In Praise of Old Houses


The Old Hall, Fairies by Moonlight; Spectres & Shades, Brownies and Banshees, John Anster Fitzgerald, 1875

by Vernon Lee

My Yorkshire friend was saying that she hated being in an old house. There seemed to be other people in it besides the living….


These words, expressing the very reverse of what I feel, have set me musing on my foolish passion for the Past. The Past, but the real one; not the Past considered as a possible Present. For though I should like to have seen ancient Athens, or Carthage according to Salambô, and though I have pined to hear the singers of last century, I know that any other period than this of the world’s history would be detestable to live in. For one thing—one among other instances of brutish dulness—our ancestors knew nothing of the emotion of the past, the rapture of old towns and houses.

This emotion, at times this rapture, depends upon a number of mingled causes; its origin is complex and subtle, like that of all things exquisite; the flavour of certain dishes, the feel of sea or mountain air, in which chemical peculiarities and circumstances of temperature join with a hundred trifles, seaweed, herbs, tar, heather and so forth; and like, more particularly, music and poetry, whose essence is so difficult of ascertaining. And in this case, the causes that first occur to our mind merely suggest a number more. Of these there is a principal one, only just less important than that suggested by my Yorkshire friend, which might be summed up thus: That the action of time makes man’s works into natural objects.

Now, with no disrespect to man, ’tis certain Nature can do more than he. Not that she is the more intelligent of the two; on the contrary, she often makes the grossest artistic blunders, and has, for instance, a woeful lack of design in England, and a perfect mania for obvious composition and deliberate picturesqueness in Italy and Argyllshire. But Nature is greater than man because she is bigger, and can do more things at a time. Man seems unable to attend to one point without neglecting some other; where he has a fine fancy in melody, his harmony is apt to be threadbare; if he succeeds with colour, he cannot manage line, and if light and shade, then neither; and it is a circumstance worthy of remark that whenever and wherever man has built beautiful temples, churches, and palaces, he has been impelled to bedizen them with primary colours, of which, in Venice and the Alhambra, time at last made something agreeable, and time also, in Greece, has judged best to obliterate every odious trace. Hence, in the works of man there is always a tendency to simplify, to suppress detail, to make things clear and explain patterns and points of view; to save trouble, thought, and material; to be symmetrical, which means, after all, to repeat the same thing twice over; he knows it is wrong to carve one frieze on the top of the other, and to paint in more than one layer of paint. Of all such restrictions Nature is superbly unconscious. She smears weather-stain on weather-stain and lichen on lichen, never stopping to match them. She jags off corners and edges, and of one meagre line makes fifty curves and facets. She weaves pattern over pattern, regardless of confusion, so that the mangiest hedgerow is richer, more subtle than all the carpets and papers ever designed by Mr. Morris. Her one notion is More, always more; whereas that of man, less likely to exceed, is a timid Enough. No wonder, for has she not the chemistry of soil and sun and moisture and wind and frost, all at her beck and call?

Be it as it may, Nature does more for us than man, in the way of pleasure and interest. And to say, therefore, that time turns the works of man into natural objects is, therefore, saying that time gives them infinitely more variety and charm. In making them natural objects also time gives to man’s lifeless productions the chief quality of everything belonging to Nature—life. Compare a freshly plastered wall with one that has been exposed to sun and rain, or a newly slated roof to one all covered with crumbling, grey, feathery stuff, like those of the Genoese villages, which look as if they had been thatched with olive-leaves from off their hills. ’Tis the comparison between life and death; or, rather, since death includes change, between something and nothing. Imagine a tree as regular as a column, or an apple as round as a door-knob!


So much for the material improvements which time effects in our surroundings. We now come to the spiritual advantages of dealing with the past instead of the present.

