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The interiors life: how writers use decor to draw fictional characters

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What says more about us than our homes and how we feel about them? Do you hang your clothes up on the floor? Do you fling open the fridge, not from hunger but in search of fresh ideas? Perhaps you secretly thrill to lights left on as a bullish affront to your impecunious youth. Or are you the one who proudly switches them off and fell in the dark that time and broke your arm?

Like Oscar Wilde you find it increasingly hard to live up to your blue china, of course you do. You admit your love of grey and green is an homage to Babar. You seem to have acquired a picture recently, to impress someone who died 11 years ago. And that chair you never sit in because it’s too good for you . . . does it just need to meet the right person? “You know how some people put a chair or a table in a corner where it looks nice but nobody in the world is ever going to go over to it, let alone sit down there? Violet didn’t do that,” wrote Toni Morrison in Jazz. OUCH.

Perhaps your home torments you like a withholding parent in a novel by Henry James. There may be awful parts that disgrace you. That half-empty hummus pot, with teeth marks, in the fruit bowl . . . You hang your head when the heavens open, cursing the spiteful rain because the roof will leak and where’s the money for repairs? You remember the disdain with which your grandmother scolded you for sitting down to peel potatoes when you were nine and recollect that you’ve hardly sat down since. And when you gaze upon your poor old skirting, cracked and split, do you shudder as you see the thousands of flaws you possess yourself reflected?

All homes are haunted. They are haunted by our childhoods when our first ideas of home were formed, by the ghosts of our parents and their inclinations, values and dislikes, their generous impulses as well as their occasional sharp practice. (Did your mother sometimes smash plates in desperation? Did your father really drop someone because he used the word “mishmash”?)

Our homes may be shadowed by the things we’re en route to, or escaping from, murky with the parallel lives we might have led had things gone better or not worked out so well. Think of the muted interiors, mansion flats in the main, where the heroines of Anita Brookner try to gain mastery over their ruinous feelings. A friend routinely teases her daughters about her other family down the road, the three little boys in descending sizes who think the world of her and are chatty and appreciative. The daughters roll their eyes and frown, but they’ve raised their game.

© Helen Marcus/Contact Press Images

At certain points in life — teenage especially — home may be the enemy, holding us back, repelling us and reeling us in maddeningly. That’s not what was promised in Goodnight Moon. It almost seems to go against our grain. The sudden crashing sentimentality of the felt tip height marks! Home can also be a safe place to be our worst selves, absorbing iterations of our personalities wholly unrecognisable to those who know only our public side.

Also, what makes people leave?

None of this, of course, is lost on novelists. I’m often struck by the way writers use interior details to furnish us with insights into their characters.

I’m always looking for new ideas myself in this regard. When building and decorating dwellings for the people in the books I write, I often think of home in terms of compensation for the indignities of childhood. What in the characters’ current set of circumstances are they trying to improve, correct or cancel out from their past? Both pride and shame have always been great drivers of taste. (It pleases me that in his Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It, Shakespeare declares “taste” the last thing to go.)

‘Interior II’, 1964, by Richard Hamilton
‘Interior II’, 1964, by Richard Hamilton © Tate Images © R Hamilton. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022

In my latest novel, Loved and Missed, there are two women, both English teachers, one well-off, one poor, both struggling. One likes the heating cranked up to the highest setting, leaving her guests’ skin parched, stretched taut round the hairline, dry of eye, chapped of lip. But she was freezing for her entire childhood and she is NOT going to be cold now. Heat is life. Heat is love. Her flat is furnished like a prosperous retirement home, treats factored into the day according to the clock: morning coffee ceremonies, teatime Swiss rolls with near-fluorescent synthetic cream, gin and tonic routines as early as is decent. She likes those lap trays with little cushions on their undersides which are sometimes on sale in department stores.

The other woman, her colleague, is more floor-boardish by nature, constitutionally frugal — from a point of view of style as well as means. A little apricot jam in a teacup is her idea of a spree. In winter, she sleeps in her tights to save on bills. “How could you?!” her radiator-mad friend exclaims. Both are convalescing from disappointment, desperate for a bit of human warmth, employing trial and error in their attempts to achieve it.

My English teacher, Mrs Richards, made much of the modest accoutrements of the bedsit in Larkin’s poem “Mr Bleaney”: “Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb” — the leanest of companions, an eight-syllable home kit of the most basic sort. “But what if Bleaney had been perfectly happy in this setting?” she said. What if he didn’t lie on said bed, bemoaning the fact “that how we live measures our own nature”, as the narrator does. There’s a kind of innocence to these items — they don’t have pretensions. It’s all very honest. There’s dignity there. Perhaps the narrator of the poem is most appalled that Mr Bleaney appears to have been content in his setting. What a betrayal!

