The Crocodile by the Door: the Story of a House, a Farm and a Family, by Selina Guinness, Penguin Ireland, 256 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1844881574
The Anglo-Irish Ascendancy were an odd mixture of the soft-headed and the hard-nosed. If they could be a dreamy, spook-ridden, eccentric bunch, they also had a keen eye for the price of an acre or the cost of a domestic servant. Washed up by history and finally dispossessed by their own state, their more progressive wing could nevertheless see themselves as in the van of modernity, held back by a bunch of benighted papists. WB Yeats, visionary and man of affairs, is a case in point. If he was fascinated by the way leprechauns spin on their pointed hats (though only in the northeastern counties, as he solemnly notes), he was also a tough-minded organiser and political activist, a canny cultural commissar with (as his father once remarked) the virtues of the analytical mind. He was a man as much at ease in a committee as he was at a seance. There was a garage with a motor car at the foot of his ancient tower. Seeing themselves as an avant garde meant among other things that the Anglo-Irish produced some magnificent champions of the common people. For the most part, however, the only wearing of the green with which they were acquainted was a matter of wellies. There is more than a touch of green wellies about Selina Guinness’s highly accomplished memoir.
These two aspects of the Ascendancy converge in the image of the Big House. Houses for the middle classes are just places to live in, but for the gentry they are evolving organisms, repositories of cherished memories, full of treasured knick-knacks and wrinkled old retainers, as much living subjects as physical sites. Individuals come and go, but the grange or manor house lives on, more like a transnational corporation than a bungalow. If this corporate form of existence sets its face against middle class individualism, it is equally averse to what one might call the Byronic style of aristocracy – the swaggering, anarchic, wild-old-wicked-man syndrome, for which nobility of spirit means not giving a toss for anyone else. Like a slightly dotty but much-loved relative, the house has its own quirky ways, its distinctive aura and personality. One almost expects to encounter it settled on one of its own sofas, granny glasses perched on its nose, knitting and crooning. It is a symbol not in the neo-Platonic sense of a cryptic intimation of eternity, but in the sense of a chunk of the material world traced through with human values and meanings, a spot where spiritual and material realms meet and even the most mundane objects are resonant of more than themselves. The stuffed crocodile by the door of Selina Guinness’s title, long used in her family home as a kind of mailbox, is exemplary of this. The body of the house incarnates a communal soul and a shared history, so that the invisible is everywhere woven into the visible, the past palpably alive in the decrepit armchairs and herbaceous borders of the present. Such houses are more sacred texts than bricks and mortar.
Yet they are, of course, bricks and mortar too, sometimes ruinously expensive to maintain. Big Houses may mean culture and civility, but they are also at the nub of a whole system of property, labour and production. As the Marxists would say in their tiresomely mechanistic fashion, they are base and superstructure together. As such, they engage the hard-headed qualities of the gentry as well as its more high-minded impulses. The latter can also serve to draw a decorous veil over the former. If one’s tenants are sorely exploited, it is, after all, in the name of an age-old tradition and a spiritual ideal.
The Crocodile By the Door is the tale of how a scion of the lower gentry came into possession of Tibradden, a house and farm in the Dublin mountains which belonged to her family and where she lived for a while as a child; and though the story is deeply in love with the local landscape and thronged with tender reminiscences, it is also remarkably well-versed in questions of land values, inheritance tax, rezoning, title deeds and fee-farm grants. It is true that the author needs to bone up on such stuff in order to restore the house and farm, but she appears to take to it like a duck to water. Guinness may have inherited the pieties and sentiments of her ancestors, but the spirit of enterprise that drove them to render their compatriots legless and rentless still courses in her veins. At one point, she describes a map of the Tibradden estate as “fluttering like a bird in my hand”, an image which neatly combines questions of property with natural spontaneity. Elsewhere in the book, she discusses the sale of some farmland with her partner, the Irish postcolonial critic Colin Graham, and notes that they may become seriously rich as a result – at which point the discussion suddenly breaks off as Graham spots a buzzard flapping nearby. Nature mercifully intervenes to suspend a train of thought which, pursued too far, might appear less than creditable.
