Of course, stuff isn’t just stuff.
Back from my Las Vegas travels, I started thinking about getting rid of more of it and a huge weight descended on my shoulders. The problem wasn’t so much the amount of work I had to do as the choices I needed to make. Much of the low-hanging fruit was out the door, or stored in the basement to put up for sale or for free online.
Now I had to ask what else I wanted to get rid of, what I should keep. How should I start back in? Where? In fact, getting rid of things is such a lot of work, I started asking a more fundamental question: Did I really want to do this?
I hate falling victim to trends, and de-cluttering has become such a huge thing, I couldn’t help wondering if my whole project was just me falling in step with the herd. Turn on the TV and you’ll find a de-cluttering show. Open a magazine and there’s another hoarding story. Marie Kondo has an international best-seller in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, with its lovely compound promise of life-changingly changing your life.
Yet did I really want to hold everything I owned in my hand and decide if it was either necessary or beautiful? Wouldn’t I rather just have lunch?
On the other hand, if I stopped getting rid of stuff, I’d risk falling into the latest counter-trend, the one where people are saying, Why do I need to give up any of my stuff? My bulwark. My memories. My precious.
I also started thinking about the fact this isn’t a new debate, a new trend, nor one that is easily resolved. Lately, I’ve been reading a very good book, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by the British historian Alison Light. It’s about Virginia Woolf and her generation’s fraught relationship with live-in servants, and theirs with her. Light spent several enviable years in archives (which store stuff) tracking down the stories of the servants who had worked in Bloomsbury, and many of the details she unearthed struck me as I read.
One had to do with the relationship and Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, had to the quantities of Victorian stuff they inherited when their father died. They said they wanted to leave it behind when they and their two brothers took the radical decision of moving out of the respectable family home in Hyde Park Gate to a house in scruffier and cheaper Bloomsbury. (The servants went with them.)
The four Stephen siblings, as they still were, wanted to create an airier and more modern milieu. Yet, as Light writes, “the past was not so easily got rid of. When the Stephen children left their parents’ home, plenty of old things had travelled with them—photographs and paintings, their father’s books and even the mantelpiece from Hyde Park Gate.
“Though ‘unwelcomed,’ their mother’s small folding tea table—‘the very hearth and centre of Victorian family life’—around which the daughters of the house had dutifully sat, remained part of their lives. Things were refurbished and relocated, but they were not all abandoned, these totems of a lost tribe… (T)he looking glass from her parents’ bedroom into which Virginia remembered gazing blankly on the day her mother lay there dead, finally stared out from a corner next to the bed where Vanessa died.”
Adds Light, “The free self, like the empty room or the white space, might be infinitely desirable, but it remains a fantasy, and, like the future, it cannot be lived in.”
Which left me where?
There’s another small fact I learned when reading about Virginia Woolf.
In 1919, Virginia and her husband Leonard bought a cottage south of London called Monk’s House, located in Sussex near the River Ouse, where Virginia would drown herself in 1941. Reading idly about the cottage, I stopped when I found it had been owned previously by a man named Jacob Verrall. The Woolfs bought both the cottage and some of its contents at an auction held by Verrall’s estate, and this intrigued me.
A very full bookshelf in my office is jammed with genealogical research done by my mother-in-law, Mary Knox, over many years. One set of binders involves the Verrall family, direct ancestors of hers and my husband’s who came from the town of Lewes, three miles from the hamlet of Rodmell where Monk’s House is located.
Was there a connection? Did some of the contents of the Woolf cottage—now the Monk’s House museum—originate with Verrall ancestors before they were so beautifully decorated by Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell and her partner Duncan Grant? Some of Virginia Woolf’s stuff?
I knew the Verrall name as soon as I read it. Hannah Verrall, born in the town of Lewes in 1804, provides the inspiration for one of the minor characters in my upcoming novel, Mad Richard. The book is based on the life of Victorian painter Richard Dadd, once considered to be the most promising artist of his generation. Later, he became one its most notorious murderers.
