Way back in the woods in deepest England, there is a unique Victorian home. With her leaded windows, her steep, mismatched gables and her big red front door, she is a small, yet perfectly formed bijou country-house-ette.
Although vast by modern standards, she is a trifle in comparison to her extravagant tourist attraction peers at Wightwick and Tyntesfield. And therein lies her uniqueness. Unlike those sprawling estates, which finally defeated the grand families who ran out of funds to keep fixing them, you could almost call this elegant little lady manageable.
She is for sale. She has been for sale for seven years. The dreamers and the viewers come and go, made giddy by her comparative size and beauty. She ain’t no three-bed semi [duplex], and so the laughter is raucous as they pass through the big red door, and by the time they open and look out from the top of the house, they sound like a sorority party. “Oh look! You can spy on the neighbours from here! Haw haw haw!”
The original owner called her his “little cottage”, but he was hardly ever there, and as she has grown mature and then elderly in years, her servants’ wing broken off and re-assigned to multiple families, she has watched many owners – and would-be owners – come and go. She is ailing.
Today she stands empty, yet mercifully still hidden in the midst of a dense woodland, where she remains almost unknown to the world outside. And there lies the essence of her magic. The woodland protects her. This surviving fragment of ancient Sherwood Forest makes it clear why woodlands appear as key characters in myth, in fantasy and in children’s literature. The wood lives. It breathes. It reaches out and touches you when you least expect it. It whispers in your ear. It is timeless: it tells the past, and it tells the future. It has a preference, and so does the house.
They let me live here, the woodland and the house. I am very lucky. But not in the throne room itself: I have not yet earned it. The main house is empty, but the servants’ wing is not.
I have fancied myself as worthy of watching over her for eighteen months now, the palm of my hand rested on the wall that divides us, three inches from gold. I am under her spell too, of course, more than anyone. Like many before me and many who will come after me, I fancy that I can try my luck with her, and perhaps become her mistress.
As a costumer easily romanced by a little history, I am particularly susceptible to her charms. I am continually tested but I always stay. The rain runs down the walls, my landlord will not fix the roof, but I stay, because I hear the trees whispering and I fancy that each peacock butterfly is a messenger telling me that I am the one for her, next door, so close.
Yes, she has watched many suitors come and go. No-one is man enough to take on this utterly unique, unattainable beauty. Many come, many giggling would-be ladies of the manor take a piece of her magic home, but their husbands notice her paint peeling, the roof tiles sliding, and they won’t accept her because she has expensive taste in maintenance bills. That, or if harassed enough by their wives, they make a pass at her and she eventually rejects them, somehow or other. One by one, each hopeful bites the dust.
And as time passes, her needs become greater, the challenge more lofty. Who will be next? Who dares to try their luck and claim the prize?
To a romantic, a dreamer and a quixote, she is intoxicating. She enveloped me when I moved here, broken and battered and in need of Home myself, and now she will not let me go. Now I am quite, quite mad. She needs a hero and a chatelaine with more money than sense, and yet I am the one chaining myself to her railings with only a whisper of confidence that I can be what she needs. I am under a powerful spell; I know it.
I can’t work here; I can’t survive here. I have sewn virtually nothing since I arrived because the servants’ wing is dark and cobwebby, and somehow I am held back, as if she is jealous. She is a constant distraction. My back aches because the floor is uneven as I sit at my desk, and so the work I would like to do does not get done. When I pull myself away for a weekend, the spell slowly fades and I wonder what on earth I am doing there, but I always return, pulled back as to a bad relationship, wrapped tight in her vice-like embrace, spellbound, sitting in the garden in a trance, soaking up what sunlight I can, because the servants’ wing is so dark and cold. I am obsessed.
I used to have a dream of moving abroad that was stronger than the United States’ resolve to make that dream difficult. It lasted fifteen years, and yet she made me reconsider it. I need sunlight and warmth, and I have none, and I am sometimes miserable in this damp little cave, and yet, when I look out of the window, or step outside the door, I am in heaven.
Can the servants mutiny, and take the house? Can a peasant become a knight? Can a woman change her stars? There may be no spoon when a dress or a sizeable charity donation is required, but a country house? I must have really, truly lost it this time. Dare I even consider it?
And I don’t mean renting. Renting is temporary. Renting is taking. Renting is just a bit of fun for a while. She needs someone to take it further. To give. To buy. To commit.
There is only one way for me to stay and survive and thrive in this timeless wood, and that is to let her have me, and all my energy, and all my resolve, and all my money, and all the money I can ever make. The only way is to make her my most ambitious project yet, and stretch myself into the success story that she needs. Whether that is possible is moot; the why and the how are already there. But now I must truly commit to her or against her: is she worth the price?
And she seeps into my life: is it enough to content myself making costumes, running little websites and earning modestly, or do I have a responsibility to brand my name and share what secrets I have learnt with other creatives, allowing them to break free of the “struggling artist” trope too, and allowing me to move next door?
Either she has chosen me, or the spell is set to kill me, or embarrass me, or I will eventually break free. But she is undoubtedly testing me. I have no control over this. I am caught in her web. It is exquisite, and terrifying.
But it looks good on Instagram.
[Written in answer to Lauren Maringola’s challenge at Wearing History]