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Home: The Toast

Photo via Wikimedia

Susan Harlan’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

Photo via Wikimedia Photo via Wikimedia

Names: Jane, former long-suffering governess; Edward, ill-tempered member of the aristocracy
Location: Yorkshire, England
Size: Enormous enough to effectively represent inherited privilege
Years lived in: Probably since William the Conqueror; Owned

Jane and Edward’s charming ruin Thornfield Hall may no longer be their primary residence, but it persists as a reminder of the extraordinary beauty of the Great Houses of the English countryside. Jane recalls languid days spent tutoring Edward’s neglected and isolated ward Adele in one of the castle’s many sitting rooms. Edward remembers evenings next to the fire, wallowing in misery. Their housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax remembers a lot of dusting.

When Thornfield burned to the ground, its style was already rather outdated. Edward had made few changes to the house, and in time it took on an old-fashioned vibe some might describe as “creepy,” but which Jane characterizes as “retro” and “in need of a woman’s touch.” Before their interrupted wedding, Edward had planned to refresh the dining room with a regal shade of red, but Jane asked him to please reconsider the color palette as she’d spent much of her childhood locked in a red room by an evil aunt. Edward’s taste tends to run to jewel-encrusted goblets, mahogany armchairs, and tapestries of King Harold being gouged in the eye.

Even with a castle, Edward said that he had still faced some “small space” decorating challenges – particularly in setting up the room in which he secretly confined his hysterical and excessively sexual wife Bertha, far off at the top of the house. Loyal servant Grace Poole took it on herself to design this studio apartment. In consultation with Edward, she decided to line the walls with dirty mattresses and to cover the floor in rags. Thick damask curtains in a calming shade of green muffled the sound of Bertha’s sobs and cut her off from the outside world.

A chat with Jane:

Their style: Edward and I think of our style as sort of “medieval suit of armor meets oppressive and claustrophobic wealth.” Edward traveled a lot when he was younger, and although he doesn’t like to talk about it much, he brought back some souvenirs – quirky vases and that sort of thing – that I try to display with some of our more traditional items, like mounts, large brass candlesticks, and paintings of dead kings. I like a lot of light, probably because it helps me to think of God and to try to forgive him for taking my friend Helen Burns from me when we were young. She died of consumption, which was strange as there was an outbreak of typhus at the time. But she was unique, much like my evolving decorating style. Our new place has much better light than Thornfield, and it has a roof.

Inspiration: Edward wanted to model Thornfield on a place called Otranto, but he was also inspired by moldering crypts. He loves skulls, old leather-bound books, and his dog, but I try to find inspiration everywhere. I love color and patterns because I’ve always worn drab gray dresses. And I find big fireplaces inspiring, as I was cold as a child. A rough childhood really makes you reevaluate how you think about space and décor. For example, I’m inspired by the things I remember about Lowood School. They had a minimalist style: hard beds for all us girls, no hot water, little food, unwarranted corporeal punishment, and rampant deadly illnesses. But I guess those last things don’t have to do with design!

Favorite Element: I used to really like to read in the library. We were planning to breathe life into the space with a few new design elements, but we never got the chance since we had to cancel our wedding, and I had to flee into the night. There never seems to be enough time for home improvements! I wanted the library to be the perfect retreat: a man-cave where Edward could brood about the past and reflect on how the world has wronged him.

What Friends Say: We don’t really have a lot of friends over, per se. As I may have mentioned, my friend Helen was the only person who ever loved me, and no one else could ever be quite so fabulous. And Edward has never been much of a host. He has been described as “Byronic,” which is to say that he’s borderline sociopathic and inclined to violence, but in a way that naïve young women hundreds of years from now will probably still find sexy. Hey, I get it, ladies – I was there.

Biggest Embarrassment: Well, it was embarrassing when Thornfield burned down. That Bertha – or Antoinetta, or whatever – she really bought the farm.

Proudest DIY: Edward and I are not big “DIY people.” He’s generally too busy drinking claret and riding about the countryside, and I have my sketching. We did try to fix a tree on the property that had been struck by lightning, but it was no use. The lightning really did a number on it. It might have been a symbol of what was to come, but I’m probably reading too much into it.

Biggest Indulgence: A few antiques we have bought with my unexpected inheritance. The money came completely out of the blue! One moment I was working as a schoolmistress in the middle of nowhere, resisting the pressure to marry a good Christian man with no personality whatsoever, and the next thing I knew, I was an heiress! And of course, then I returned to Edward, and he has boatloads of cash, so we’ve been able to spend my money on gorgeous things to accessorize our new house. We lost most of his stuff in the fire, but far from a melodramatic tragedy that effectively disposed of an unvalued life, it was a great opportunity to reimagine what we want our home to really say about us. We’re using the money to expand our collection of antique Roman coins and pottery shards, as well as to acquire some Egyptian rarities. Edward has a friend who’s a tomb raider, and he brings us back the loveliest things.

Best advice: Seek out advice about what works (and what doesn’t) in a really large house. Some people won’t understand this predicament because they live in houses with only several rooms, but the landed aristocracy can be a great resource for ideas. I’ve learned a lot in transitioning from Thornfield to our new place. It’s always a challenge to make forty-five rooms feel homey and warm, and I worry sometimes that I haven’t gotten it quite right. And Edward wasn’t much help to me initially. Didn’t have much of an eye, you might say! No opinions at all about whether we should go with fabric headboards or more traditional four-poster beds in the guest rooms. Decorative terrariums or no decorative terrariums? But really, my advice is: don’t be afraid to shape your house into the kind of home you’ve always wanted. And if you hear maniacal laughter in the middle of the night, don’t ignore it.

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Susan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Shakespeare. Her essays have appeared in venues such as The Guardian US, The Morning News, Roads & Kingdoms, Nowhere, The Awl, Public Books, and Curbed.

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