These begin in our earliest boy- or girl-hood. What right-minded child of ten or twelve cares, beyond its tribute of apples, and jam, and cricket, and guinea-pigs, for so dull a thing as the present? Why, the present is like this schoolroom or playground, compared with Polar Seas, Rocky Mountains, or Pacific Islands; a place for the body, not for the soul. It all came back to me, a little while ago, when doing up for my young friend, L.V., sundry Roman coins long mislaid in a trunk, and which had formed my happiness at his age. Delightful things!—smooth and bright green like certain cabbage-leaves, or of a sorry brown, rough with rust and verdigris; but all leaving alike a perceptible portion of themselves in the paper bag, a delectable smell of copper on one’s hands. How often had I turned you round and round betwixt finger and thumb, trying to catch the slant of an inscription, or to get, in some special light, the film ot effaced effigy—the chin of Nero, or the undulating, benevolent nose of Marcus Aurelius? How often have my hands not anointed you with every conceivable mixture of oil, varnish, and gum, rubbing you gently with silk and wool, and kid gloves, in hopes that something ineffable might rise up on your surface! I quite sympathised with my young friend when, having waggled and chortled over each of them several times, he thought it necessary to overcome the natural manly horror for kissing, and shook my hand twice, thrice, and then once more, returning from the door… For had they not concentrated in their interesting verdigrised, brass-smelling smallness something, to me, of the glory and wonder of Rome? Cæcilia Metella, the Grotto of Egeria—a vague vision, through some twenty years’ fog, of a drive between budding hedges and dry reeds; a walk across short anemone-starred turf; but turning into distinct remembrance of the buying of two old pennies, one of Augustus, the other even more interesting, owing to entire obliteration of both reverse and obverse; a valuable coin, undoubtedly. And the Baths of Caracalla, which I can recollect with the thick brushwood, oak scrub, ivy and lentisk, and even baby ilexes, covering the masonry and overhanging the arches, and with rose hedges just cut away to dig out some huge porphyry pillar—were not their charms all concentrated in dim, delicious hopes of finding, just where the green turf ended and the undulating expanse of purple, green and white tesselated pavement began, some other brazen penny? And then, in Switzerland, soon after, did I not suffer acutely, as I cleaned my coins, from the knowledge that in this barbarous Northern place, which the Romans had, perhaps, never come near, it was quite useless to keep one’s eyes on the ruts of roads and the gravel of paths, and consequently almost useless to go out, or to exist; until one day I learnt that a certain old lawyer, in a certain field, had actually dug up Roman antiquities… I don’t know whether I ever saw them with corporeal eyes, but certainly with those of the spirit; and I was lent a drawing of one of them, a gold armlet, of which I insisted on having a copy made, and sticking it up in my room…

It does but little honour to our greatest living philosopher that he, whom children will bless for free permission to bruise, burn, and cut their bodies, and empty the sugar-bowl and jam-pot, should wish to deprive the coming generation of all historical knowledge, of so much joy therefore, and, let me add, of so much education. For do not tell me that it is not education, and of the best, to enable a child to feel the passion and poetry of life; to live, while it trudges along the dull familiar streets, in company with dull, familiar, and often stolidly incurious grown-up folk, in that terrible, magnificent past, in dungeons and palaces, loving and worshipping Joan of Arc, execrating Bloody Mary, dreaming strange impossible possibilities of what we would have said and done for Marie Antoinette—said to her, her actually coming towards us, by some stroke of magic, in that advancing carriage! There is enough in afterlife, God knows, to teach us not to be heroic; ’tis just as well that, as children, we learn a lingering liking for the quality; ’tis as important, perhaps, as learning that our tissues consume carbon, if they do so. I can speak very fervently of the enormous value for happiness of such an historical habit of mind.

Such a habit transcends altogether, in its power of filling one’s life, the merely artistic and literary habit. For, after all, painting, architecture, music, poetry, are things which touch us in a very intermittent way. I would compare this historic habit rather to the capacity of deriving pleasure from nature, not merely through the eye, but through all the senses; and largely, doubtless, through those obscure perceptions which make certain kinds of weather, air, &c., an actual tonic, nay food, for the body. To this alone would I place my historical habit in the second rank. For, as the sensitiveness to nature means supplementing our physical life by the life of the air and the sun, the clouds and waters, so does this historic habit mean supplementing our present life by a life in the past; a life larger, richer than our own, multiplying our emotions by those of the dead….

