Strawberry Hill Forever!

I had the great good fortune of visiting St Mary’s University in Twickenham on a sunny day, which allowed me to take a walk through its lovely campus and visit its next-door neighbour Strawberry Hill House: indeed, there is a door leading from the wing of one to the old building of the other.

St Mary’s University leading to Strawberry Hill House (in white).

It was the summer house built to house the art collection of the extravagant and eccentric Horace Walpole, politician, art historian and writer. He was not all that rich when he acquired a plot of land with a cottage and a nice view over the River Thames in Twickenham, but he had very strong ideas about what he wanted to create: an architectural folly to entertain guests who would come upstream to visit him, a backdrop for his legendary literary and artistic parties.

Period view of Strawberry Hill House by E. Sandby.

He had a passion for the Gothic style and pioneered its revival a good half century or more before the Victorian revival of it. He even pioneered it in literature, starting a new genre: the Gothic horror with The Castle of Otranto. As he got richer, he kept adding another wing or redecorating the house, and of course he spent a fortune on his collections. Not just objects of artistic value but also of historical importance – for example, the clock that Henry VIII gave to Anne Boleyn on their wedding day or Cardinal Wolsey’s scarlet cardinal hat. Before visiting, I had the impression that Walpole made it up as he went along and created a mish-mash of styles without much thought and planning. But I discovered just how meticulous a historian he was and how accurate all his reproductions were (of wallpaper and silk hangings for example).

The oldest part of the house was a sort of two up two down cottage, and Walpole added a wooden turret to it.

And it was not all about extravagance. He was also astute at spotting a bargain – for instance, most of the stained glass in the windows was reclaimed from Flemish salvage yards. Unlike most private collectors, he was not about keeping it all for himself, but saw Strawberry Hill as a cultural centre to be shared with others. He started a printing press, and exhibited most of his possessions like a museum.

He had a wonderful life surrounded by all his favourite objects, showing them off to visitors, living exactly as he pleased. But the sad coda to this tale is that when he died without an heir, his entire collection was auctioned off. Fortunately, for a short time only, much of it has been brought together again (on loan or reproduced) and until the 24th of February you can see Strawberry Hill as its owner wanted it to be seen in the Lost Treasures exhibition.

You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, but I have to show you the promotional picture of the library, which can be hired as a wedding venue, I believe.

The view over the Thames has been lost, sadly, and the gardens border onto St Mary’s athletic track, but what other garden has got a shell-shaped seat with a whole book dedicated to it?

Gothic Book Tag for Halloween

I’ve learnt to like (aka ‘put up with’) Halloween for the sake of my children, who enjoy it far more than almost any other seasonal event. Funnily enough, they are the ones who don’t want to watch scary films with me! But I like Gothic books even more than scary films, although I haven’t read that many of them lately. Maybe it is a teenage thing, when your nerves are more rested, younger and bouncier.

So I thought I’d take part in the Gothic Book Tag, as seen over on Brona’s Books. You will find the rules on Classics Club Gothic Books Tag.

  • Which classic book has scared you the most? It’s a tie between The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both by Shirley Jackson. She is such a master at the slow build of something strange and ‘off’. Plus, I find mental health issues are far scarier (because I’m more likely to encounter or experience them) than ghosts and the like.
  • Scariest moment in a book? Both in the book and in the film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now, that moment when the little girl in the red coat turns around as John follows her through the canals and cobbled streets of Venice. It still gives me goosebumps merely trying to describe it and it has only got worse since having children myself and trying to imagine what it might be like to lose them.
  • Classic villain that you love to hate? Count Fosco in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. He’s just so unexpected, larger than life and completely sinister. Unforgettable.
  • Creepiest setting in a book? I’d never been to the Yorkshire moors when I read Wuthering Heights, but I imagined it as the most bleak, desolate, creepy landscape with the wind howling all around and thunderstorms raging. Have I mentioned that I used to be deeply disturbed by thunderstorms as a child? I had to dive down under the covers until they were over
Still from “Don’t Look Now” via Paramount Pictures. That classic red coat – once seen, never forgotten!

Best scary cover ever? Not sure if it’s scary or disgusting, but it certainly makes me squirm, the cover of Kiss Kiss collection of Roald Dahl’s short stories (most certainly NOT for children).

Book you’re too scared to read? Jim Thompson’s unflinching exploration into the gut-churning crevices of Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford’s utterly remorseless head in The Killer Inside Me. Generally, I don’t like spending any time in the heads of serial killers.

Spookiest creature in a book? Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Slimy, unpleasant and yet pitiful.

Classic book that haunts you to this day? Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The author’s verbose and indecisive style is pared down to what is, for him, the minimum, and it fits in well with this ultimate unreliable narrator and the journey we take into her troubled mind. He manipulates our emotions and makes us question our own attitudes towards class and gender, in a way which makes me uncomfortable to this day. For reading it with an insufficiently critical mind the first time round. 

Favourite cliffhanger or unexpected twist? I don’t know if it’s entirely unexpected, since we are dealing with the shock horror world of Murakami Ryuu, but his Coin Locker Babies and In the Miso Soup both fit the bill.

Classic book you really, really disliked? Not sure if it can be considered a classic already, but I really did not take to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, although I normally like campus and friendship novels.

Character death that disturbed/upset you the most? Without question, Simon being set upon and killed by the other boys in The Lord of the Flies. His gentle, dreamy, poetic personality made him my favourite character anyway. He has none of the self-righteousness of Piggy or Ralph – and certainly none of the dictatorship instincts of Jack.

List your top 5 Gothic/scary/horror classic reads. As I said, I find the human mind and especially herd instinct to be the scariest things in the universe. So my Top 5 Scary Reads are almost like studies in psychology and sociology:

  • Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange
  • George Orwell: 1984
  • Eugene Ionesco: Rhinoceros
  • Todd Strasser: The Wave
  • RL Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Share your scariest/creepiest quote, poem or meme.

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then.

Robert Browning: My Last Duchess

The best frisson comes when the writer leaves so much unsaid that you have to make up the connections in your own head.