William Fiennes has published a memoir about growing up in Broughton Castle near Oxford. In today’s Times, he says he that he resisted “writing about growing up in such a big house” in case “people would laugh at me,” but then he decided, “‘Look at this. What a world of images.’ How could I be a writer and not sing about all this? … Here was a microcosm, a place surrounded by a ring of water, and everything a writer could want to write about was going on here–wonder and excitement and love, but also loss and difficulty and violence and fear and strangeness.”
I was at Broughton Castle in November 2007. I was attending a conference, and a visit to Broughton was an optional break. My family and I had just learned that my father might have cancer in his lungs. We were waiting for results, but it was hard to communicate with the US, and nothing would be known for hours. So I went along to Broughton for a distraction.
Lord and Lady Saye and Sele greeted us and were warm, gracious, unpretentious, and amusing hosts. They were the only people in the castle, so they collected our donations and gave us the tour. We saw both the magnificent public rooms of their castle–medieval to Georgian–and their cozy private spaces with children’s art on the refrigerator and vegetables on the counter. My fellow visitors were English, polite but at ease their their hosts. There was a joke about the difficulty of pricing a home like Broughton, which hasn’t been sold since the 13th century.
This was exactly the kind of place that I had visited throughout my childhood, guided by two parents who have professional knowledge of English cultural history. So I felt comfortable and nostalgic–also deeply sad that my parents couldn’t be with me. The Baron and Baroness are in their eighties, and I couldn’t help wondering whether my parents would also be able to enjoy that decade together.
At the same time, I experienced a less defensible emotion: competitiveness. Thanks to my upbringing, I have a detailed understanding of places like Broughton. For instance, as soon as I saw a fireplace upstairs, I knew it was an extraordinary piece, and it turned out to be an almost unique example of Italian Renaissance art from the England of Henry VIII. King Henry had a whole palace, Nonesuch, decorated by Italian Mannerist artists, but it burned to the ground. The Broughton fireplace is an extremely rare surviving work by the sculptors of the lost Nonesuch. And here I was, a Yank among Englishmen, being guided by a self-deprecating aristocrat who probably knew everything about the art in his house but pretended to be naive. I secretly wanted to lecture everyone about what they were seeing (and therefore about what I knew). I did keep my mouth shut except for a muttered aside about the fireplace.
Almost as soon as we returned from this short visit, I learned that my father’s cancer had spread and was inoperable. Six weeks later, he was dead. The last time in my life when I could have hope for him was during the ride back from Broughton along green sunken lanes. So now I have something in common with the writer William Fiennes: the castle where he was raised is also for me a place of nostalgia, fondness, and regret.