© Camera Press/Rogers/RBO

Compare Bleaney’s bleak furnishings with Lionel Croy’s more undermining, morale-threatening rooms in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, as seen through his daughter’s eyes. While she waits for her father, Kate moves “from the shabby sofa to the armchair upholstered in a glazed cloth that gave at once — she had tried it — the sense of the slippery and of the sticky. She had looked at the sallow prints on the walls and at the lonely magazine, a year old, that combined, with a small lamp in coloured glass and a knitted white centrepiece wanting in freshness . . . ”

Everything about this room is compromising, and so it is with Lionel Croy. This is a father built from pretext, prevarication and deceit. Soon James confirms it: “there was never a mistake for you that he could leave unmade”. That “unmade” — an adjective almost always pertaining to beds — brilliantly suggests that the disappointments afforded by this man are performed with the deliberate regularity of domestic chores. It’s probably my favourite first chapter of any book.

Sometimes characters in novels are so entirely shaped by their homes that the rooms and routines that have formed them have become absorbed into their bodies, the interior world and the world of interiors dovetailing nicely. They carry the grand ceiling heights or the horror of the unwanted visitor with them, wherever they go.

In The Confusions of Young Törless, Robert Musil’s astonishing first novel, a young prince arrives at the Austro-Hungarian military school so thoroughly representing his background that the “aura of devotional practices and the silence of an old aristocratic castle seemed somehow to linger around the prince . . . walking erect through a suite of empty halls, where anyone else would seem to bump into unseen corners”.

© Design Pics Inc/Shutterstock

In Mother’s Milk, the greatest of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, this sense of home and body as one takes on a more surreal edge. After sending off his gravely ill mother’s application to become a member of Dignitas, Patrick “stubbornly refused to get involved with his emotions, letting panic and elation and solemnity lean on the doorbell while he only glanced at them from behind closed curtains, pretending not to be at home”.

Of course, love as well as panic can be woven into soft furnishings.

Recently, the curtains in Monica Ali’s novel Love Marriage stopped me in my . . . tracks: “Ma made them when Yasmin was about ten years old. Blue with sprigs of jasmine, the state flower of West Bengal. The curtains were too short when she hung them first so she’d let down the hem like a pair of overgrown trousers, and every moonlit night the light shone through the pinpricks.”

The jasmine-patterned material for the curtains in Yasmin’s room, combined with the mistake in the sizing, the simple solution, the charming sense of the window having grown, like another child, and then the lovely light turning what might have been a disaster into something magical, makes this window treatment itself feel like a lullaby.

I love scenes of hoarding in a novel — clutter is such fertile ground for secrets — and Yasmin’s house in Love Marriage is impressive in this respect as “stuff grew like mushrooms in a damp dark wood”. I often think of the mother in Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, filling the “crannies of her life with a ballast of wayward objects”. Her clutter is distinguished and theatrical: “Two decades of news­papers, yellow as shrouds . . . chair-springs, boot-lasts, sheets of broken glass, corset-bones, picture frames, fire dogs, top hats, chess-men, feathers, and statues without heads . . . ”.

© Steven May/Alamy

I also collect good fictional storage. Anne’s cupboards in Candia McWilliam’s distinguished first novel A Case of Knives stray beyond glamour into the carpentry sublime: “tall lozenges of space, obscure and cool”, affording “the absolute control of passion by ritual”. Anne Tyler is skilled at the placing of things to indicate grave states of mind. A widower in Tyler’s Ladder of Years steadies himself by drawing a map of the contents of his home. The section pertaining to the coffee table heartbreakingly reads, “Large paperweight, small paperweight, magazines.” Yet this order is skin-deep, for in his cupboards “pans with scorched bottoms” and “dish towels with big charred holes” are stashed.

Clutter’s modish nemesis — the grand clear-out or rationalisation scene — can also bring delight on the page. The best recent example of this occurs in Gwendoline Riley’s excellently tart novel My Phantoms. A daughter sets about dismantling her mother’s lifework:

“It was attention; being fussed over . . . It would cheer me up too. I’d grown up surrounded by shit, and I always enjoyed getting rid of it . . . We quickly established that though she could try to make a case for items I’d condemned, I wasn’t going to have it, and that was all part of the fun! . . . Here, for example were four tatty black handbags . . . that crate of magazines and tangled tights . . . rationalise your tote bags . . . we can keep the ones that are a useful size, and the ones that are conversation starters . . . cough medicine . . . dried out old mister men plasters . . . yellowish tincture I used to paint on the warts around my fingernails”.

Clutter is unfashionable just now, but at a recent memorial service I was heartened to hear of a woman who kept a box labelled “Pieces of string too short for use”. An acute interior detail of that calibre can be mesmerising on or off the page, changing in an instant how you view a character. When Anita Brookner — shockingly — refers to a young woman despairing at the “brutal” smell coming from the bathroom after a man has used it, you know she isn’t well equipped for life. When the hero of Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan remarks, with hazy romantic fantasy, that apparently there are homes in England where “people read books to their children and baked cakes for them”, you know in one sentence the vast amount of other things he has missed.

And who can forget the campest line in Henry James — and there’s some competition — when Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady says of her awful husband Gilbert Osmond, “He has a genius for upholstery”?

We know for certain that it’s curtains for the marriage then.

Susie Boyt’s latest novel “Loved and Missed” is out now in paperback (Virago). She will speak at the FTWeekend Festival in London on September 3

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