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