MDwM #7: Just Why Is Helvstead, the Clive Ancestral Home, So Ugly?

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Ohio Edit is pleased and privileged to be publishing Gilmore Tamny’s novel, My Days with Millicent, in serial form. 

 

Helvstead was situated in a county that held many grand manors, the sort descended upon by tour buses that thread their way through the countryside, periodically disgorging visitors eager to witness what is left of the grand old world that was. By all rights, Helvstead Manor should have been one of these, and the crown jewel of the Clive family. It sat on thirty-five hundred much-coveted acres, verdant woods, fields that housed grouse, deer and much pursued foxes. But while this countryside was vastly admired, the manor itself wasn’t: “Helvstead is like a boil on the back of a beautiful woman,” the Earl of Rochester once wrote to his friend.  And he wasn’t alone in this opinion: Helvstead, it was agreed, was one of the uglier ancestral seats in the south, if not all of England.

The original design from had been serviceable, if not particularly inspired, English Baroque. But somewhere in the evolution between draft to mortar and beam, something had gone fatally amiss: cheerless, squat and lumpish, Helvstead troubled the eye rather than enticed it. Everard Pastor, the architect, would make a great name for himself and it was this fame, ironically, that provided the reason the Clive family refused to have it torn down. Pastor spent the rest of his professional life blaming assistants, some real, some imagined, for its shortcomings. The grandson of an ailing Pastor came as emissary to beg Lord current Clive to tear the place down.

“True,” said Millicent when I asked her about it. “But I think it was Thomas—early 19th—that nicknamed it ‘The Abomination’ and tried, at least five times, to loose it in a game of whist. You haven’t heard any of this have you?”

“Only read about it in books. Did your…mother like it?” I said unable to keep the curiosity out of my voice.

“Oh, Mummy.  Perverse creature! She could tell a real Dresden at forty paces, who worshipped Capability Brown. Mad, isn’t it? But really, when you think of it, what a self-satisfied bunch the Clives have been. Do you imagine for a minute that a family of…bankers, let us say, would make do with Helvstead? Or a textile tycoon buying the peerage? They’d have built their own little Barmoral. No, only one of the really old families would put up with this.”

Adding insult to injury, the east wing had burnt down in 1934, and blowing debris setting the stables ablaze. Miraculously no one had been injured, but Helvstead had been reduced by nearly a third. I asked Millicent if there had ever been any talk of rebuilding.

“Oh, once perhaps. Mmm. When was that? Reggie and I were in a taxi going to some ghastly nightclub or another. Reggie said that Charles asked him if we were going to rebuild. “

She seemed to have lost interest in the subject, so I prompted her. “And what did you say to that?”

“What can you mean? Something like: ‘Is he completely mad?’ I imagine.”

“And what did Reggie say?”

“He said it did seem like a bother.”

I nearly smiled. “And what did you say?”

“I told him to pay the driver. I hadn’t a farthing on me.”

 

Helvstead, when I came to live that year, would appear to me less ugly, although it was indeed so, than neglected, and a wan, shambling stone structure encroached upon by the fields and woods, dwarfed by the trees that surrounded it. The woods had grown up considerably, as had the trees and boxwood. But it had none of the romance of decrepitude, the sense of the ghostly, the forgotten, the long-past, that some such places of that era might. It was the opposite, there was nothing haunted about it, very evident, no one had lived there for a very long time, including anything phantasmal.

Nothing, could have been more different than Millicent’s flat, decorated in the latest style: sleek lines, olive and oatmeal-coloured furniture, with a few turquoise accents of lamps and vase, coffee and end tables made of chrome that managed to gleam even in the weakness of the grey afternoon light. No wonder she thought it so horrid.

 

Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com