When home is a castle

2009-06-03 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Music Room

William Fiennes

Picador

IN his tender and lyrical memoir, The Music R oom, William Fiennes describes the experience of growing up in a 700-year-old castle with his three siblings, the eldest of whom has brain damage as a result of a succession of severe epileptic fits.

For the young Fiennes, the 14th-century ancestral castle — with its moat, gatehouse tower, Great Hall, medieval chapel, leathery library, the music room of the title, portraits, sets of armour, rumours of ghosts and a vast estate — is the norm, as are the seizures, and subsequent moodswings, aggression and physical violence of his older brother, Richard.

While by the age of 15 the restless adolescent has begun to tire of “our moated world”, he nevertheless values his upbringing there. When he opts, after school, to take an adventurous gap, he spends time consciously absorbing the ambience of the place, wanting “to make it part of me … to carry it with me •…”

The memoir consists of recollections of life in and around the castle — exploring the numerous rooms, acknowledging the private and public domains of the building, interacting with the servants, coping with invasions of film crews (Joseph Andrews and The Scarlet Pimpernel appear to have been filmed at this venue), observing musicians, tour groups, angling clubs (the moat is replete with fish), play productions and fairs.

It consists too of accounts of Richard’s seizures, of his visits home from the epileptic centre where he is institutionalised, of his endearing idiosyncrasies, unpredictable aggression and bewildered remorse.

Further, the author includes items of research which he has pursued regarding epilepsy and the identification of behavioural aberrations connected with frontal lobe atrophy.

The music room is a sanctuary in the castle where Fiennes’ mother practises the viola, where the metronome is capable of dictating time, where Richard, however deluded, might dress himself up and give a performance.

Fiennes’ childhood has the potential for the idyllic. But castles are anachronisms in the modern world — their maintenance calls for entrepreneurial inventiveness and their inhabitants are not exempt from the realities of human suffering.

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