The Music Room—William Fiennes

[I decided to read this 2009 memoir in three parts (3 and 4 together), and I wrote about each one before reading on.]

25 January 2019
Part 1…
…which is mainly Fiennes writing about different strands of his privileged childhood. The word ‘privilege’ never appears, not because Fiennes is unaware of how lucky he was, but because he wants to focus on what he considers the interesting parts. That’s the way it usually is with upper-class people. The moated castle, ancient and well-appointed enough for it to be open to the public during the season, seems to be the thread that takes up more of the word-count than any other…. But Fiennes does that thing in which, by focusing on how the child takes it all for granted—‘I didn’t question the world as I found it’—he can present the chore of going to get a Christmas tree with his father and brother as somehow normal and unremarkable, even though it actually means choosing the best one from one of their private woods before laying into its substantial girth with a bow-saw.

There are other threads… but only one of them doesn’t directly relate to the fact that they live in a stunning place and are well-off. (Yes, I know they need the visitors help pay for the running costs. It doesn’t stop them being well-off.) William’s older brother Richard, the one who was given the responsibility of sawing down the most suitable of the Norwegian spruces for Christmas, is severely epileptic. Like everything else, the five-year-old William takes this fact entirely for granted. They have a moat he can row in and fish for pike, his other brother and his twin sister go away to school, there are suits of armour in the corridors, and his brother has severe seizures several times a month. One of these is so bad it causes permanent brain damage and, for most of this section, we know Richard to be semi-institutionalised. He is often able to come home for long visits, and when he does his behaviour is like that of somebody on the autism spectrum. He can be obsessive—Leeds United, who won something important when Richard was younger, seems to be the most important single thing in his life—and prone to mood-swings. He’s sixteen now, and can be very threatening at times.

And? And we can be pretty sure that this is what Fiennes would like us to think this memoir is really about. He laces his book with short chapters on the history of the scientific study of electricity in the working of the body, and the first time he mentions Galvani and his frogs we can already guess why the chapter is there. By the end of Part 1 there’s been a lot of information about electrical activity in the brain too, and we’ve heard about a doctor who subjected a patient to a big enough current to induce a seizure. It had been done on laboratory animals before, but here we can see it. The human brain and nervous system work by way of carefully modulated electrical impulses, and epileptic seizures can be one of the outcomes when things go wrong.

But that’s enough of that. Maybe Richard and his epilepsy will become the driver of Parts 2 and 3, but in Part 1 it isn’t yet. The adult Fiennes looks back on his childhood self and describes the extraordinary pleasures of his life in what, for him, was one giant playground. And he, the adult Fiennes, turns all his literary attention to making it sound serenely idyllic. Think of the kind of pared-down prose of a 20th Century stylist like Hemingway—then think of the opposite. That’s William Fiennes. He loves all the things that the leaders of writers’ groups often warn against, rich imagery through metaphorical language, detailed evocations of a mood or scene through the copious use of adjectives, often given a slight tweak to make us as readers think about how exactly he’s picturing it for us. For example—why don’t I just pick something at random, from a day in the young William’s life. Hang on… and I’ve found a passage (at the first attempt, I promise) in which William is taking the boat out on the moat on page 34:

‘I fetched rowlocks and splintery oars from the Old Kitchens, a warren of pitch-dark rooms that had the right subterranean clamminess and cobweb dangle to pass for dungeons.’

That’ll do. Of course the Old Kitchens—don’t you love those capitals?—are a warren, what else would they be? They’re pitch-dark, subterranean… and Fiennes realises he needs to raise his game a little, because those adjectives are pretty standard. OK, an inversion—not a dangle of cobwebs but a ‘cobweb dangle.’ Fine. But, as so often, Fiennes relies for his effect on referencing old imagery. In the run-up to Halloween you can buy dangling cobwebs as a spray in supermarkets, not that Fiennes would know that. The servants would do all that, the Mrs this and the Mrs that. I’m astonished some editor didn’t let him know that in the 21st Century, even in the context of cosy childhood memories, you don’t write about the servant classes as if they’re charming accessories with their funny ways. You just don’t.

And those Old Kitchens have brought me back to where I started. This is life in a National Trust magazine, with its round of landed-gentry chores—the boat has to be used to clear the algae from the moat, a huge job one summer—and 500-year-old features. The castle even has a drawbridge, which Fiennes inevitably enlists as a metaphor for the nostalgia he feels for his childish sense of security. Yes, we get it. There are some things that nothing in the world can protect you from, Et in Arcadia Ego and all that.

And I’m still only a third of the way through.

28 January
Part 2
Same. I thought Fiennes was about to move on—‘I went to boarding-school when I was eight’—but no. He’s still only on line 2 when he begins the third sentence on familiar ground—‘At home…’—and he’s back to his castle, his childhood wanderings, the pathology of brain trauma—there’s a picturesque description of a man whose brain is pierced right through by a flying bolt, with personality-changing results—and life with his brother. Next.