In the manner of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, another tale about coming from behind to inherit an estate, Guinness’s memoir unwittingly allows the reader to make some rather less positive judgements on its narrative than it would formally invite. In this book, the double aspect of the Ascendency – dreamy and dishevelled on the one hand, shrewdly realistic on the other – comes through as a contrast between the author’s uncle, Charles, the previous owner of the farmhouse she inherits, and herself. The contrast is incomplete, not least because Guinness admires her uncle’s values and channels her considerable business sense into a project (the refurbishing of Tibradden) which is meant to restore and perpetuate them. To do so, however, she is forced to sup with the devil, dealing with an array of planners, lawyers, surveyors and the like, whose brash, calculative spirit she dislikes but whose manoeuvres she is nonetheless well able to match. Patricians may find bourgeois values distasteful, but they would not be where they are did they not have as quick an eye for a decent turnover as their social inferiors – a class with whom, historically speaking, they cemented some mutually beneficial alliances. Guinness, who seems rather fond of the Sermon on the Mount, accordingly reminds herself of the need to be pragmatic and “not [to be] left marooned on the high moral ground”. It is certainly a terrain with a good deal of elbow room.
The book seems not to be fully aware of its mild air of bad faith in this respect, any more than Edgeworth’s Thady Quirk seems to be conscious of how assiduously he is working for the overthrow of the titled buffoons on whom he fawns. One would, for example, wish to know a bit more of mild-mannered Uncle Charles’s view of his niece briskly bundling a pile of disused white waistcoats and dickey bows into suitcases, selling them to the wardrobe department of the Abbey Theatre without consulting him, and then placing a cheque for the proceeds in his hand. He was, she comments unrevealingly, “surprised”. If Charles is rather too laid back, his niece is a mite too overbearing. Full of kindliness and concern, she is sometimes a touch myopic when it comes to registering the effects of her muscular schemes on others, not least on those financially insecure underlings who would be imprudent to rely on her good-heartedness alone.
When a planning consultant asks the chronically vague Charles whether he intends to continue farming his land, it is Guinness herself who steps in to handle the query: ‘“Uncle,’ I interpose, eyeing the consultant, ‘I think we can safely say, can’t we, that you intend to go on farming for now?”’ Charles responds not by asking her to have the courtesy to allow him to field questions about his future himself, even if his future might closely concern hers, but by meekly agreeing, though he manages to make his reasons for doing so sound entirely altruistic. The farm, he informs the consultant, is run by an elderly couple, and it wouldn’t be fair to deprive them of their livelihood. It is just the kind of elevating of the human over the economic which is supposed to distinguish gentlefolk from the mercenary middle classes, even if the Anglo-Irish in general were notably deficient in the spirit of noblesse oblige. All the same, urban cynic as one is, one doubts that even a landowner as comically incompetent as Uncle Charles would have considered this the sole or prime reason not to have his family’s lands bulldozed by developers. There is a sense in which the narrator, perhaps unconsciously, makes use of her relative’s disastrous lack of business acumen to justify her own rather too energetic drive. It is not for nothing that her grandmother was president of the Girl Guides.
The problem is that you might undermine the culture you cherish in the very act of seeking to put it on a sounder material base. What if the utilitarian cast of mind required for running a Big House efficiently is at odds with the spiritual values it stands for? How can Guinness preserve her inheritance without disrupting it by the vigour with which she does so? One chapter of the book takes as its epigraph some lines from Yeats which suggest that the burden of responsibility is destroying his love of Nature. Culture in this kind of society needs Mammon to survive, but can you really serve them both? If you can’t, then you need to take a sharper look at the nature of the current property system than this book is prepared to do.
If responsibility is a problem, however, so is its opposite. Uncle Charles’s patrician casualness with paperwork endangers his workers’ livelihoods. Cue, then, the entry of the robustly reforming landowner Selina Guinness, a fierce woman when installed behind a broom but a soft touch when it comes to appeals to her heart. It is just that by the end of the story she too is finding it notably hard to combine efficiency with compassion. In the end, benevolent landowners are no solution to malign ones. Property and inheritance usually turn out to be in some way tainted, as Irish Gothic is aware. The words “gift” and “poison” have a common etymological root. Property means prosperity, but also anxiety. There is a subliminal vein of fire imagery running through the text. Big Houses have been known to burn down. Fretting about your dilapidated dwelling is almost as much part of Ascendancy tradition as smashing a bottle of port over someone’s head. It could also lend the class a spurious air of solidarity with tenants whose brand of poverty was rather less genteel. Faulty wiring may be a headache, but it’s preferable to living in a boghole.
