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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 August 2007

Attic Adventures

Yes, I have been AWOL. It's summertime and I so wish the livin' was easy. Don't get me wrong, my life is great, but the plate is too full at the moment. The tree-falling-on-house episode is history. The moving-back-in part will take months. So much of the house had to be packed up for the rebuild that we are now facing dozens of boxes of stuff that I have learned to live without. It's the perfect opportunity to simplify our lives and share the useful and useless with others. Which only makes the process of re-nesting take longer.

What does this have to do with research? Not a whole lot but it did start a train of thought about far more glorious stores of treasure: the attics of the great houses.

My favorite books on the subject come from two twentieth women: Lady Victoria Leatham, daughter of the Marquis of Exeter and Deborah Freeman-Mitford Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.

As I investigated the subject I was surprised to find that some of the great houses did not have attics. The roof of Lady Victoria's home, Burghley, pictured to the right illustrates a small part of the roof (the Doric Columns disguise chimneys). It was a space that was much used by the household as an exercise and meeting place. Access to it was from the main part of the house. Still the family managed to find places to store things.

Before the last half of the 19th century I wonder if anyone every threw anything away.

Of course they did, but not nearly as much as we do. They passed things on. Lady Victoria uncovered a record of a deed of gift( c 1670) from the Countess of Devonshire to her daughter the Countess of Exeter: "gems, precious stones, 'Agats' and gold objects."

(An aisde -- that example shows how close the aristocracy is/was. Over the centuries the Exeter and Cavendish families are related by marriage more than once.)

Items of lesser value were handed "down" to servants and the needy. Thousands of bits of trash and treasure were stored away in abandoned parts of the house, secret rooms and desk drawers. In her memoir, COUNTING MY CHICKENS, the Duchess of Devonshire talks about opening a drawer to discover "a miniature of Georgiana, a Women's Institute programme of 1932, a bracelet given by Pauline Borghese to the Bachelor Duke to hide a crack in the marble arm of a statue of Venus, and a crystal wireless set."

The second photo is a picture of one of the "dark nurseries" at Burghley which Lady Victoria describes as "Burghley's answer to attics." These rooms had no electricity when the Leatham family began restoration (1982!) and were the source of endless entertainment, disappointment and discovery. Some of the tragedies: ten Venetian seventeenth century walnut chairs, "piled anyhow" that had become nothing more than "wormwood limbs and bits," small paintings stacked on top of larger ones so that the frames became "embedded in the canvas behind."

There were treasures: the jewels described in the deed of gift above and lost for generations. According to Lady Victoria it took six years to discover and organize the trash and the treasures.

I expect it to take me about two months to sort through our boxes and decide what to keep, what to toss and what to pass on. (A November 15th deadline does take precedence over the sorting!) Two months is a snap compared to six years. And I know I will be spared the duchess's experience.

She decided to explore the upper floors of Chatsworth, long abandoned (no central heat or electricity) and filled with "nothing but junk." She opened a door to a small room wondering if, at one time, it might have been a servant's bed chamber. Stepping in, she found a light on and a man seated in a crumbling chair, reading a book. He scowled at her. Startled, she begged pardon and immediately left the room, closing the door firmly behind her. She never went to that part of the house again.

The duchess never uses the word "ghost" but leaves the reader to draw her own conclusion. We may not have 16th century gems in our basement but we have been here seven years and I have seen no sign of ghosts either. For me, that's a fair trade.

Have you ever found a treasure in an attic? Tell us about it.

6 Comments:

Blogger janegeorge said...

Wow. The roof at Burghley is its own fantastic world. What a great setting for a scene that would make!

3:58 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Oh, Mary. I love this post!

We just moved, too. And I am opening boxes and boxes of things I have learned to live without.

But finding things like the Duchess of Devonshire did---ah, I can only dream about.

Most of my keepsake stuff and things I found in my grandmother's attic hold family memories, valued only for sentimental attachments, but otherwise worthless. Still, I can't part with a few precious pieces---like old photos of my great-grandmother in her lovely 1902 dresses and big hats. ;-)

4:03 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Hee, hee, Mary! Now that the book is done, I have to go in my "book room" (too cluttered to be called an office) and clear the floor of its junk. I have paperwork unfiled, my suitcases from RWA not entirely unpacked, books I've purchased, books I've pulled from the shelves.

I shudder to think what it would be like to declutter the rest of the house, but I do dream of doing so. I watch Clean House obsessively...
Luckily, there's always a book to be written or friends to have lunch with

The story of the man reading in the room gave me shivers! But wouldn't you just love to root around in the stuff packed away in great houses!

7:35 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Not in the attic, but we found a viola, made by a minor-major English luthier, in my aunts' garden shed. I think it had never been unpacked from their last move.

I love the story of the reading ghost altho I wonder if it was a footman bettering himself (and unrecognizable outside of his usual occupation).

10:33 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Nice to hear from you all -- I thought everyone would be on vacation this week.

Good luck with the unpacking Kathrynn. We moved so many times that I could unpack 20K pounds in four days -- I was much younger then and see no need to rush now as we do not plan to move for years and years.

Jane -- I almost used Burghley as the prototype for the great house in my next book but have pretty much decided on another favorite. I agree that the Burghley roof would make for a fabulous scene. Let me know if you use it.

The only "treasure" I ever found were some Roger Torey Peterson bird prints that I framed and put in my office -- in an attic of a house we bought. I called the previous owners and they could have cared less. I do not think they are valuable but they are beautiful.

Diane, don't you love those two words THE END!

11:01 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Book room has most of the floor visible now. If you looked at the room you'd still say "What a mess!"

Mary, I now understand why my mother insisted we take all our old toys and clothes, books, etc, to the Thrift Shop before we moved, but I still wish I had my Beth Madame Alexander doll, given up before one move...

We never found any treasures anywhere.

And...the end does feel good!

2:44 PM  

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