I guess that next, in Part 3, we’ll be taken through the increasingly difficult later years of his brother’s condition. I’ll come back to Richard, because in Part 2 he’s reached his early 20s and things have moved on. Fiennes is nothing if not methodical, and he develops each thread bit by bit. As before, instead of chapters there are sections of however many pages he needs to fit the next bit into place. He builds up more of a picture of life in the house, but not too of the servants this time, beyond a quick reprise of Mrs whoever’s habit of explaining proverbs: ‘If you’ve got lots of pairs of hands, the work doesn’t seem so bad, because you’ve got so many people doing it.’ How we laughed. What we do get are the evocations of lazy days for William, in the punt, rigging up a makeshift sail in the rowing boat, exploring the attics and trying not to believe in the threatening presences his own imagination invents.

Fiennes creates detailed pictures of this stuff, and I guess it accounts for some of the extravagant praise covering four (!) pages before the title page in my edition. (I seriously object to one of these, quoting Fiennes’s own ancestor who told his architect he wanted ‘grand simplicity, without fandangling.’ The reviewer alleges that this is ‘a good description of Fiennes’s prose.’ What? What?) He really can evoke a childhood in a highly particular place, and the oddness of having no neighbours except servants, no local children to grow up with. But it’s the details of the house, the moat, the estate that he loves. By the point we’ve reached, it’s as though we’ve been at an exhibition of Victorian watercolours, with every leaf, every detail of roof-line and stonework lovingly rendered. Don’t get me wrong, I love Victorian watercolours, but when Fiennes gets into his stride it’s as though the last 150 years have never been. It’s why, in these sections, I keep thinking National Trust giftshop. Very popular, those giftshops. I don’t go in them.

I wish Fiennes had come up with a different way of doing this. It’s a memoir about a sibling with a harrowing mental disorder, and Fiennes could have chosen to write on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of households in which a family member needs constant looking after. But Fiennes doesn’t know about them, or the fact that there is usually no respite for families living with autism, brain damage or other personality-changing condition. Richard receives professional care—by focusing on when he is home, Fiennes glosses over the fact that he is only a visitor—and I wonder about the fees. I doubt that even in the 1970s such care was free—I might be wrong—but I’m not a bit surprised that Fiennes doesn’t ever mention it. It isn’t what he’s interested in…

…which is what it was like for him, growing up. He captures the nuances of it so perfectly at one point that I marked the page—97, not quite half-way through the book.

‘I couldn’t think of Richard’s personality as a set of symptoms; I couldn’t think of his character as a manifestation of disease. That would have implied the existence of an ideal healthy Richard my brother was an imperfection of, a dream-Richard this real person couldn’t measure up against. But there wasn’t any other Richard.’

As ever, it’s completely focused on his younger self—and as ever, now I look closely at it, it’s as full of repetitive clarifications, like over-fussy details in the work of that phantom 19th-Century watercolourist. But I completely recognise what he describes—I had a sister with problems even more severe than Richard’s—and Fiennes could have made some universal observations if he had chosen to. He doesn’t choose to.

Near the end of Part 2 comes an incident that seems to mark an ominous turning-point. Fiennes has spent pages—too many pages throughout Part 2—on his brother’s euphoric moods when Leeds do well, the depressions that darken the whole house for everybody when they lose, and the aggressive little phrases he’s picked up from the home where, we realise, he must still spend most of his time. ‘Who asked for your opinion?’ ‘Some people here just don’t know when to keep their mouths shut.’ During a row near the end of Part Fiennes describes ‘a fight going on inside him: he understands what’s being said, but he can’t accept it while another, more dominant self is intent on conflict.’

It’s in the middle of this, the most aggressive row we’ve seen so far, that he notices the long bar that William has just left by the side of the door. It’s used for opening the sluice-gate, and as soon as he brings it indoors there can’t be any reader who doesn’t guess that it’s going to spell trouble. Incident by revealing little incident, Fiennes has been painstakingly tightening the wound-up spring inside Richard. He minutely describes his edgy little habits—the ‘da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da’ of his finger-tapping during one episode has Fiennes detailing every last moment of the increasing tension—and the sluice-bar incident comes at the end of a two-page confrontation. He’s picked it up and is facing his parents, wielding it above his head. ‘Without warning, he swung the bar across in front of him into one of the windows to the left of the stairs.’ Before the sound of shattering glass has ended, he’s smashed another… and then he puts it back where he found it, muttering the phrase that has become a mantra during the row. ‘I’ve never heard such trash in all my life.’

At least he didn’t hurt anybody, including himself—people often smash windows with their fists, and do themselves serious harm—but it’s a horrible sign. A page later, William sees his father ‘standing next to the house, his right arm stretched out, palm pressed flat against a buttress, his head dropped.’ When he asks what he’s doing, ‘he said he was asking the house for some of its strength.’ I find this poignant little moment just too perfect a vignette to be true, but it might be. Fiennes has constantly endowed the house with life-sustaining properties but, like that drawbridge he mentioned all those pages ago, even stonework dating back centuries isn’t really going to help now. Bring on Part 3.