I am no longer speaking of our passions for Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette, which disappear with our childhood; I am speaking of a peculiar sense, ineffable, indescribable, but which every one knows again who has once had it, and which to many of us has grown into a cherished habit—the sense of being companioned by the past, of being in a place warmed for our living by the lives of others.

To me, as I started with saying, the reverse of this is almost painful; and I know few things more odious than the chilly, draughty, emptiness of a place without a history. For this reason America, save what may remain of Hawthorne’s New England and Irving’s New York, never tempts my vagabond fancy. Nature can scarcely afford beauty wherewith to compensate for living in block-tin shanties or brand new palaces. How different if we find ourselves in some city, nay village, rendered habitable for our soul by the previous dwelling therein of others, of souls! Here the streets are never empty; and, surrounded by that faceless crowd of ghosts, one feels a right to walk about, being invited by them, instead of rushing along on one’s errands among a throng of other wretched living creatures who are blocked by us and block us in their turn.

How convey this sense? I do not mean that if I walk through old Paris or through Rome my thoughts revolve on Louis XI. or Julius Cæsar. Nothing could be further from the fact. Indeed the charm of the thing is that one feels oneself accompanied not by this or that magnifico of the past (whom of course one would never have been introduced to), but by a crowd of nameless creatures; the daily life, common joy, suffering, heroism of the past. Nay, there is something more subtle than this: the whole place (how shall I explain it?) becomes a sort of living something. Thus, when I hurry (for one must needs hurry through Venetian narrowness) between the pink and lilac houses, with faded shutters and here and there a shred of tracery; now turning a sharp corner before the locksmith’s or the chestnut-roaster’s; now hearing my steps lonely between high walls broken by a Gothic doorway; now crossing some smooth-paved little square with its sculptured well and balconied palaces, I feel, I say, walking day after day through these streets, that I am in contact with a whole living, breathing thing, full of habits of life, of suppressed words; a sort of odd, mysterious, mythical, but very real creature; as if, in the dark, I stretched out my hand and met something (but without any fear), something absolutely indefinable in shape and kind, but warm, alive. This changes solitude in unknown places into the reverse of solitude and strangeness. I remember walking thus along the bastions under the bishop’s palace at Laon, the great stone cows peering down from the belfry above, with a sense of inexpressible familiarity and peace. And, strange to say, this historic habit makes us familiar also with places where we have never been. How well, for instance, do I not know Dinant and Bouvines, rival cities on the Meuse (topography and detail equally fantastic); and how I sometimes long, as with homesickness, for a scramble among the stones and grass and chandelier-like asphodels of Agrigentum, Veii, Collatium! Why, to one minded like myself, a map, and even the names of stations in a time-table, are full of possible delight.

And sometimes it rises to rapture. This time, eight years ago, I was fretting my soul away, ill, exiled away from home, forbidden all work, in the south of Spain. At Grenada for three dreary weeks it rained without ceasing, till the hill of the Alhambra became filled with the babbling of streams, and the town was almost cut off by a sea of mud. Between the showers one rushed up into the damp gardens of the Generalife, or into the Alhambra, to be imprisoned for hours in its desolate halls, while the rain splashed down into the courts. My sitting-room had five doors, four of glass; and the snow lay thick on the mountains. My few books had been read long ago; there remained to spell through a Spanish tome on the rebellion of the Alpujarras, whose Moorish leader, having committed every crime, finally went to heaven for spitting on the Koran on his death-bed. Letters from home were perpetually lost, or took a week to come. It seemed as if the world had quite unlearned every single trick that had ever given me pleasure. Yet, in these dreary weeks, there was one happy morning.

