History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

05 June 2011

Evidence and Speculation: Coming to You From the Plum Room

In my last post, I promised I'd tell you what the Plum Room is -- because I hadn't yet found out about it myself. All I knew that it was one of many in the house that's the subject of the book I was enjoying so much -- At Home: A Short History of Private Life, in which the popular historian Bill Bryson takes us on a virtual tour of the rooms and sundry recesses of his house in England, for an delightfully informative and thoroughly engaging ramble through the byways of (mostly) modern western history.

Bryson, by the way, is much more than "just" a popular historian: if you check out his Wikipedia entry, prepare to be gobsmacked by the breadth of his occupations and accomplishments.

In any event, so engaged and delighted was I by this most recent book of his (even if it did sting to have a hitherto unsuspected anachronism in my novel Almost a Gentleman exposed) that I rushed to blog about it in mid-tour. Breathless from a trek through the hall, kitchen, scullery and larder; electrified by the contents of the fuse box; entertained and diverted by the conversation in the drawing room (about period furniture, furniture design, and the best furniture wood that ever existed but which exists no longer) -- when you last saw me (in the dining room, fortified by what I'd just learned about the history of the vitamin), I was fairly rubbing my hands with glee that I still had "the cellar, the passage, the study, the garden, the plum room (??!!), the stairs, the bedroom, the bathroom, the dressing room, the nursery, and the attic" still to go.

Especially the plum room -- and comments on my blog post revealed that the name had which piqued other imaginations besides my own. But although the remainder of at Home did indeed constitute a gleeful journey -- and one that I still recommend to history hoydens everywhere -- sadly, the plum room didn't yield up as much juicy substance as we'd hoped.

"Plum" was simply what Bryson and his family called that room when they moved in, the walls being painted that color. The original architect had called it a drawing room; but soon after the place was built in 1851, the original owner -- a country rector, the Reverend Dr. Marsham -- made some changes. There are bookshelves; the plum room might have become a library; Bryson doesn't know. Nor does he know why Mr. Marsham, a young single gentleman of quite sizable income, chose to have the plum room adorned with all manner of wood and plaster moldings, popular in the earlier part of the Victorian era, a bit dowdy and provincial by the 1850s, but still a mark of of an intention to make this room somehow special.

"Nineteenth century pattern books," as Bryson tells us, "offered homeowners an almost infinite array of shapely, esoterically named notifs -- ovolos, ogees, quirks, crockets, scotias, cavettos, dentils, evolute spirals, even a 'Lesbian cymatium,' and at least two hundred more ways" to individualize a room's walls and ceiling. "Mr. Marsham chose liberally," Bryson continues, "opting for bubble-like beading around the doorcase, fluted columns at the windows, ribbony swags fluttering across the fireplace breast, and a stately show of repeating demi-hemispheres in a style known as egg-and-dart around the ceiling trim."

Why here? For what purpose? There never was a Mrs. Marsham, but might there have been a time when Mr. Marsham thought there was going to be? The rector was in his late twenties when he came into his living and built this substantial house. Perhaps there was a broken engagement. Or -- I've blogged elsewhere about the prevalence of illness (particuarly consumption) during this period -- perhaps there was a more fatal end for the high hopes that seem to have gone into designing this room. Bryson speculates delicately about Mr. Marsham's domestic life, or lack of one (all that's known for certain is that his housekeeper, Miss Elizabeth Worm, stayed with him for over fifty years -- and tantalizingly, that their bedrooms were in some proximity). While I have to admit that, in my capacity as writer of erotic romance, I've indulged in some rather less delicate speculations.

But the house, even in the plum room, doesn't yield up more than speculations.

Still, I find myself wondering about the story that might be hidden in the plum room or in the arrangement of bedrooms upstairs...

Do you?

(And do check out At Home).

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Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

From what you just wrote I absolutely wonder about a special relationship between Markham and his housekeeper. Oh, for a novelist to imagine the agony, the guilt, that went into the clergyman's decision not to make it legal because she was beneath his social standing!

Bummed, however, to hear that the Plum room was only plum colored but it says a lot about our imaginations as fiction writers that so many of us ascribed an entire backstory to it before knowing the real history.

I hadn't realized Bryson was the dean of Durham University until yesterday when I read an article about Russell Crowe as a visiting guest professor. Although Durham has no Theatre Department, they do have a drama club, and Crowe gave acting lessons.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Pam! I love reading about visiting old houses and speculating about the people who lived there. My friend Penny and I had a wonderful time imagining the lives of the people who lived in the houses and castles we visited in Scotland. As we drove from one to another, whichever of us wasn't driving would read from the guidebook and we'd happily speculate.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Then said...

Oh, another wonderful Bill Bryson book! Pam, I adored The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. It changed the way I understood our language. This Bryson book looks just as marvelous. And speculations on historical tidbits that lead to scene and story ideas are so much fun. In fact, that's how I come up with most of my plots and characters! :)

5:43 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Sounds like we're all on the same page, making up stories where they might or might not lurk.

And Katharine, it's great to find another Bryson fan.

1:17 PM  

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