The landed estate is a place where Nature is converted into culture, like the crocodile by the door. Cattle are reared for profit and crops planted for the market. The book has an account of learning how to deal with lambing which is worthy of a major novelist. It belongs to the ideology of such places, however, partly to disavow their own unglamorous economic motives by an appeal to Nature as a value in itself. Yeats does not encourage us to think of Coole Park as a business enterprise. Guinness’s memoir takes the kind of erudite delight in the natural world which (speaking as one who first encountered a tree at the age of thirty-six) seems to be hard-wired into the brains of the upper classes, and upper class women in particular. To be able to name sixteen different varieties of weed is a sure sign of good breeding. The Crocodile By the Door is a superbly written book, but its prose style is never more stunningly impressive than when it is registering natural detail: “Mats of leonine aconites, yellow and frilled, have somehow survived beneath the tall bracken, and budding clumps of wood anemones are interspersed through the box hedges that have grown into leggy trees. A thicket of moss roses stands where the paths used to intersect. Their rotting hips speckle the sphagnum below, beads on a viridian pillow.”
All the same, the Almighty did not put Nature on earth simply for us to gawp at. You can eat the stuff as well. An insolent hunter creeps into Tibradden and shoots dead a deer, enraging the author so much that she drives round the area in ferocious pursuit of him. Having failed to track him down, she returns to the house and immediately asks one of the farm workers whether he knows how to bleed a deer. “The buck has been killed for venison,” she reflects with her customary practicality, “so why not give it a go?” If the hunter didn’t get to eat it, she might as well scoff it herself. So she has the beast instantly strung up from a cedar tree, pausing only to reflect that it should perhaps have been disembowelled first, in the hope that a neighbour who is a licensed deer-stalker might be persuaded to prepare the carcass in return for half the meat. The text betrays not the slightest sense of irony in charting this abrupt shift from fury over the death of an animal to a keenness to carve it up. What Guinness really objects to is not deer-hunting but other people nicking her property.
She is not, to be sure, blind to the ambiguities of her situation, which by and large are the familiar contradictions of that oxymoronic animal the benevolent landowner. She is, for example, forced to ask a helper, a woman for whom she has the warmest affection, to leave her house for a while, and guiltily pictures herself as a stereotypical evicting landlord. Yet while insisting that she has no intention of forcing the woman permanently out of her dwelling, despite having the legal grounds on which to do so, she does not question the moral offensiveness of being in possession of such a right in the first place. Instead, she struggles with admirable decency to help people on her estate over whom she ought to enjoy no such power.
There are similar ambiguities in her attitude to Uncle Charles, a man she loves dearly but the consequences of whose privileged indolence she has to clean up. Perhaps she is more critical of him than the book suggests, or than she will allow herself to feel. She is furious when he refuses to enter the council flat of a former domestic servant. “‘Stop it,’ I’d wanted to shout. Thirty years of cooking for you, and you can’t show her the courtesy of visiting her in her own home.’ But, “as usual, I said nothing”. The Quirk-like phrase is telling. Is there more of an aggressive-subaltern subtext to the book than meets the eye? Not only does she say nothing, however; on the very next page she is to be found excusing his apparent snobbery. Perhaps, she muses, he couldn’t face the sight of the woman’s loneliness. Blood proves thicker than courtesy.
Charles the Wykehamist squire gets on well with Colin the working class Belfast boy. There is an affectionate cameo in the book in which Guinness watches the two of them doing a crossword together. Colin’s book Deconstructing Ireland lies on the floor beside them, and Charles himself is about as deconstructed as you can get without actually falling apart. (Guinness herself, by contrast, is a devout reconstructionist). Both men are postcolonial in their different ways – Charles a relic of a colonialist class, Colin a postcolonial critic. It is an image of harmony, but also of a continuity between the generations, as the author’s uncle and husband seem to meld into mutual sympathy. The two men even share the same initials. That Charles finds Colin’s theoretical jargon infuriating seems beside the point. In this cosy domestic setting, it would seem tactless to mention that postcolonialism is meant to be a fundamental critique of much that Tibradden stands for. People are so much more important than politics. Personal relationships count for so much more than rebarbative abstractions.
In the end, it would appear, sentiment and heritage win out over the merchant, the clerk and the hot-faced moneychangers, as Guinness tells the developers eager to lay hands on her property to go to hell “with their deals and negotiations”. “Deals”, however, isn’t quite accurate. The offer that would have made the author eye-wateringly rich has actually been withdrawn, and the one she turns down is far less lucrative. In any case, the collapse of the Celtic Tiger means that the development companies are rapidly going down the pan, so there are unlikely to be many more tempting but morally dubious offers. Guinness, who refers at one point to marking a sheaf of student essays on King Lear, is the young woman who remains loyal to the patriarch, but who also, unlike the hapless Cordelia, inherits his estate. It seems a suitable compromise between the soft-hearted and the hard-headed.