Monday, September 20, 2010

Henry James Takes On House Beautiful

It's a time-worn cliché: "The more things change, the more things stay the same."

But could you ever envision that novelist Henry James' description of a 19th century English house would be so perfectly realized in a 2010 Manhattan apartment featured in House Beautiful?

Read the following extracts from "A London Life", written in 1887, and see for yourself how uncannily designer Daniel Sach's project for a New York townhouse matches the details of James' novella:

"Lady Davenant was in the drawing-room, in a low chair by one of the windows, reading the second volume of a novel." [I mean, come on. The book is even there!]
(House Beautiful, October 2010.
Interiors by Daniel Sachs. Photos by Ngog Minh Ngo.)

"The room had its bright, durable, sociable air, the air that Laura Wing liked in so many English things - its chintzes...its well-worn carpets, its domestic art - that of being meant for daily life, for long periods, for uses of high decency." [Do we need any more proof that the aesthetic sensibility of a comfortable room transcends time? Umm, no. Case closed.]
(Living room)

"The afternoon had faded but the lamps had been brought in, the smell of flowers was in the air and the old house of Plash seemed to recognize the hour that suited it best." [These dark-painted walls perfectly illustrate the seductive allure of a room at dusk.]

"There were quaint old maps on the wall...
(Children's bedroom)

...and 'collections' -- birds and shells....The place was a setting for rosy childhood." [Even today, exotic, far-off places and stockpiles of "stuff" remain the classic recipe for a kid's bedroom.]
(Children's bedroom)

"That was the story told by ever so many other things in the house which betrayed the full perception of a comfortable, liberal, deeply domestic effect." [The personal touches, below, so indicative of the soul of the owner, add the necessary layers of meaning and warmth which make a house a home.]

* * * * *
So here's the question:

If you had to pick a book whose interiors best fit your own home, what would it be? Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" with its stripped-down midcentury sensuality? Or perhaps the eccentric, cheerful chaos of Dodie Smith's "I Capture The Castle"? Or the simple, spiritual comforts of Thoreau's "On Walden Pond"?

Talk to me.


Chedva @Rooms and Words said...

I love your associations! As for your question- I'd have to think about it more. Right now my apartment is pretty much a bare cube, but over time I'd like it to evoke the same emotions/memories as the Martch's home in Little Women did.

DM said...

This is a wonderful question, and although I'm not sure if this is the right answer for me, the first thing to pop into my little brain was Charles and Camilla's book-filled apartment in 'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt. I remember reading it and subconciously imagining the two of them living in my place!

pve design said...

My book would have to be "The Alchemist" - my house has everything to do with following my dream.

Anonymous said...

This is a most interesting question that you have posed here, and you have cleverly matched the James' quotations with the rooms featured in House Beautiful.Although, I cannot help but think that the C19 house portrayed by James would have been rather more 'shabby' than the chic one shown here. For my own part, my rooms may well be described by Henry James from 'The Spoils of Poynton'.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Belly: What a lovely image that home from "Little Women" brings up! xx

Daniel-Halifax: That sounds perfect, too.

PVE: From what I can tell of your blog and your life, your house has definitely achieved that!

Edith Hope: Yes, you have a good point about the shabbiness...but the importance of comfort and beauty shines through in the HB one, don't you think? Haven't read "The Spoils of Poynton" I HAVE to. xx

Kate @ Savour Fare said...

I can't pinpoint the passage, but I clearly live in the west coast version of a Laurie Colwin novel (or short story), probably "Happy All the Time", and while I would like to live in Guido and Holly's beautiful and well-ordered life, I suspect I'm more of a Misty, who lived in a "nice, breezy apartment, filled casually with books and records and plants she watered only when they were ready to expire ..." (That's actually from the short story that became Happy All the Time

Anonymous said...

What a fun game to play! I really have two answers to your question.
One is the living room in Out of Africa, the old chinitz couches,threadbare rugs and her desk. The other is two rooms from Taylor Caldwell's book Answer as a Man, one is a small farmhouse livingrm, lit by a fire and filled with books, another a townhome decorated with small antique tables, crystal glass and real silver.

bye Teresa

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I actually thought of you when I saw this layout in HB. It reminded me of photographs you've posted of your own home.