In real life, Hannah Verrall was Richard’s aunt, married to his mother’s youngest brother, Henry Martin. Henry was a chemist—a pharmacist, we’d say in Canada—part of a large family of chemists that included Richard’s father, Robert Dadd. In fact, Uncle Henry Martin started out as an apprentice to Richard’s father in Chatham, Kent, one of the Medway towns east of London made famous by Charles Dickens.
Later, by 1827, Henry opened his own shop in the London suburb of Somers Town. Richard’s brother Robert eventually became his apprentice. The Dadds and Martins were close—as meanwhile Charles Dickens lived just around the corner in both Chatham and Somers Town, but that’s another story.
Hannah Verrall and Henry Martin were my husband’s great-great-great-grandparents. If I’ve got the genealogy right, that means my husband is Richard Dadd’s first cousin five times removed. I claim a small place as his first cousin-in-law, as well as joint archivist of the genealogical binders.
And here’s an odd echo.
Hannah and Henry Martin and their children emigrated to Canada in 1841, fetching up in the Ontario town of Chatham in the Canadian county of Kent. Before they left England, they stayed for several weeks in Sussex with Henry’s older brother Richard, the town chemist in Lewes, not far from Monk’s House. Possibly Richard Martin had introduced Henry and Hannah in the first place, a humble romance now lost to time.
It’s also possible—probable—that Hannah walked past Monk’s House before emigrating, or meandered along a path by the River Ouse. I picture her drooping, hugging herself, corrosively unhappy, since family letters show she didn’t want to leave. Her husband was the one who hoped for a new start.
Henry’s shop had been located on Euston Square, where in the late 1830s, railway magnates constructed the massive apparatus of Euston Station, turning Somers Town into a construction site. I think his business probably suffered, while at the same time, letters from three of Hannah’s brothers, who had already emigrated to the U.S. and Canada, suggested they were doing well. The Martins left England planning to meet Hannah’s brothers in Canada.
In fact, Henry would prosper here. Settling first in Chatham, Ontario, and later in the town of Wallaceburg, he began practicing as a doctor by the simple expedient of calling himself Dr. Martin, never bothering with details like medical school. His training as a chemist probably made him as good a doctor as any in the Canadian backwoods of the 1840s and 50s, so why not?
But poor Hannah seems to have hated it here. Imagine the mosquitoes and the loneliness. The tall pines towering over their humid backwoods cabin. Hannah didn’t even make it to her first winter, committing suicide only a few months after the family reached Canada. A coroner’s jury found that she killed herself while temporarily insane.
And here’s my echo: Hannah drowned herself in the Grand River exactly one hundred years before Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the Ouse.
There’s no real connection, but as a novelist, I like echoes. I need them. My secret is, I often base characters on an original model, as I suspect most writers do. They’re never people I know well; friends and family can stop worrying. In fact, in order to write fiction the original models have to be people I know hardly at all, or perhaps merely glimpse, so I can fill in the gaps in my knowledge with fiction. And here’s the trick: I only seem able to actually get them—create characters, recreate them, pin them to the page—when I see or meet a second person who reminds me of the first. An echo.
One time, years ago, I was thinking about a man I had met once or twice who had unusually short legs and a puffed-up, self-important manner, but who also seemed kind. He struck me as a possible character in fiction, difficult but sympathetic—although I may have read the real person wrong; most people who knew him didn’t seem to like him.
Yet what I mean to say is that I only got him on paper after sitting down on the Toronto subway across from a man whose legs were so short that his feet didn’t reach the floor, leaving his legs dangling below big loose knees like those of a child. This second man had an expression on his face I can remember today of benign aloofness. And somehow that concatenation triggered the character I ended up writing.
I didn’t start reading about Virginia Woolf for any writerly reason. A couple of years ago, I read an intriguing review of the book that started this, Mrs. Woolf and The Servants. I noted it down, and once I finished my latest novel—and finished my extensive research reading—I got the book as a break.
