’s Association would have frowned on that.  There were no Gypsy caravans parked in driveways.  So we were on the lookout for any eccentrics that we might pin the role on, but we were coming up with nothing.  Which just made us more curious.

I don’t have any experience with psychic mediums.  My only reference points are examples like the Zoltar fortune teller machine and Whoopi Goldberg’s character in the movie Ghost.  (A character whose narrative arc is pretty interesting:  she starts out as a charlatan and ends up being more sage than she ever knew she could be.)  If you don’t remember her, here’s a small clip for you:

 

Yeah, generally speaking, I guess the idea of a psychic makes me giggle.  At worst, this person would be a con man–  ready to prey on folks who are looking for reassurance or struggling through grief.  But then again, there are some people who are intuitive, you know?   And so many of us have stories that defy logical explanations, so maybe . . . just maybe. . .

Bottom line:  I’m a skeptic, but not foolish enough to say it isn’t possible.

So my husband and I continued our neighborhood watch– it was our project to figure out where this eccentric might live.  We embraced the challenge a little too happily:  we watched the neighborhood and the neighbors, we commented on odd decor and strange choices of head-gear, we sat in judgment of peculiarities or individual flights of fancy.

Little did we know. . .

Honestly, here’s exactly where I should have seen the plot twist coming– I’m an English and Religious Studies major, after all, and this is the age old tale.  When you’re looking for the trouble out there–the fault in your neighbor– well, you’re looking in the wrong place.  More often than not, the fault is your own.

So guess where this psychic lived?  Yep.  Oh, yep.

Turns out, we’d moved into the house.

*  * *

I’ll give up no information on this person– who by all accounts from neighbors, and our own dealings, is fantastic.  In fact, this makes me want to be more open to the idea of a . . . psychic?  I don’t even really know what that is.  I have this hodgepodge of terms in my head– psychic, clairvoyant, medium, spiritualist, etc.– and I don’t really know what they mean, or how they’d be distinguished one from the other.   Really, all this situation has taught me is that I know nothing and should probably keep my mouth shut.   We’ll see how well that lesson takes . . .

But in the meantime, I’m left with this:  as much as I’m a skeptic in my head, my heart seems to be a total buy in– and it’s causing me some real trouble.

A couple of weeks ago, our landlord dropped by the house with an extra set of  keys that we needed.   I answered the door, was welcoming and polite, as usual, and then suddenly froze  as I was shaking this person’s hand.  I had the thought, “What if _____ can sense my thoughts?  What if they know I know?  That I think being a psychic is strange?”  Of course, these thoughts were followed by a barrage of “Stop thinking.  Seriously.  Right now–stop.  Oh, I can’t control my thoughts!!!”    And, intuitive or not, anyone would have gotten some strange vibes from me then.  I’m pretty sure my entire facial expression went to the deer caught in the headlights pose for a minute or more, and I was pretty much a jabbering idiot.  So again, lesson to the arrogant:  judge not lest ye be judged.   Which is not fun.

And this week the same problem arose.  This time, our air conditioning started limping (freon leak), and we had to call the landlord.  My husband tried to hand me the phone to make the call– I’d noticed the problem and would generally have made the call myself.  But I was not feeling it.  It had been a stressful day –unpacking boxes, sifting through breakage, and muttering obscenities all day– and I just wasn’t ready to call up a mind reading spiritualist.   I had to, shame-faced, take my husband out of earshot of the kids and say, “You really have to make this call, because I think that maybe I DO believe in psychics, and I think that a psychic would pick up on a whole lot of bad juju and general craziness in me right now, and I’m not feeling like being evicted from my house today just because I happen to suffer from this-is-what-it’s-like-inside-my-wierd-head-syndrome.”

God bless my husband.  He asked no further questions and just made the phone call.

I did, however, have to speak to our small medium at large a couple of days later to confirm that the air conditioning repair man had been by.  I think that conversation went well.  Granted, I was manically chipper sounding.  Possibly one toe over the crazy-line of chipper. (I had to talk fast before the “can’t-  control- my- thoughts–you’re a pyschic!” stuff crept in.)  But it is what it is.

Any psychic worth their salt would understand the issue and forgive me.

I think it could be a real burden being a psychic and dealing with all us crazy humans.  Hopefully the voices from the other side are much more sensible.

 

All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost

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.

ghosty snow house moon
A foggy winter night at “the castle.”

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

Creative Commons licensing

 When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–a 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.

DSC_0300 - CopyBut ghosts are people too, and 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 this a dramatic change, considering this area has always been a source of border disputes?  Was the occupation a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals who must have been haunted 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.

Staircase between floors/apartments
Staircase between floors/apartments

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; at that point, it all makes more sense.  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 then).

So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story tomorrow.  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 tomorrow, if you dare, and I will tell you my ghost story.

chistms carol page