As for me, Bilbo Baggins house is pretty close, but I've always thought this description fairly apt as well... although I do have central heating....

" quiet that, over the murmur of voices, the slow tocking of the grandfather clock was clearly audible. The floor of the hallway was flagged in slate and laid with rugs, and an airy circular staircase rose from this, curving up beneath a Gothic window, curtained in wheaten linen. There was as well a fascinating smell compounded of age, antique furniture polish, and flowers, with a faint undertone of damp stone and cold cellars. No central heating here, just a bright fire burning in the grate, and a square of sunshine slanting across the floor from the opened door."

I have always loved that description from Coming Home, an old book by Rosamunde Pilcher.

Miss Whistle said...

How extraordinarily clever you are to make these connections. It's a talent not unlike those who can hear another song in one song's chord structure. I'm a little obsessed with this lovely house & I'm off to find House Beautiful.

Such a beautiful post. And sorry, I didn't really answer the question.


Miss W

froogal said...

I have not read A London Life but I will have to put it on my list because I had just finished pouring over this very spread in House Beautiful before logging on and reading your post, all the time thinking this room feels like home to me.

PJ said...

Lisa, I'm pretty sure I had no business spending half next month's rent on a Persian rug no bigger than my doormat, but I just happened to drive by Rugs and Art this afternoon. What could I do? Wally and Sam are so nice and their rugs are so beautiful. They even served me tea in a proper cup and saucer while I ooh-ed and aah-ed and deliberated. Thanks to you and your lovely blog for introducing me to their shop!

P.S. "I Capture the Castle", definitely.

Michelle said...

What a wonderful question.
The interiors of Edith Wharton are always delightful. I feel a certain kinship with her, especially since we share the same birthday. "Lily sank with a sigh into one of the shabby leather chairs." Who doesn't appreciate a shabby leather chair?

The writings of Elizabeth Von Arnim often capture my way of life and sometimes I want to live as simply as she did in "Elizabeth and her German Garden" "... on salad and bread and tea."

And sometimes I putter about my library as she did in "Solitary Summer."

"In the centre of my library there is a wooden pillar propping up the ceiling, and preventing it, so I am told, from tumbling about our ears; and round this pillar, from floor to ceiling, I have had shelves fixed, and on these shelves are all the books that I have read again and again, and hope to read many times more--all the books, that is, that I love quite the best. In the bookcases round the walls are many that I love, but here in the centre of the room, and easiest to get at, are those I love the best--the very elect among my favourites. They change from time to time as I get older, and with years some that are in the bookcases come here, and some that are here go into the bookcases, and some again are removed altogether, and are placed on certain shelves in the drawing-room which are reserved for those that have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and from whence they seldom, if ever, return."

Hausfrau said...

I'd say I have an "I Capture the Castle" look going on here...

Anonymous said...

Good post.

On a completely unrelated note, I think you might enjoy this flickr set. Lou takes a photo of her breakfast every morning and they're the always the most inspiring pictures.

Anonymous said...

Sorry. This flickr set.

The Ancient said...

I am torn between the Divers' villa in Tender is the Night and Tom Ripley's Belle Ombre.

(Depending on my general disposition and taste for company.)

home before dark said...

What a lovely and thought-provoking ramble. I have two people in my soul: one old, shabby, time and story worn. The other is my industrial side: metal and wheels gets me every time. Love passages of Wharton, James and Dinesen, using interiors to set the interior of a person. I have read some of Elizabeth Von Arnim's writings but thanks Michelle for the wonderful quote. I'm off to find "Solitary Summer" to add to my life...and my bookshelves.

A Super Dilettante said...

I fell in love with this post. The houses in James' novels are always interesting. He has an acute observation for the details.I remember reading his famous description of the house and the beauty of his writing in his novel, The Spoils of Poynton.