But now I’ve heard an echo, and I wonder what character I might write sometime in the future, probably far in the future. Virginia Martin? Hannah Woolf?
Meanwhile, there’s the question of Jacob Verrall.
Let’s start with an anti-climax.
The Jacob Verrall who owned Monk’s House cottage in Sussex before Virginia and Leonard Woolf probably wasn’t any close relation to our family. Looking through the Verrall binders holding my mother-in-law’s genealogical research, I found no Verrall by the name of Jacob, and her research goes back to the beginning of the 18th century.
Yet even after finding this out, I spent hours reading cross-legged on the floor, since the files picture a series of eccentric ancestors and even better stories, many of them mentioned in a history of the Verrall family of Lewes written by a member, Percival Lucas, in 1916.
We meet Charles Verrall (1786-1859), a tallow chandler known as “Flutter” Verrall, no clue given as to why, although that branch of the family seems to have gone in for gambling, and maybe he took one too many flutters on the horses.
There was also Sarah Verrall (1744-1828) known as “The White Rose of Sussex,” and publican William Verrall (1715-1761), who in 1769 published a cookbook stemming from the time he served under a French chef, to which he gave the fetching title: “A Complete System of Cookery, in which is set forth a variety of genuine Receipts, collected from several Years Experience under the celebrated Mr. de St. Clouet, sometime since Cook to his Grace the Duke of Newcastle…. Together with an Introductory Preface, shewing how every Dish is brought to Table, and in what manner the meanest Capacity shall never err in doing what his Bill of Fare contain. To which is added, A true Character of Mons. De St. Clouet;” a title designed to rocket to the top of the Amazon bestseller list.
A bit of digging shows that the celebrated chef in question was Pierre de St. Clouet, who would leave the employ of the Duke of Newcastle to cook for the Earle of Albemarle and later for the Duc de Richelieu, a famous womanizer and dandy who is said to have been the original of Valmont in Les Liaisons dangereuses, the 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
A bit more digging shows that in 1721, the French beauties Madame de Polignac and the Marquise de Nesle fought a notorious duel over Richelieu, which was covered in the early 18th century Ur-tabloids and more recently in an entertaining blog, to which I am indebted. The two noblewomen were sisters-in-law, and both were having affairs with the duke, as they learned when his secretary made a small mistake and arranged for his master to tryst with both of them at the same place and time. Mayhem ensued.
The women agreed to settle their differences in the Bois de Bologne, where they took their positions on either side of a handkerchief, guns at the ready. The Marquise fired first, hitting a tree branch. Then Madame de Polingnac raised her pistol. A shot! The Marquise fell to the ground, her breast bloody. At first she seemed to be dead, but bystanders soon found that the bullet had only grazed her shoulder. As they helped her up, they asked if the Duke was worth it.
“Yes! Yes!” she cried. “He is worthy of even more noble blood being shed for him!”
I hadn’t known women fought duels, but apparently seven are known to history. In any case the aristocratic triangle was a long way from William Verrall, master of the White Hart Inn of Lewes, Sussex, who described himself as “what is vulgarly called a poor publican.”
Or no distance at all, if we’re talking degrees of separation. The ancestral publican having known the chef personally, he is separated by two degrees from the real-world Duc de Richelieu, i.e. Valmont in the 1782 novel and therefore (in movie terms) three degrees from John Malkovich, who played Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, the 1988 film directed by Stephen Frears.
Malkovich, by the way, appeared with Kevin Bacon in the 1991 comedy, Queen’s Logic, giving the 18th century publican a very low Bacon number, which is to say degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. The internet having made family history so much more fun, and such a great time waster.
Back in the real world, or at least the binders, it’s also worth noting that the Duke of Newcastle seems to have mourned the loss of his cook M. St. Clouet, writing him a letter quoted in an entertaining blog in which he complains that his new chef wasn’t up to scratch. “He never serves small hors d’oeuvres or light entrées,” the Duke wrote, “and he has no idea of the simple, unified dishes that you used to make for me and which are so much in fashion here, such as veal tendons, rabbit fillets, pigs’ and calves’ ears, and several other little dishes of the same kind.”