It was the anniversary, worse luck to it, of the Conquest of Grenada from the Moors. We got seats in the chapel of the Catholic kings, and watched a gentleman in a high hat (which he kept on in church) and swallow tails, carry the banner of Castille and Aragon, in the presence of the archbishop and chapter, some mediæval pages, two trumpeters with pigtails, and an array of soldiers. A paltry ceremony enough. But before it began, and while mass was still going on, there came to me for a few brief moments that happiness unknown for so many, many months, that beloved historic emotion.

My eyes were wandering round the chapel, up the sheaves of the pilasters to the gilded spandrils, round the altars covered with gibbering sculpture, and down again among the crowd kneeling on the matted floor—women in veils, men with scarlet cloak-lining over the shoulder, here and there the shaven head and pigtail of the bull-ring. In the middle of it all, on their marble beds, lay the effigies of Ferdinand and Isabella, with folded hands and rigid feet, four crimson banners of the Moors overhead. The crowd was pouring in from the cathedral, and bevies of priests, and scarlet choir-boys led by their fiddler. The organ, above the chants, was running through vague mazes. I felt it approaching and stealing over me, that curious emotion felt before in such different places: walking up and down, one day, in the church of Lamballe in Brittany; seated, another time, in the porch at Ely. And then it possessed me completely, raising me into a sort of beatitude. This kind of rapture is not easy to describe. No rare feeling is. But I would warn you from thinking that in such solemn moments there sweeps across the brain a paltry pageant, a Lord Mayor’s Show of bygone things, like the cavalcades of future heroes who descend from frescoed or sculptured wall at the bidding of Ariosto’s wizards and Spenser’s fairies. This is something infinitely more potent and subtle; and like all strong intellectual emotions, it is compounded of many and various elements, and has its origin far down in mysterious depths of our nature; and it arises overwhelmingly from many springs, filling us with the throb of vague passions welling from our most vital parts. There is in it no possession of any definite portion of bygone times; but a yearning expectancy, a sense of the near presence, as it were, of the past; or, rather, of a sudden capacity in ourselves of apprehending the past which looms all round.

For a few moments thus, in that chapel before the tombs of the Catholic kings; in the churches of Bruges and Innsbruck at the same time (for such emotion gives strange possibilities of simultaneous presence in various places); with the gold pomegranate flower of the badges, and the crimson tassels of the Moorish standards before my eyes; also the iron knights who watch round Maximilian’s grave—for a moment while the priests were chanting and the organs quavering, the life of to-day seemed to reel and vanish, and my mind to be swept along the dark and gleaming whirlpools of the past….


Catholic kings, Moorish banners, wrought-iron statues of paladins; these are great things, and not at all what I had intended to speak of when I set out to explain why old houses, which give my Yorkshire friend the creeps, seem to my feelings so far more peaceful and familiar.

Yes, it is just because the past is somehow more companionable, warmer, more full of flavour, than the present, that I love all old houses; but best of all such as are solitary in the country, isolated both from new surroundings, and from such alterations as contact with the world’s hurry almost always brings. It certainly is no question of beauty. The houses along Chelsea embankment are more beautiful, and some of them a great deal more picturesque than that Worcestershire rectory, to which I always long to return: the long brick house on its terraced river-bank, the overladen plum-trees on one side, and the funereally prosperous churchyard yews on the other; and with corridors and staircases hung with stained, frameless Bolognese nakedness, Judgments of Paris, Venuses, Carità Romanas, shipped over cheap by some bear-leading parson-tutor of the eighteenth century. Nor are they architectural, those brick and timber cottages all round, sinking (one might think) into the rich, damp soil. But they have a mellowness corresponding to that of the warm, wet, fruitful land, and due to the untroubled, warm brooding over by the past. And what is architecture to that? As to these Italian ones, which my soul loveth most, they have even less of what you would call beauty; at most such grace of projecting window-grating or buttressed side as the South gives its buildings; and such colour, or rather discolouring, as a comparatively small number of years will bring.