Vava (aka Virginia) said...

Well, at this time, I can't clear my head enough from YOUR post. Whata brilliant side-by-side comparison...that home in HB speaks to my soul. A lot.

helen tilston said...

You certainly have us pondering this one Lisa. I relate to many of the books mentioned. Rosamund Pilsher "September" comes to mind too. A home with love, treasures, history, a garden, good cooking and celebrating life.

Emily said...

I do know I love design that speaks to me, design that is a reflection of me, and I simply love the things I love with no apologies. But I have no idea what book resembles my home??? Oh you have me thinking. I love when people make me "think" which is why I love reading your blog! I adore you Lisa!

Rosaria Williams said...

Right now, on this coast, more like Thoreau's On Walden Pond. Delightful post!

Michelle said...

Oh wow, I really loved this home. I bought some indian textile stamps to re-create some fabrics like these, but have not used them yet. These images make me want to get started!

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Kate@Savor Fare: Oh, I love Laurie Colwin. I think I have a book downstairs with "Happy all the Time" in it. Must reread asap! And I love the Misty quote -- I'm like that with my plants too. Poor things. :(

Pamela Terry and Edward: LOVE Bilbo Baggins' house -- it's been imprinted in my brain since 7th grade. My obsession with rough slate floors for mud rooms and foyers dates from this time. Thanks for posting the excerpt!!

Miss Whistle: Having you here is reward enough. xx

froogal: Love that you love the HB house too. It's funny, I was on another blog the other day (a super snarky one, won't go back) and everyone tore it apart with their bitchy comments. The only thing I can think of is that pattern scares some people!

PJ: OMG! I love that you went there! So happy you had a good experience and liked it! I would LOVE to see your rug -- can you email me a photo? I'm sure it's gorgeous. xxx

Michelle: "The phrase Who doesn't appreciate a shabby leather chair" should be used as a litmus test to determine kinship with others. Brilliant!

Want to read "Elizabeth and her Garden." Haven't. Wonder if it's on Amazon?

And love the "Solitary SUmmer" quote about how to organize bookcases. So beautiful and poetic and frankly, helpful! xx

Hausfrau: I'm SOOO with you! The house we rent in Scotland has some of those crazy, eccentric "I Capture the Castle" qualities.

Anonymous: I'll check it out. Sounds quite intriguing. Thank you!

The Ancient: Oh, yes, the Divers' villa (based on VIlla America, no?) The way F. Scott writes about it makes me tingle. Genius of you to mention it. One of my all-time favorites. Tom Ripley's Belle Ombre? I have the Ripley novels downstairs, but have only read the first one. Will have to delve into them for a Belle Ombre description. Great suggestion. xx

home before dark: You have succinctly expressed the soul of this piece, that our interiors reflect each of us.

YOU GUYS ARE ON A ROLL... I love it...and am taking notes!

A SUper Dilettante: Again with "The Spoils of Poynton"! I must read it!! xxx

Helen Tilston: A friend of mine just recommended Pilcher to me the other day. "A home with love, treasures, history, a garden, good cooking and celebrating life" sounds right up this blog's alley. Thank you! xx

VaVa: That's because you and I are much the same, don't you think? xx

Emily: I adore you, too, and all of your wonderful comments. Something will come to you (a description that speaks to your home now, or one you wish to have someday) and when it does, let us all know! xx

lakeviewer: Walden's pond: Meditative. Profound. Pastoral. What's not to love? Lucky you!

Michelle: Get started. It will be fabulous, I know. xx

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Whoops...forgot to respond to the first Anonymous...
Yes, that interior in "Out of Africa" is one to drool over.

"The other is two rooms from Taylor Caldwell's book Answer as a Man, one is a small farmhouse livingrm, lit by a fire and filled with books, another a townhome decorated with small antique tables, crystal glass and real silver" .... I don't know of this book, but I love your descriptions! xx

Vava (aka Virginia) said...

To commenter "Helen" - "September" is one of my heart-books! I've mentioned it many a time...Yes, I could move right in!

North of 25A said...