Veal tendons and pigs’ ears. This might give some idea of William Verrall’s receipts, which seem to have gone out of style before he published his cookbook. The book failed to sell and William went bankrupt. Yet I find it interesting that the animals parts used by St. Clouet as ducal delicacies were later considered such offal they were given to slaves in Brazil–who used them, by the way, to make a delicious bean stew which is now the Brazilian national dish, feijoada.
Maybe it’s time to bring back William Verrall.
One final family story concerns Harry Verrall (1713-1794), the great-great-uncle of great-great-great-grandma Hannah Verrall, one-time proprietor of the Whig Coffee House in Lewes, who is said to have inspired Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man.
Paine lived in Lewes from 1768 to 1774. One day, according to a memoir written fifty years later by his friend W.T. Sherwin, Paine “happened to be playing at bowls with some friends at Lewes; after they had finished playing, they went to a neighbouring house to drink some punch by way of refreshment.
“Mr. Verral, one of the bowlers, observed, in allusion to the wars of Frederick, ‘that the King of Prussia was the best fellow in the world for a King, he had so much of the Devil in him.’ This observation, trifling as it might appear, produced a very deep impression in the mind of Paine, and gave rise to the reflection, that if it were necessary for a King to have so much of the Devil in him Kings might be very well dispensed with.’”
I’d intended to write about stuff, and in a way I am, because I’ve been digging into the archive that takes up
an enormous amount of space in my office. It’s not going anywhere. At least, it has to be organized, culled, digitized and printed out, but I first found Richard Dadd in the binders, and figure there are a few more books crouching inside them.
Yet this doesn’t address the overall question of clutter and decluttering, and how we decide what we need to live with, and what to live without. In her advice books, Marie Kondo tells us to keep only those belongings which spark joy, tokimeko in Japanese, which apparently translates literally as things which “flutter, throb, palpitate.”
Joyous, throbbing, palpitating: the words aren’t right for what I want. They’re fast and solitary, butterfly sensations that beat their wings in a bare clean place.
The word I prefer is evocative, which has a denser, older, smokier feeling. I wonder if it’s more important that we surround ourselves with things which evoke. By which I mean they evoke connections, both with our past and with other people, living and dead, that make us part of a community. As we meanwhile get rid of extraneous items in a way that permits us to make another kind of connection, whether through organizations helping recently-arrived refugees or in women’s shelters, taking the trouble to find new homes for our stuff instead of tossing it into a landfill.
The unrelated Verrall, it turns out, was an eccentric.
The Jacob Verrall, I mean, who owned Monk’s House in Sussex before Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought it from his estate, and before it became a museum 35 years ago.
In a BBC TV interview of Leonard done by Malcolm Muggeridge in 1967, Woolf says that Verrall “was a very strange old man. He used to lie in bed with a rope attached to his toe and at the other end of the rope there was a bell placed in a cherry tree down the garden. When the birds came to eat the cherries he gave his toe a jerk, rang the bell and scared the birds away. It was typical at Rodmell village, I should think, in those days.”
In a diary entry from 1921, Virginia Woolf writes of a visit from a Dr. Vallance of Lewes, who told her that Jacob Verrall had “starved himself purposely to death.” Dr. Vallance also told her that during one of his house calls, they’d been forced to draw close to the chimney to feel any degree of warmth, and that he’d tried to convince Verrall to play chess as a distraction from both the cold and his impending death, which makes the doctor sound rather like Death in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal.
