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HIS CHOSEN DOMAIN

 

David Chun

 

Many years ago the American writer Nicholas Delbanco, on a holiday visit to Britain, walked past novelist John Fowles’s home in Lyme Regis. He recounts his visit in an essay about Fowles’ book Daniel Martin: 

 

My wife and I walked up the hill and came upon it, la bonne vaux, the place of his chosen retreat.  There was a gate, an entrance drive, a stately small house visible and, in its doorway, Fowles.  He was bidding hello to a woman in a raincoat and making her welcome within.  We could, I suppose, have approached him; I could have said how much I admire his work.  But such invasive temerity seemed wrong, too blithe by half, and Daniel Martin demonstrates how little pleasure its protagonist takes in similar encounters.  We held our peace. 

 

His was the sort of respectful attitude that would have been shared by most admirers of Fowles, who, caricatured as a recluse, was known to resent any uninvited intrusions into his privacy and the creatively-fecund private world encapsulated in Belmont, the ‘stately small house’ that Delbanco describes.  When, in 1970, Fowles’s first wife, Elizabeth, ever restless in the small-town confines of Lyme Regis, proposed selling the house, he confided in his diary:  ‘I listen to her, and think of the garden.  The strawberry-tree is in flower. I try to explain I can write here because there is peace here; that I need a known environment, one I feel no drive to get to know and explore ... I can’t go into the unknown from the unknown’.  He continued to live there until his death in 2005, the house and garden providing always a source of both sanctuary and inspiration. 

 

Now on a bright early September afternoon in 2013, without any worries about invading Fowles’s privacy but still with a sense of stepping into a private domain, my companion and I join the small groups of people approaching Belmont and about to be welcomed by representatives of the Landmark Trust for one of the openings.  Inside the cool house there are people in most of the rooms, there is a murmur of voices and the sound of footsteps on the bare boards.  As we were warned, the house is already a sort of building site with little piles of rubble resulting from explorations of the house’s fabric, and some of the windows are supported by Acrow props.  But there is a also a tea urn in one of the rooms, information displays and vases of flowers; the latter, in particular, were a nice human nice touch, reminding us that the house was a home once, and will soon be a kind of home again. 

 

In a 1968 diary entry Fowles records walking the empty rooms of Belmont soon after he and his wife had acquired the house. ‘Three main problems: the floor over the cellar in the east room is rotting; so is the south-west room, the damp beading almost up to the ceiling; and the central heating [...] It has a kind of female feel, this Belmont, I don’t know why; a bit of an old whore, with its splendid facade and all the mess that lies behind the fašade rooms.’  Forty five years later and the Landmark Trust were struggling with, and about to address, the mess ‘behind the fašade rooms’ and the crumbling fašade itself.  There was much talk about this and also the bold plans for the house’s restoration. Many seemed slightly shocked by the Landmark Trust’s plans to demolish, as well as the side wings, the Victorian part of the building – two bright, airy rooms – so as to restore the footprint of the original house that businesswoman Eleanor Coade (1733-1821), a previous owner, would have known. Discussion inevitably turned to how Fowles would have viewed such alterations.   He has often been cast as a didactic writer, and it was as if, outside of his writings, he had in the disposition of his house posed us one last question:  how should historic buildings be preserved and made serviceable for future generations while at the same time respecting the lives of the people who lived in them? 

  

I like to think that he would have approved of the Landmark Trust’s plans, or at least come round to them.  Fowles responded acutely to places, buildings as much as to landscapes, their sometimes powerful atmospheres, and the sense in which they are, in the words of another writer, like bobbins ‘where time is wound up upon itself’.  One thinks of his descriptions of the buildings he occupied in London, Underhill Farm on the fringe of the Axmouth-Lyme Regis Undercliff, and the chapel of St John in Kent, and how those buildings have strong resonances in his fiction.  Fowles visited the ruinous chapel on clear day in June 1960.  It is I believe now maintained by English Heritage, but was then overgrown and uncared for.  He was overwhelmed by its ‘kind of Manichaean aura – nature, of the dark side, triumphing over civilization, decay superseding growth.  It symbolised some obscure and universal turning of the tide, a moment when all progress ceases, and the backswing starts’.  I thought of that entry as I walked through Belmont’s empty rooms, noting the faint traces of Fowles’s life there: his bookshelves in his first-floor study with its fine views of Lyme Bay, the garden sculpture of the goddess Ceres, carefully stored, as well as, more prosaically, the Amtico flooring in the kitchen, the avocado-coloured wash basin in one of the upstairs rooms, and the bold interior colour scheme of the observatory tower.   

 

As the account of the abandoned chapel shows, Fowles, like T.S. Eliot, seems to have accepted change and decay as part of the natural order.  He called the farm on the Undercliff, which he and his wife sold when one of its fields started to fall into the sea, Nil Manet – Nothing remains.  However, as his published journals reveal, he struggled to maintain the fabric of Belmont during his ownership.  In one of the upstairs rooms last September, Mary Scriven, Fowles’s longstanding secretary who became a family friend, was asked whether there were any signs of decay when Fowles lived in the house.  ‘No’, she said firmly, ‘John kept it beautifully’.  His main fear was not physical deterioration but that, like many large houses and gardens in Lyme Regis, it would after his death be turned into a hotel, the kind of transformative change that would have destroyed the place that he cherished.   

 

That will not now happen.  Under the custodianship of the Landmark Trust, Belmont’s future is secure and it will provide a place for visitors, including writers, to stay.  With the removal of the Victorian section, including the stumps of the side wings, the fine house will sit less crowded on its plot.  The nineteenth-century observatory tower will remain, though separated from the main building.  The gap between the tower and the house will allow a view of Lyme Bay.  Most importantly, for admirers of Fowles, something of the spirit as well as the fabric of the house that he loved will be preserved, and, for so far into the future as any of us can see, the backswing will be arrested. 

 

 

June 2014 

 


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