This is a wonderful post! I know this may sound silly, and I don't mean to trivialize the discussion, but I could not help but think how wonderful it would be to go to school at Hogwarts with Harry Potter!

Rina said...

The house I always wanted to live in was that of the young Gerald Durrell and his family on the island of Corfu especially the strawberry pink villa with green shutters. The house with its assortment of animals and eccentric guests, the setting, Larry's books and Mother's garden and her cooking. Could do without Leslie's guns though!
And I loved this Manhattan apartment- in fact I bought the issue because of the cover and immediately subscribed to the magazine.

24 Corners said...

"Scant indeed many will say, yet it was not a scantness that made itself felt"...

What Charlotte Bronte's very dear friend Ellen Nussey said after her first visit to Haworth Parsonage, Charlotte's home.

Our home at the moment is furnitureless, window treatment-less and very bare...yet those who visit, don't seem to feel it's "scantness"...either that or there just being polite! ;)

Bravo Lisa, for this brilliantly inspired post! xo J~

Nick Heywood said...

Madame Olenska's crumby but enchanting apartment in "The Age of Innoncence" ...

"It was certainly a strange quarter to have settled in. Small dress-makers, bird-stuffers and 'people who wrote' were her nearest neighbours ...What he saw, meanwhile, with the help of the lamp, was the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any room he had known. He knew that the Countess Olenska had brought some of her possessions with her—bits of wreckage, she called them—and these, he supposed, were represented by some small slender tables of dark wood, a delicate little Greek bronze on the chimney-piece, and a stretch of red damask nailed on the discoloured wallpaper behind a couple of Italian-looking pictures in old frames... The atmosphere of the room was so different from any he had ever breathed that self-consciousness vanished in the sense of adventure. He had been before in drawing-rooms hung with red damask, with pictures 'of the Italian school'; what struck him was the way in which Medora Manson’s shabby hired house, with its blighted background of pampas grass and Rogers statuettes, had, by a turn of the hand, and the skilful use of a few properties, been transformed into something intimate, 'foreign,' subtly suggestive of old romantic scenes and sentiments. He tried to analyse the trick, to find a clue to it in the way the chairs and tables were grouped, in the fact that only two Jacqueminot roses (of which nobody ever bought less than a dozen) had been placed in the slender vase at his elbow, and in the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses."

Or at least I like to pretend that that is the closest description.

Susan's Snippets said...

Lisa -

I miss knowing about you and yours! Home today so I was able to pop over and I have no answer for your question, just that I want to be able to write like Henry James some day soon!!

reading him throws me over the moon

Prad Savania said...

Hi! How’s it going? Great post! Love the indian art in the lovely frame!

Love Heels?

I think you will definitely enjoy viewing my shoe designing blog! All my designs are hand-drawn also! I hope my illustrations will help me get a step into the design industry! Let me know your opinion! Take care x

Alcira Molina-Ali said...

This is a stunning post. So a-propos. Lovely.

Elise Lowerison said...

I came across your post this afternoon while browsing interior design blogs and the topic of window treatment selection was very interesting to me. What window treatments would suit this home as well as the theme of the novel? It is true that you must dress your windows appropriately to bring out their true beauty. Thank you for writing and as a special thanks to you and your readers, I would like to offer a 20% off coupon using this code upon checkout: BLG20.

cotedetexas said...

well, I can't play the book game, but I have to say I was bowled over by Sach's interiors. seriously inspired, weak in the knees, weepy eyed. then, i was so shocked to read on other blogs how many people detested it. hated it. the worst they've ever seen. i wonder why it hits people hard one way or the other?

Unknown said...

This house has captured my style, perhaps fill in some corners with Virginia Woolf's home and Goethe's garden house. That makes me happy... and your post!!!
Read during the summer Alan Bradley's "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie"
and the description of the old, a little derelict and charmingly shabby country house fit in too!

What a clever way of bringing James and the BH home together! Thank you!

Anonymous said...


