Diana K Holmes
Hearts and Houses
One of my favourite things about dual timeline books is the house. Specifically, it’s that delicious shiver you get down your spine when you’ve been introduced to the house in its heyday and then the years have rolled forward and you see it as it is now—sad, abandoned, and full of mystery. In other words, a character in its own right. You can read about Paige’s first glimpse of Wharerata in The Modern Girl here.
Of course when I say ‘house’, I mean ‘manor house’. Not that they’re called manor houses in New Zealand. A grand old house of the nineteenth century would more likely be called a homestead here. But that doesn’t convey its grandeur, and the vision and optimism of its wealthy builders, newly arrived in New Zealand and intent on creating a little slice of England in the very different landscape of New Zealand.
My first thought was to set my dual timeline novel in England. But one particular detail clinched the New Zealand setting. My imagination was piqued by a Victorian matriarch who used to send her rugs all the way from New Zealand to England to be cleaned—a round trip of eight months. Different times indeed! I then imagined that kind of mindset clashing with the ‘modern’ era of the 1920s and 30s, and I had the basis for the tensions which existed in Frances Stewart’s family.
In 1931 when we first meet Frances, Wharerata is a beautiful house, packed with treasures from trips all around the world, family heirlooms from England, hunting trophies and family portraits. It was everything a home should be to Frances’s parents, but it felt stifling to Frances, our ‘modern girl’ who looked to the future. Some of the inspiration for Wharerata came from the grand house of Brancepeth, a house near Masterton (Mannington in The Modern Girl) and Pah Homestead in Auckland. Combine them both together and you have Wharerata, or Home of the Red Beard.
In my novel I’ve focussed on how Paige feels when uncovering Wharerata’s treasures. She’s searching not only for a physical home, but also an emotional one, and is filled with nostalgia. The word nostalgia comes from the Greek ‘nostos’ meaning homecoming and ‘algos’ meaning ache. Nostalgia bypasses the thinking parts of our brain and gives the emotional part a direct hit. And that hit is intensified for us when we see a part of the house, or an object within it, connect my two heroines across a span of nearly 90 years. In the following excerpt the ‘connector’ is the stained glass window.
“She paused on the landing and looked through the stained glass windows at the circular drive below with its central spread of manicured grass in the midst of which was a stone fountain, its single plume of water catching the starlight.”
“I could see only part of the ivy-clad frontage, at the centre of which a stained glass window caught and dispersed a beam of sunlight, momentarily dazzling me.”
And here, it’s the palms in the conservatory.
“‘There’s a rare palm over here.’
She walked passed the bronze crane, purchased by her parents on their honeymoon in Japan. She glanced at him and smiled and continued walking toward the centre of the conservatory, toward the sound of water trickling, hoping he’d follow. He did.
‘Here,’ she fingered the small delicate furled palm fronds which had yet to unravel. ‘It looks a little stunted now, but mother says, one day, it will reach all the way to the roof.’”
“I continued walking past garden curios—unusual objects no doubt collected on overseas travels—toward a stone fountain, now empty. It was at the centre of the large conservatory and I turned on one spot, marvelling at the towering palms which folded down from the ceiling forced back onto themselves, creating a green canopy, deepened by the film of green which covered the glass roof. It was eerie, ethereal, almost sending me off-balance.”
The house is where the two worlds of Frances and Paige meet and find a connection. And that gives me such a thrill.
So houses for me are a potent vehicle for nostalgia. And it’s that sense of nostalgia—for a time, a place, an emotional home—which is a recurrent theme in my writing. I guess the reason isn’t hard to fathom. At the age of 22 I moved from England to New Zealand and, while I love living in New Zealand, a part of my heart will always be in the country of my birth, with the family I left behind and whose lives I missed out on. Most people say that it’s impossible to return home. But, luckily, that’s what we have fiction for. And, in my books, you can.