Friday, March 21, 2014

Buying Hever

Honest, I was just fooling around with the tag cloud and the layout, and this post from a summer or two ago ended up re-posting as though it were freshly done. Oh well, I kind of liked it anyway.

When I was about ten years old, I decided that after I had become a rich and famous author, I would buy Hever ("heever") Castle in England. My idea was to furbish it up and live there quietly, savoring the magnificent ghostly associations with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, keeping everything authentically sixteenth-century, and of course fitting in superbly with the local people.

In time I discovered William Waldorf Astor had already bought the place in 1903. The rest of Hever's ownership chronicles come from its website, which wasn't up and running when I was ten. Here we learn that the family from whom Astor bought it, the Meade Waldos, had owned the castle since an ancestor of theirs purchased it in 1749. Even at that time the Meade Waldos preferred to live nearby and rent the castle out to tenant farmers, who occupied a part of it but allowed the public in to see the "historical" rooms. (Isn't it interesting to note when enough time has passed for a certain place to cease to be alive and commonplace, and become at once dead and historical. For Hever it took a bit less than two hundred years.) Before 1749, the castle was so very commonplace that it had begun to languish under a succession of owners; we must go back to the 1500s to find a named family really living there and using the whole place because they were Tudor gentry and they needed it all. These were the Waldegreaves, government officials who took over ownership after the castle's last actual link with Henry VIII was broken; for the king had given Hever to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, after their divorce and it remained hers until she died.

Before her, of course, comes the part that makes the castle "historical." Hever was a childhood home of Anne Boleyn. That's all: if you pass over with a smile the romantic novels and romantic biographies of her, and stick to a solid scholarly book like Eric Ives' Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (2004), you will find that the indefinite article is justified. It was a home of hers, not the home and probably not her birthplace. (When it comes to that perhaps "Hever, Kent" just sounds nicer than "Blickling, Norfolk.") Besides, as an aristocratic girl with a family to do right by, Mistress Anne was already living abroad at twelve or thirteen years of age, working as a maid of honor for other queens whom the general romance-reading public have long forgotten. She can therefore be associated with many places -- but what Boleynophile today makes pilgrimages to the palace of Mechelen in Belgium, where she waited upon the Archduchess Margaret of Austria? Or who thinks of her as a demoiselle d'honneur to the French queen Claude, accompanying her at state banquets in the Bastille, or living at Amboise and being therefore a neighbor of the pensioned Leonardo da Vinci?  "That Anne saw him [circa 1516] seems probable; whether it meant anything to her we cannot know" (Ives, p. 30).  

No. If one is a Boleynophile one prefers the moated romance (and the easy access to London and Gatwick airport) of Hever. It seems too that half the moated romance of it comes from William Waldorf Astor's having spat on his hands and got down to it after 1903, laying out the "award-winning" gardens and the "Tudor village." I must admit that causes me a pang. If I owned it I would not have laid out a Tudor village. Rather I would have preferred to find out exactly what the building, grounds, and gardens would have looked like in Anne's time, and restore everything to that, even if it meant a property of empty rolling parklands, commonplace smelly stables or modest fishponds, and quiet woods. If people were living in a Tudor village right there already anyway, that would have been fine. And if the gardens were mine they would have been planted to whatever simple roses the sixteenth century knew, along with perhaps just violets and strawberries, or medicinal rue or lungwort. Though who knows? The Boleyns might have scoffed at such ignorant rusticity, and demanded palms, tigers, and lemon trees. In that case all their ghosts might have entirely approved William Waldorf's manmade lakes and fountains, and his Italian loggia and sculpture garden.

At any rate the Astor family in turn sold the whole thing off again, after being in possession for only eighty years. (About the same length of time the Boleyns held it.) Today, the castle is owned and  maintained as a tourist attraction by Broadland Properties Ltd., who probably took one look at the loggia and the Tudor village and thought, "thank God for the Astors, now let's make some money." Photos of what I must dare call Heverland -- it's practically my ancestral home -- show lots of people enjoying it and of course there is plenty of shopping. Bless them all.  

I bring all this up because I have a friend who likes to travel, albeit only to one place, and who encourages me to travel also. To Mexico. I'm sure it is indeed "a wonder," what with the greenery and the mandevilla and the iguanas boldly munching hibiscus flowers right out of vacationers' drinks, but last night in surfing through Mexican/expatriate living/travel blogs, I happened to come across one where the blogger's husband is pictured eating grasshoppers and ant-egg pastries at some food festival in what we'll have to gently call Le Mexique Profond.  You could positively see the searing humidity among other things. It forced me to think. Re: travel. Where would I really like to go?

What came to mind was Hever. It's not that I wish to get a passport, get on a plane and go. But at least the idea of seeing it is pleasing. Where else? The Cloisters, the museum of medieval art that is a branch of the Met in New York. Winterthur, near Wilmington, Delaware, which was a home of the DuPont family and is today a museum of fine decorative arts, a garden, and a library. Maybe Charleston, South Carolina. The ocean, certainly, but I think I'll take the ocean outside Florida, or Charleston, rather than any other. I read Marguerite Henry's Misty books years ago so I have thought I'd like to see Chincoteague.  

