Life and times

The his­to­rian and bi­og­ra­pher-turned-nov­el­ist finds it is her own self she must now put on show

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Nov­el­ist Lucy Hughes-hal­lett

Here’s a game. Name some nov­els in which houses are as im­por­tant as peo­ple. It’s easy to star t with – Wuther­ing

Heights, Howards End, Gor­meng­hast – then gets more in­ter­est­ing. There are houses as lost eden s–Le Grand

Meaulnes. There a re houses as labyrinths with some­thing scary lurk­ing –

Jane Eyre. There’s Re­becca, in which the house is both of the above.

Last week I went to my man­der­ley again. as a child I lived on the edge of the deer park around a great house where my fa­ther was the land agent. When I was 18 he changed jobs; we moved away, and I’d never been back since. Now I’ve writ­ten a novel set – over three cen­turies–on an es­tate closely re­sem­bling the one I knew, and I got per­mis­sion to wan­der there.

The weird­est thing was en­coun­ter­ing my younger self. sit­ting with my back against an 800-year-old oak tree, I was trans­ported back into the con­scious­ness of 13- year-old me–sit­ting in that very spot, wear­ing an itchy, much-washed woolly jumper, and writ­ing long, pre­ten­tious, self-pity­ing po­ems. I’m a judge of THE rath­bones fo­lio Prize. oddly, both my fel­low judges have house­boats. for one meet­ing, we all three gath­ered in rachel Holmes’s boat on the Thames. for an­other, ahdaf soue if spoke via skype from her Cleopa­tra-wor­thy barge on the Nile.

There’s a water y metaphor to be worked up here. The prize is open to any book – fic­tion, non-fic­tion, what­ever. on our short­list is mag­gie Nel­son’s ac­count of her mar­riage to a ‘gen­derf luid’ part­ner. I hereby coin the term ‘genre-fluid’, to de­fine the work of peo­ple like fran­cis spufford, an­other of our cho­sen eight, who’s t ra nsit ioned, as I have, from his­to­rian to nov­el­ist. ac­tu­ally it ap­plies to a lot of my favourite books, t hose un­cat­e­gor is­able in­be­tween­ers that other prizes over­look.

Pub­li­cis­ing my non-fic­tion books, I’d yarn away about d’an­nun­zio’s po­lit­i­cal stunts, or Cleopa­tra’s love af­fairs. But nov­el­ists put their own selves on show. Yes­ter­day an in­ter­viewer got me talk­ing for an hour and a half, thereby trans­gress­ing my mother’s first rule of good manners: never say more than three sen­tences about your­self be­fore ask­ing, ‘and what about you?’ NOW a Pho­tog­ra­pher’s com­ing, and my daugh­ters are weary of giv­ing me wardrobe adv ice. I pester t hem with ques­tions: I don’t want to show any f lesh, ob­vi­ously, but is an an­kle­leng t h nav y over­coat a litt le drear y? and what about ear­rings? Pearls aren’t very street, are they?

‘just dress or­di­nar­ily,’ says my husba nd, who’s worn a blue sweat­shir t ever y day for 30 years. But or­di­nar y isn’t an op­tion for me – I don’t pos­sess a pair of jeans.

The daugh­ters un­der­stand this. mary tells me to have my hair cut (ok) and my eye­brows tinted (re­ally?). Let­tice thinks the chrysan­the­mum-pat­terned crêpe de Chine would do, as long as I re­moved the brooch (any­thing heart-shaped is naff). mary says no, I’d look like a his­tor y teacher (what’s wrong with that?). They both ap­prove of the green ab­stract-print 1940s dress, but it’s too tat­tered for a close-up. I’m get­ting anx­ious. Let­tice has to go to work. mary – a the­atre di­rec­tor ac­cus­tomed to con­vey­ing sub­lim­i­nal vis­ual mes­sages – takes over. I’ll be wear­ing a long kurta bought in Cal­cutta (a bit boho, un­pin­down­able class-wise). It’s black (se­ri­ous) but with gold threads in the weave (play­ful, so­phis­ti­cated). It cov­ers me from chin to shin but, be­ing fine Ben­gali muslin, is fem­i­nine enough.

so t hat’s my out f it for t he fest iva l sea­son. No way can I go through this de­ci­sion-mak­ing again. Pe­cu­liar Ground, by Lucy Hugh­esHal­lett (Fourth Es­tate, £16.99), is pub­lished on Thurs­day

‘Just dress or­di­nar­ily,’ says my hus­band, who’s worn a blue sweat­shir t ever y day for 30 years

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