Prime literary real estate
They like to imagine themselves living in grand fictional homes – or even humble ones.
When my son was young, we would sit in our modest Indiana bungalow on a Sunday morning breezily reviewing the estates featured in The New York Times Magazine and imagining life in some of the priciest properties on the market.
We focused our reveries on sprawling multiwinged mansions on the ocean, with deer parks, tennis courts, pools, and greenhouses. A stable and bridle paths were always welcome touches. Tim might point to a turret or perhaps an entire suite and declare it his personal space once the deal was made. The issues of taxation and upkeep never bore mentioning; the game was founded upon our vast imagined fortune.
My favorite "relo" fantasies, though, which I've played out since childhood, draw from literature, and focus on less imposing dwellings that have caught my fancy in novels. Most, in fact, are rather inauspicious, even humble. Early on, when a straw bed struck me as a marvelous concept, it was the milk-and-cheese-scented hut of Johanna Spyri's Heidi that I longed to embrace as my own.
Later, when I became immersed in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre," it was not the grandly elegant Gateshead or the formidable Thornfield Hall that called to me, but the ground-hugging Moor House of the Rivers family. I understood instinctively why they "loved their sequestered home ... the grey, small, antique structure, with its low roof, its latticed casements, its mouldering walls, its avenue of aged firs...." As if that weren't enough to win me over, the place was encircled by purple heath and wild pasture fields.
That said, I've also found myself attracted to some of the more substantial homes of fiction, including Meng Strasse 4, the sturdy brick home of the Buddenbrooks in Thomas Mann's novel of that title. I fell for the paved courtyard; the bustling first floor of offices, kitchen, and scullery; the broad staircases; and the expansive living spaces of the mezzanine and third floors.
A few chapters into the novel I was ready to pack my bags, move in, and sit down to my first dinner in the evocative "landscape room," gazing appreciatively at the idealized countryside panoramas of the decorative wall coverings.
What has drawn me to these disparate places, I think, is a certain sense of the eclectic they all embody ... and a feeling that they are ultimately designed and furnished to fulfill basic creature needs and simple aspirations without fluff or pretense. For all its size (it did, after all, house three generations), the Buddenbrook home was more about comfort and practicality than show for its own sake. The landscape room may have been a flourish, but it was one that paid homage to 18th-century pastoral life.
As for Moor House, it sturdily kept out the winds and sheltered a study almost devoid of modern furnishings, its carpets, curtains, and upholstery worn by several generations of daily use. Given the chance, I'd have hunkered right down and contributed to their gradual decline.
It's not as if I'd ever really have swapped the places I've lived for what I consider prime literary real estate. It's been fun to think about long vacations on Meng Strasse, in Moor House, abed in that alpine loft, or in one of a dozen other favorite fictional places. (Oh, for a week or two sampling the colonial architecture – the tropically scented verandas, courtyards, breezy rooms, and lush gardens so vividly portrayed in Gabriel García Márquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera.")
But I've been supremely at home under my own succession of roofs; nowhere more so than on the Midwestern farm I've shared with Charlie over the past 20 years. If there is not a moorland wilderness at the door, or a landscape room, there are 80 acres of woodland and pasture to wander.
A young friend who visited us in the farmhouse for the first time a couple of winters back, stood for a minute after entering. She took in the wood-burning stoves, the child's desk tucked in a nook behind the chimney, the Shaker peg work, and the windows stretching ceiling to floor, their glass wavy with age and framed in muted red casements.
An old clock ticked on a kitchen shelf next to a cabinet filled with an assortment of shells, china, and other quirky personal treasures. Atop it sat our often-used butter churn, its fluted glass reflecting the light from an old brass floor lamp and the white Christmas lights circling the windows. The poplar and pine floors shone from a recent mopping.
"I feel like I've walked right into a chapter from 'Harry Potter,' " she breathed.
Now, that made my literary day.