Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Palace Storeroom: the Witchmaster's House

Last week X. came up to me and said that she was sure that the Witchmaster's house in Ingledove was partially inspired by her house, S------. I had forgotten that I'd used some of the magical clutter and layered history of S------, but remembered it immediately. And I dug up a note scribbled some years ago about my first encounter with the house.

A pilgrimage to S------,14 May 2001

Curious, spellbinding, ravishing day! I had heard fromvarious people that X. lived in a very interesting place, called S------. "Interesting" wasn't a sufficient word. She lives what appears to be a huge brick Victorian--the first section was actually much earlier, built in 1790, then another part was built parallel but a distance away, and in the Victorian period the two houses were unified into one grand one by building a third section between them and giving the house a brick with wood trim and porch exterior. (I believe the family owned the land before the Massacre, but there was no house then.) Harriet Beecher Stowe sent her own architect for the renovation, and this house resembles hers. There are also barns and a farm.

However, what's inside is even more fascinating. X. is the eighth generation of the same family to live in the house, and it is jammed with evidence of all those generations. The house itself is elaborately coffered and wainscoted and decked with grand arches and thresholds. It's stuffed with family furniture--very grand--from various eras but mostly Victorian. Nothing was ever bought as an antique--if you see a pair of Shaker rockers, it's because the family bought some when they were new. There are many oils, including a Gilbert Stuart of an ancestor, and various documents, including one signed by Abraham Lincoln. A little montage of beautifully penned orders for "small clothes" (the family manufactured them at one time) includes requests from Benedict Arnold, Cadwallader Colden, and John Jay. It is astonishing, such a rich dense place that I was wild to abandon my children and run about like a bird dog on the scent. Precious objects and collections were strewn everywhere. But it was nothing like going into a wealthy person's house, where rows of ivory or glass or whatever are on sterile display. It felt like the accretion over time of a natural thing, a gloriously bedecked shell. In one place there would be a stash of ivory-handled parasols, and another place would shelter higgledy-piggledy rows of valuable books, some signed. I was in love with the house; I even liked the dead flies in the windowseats!

Over the whole edifice was an faint aura of seediness which somehow emphasized how utterly precious the place was--that nobody, nobody could buy with money what X. possessed and would be passing on to her children and nephews and nieces. You could only hold it for a while by the gift of being born into the life of the house and belonging. It would probably never be totally clean, entirely in order. But the clutter and the traces of the past--the doctor's former office, the small clothes receipts, the guns and riding gear--felt alive, not at all like a museum.

The children spontaneously put on a fashion show, all the clothes drawn from the wardrobes upstairs. X.'s mother owned a group of historic costumes, many of them be-pearled and beaded, made out of wonderful fabric wonderfully dyed. The boys and Nora (who always wears boy clothes and has a boy haircut) wore top hats and tails and suitcoats and escorted the girls in. They had organized "collections" and appeared in the"Theodore Roosevelt collection," "the black cat collection," the "undersea collection" and so forth. R., being flamboyant and untrammeled by inhibition, came out like an actress, behaving as each dress dictated. No wonder X. is so different from other people, so imaginative and perceptive about children. That house would stretch you!

Some time I want to write something about the whole experience, which felt bigger than hours would suggest. And I want to go back. One of the barns holds the family's carriages and a Stanley Steamer, and I didn't even make it that far, since I had to track three children amid the chaos of a party.

I'm still feeling pleasantly dazzled.

O lovely, alluring stories!

O glimmerings and decays...

Me, head full of dreams.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.