The Chimneys of Green Knowe: journal notes
I’ve now been to Green Knowe – in effect: I’ve visited the Manor at Hemingford Grey – just after Christmas, the time when the action for The Children of Green Knowe takes place, and I thought, on a whim, to record my responses to reading (only for the second time, I think – or maybe the third) the first pages of another of the series, where Lucy Boston establishes the Manor as a major part of the story. Chimneys struck me as the best in that it’s the next in the sequence, but also because I don’t know it that well, so my reading will be comparably fresh. I’m not sure where this is going but I rather suspect I will make brief reflections wherever the text or my recollection of the house causes me to stop and think. I’ll try to keep away from the speculative or theoretical, to save that for another time. I won’t use page references or the quotation functions in WordPress but direct quotations from Chimneys will be designated by italics and any other quotations will be in inverted commas.
“He’s trying to make it sound grand” says one of the boys from school, and Tolly wonders about his Great-Grandmother: had she been playing make-believe with him because he was so little? The biggest question about Mrs Oldknow for me as an adult reader: how much is she leading Tolly into a fantasy that sustains her lonely times in the house. Boston raises the question quickly and dismisses it in the person of Mrs O: He and she were just two people.
The tall stone walls were warning themselves in the sun… The recognition now comes not from Peter B’s pictures or from the text but from the recognition of how it looks: “Yes,” I say, “that’s how it must be in the spring.” Having been makes all the difference – but to the lessening of the impact of the book? This is the same issue as I had at Thoon: once I had been and sat where Garner had sat, it was like the impact of a film on the appreciation of a book: this is how it has to look, how it must be. The house is at once the setting for the books and a reflection of those books or even their showcase. Here I need to restrain myself from wandering off to the speculative.
He was in a hurry to go over the house and garden to see that everything was the same but as soon as he crossed the threshold he knew that it wasn’t…Somehow Tolly knew that the house was silent. Do I dare say this? That it didn’t feel silent to me? Did I hear a flute or do I read back into my memory the expectation of hearing one? When one of my colleagues visiting wrote her para-narrative as part of the Twitter GreeneChristmas she wrote of a man joining in the Coventry Carol to lull the baby to sleep…
The later there was a fire and all the new part was burnt down and only our part with its thick stone walls was left. And Diana Boston showed us drawings of the elevation that has been suggested as what that grand house would have looked like. We’ve since seen a Ravilious drawing of a vicarage in Essex that is a smaller dwelling but with similar features. Maybe a measure of how much I was expecting that I was reminded instantly of “It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre.” Another ghost – much less pleasant: M R James’ Mezzotint.
One of the old patchwork quilts…some of which were used as curtains for the living room windows, hanging from ceiling to floor in bulgy folds… “I’ve been there! I saw that!” and the same rush of recognition in Peter Boston’s next illustration: “I can see the door you come in by!” Maybe this is a key to Boston’s writing: she patches together ideas, her understanding of the history of Hemingford Grey working with her need to make a pattern for the house’s story? That they are such a big part of the way Lucy B is celebrated at Hemingford Grey is significant: it is as if her abiding love of quilting holds an almost heraldic significance. Here, we have a clear indication of how close the author is to the character of Mrs O: Mrs O is engaged in just this activity with quilts I have seen hanging in bulgy folds in the room where Lucy B wrote. I think this room – smaller than I’d imagined – with thick quilts on the windows – could be really warm with the fire going well (I note there is now a wood-burning stove).
His own bedroom The attic bedroom in Hemingford Grey is spare but lovely – in fact in The Children of Green Knowe Tolly “felt with all his heart that he was at home.” It’s bigger, too; the siting of four beds now makes sense.
The old rocking horse. If Tolly had outgrown it, I don’t think we had. The sound of it moving was a very gentle wooden rocking, with the sound Boston mentions “like oars” in The Children of Green Knowe being the sound of oars in rowlocks.
…he saw the garden lying far below the sky, laid out tidily like a toy model…Suddenly Orlando broke off and ran to the gate. Now, when we went to Hemingford Grey I spent time mystified by the attic windows, the “windows on three sides” from The Children of Green Knowe, and the one this seems to refer to is the one in the gable end looking out across the river. In The Children of Green Knowe, Peter’s plate shows two windows to either side, and since this is the view from Tolly’s bed another window would be behind him: is this what is reflected in the mirror mentioned in The Children of Green Knowe? This, at any rate, is the window Tolly looks out of to the gate to see his dog greeting someone invisible.
In this room [Mrs O’s bedroom] there were window seats under the big windows…” I don’t remember them, being much too taken by the artwork on the walls and the deliberately tricksy wood panelling that leads to the music room. The box structure in the recess performs the same function as the toy box in The Children of Green Knowe: it allows extra clues for the story – significantly beyond the reach of Mrs O, and for Tolly to discover (and his great grandmother to interpret) – to act as a gateway. The Russian Doll effect of the house – partly due to its structure and the layout of its rooms – is enhanced by these secret compartments within rooms. The house does this of its own accord both in the books and in real life by rooms leading into rooms so that at lats on the first walk through I could not really make sense of blocked-off doorways and shut doors. I’m not suggesting that Diana Boston should have opened every room to our minute inspection – just that even after a visit the challenges of the layout remain; I am not sure if I could plan out the Manor, especially with the offshots.
…in this house few of the corners were right angles and while this tells us something of Tolly’s growing affinity with Susan, my only contribution was that I felt the walls a lot: rough stone and wonky plaster make for a very tactile experience. The Norman doorway into the living room; the fireplace upstairs, the plasterwork by Tolly’s bedroom were all uneven and I can now read Boston’s comment about them being patted like living creatures with more understanding, although at the time I didn’t arrive at the simile.
I start looking at the house as a place to look for Tolly and I find three things: Patchwork, Russian Doll, Mirrors. It is as if the writer understands that representing reality in fiction is already a step away from the everyday. To move to another house in the country to end, then (or at least to characters that initially convene there), keeping away from other speculations, I’ll end with another wise old person’s view, the professsor who in some ways stands for C S Lewis as Mrs O stands for Lucy Boston: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”