Book Review: Miranda Seymour's 'Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir Of Life'
THE MANOR AND THE MAN
The people who populate Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father's House are eccentric English folk, but not in that lovable way so familiar to Americans from British television sitcoms. In fact, they are for the most part so pathetically dysfunctional that I initially couldn't bring myself to review this offering by the prolific author Miranda Seymour.
But because I was once in love with a house myself and the requited love that Seymour's father had for the eponymous manor and its park in Nottinghamshire is central to Thrumpton Hall, I decided it was worth a go.
You can be the judge.
* * * * * My love house was as simple as Thrumpton Hall is sumptious.
A cabin made of chestnut logs dating to the 1690s, making it the oldest house in the area, was razed to build the earliest part of my house in 1715, a mere 84 years after Thrumpton Hall. This section is made of gorgeous Belgian bond brick, in fact the brick used as ballast on the ship commissioned by the owner to bring his Welsh Baptist family to the British colony of Pennsylvania.
Two additions were built of beautiful local black granite later in the 18th century and the last was a clapboard addition off of the kitchen that I date to the mid 19th century judging from the type of nails in the joists. While my description of the house may make it seem large, it probably was no more than a relatively cozy 1,500 square feet or so.
My love affair began as a teenager when I pedaled my English bike into a verdant valley a few miles from my family's home through which run the three branches of a creek. They converge behind the house, which I found quite by accident. I was immediately smitten by its broken down beauty and isolation.
As I was to learn many years later, those creeks flow into the earthen cellar of the house when they overflow their banks, which happens with regularity when there are heavy rains or the occasional hurricane because it is built on a flood plain. (I was to avidly research the house and interviewed the retired local letter carrier who told me that he had to row down the road to the house in a boat after a 1955 hurricane to deliver mail.)
But the flooding was the least of the house's problems, which was dubbed Mildew Manor by the family who turned it over to me 20-odd years later.
The house was the living embodiment of history for someone like myself who lives and breathes history, and while I never fancied myself riding on horseback to the nearest village when the local militia was summoned to fight the Redcoats, I spent many an evening enraptured by the way the moonlight played off of its roof, gables and walls, and delighted in crawling around the attic with claw hammer and crowbar in hand, pulling up floor boards and investigating what the little treasures that had fallen between the cracks over the centuries.
Heating with wood, not being able to get decent TV reception, fairly frequent power outages during summer electrical storms and getting snowed in for days at a time because the road was never plowed didn't matter when I was a bachelor, but I got hitched and the house began to overwhelm us with two small children soon on the scene. Improvement projects were put off just to keep the house heated and plumbed. No fool, I finally acknowledged after eight years that my house-love was over. As well as my marriage. It was time to get a divorce (actually two) and move on to something less historic and more practical.
* * * * * George FitzRoy Seymour was a man with no discernible qualities other than an appalling snobbery and priggishness.
He was a malingerer when called into the Army in World War II and was soon discharged for being a wimp. There were no achievements noted in his obituary when he passed on at the age of 71 in 1994 since driving his family to distraction (and one young male companion and probable lover to suicide) did not qualify, but then there was his house.
Left with the childless owners of Thrumpton Hall when he was an infant and raised by servants with names like Sarah Death, Percy Crush and Shotbolt, he fell in love with its Jacobean columns, pilasters, parapets and elaborately carved grand stairway in a way he could never love a mere mortal, and was writing mash notes to the house from an early age. (Jacobean architecture has never been my cup of tea, and it should be noted that my modest crazy-quilt of a house was much more than the sum of its parts while Thrumpton is an exercise in ostentation.)
George Seymour also loved his elegant hands (small photo) and liked it when they were admired, had infatuations with young men whom he "adopted" and whose vulnerability he shamelessly exploited, and delighted in playing the gracious country squire for the local villagers. But he was a petty tyrant to his family and sometimes his friends.
Seymour was such a snoot that the greatest tragedy of his life was never becoming an aristocrat. (The poor dear couldn't afford to buy a title.) The greatest crisis was the threat of losing Thrumpton Hall when his uncle died in 1949 and left an enormous tax bill.
Seymour scraped together £50,000 and scrimped and saved in order to restore the house to its former glory. He married the author's mother, Rosemary Scott-Ellis, not for love, but because of an inheritance that never materialized. He never forgave her.
Miranda Seymour writes that the vicar who spoke at her father's funeral spoke of him as a man with a wound in his heart:
"This description, which startled nobody, could have referred to the anguish he had recently experienced. It seemed more likely that the vicar, a man who had known my father for thirty years, was thinking of his aching need for a love greater than any one person had been able to provide."
* * * * * Despite all of the heartache that George Seymour visited on the author's mother, brother and herself, despite her father's innumerable acts of appalling psychological cruelty, despite his repeated use of Thrumpton Hall as a cudgel to get his whiny way, Miranda Seymour has held onto the house.
At a time when too many grand and historic houses in the British Isles have fallen to the auctioneer's hammer or worse, that is not a bad thing for someone who once had a case of house-love himself. In fact, Thrumpton Hall survives in part because it is rented out for weddings and other events besides being the author's home. (Just go to thrumptonhall.com.)
But while this book is beautifully written, Miranda Seymour gives me a case of the ass to use a decidedly un-English term.
Seymour asserts that she wrote Thrumpton Hall to "make my peace by trying to understand what made her father the man he was" when she has known full well who he was since she was a teenager whom he made wear a wig because he liked long hair and hers was too mousy to wear long. And told her that she was ugly and fat. So while she may still be haunted by George FitzRoy Seymour in her dreams, he has provided her with not just a grand roof over her head, but a pretty good cash cow, as well.