Your provocative question and the answers your readers have posted point out just how fickle I am! "Oh, yes," I think, as I read each post, "that is where I would like to live." Sadly, that is the story of my homemaking.

When I read "We Made a Garden" I wanted to live in Margery and Walter Fish's house-and having their marriage wouldn't be bad either! I set out to acquire antique gardening tools and comfortable chairs upholstered in green velvet.

I can remember reading "The Portrait of Dorian Grey" and saying to myself. "That is exactly the kind of room that Whistler would have designed. That is where I want to live." I pursued a grey and yellow color scheme accented with an intense purple or two in accents. Orchids, pillows, contemporary glass.

And then I discovered Beverley Nichols and I wanted live live in every house (and garden) he ever renovated. Cottage, city flat, manor house. Miles of chintz and little collections of what I can only describe as "stuff". (A pack of tiny doxies matched by a choir of angels...I do not love doxies and have no special affinity for angels. I just had more than one when I moved into that phase. What was I thinking? Like most everybody else, I had plenty of 'stuff' without adding additional little things that do absolutely nothing but suck up dust.)

Now you might think from this litany that I am a hopeless Anglophile, but apparently I am just suggestible. Recently every book by Joanne Harris has the same effect on me. Only now I want to actually live the life of the characters-cooking, walking the streets, even conversing as they do. Which probably means I should stay away from the Ripley novels for a while!

Thanks for making me dig through my memories-SD

Acanthus and Acorn said...

This is a tough one, because so many interior bits and pieces have been stored in my mind for years from books that I've read.

For starters, I truly wished I live in an old house. With lots as it books, interesting collections, a few pieces of pleasurable art and a comfortable chair next to a would be perfect!

Rebecca Rose Cepeda said...

I loved your post and the thought-provoking question you raised. Isn’t it amazing how life and the memorable vignettes that accompany it will weave its way into books and then back out again into life--even 100 years later, or more? (and then to be woven back into books again--and inspiring blogs!)

For the last couple of weeks I have been pursuing a similar idea in trying to find a passage from Elspeth Huxley that I particularly loved when I read it. She writes of her family and the other British settlers in colonial Africa, and how they traveled (amazingly) with so many beloved personal items packed in wicker hampers, that, when ‘uncorked’, brought out the scents and familiar sights of homely comforts that made their tent or house a bit of beloved England...books and journals, shawls and linen napkins, teacups and tea things, photographs, journals…I loved it because it so aptly described a way of life and thinking that had less to do with the materiality of possessions but everything to do with what they represent--those rich inner processes and well furnished rooms of the mind that nourish us wherever we are, whether one is on safari in Africa or at home in America in a tiny apartment.

I think it is in ‘Noonday Sun’, and not ‘Flame Trees of Thika’….but haven’t been able to find it yet in either. Does anyone remember what I’m trying to reference?

And thank you, Lisa, for the reference to ‘A London Life’...I immediately found my own habitation in these words:
‘The room had its bright, durable, sociable air, the air that Laura Wing liked in so many English things – that of being meant for daily life...with its chintzes and its British poets, its well-worn carpets and domestic art…’

And for a brief look out my window, I love this description from Miss Read’s ‘Tyler’s Row’… ‘poppies, cornflowers, marigolds and nasturtiums growing higgledy-piggledy near the back door…’

Susan E. Harris-Gamard said...

I just discovered your blog and am thankful. Your post really goes right to the heart of how I go about approaching interiors. I am a writer and student of English literature, as well as an aspiring decorator, so thinking of a home in this way is perfectly natural to me. Wow! to find a novel that suits my own abode...tough one. Right now, my humble abode could be compared to Barton cottage in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Modest in size, cozy, time-worn, slightly awkward, but well-lived, my home is perfect for me and my growing family, right now. Someday, I would love it to be more like Howard's End in the book by the same name by E.M. Forster. I feel a home should be a place of memories and warm feelings of all the people that have lived there. Also, I would love to have some "grounds" to speak of. Someday...

Martin said...

I think I'd have to pick a Mark Twain book to fit the interiors of my Buenos Aires rent house


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