Great House Therapy: Mistress Mary’s Melancholic Manor and Secret Outdoor Space -The Toast

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Name: Mary Lennox, once-bratty orphan who has rather improved in her demeanor
Location: Yorkshire, England, where the wind is always wutherin’
Size: Unknown, as owner Mr. Archibald Craven spends most of his time wandering the earth in a vain attempt to escape his sorrows
Years lived in: Since Mary’s champagne-drenched deadbeat parents dropped dead of the cholera in India and she was unceremoniously shipped back to England; owned

Mistress Mary was surprised to find herself the newest resident of Misselthwaite Manor, a great, big, desolate old English house surrounded by moors characterized by heather, gorse, broom, and the projected aristocratic self-pity of its human inhabitants.

“Moors are the most depressing landscape that exists,” explains the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock. “Their charm derives from their ability to make people want to kill themselves and others.”

Mary, who also goes by “Mistress Mary,” has been growing accustomed to daily life in this decaying old pile of stone. Although she misses her Ayah’s stories – just one of the many delights of living in a country that England has invaded and claimed for itself – she has striven to embrace her life at the Manor.

“I have learned a lot here, including how to dress myself without pitching a fit,” she says. “I have a capsule wardrobe now.”

Misselthwaite features one hundred locked rooms, fires in hearths, the sound of crying in the corridors, a portrait gallery of dead children, and doors that no one ever opens to go outside. The property also boasts a private walled garden that Mr. Craven locked up ten years ago after his beautiful wife fell from a tree branch and died, as a surprising number of people do in literature.

For Mary, the discovery of this brown and dry outdoor space was a design challenge, and she has been working to refurbish it. “The neighbors were threatening to file a complaint with the city about the garden,” she says. “They kept leaving aggressive notes about maintaining our property. Total asshats.”

And her labors have paid off. Mary has found that her low spirits have been improved by the now-vibrantly-alive garden’s life force of bees, butterflies, green twigs, roses, and absurdly fecund ivy. “A magical robin found a half-buried key and let me in,” she says. “It was very queer.”

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A chat with Mary: 

Her Style: Since I’m only a child, I’m still developing my interior design aesthetic. But I like Misselthwaite’s four-poster beds, handsome ancient furniture, and snow-covered lawns with bunnies. As my mother always used to say, you can never overdo it with brocade, velvet, and the subjection of those who work for you.

Important Influences: My young housemaid Martha has helped me to figure out my own place in the Manor and my taste. She doesn’t really have any taste of her own as she’s an unnecessarily chipper common little servant, but when she was covered in soot the other morning, I thought: that is exactly the color I have been looking for to recover the chaise in my room.

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Her Inspiration: I was found alone but alive in my old house in India after everyone else had left, so I would say that trauma and neglect really inform how I think about a room.

Important Pieces: Mr. Craven has an armchair he likes to sit in and contemplate how life has been far crueler to him than anyone else on the planet. He doesn’t pay much attention to the house. I thought that maybe he would incorporate some things from all the places he has traveled, but when I asked him about it, he told me go sit in a closet. 

Key Features: There’s an “Indian Room” here at the Manor where I can amuse myself with ivory elephants that look a lot like the actual elephants that were killed to make the ivory ones. Colonialism is not just a major injustice; it’s also a major influence on décor.

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Most Queer Feature: Probably Colin, the pale but ultimately perfectly healthy boy that I found locked in a room. He had been in there for his whole life and was convinced that he was going to die. When we met, he mostly just read picture books and acted like an entitled, self-pitying douche, but then we started to have this childhood-sexual-awakening thing going on, and I took him to the garden and healed him with flowers.

Biggest Embarrassment: That all the men in the house used to believe that they were hunchbacks. How the hell does that happen?

Proudest DIY: I liked to gather daffydowndillys and arrange them in mason jars wrapped with little twine bows, but then Ben Weatherstaff told me that the mason jar thing is over.

What Friends Say: Well, Colin says he’s going to live forever now, so that’s going to be a disappointment. And he has this idea that when he grows up, he’ll lecture about the Magic of the garden and make great scientific discoveries, and I’m like: Great – I’m the one who took you to the garden, and when I grow up, I’ll probably just get married. 


Biggest Challenge: Definitely bringing the garden and the Craven family back to life. Gardening isn’t just about hanging out with kale on your Brooklyn rooftop or having dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns; it has a ton of metaphoric baggage.

Plans for the Future: Dickon is talking to Glade about developing a home fragrance spray called Delicately Brimming Garden Air for their Limited Edition Spring Collection. He’s also working on a line of paint called “Dickon” for Sherwin-Williams that includes shades like Frolicking Deer, Mingling Blossoms, Solemnity of Eggs, Swelling Buds, and Luscious Lillipad.

Best Advice: Incorporate a lot of houseplants for a funky, outdoorsy vibe. Houseplants are currently enjoying a bit of a moment, and they’ll definitely soften up an airy loft-like space or a scullery maid’s vermin-infested hovel. Maybe cover an accent wall in some Farrow & Ball wallpaper in a nice leaf print. I’d also suggest mixing textures – don’t be afraid to hang a Renaissance tapestry next to a medieval tapestry in a playful convergence. I know this may seem silly, but trust me. I may be a kid, but I know a lot about tapestries.

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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