It kept revolving in my mind, this question of old houses and their charm, as I was sitting waiting for a tram one afternoon, in the church-porch of Pieve a Ripoli, a hamlet about two miles outside the south-east gate of Florence. That church porch is like the baldacchino over certain Roman high altars, or, more humbly, like a very large fourpost bedstead. On the one hand was a hillside of purple and brown scrub and dark cypresses fringed against the moist, moving grey sky; on the other, some old, bare, mulberry-trees, a hedge of russet sloe, closing in wintry fields; and, more particularly, next the porch, an insignificant house, with blistered green shutters at irregular intervals in the stained whitewash, a big green door, and a little coat-of-arms—the three Strozzi halfmoons—clapped on to the sharp corner. I sat there, among the tombstones of the porch, and wondered why I loved this house: and why it would remain, as I knew it must, a landmark in my memory. Yes, the charm must lie in the knowledge of the many creatures who have lived in this house, the many things that have been done and felt.

The creatures who have lived here, the things which have been felt and done…. But those things felt and done, were they not mainly trivial, base; at best nowise uncommon, and such as must be going on in every new house all around? People worked and shirked their work, endured, fretted, suffered somewhat, and amused themselves a little; were loving, unkind, neglected and neglectful, and died, some too soon, some too late. That is human life, and as such doubtless important. But all that goes on to-day just the same; and there is no reason why that former life should have been more interesting than that these people, Argenta Cavallesi and Vincenzio Grazzini, buried at my feet, should have had bigger or better made souls and bodies than I or my friends. Indeed, in sundry ways, and owing to the narrowness of life and thought, the calmer acceptance of coarse or cruel things, I incline to think that they were less interesting, those men and women of the past, whose rustling dresses fill old houses with fantastic sounds. They had, some few of them, their great art, great aims, feelings, struggles; but the majority were of the earth, and intolerably earthy. ’Tis their clothes’ ghosts that haunt us, not their own.

So why should the past be charming? Perhaps merely because of its being the one free place for our imagination. For, as to the future, it is either empty or filled only with the cast shadows of ourselves and our various machineries. The past is the unreal and the yet visible; it has the fascination of the distant hills, the valleys seen from above; the unreal, but the unreal whose unreality, unlike that of the unreal things with which we cram the present, can never be forced on us. There is more behind; there may be anything. This sense which makes us in love with all intricacies of things and feelings, roads which turn, views behind views, trees behind trees, makes the past so rich in possibilities….. An ordinary looking priest passes by, rings at the door of the presbytery, and enters. Those who lived there, in that old stained house with the Strozzi escutcheon, opposite the five bare mulberry-trees, were doubtless as like as may be to this man who lives there in the present. Quite true; and yet there creeps up the sense that they lived in the past.

For there is no end to the deceits of the past; we protest that we know it is cozening us, and it continues to cozen us just as much. Reading over Browning’s Galuppi lately, it struck me that this dead world of vanity was no more charming or poetical than the one we live in, when it also was alive; and that those ladies, Mrs. X., Countess Y., and Lady Z., of whose toilettes at last night’s ball that old gossip P— had been giving us details throughout dinner, will in their turn, if any one care, be just as charming, as dainty, and elegiac as those other women who sat by while Galuppi “played toccatas stately at the clavichord.” Their dresses, should they hang for a century or so, will emit a perfume as frail, and sad, and heady; their wardrobe filled with such dust as makes tears come into one’s eyes, from no mechanical reason.

“Was a ladysuch a lady?” They will say that of ours also. And, in recognising this, we recognise how trumpery, flat, stale and unprofitable were those ladies of the past. It is not they who make the past charming, but the past that makes them. Time has wonderful cosmetics for its favoured ones; and if it brings white hairs and wrinkles to the realities, how much does it not heighten the bloom, brighten the eyes and hair of those who survive in our imagination!

And thus, somewhat irrelevantly, concludes my chapters in praise of old houses.

About the Author:

Vernon Lee (14 October 1856 – 13 February 1935) was a British writer.