And there’s this: According to Leonard Woolf’s biographer Victoria Glendinning, on August 14, 1919, there was an auction of the late Jacob’s stuff in the Monks House garden in which Leonard bought “curtains, blankets, table linen, a table and chairs” (later painted by Vanessa Bell?), “cutlery and crockery, glassware, an oil stove, a mincing machine, apple trays, a wheelbarrow, a garden roller, garden tools and the contents of the garden shed…”
I bring up the list after reading a book from 2012 about the Sussex house-museums once owned by the Woolfs and by Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell. (And yes, I’m growing a little obsessed.) Charleston and Monk’s House, by Nuala Hancock is a short academic treatise which examines “the corporality of our encounter with artefacts and the importance and productiveness of multi-sensory response to their interpretation,” as well as quoting some very cool observations about stuff from the two sisters and their friends.
In her essay, Sketch of the Past, Virginia writes of her parents’ bedroom at 22 Hyde Park Gate in London, the house where she was born: “It was not a large room; but its walls must be soaked, if walls take pictures and board up what is done and said, with all that is most intense, of all that makes the most private being, of family life.”
She continues, “The house images move in both directions; they are in us as much as we are in them.”
I think this is true, as well, of the stuff that our houses contain, which isn’t always new, but often comes to us secondhand, like the curtains and blankets that Leonard bought at auction from Jacob Verrall’s estate.
So when our stuff evokes—that word I like—surely it isn’t only our own pasts we sense, but the jumbled histories of the people who formerly owned what we choose to have around us. Verrall remained in the house long after he died, permeating the linen and cutlery, a string tied to his toe, playing chess with Death by the inadequate fire. Virginia and Leonard sought out stories about him as they used his things—some of which probably came from the Glazebrook family, which had owned the house before him.
I wonder if that’s why some stuff can almost vibrate; can feel so deep. As Virginia says in another essay: “For it is true of every object—coat or human being—that the more one looks, the more there is to see.”
Nuala Hancock notes that Vanessa Bell brought a dressing table to Charleston which she had grown up with in Hyde Park Gate. “A further cupboard, a heavy Dutch cabinet in walnut, belonged to William Makepeace Thackeray” (who was the father of Vanessa’s father’s first wife) “is housed in the main studio…
“They are, in this sense, palimpsests, inviting contact not only with the material worlds of Charleston… but also with the layered materiality of Woolf’s and Bell’s earlier lived past—the tangible trappings of the Victorian interiors of their childhood. The poetics of these pieces is expressed through their presentation as containers—as though the past were stored on the deep shelves behind their glass doors, or held unseen within the shadowy recesses of their locked drawers.
“If space, as (Gaston) Bachelard suggests, is ‘compressed time,’ then the interior spaces of containers house the remembered past of Woolf and Bell.”
A paragraph I had to stop and parse. But once I did, I liked the idea of those objects we carry through our lives as being palimpsests; the idea of closed drawers holding the past, of space being compressed time.
Which might be one reason it’s so damned hard to throw things out.
Hancock’s book ends, by the way, by admitting that this is precisely what the curators did at both Monk’s House and Charleston before opening them as museums: they threw out a lot of the clutter and mess in which the Woolfs and Bells actually lived, turning the museums into neatened constructs, much like the staged interiors of houses up for sale.
Despite being a writers’ house, the Monk’s House museum doesn’t hold the Woolfs’ extensive library, which was sold to Washington State University. When they lived there, books were stacked on the stairways, on windowsills, in piles on the floor. Nigel Dickson called Monk’s House “a hugger mugger of a house… It was rambling, it was untidy.” Leonard called Virginia’s working methods “not merely untidy but squalid,” with “filth packets” littering her desk. Pen nibs, crumpled bills, ash from her ash tray.
So Monk’s House was redolent for the Woolfs, but I wonder what we can get from a visit to the carefully-staged museum.
A feel, perhaps, for the way they would have liked to have been seen, rather than the way they actually were?
As I continue thinking about stuff—and slowly throwing it out—I also wonder if that’s part of the impulse behind purging. By tidying our houses, we’re creating a self we want others to see. We’re this clean, this tidy, this transparent.
Isn’t it pretty to think so?