Most of what appeals to me are domestic scenes -- it's always someone's home, or a recreation of one. Always a garden, a library, a small landscape nearby for wandering, and all the connotations of privacy and leisure. From realizing this, it is but a small step to realizing that maybe I like the idea of looking at other people's homes because it's the next best thing to being home. Which may explain why I don't travel. Beyond a certain point one cannot blame circumstances, whether finances, health, job, spouse or ex-spouse, whatever. Beyond all that it is oneself making the choices. My parents took me to many nice places when I was growing up, but none of them gripped me, "inspired" me with a passion to go back. Not even Europe did. (My friend asked me. I found the question startling. "None," I answered, and he rolled his eyes. "Except Michigan," and he rolled his eyes again. I already have the cottage booked. The journey is two hours from door to door.)

When I am feeling huffy and defensive about not traveling -- when wine salesmen look at me as if I were a criminal and say "not even Napa?" -- I tell myself that someday future historians will look back at our time and agree that the social pressure to travel was very odd. Why did the wealthiest and most comfortable people, in any civilization ever, hound themselves into rushing about inconveniencing themselves and seeing things? Why the definite whiff of guilt and betrayal, as if you are doing what the English call "letting down the side"? Sinclair Lewis noticed it in Dodsworth (chapter 21, "it is the most arduous and yet the most boring of pastimes ... we travel in order to have something to do"). Years ago writer Lisa Medchill cagily speculated that what people really like is coming home and being able to say where they've been. "I just got back from Paris" mollifies the inquisitors and one's own conscience for a while. Much more recently, questioner Mark at gave us this cri du coeur, the prayer-like passion of which I hope will ring down the ages:

.I hate the expense, the trouble of having to pack and unpack, not knowing where I am, having to keep my passport on hand and worrying that if it gets lost or stolen I wouldn't be allowed back in my own country, putting up with rude locals, weird foods, and hoping that the weather is good during the trip and no emergencies come up while you're gone, tolerating drunk idiots who populate cruise ships and hotel lobbies, and in general the misery that comes from not having my stuff around.
Quite so. I would think for any sane person not already browbeaten into travel, "not knowing where I am" certainly constitutes nightmare.

Given all this, suppose we visit Hever in our own way.  If we could go back five hundred years to a July day in 1513, and see it as it was, actually a comfortable Tudor mansion inside a forbidding and much older medieval gatehouse, would we also catch a glimpse of a dark-haired girl of twelve or so, walking with trailing brocaded skirts among the roses and lungwort? Or had her parents already packed her off to finishing school at Mechelen? And suppose it's time for the mid-day dinner. What would we eat? 

If we dip into C. Anne Wilson's Food and Drink in Britain:from the Stone Age to the 19th Century  (1973) we will soon spot the dishes and flavors that would strike us as most foreign. Rosewater and almonds seem to have been in everything. So was honey. Fish and beer for a strange breakfast. (This is a world without coffee.) Everyone's diet was heavy on salted meat and salted fish, and on sweet creamy puddings as a foil to all the salt. Fine manchet -- white bread -- sweet dried fruits, and fresh venison were treats for the rich, albeit the venison was cooked with vinegar, pepper, salt, or cinnamon to disguise its "high" flavor. And the late middle ages did love its colorful salads, heaped high with edible flowers like dandelions, violets, blue borage, and daisies among the salted and vinegar-ed greens.

As for the wine. In mid-July Hever's wine was probably teetering in quality between the best to be had, and more vinegar. Wilson tells us that in those days wine was imported (most usually from France) three times a year, each successive batch the product of one Bordeaux harvest slowly being drawn down. In September or October when the grapes had just been plucked, it was little more than fresh juice and hardly fermented at all. In mid and late winter, the new shipment of "true" wine had turned somewhat alcoholic but was still "rough and raw." By spring and early summer, the third and best consignment had come in. It was called "wine of the rack" because it had been racked off its lees, the extra rest allowing more fermentation and a little mellowing. Real summer heat, though, meant the danger of nosing a glassful of vinegar. Useful for the venison pot and the salad, but for the guest at table in July or August it also meant a sigh, and a resigned wait until the new season's grapey-fresh import arrived. Romance novels todaywill take care also to mention hippocras or clary, both wines sweetened and spiced and probably comparable to our winter glugg or summer sangria.  

There.We've traveled, probably better than a lot of people, without all the trouble and expense. And no grasshoppers. And speaking of nature, here are the coneflowers in my garden, which, who knows? some wealthy industrialist in the year 2413 may want to know about because the house I lived in has become famed, and he has bought it and wants to attract tourists with a display of 21st century authenticity. I don't think they are edible. But they looked like this.

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