But not just yet. For a few pages, we’re back to the castle in its public role. (I haven’t mentioned the film-crews who are often around, working on movies we’ve actually heard of.) This time the estate is the venue for a local fair, and the most thrilling thing there is a ‘fireman’s cage,’ raised by a hydraulic arm to a great height. It lets Fiennes end on a different note, as the brothers take their places in it: ‘The world curved beneath us. Richard had both hands on the rail as if he were standing on the top deck of a ship, a liner leaving port for open sea.’ Another perfect little vignette to end on, this time of the uncertainties ahead. Whatever else they are, you can’t ever accuse Fiennes’s metaphors of being too subtle.

31 January
Parts 3 and 4
Same again. No, really. Richard dies not far from the end, but Fiennes makes nothing of it—the book has never been about anybody’s emotions, and he isn’t going to start now. He’s never mentioned a thing about how any of them feel about living with such a damaged family member—his father’s hand-on-wall moment is the single exception—so we only get the briefest possible description of the shock of the discovery of the body. The memoir really ends when William leaves school, and he must have been 30 by the time Richard has the night seizure that stops him breathing. So it goes.

A polite term for what Fiennes is doing is ellipsis. In fact, aside from certain content that is either uncontroversial or seems to have been carefully vetted, he simply leaves everything out. The family’s way of dealing with emotions is not to admit to any at all, a pattern of behaviour that we have to work out for ourselves because, of course, nobody’s mentioning it. Including Fiennes. For me, the emotional effect on the family would have a much more interesting thread than, say, the maintenance of the moat. And yes, I get it that William’s father focuses on the estate because it’s more likely to provide some kind of useful outcome than there would be in talking about their family tragedy. But that doesn’t exonerate Fiennes himself for doing the same thing. His memoir seems to have been written within strict parameters, probably not self-imposed. Whether they are or not, he isn’t going to tread on anybody’s upper-class sensibilities. His sister and brother, the twins, have clearly let him know he’s not to mention them except in passing, and Fiennes clearly wouldn’t dream of embarrassing his parents by having them express any kind of emotion. All that’s left for him to write about are Richard’s deteriorating condition, the pathology of epilepsy and their charming stately home with its algae and merry servant class. It isn’t enough.

But as in Part 2, I marked a page that struck a chord. William, now in his teens, reads a report from the residential centre. ‘Richard cannot help his behaviour problems as they are illness-related rather than person-related.’ Fiennes goes on to summarise, over maybe half a page, the idea that with his brother ‘you had somehow to suspend your instinct to hold people accountable for their behaviour.’ There are no surprises here. But I think it’s a sign of Fiennes’s limitations as a writer that, 170 pages into the book, he tells us about the little epiphany as though, fresh and new to him at the time, it will seem like that to us now. It doesn’t work like that. It’s true enough but, umm, doesn’t Fiennes realise that we might have thought of it already?

Maybe Fiennes’s limitations as a writer are at the root of my irritation with this book. Some of it, in 21st Century England, is also to do with who has possession of the culture. Like literally hundreds of thousands of other people, this upper-class boy had a sibling whose personality-changing disorder grievously affected the life of his family. I can only imagine that given the most privileged conceivable education—Eton and Oxford, not that he mentions either—he was encouraged to work up his tiny spark of creativity into the painstaking competence on show here. But it means that he writes about what must have been a shattering experience in a way that is almost completely uninvolving, using a kind of painting-by-numbers technique. He doesn’t layer the different aspects of his narrative in order to create some kind of rounded picture. Instead, he lays them flatly, side-by side.

You know what I’m talking about. As an example of it, at the beginning of Part 3…. William chats with the servants and, as you might expect of such people, one tells a charmingly pointless anecdote (3 pages); Richard begins to get into some quite serious trouble at the residential centre (3 pages); William, now aged fourteen, is becoming restless within the castle confines, and explores more widely both inside and out (a metaphor of puberty, I guess, because sex is one of the book’s many taboo subjects, 4 pages); Richard is expelled, and his behaviour at home is erratic (4 pages); the first medical definition of epilepsy in 1870 is described (3 pages). And so on. The sections don’t particularly relate to one another so there’s no density of effect. It’s thin stuff.

Enough? Yes. Somebody asked me how I felt about the book when I was halfway through it, and I said it was like class war. I haven’t changed my mind—but it isn’t the existence of a book like this that annoys me, it’s the approval that gets heaped on it. The culture loves it, not because it shows a member of the elite critiquing its own complacency, but because it demonstrates how the elite keeps calm and carries on, with its cricket practice, its bulldog spirit and its 700-year heritage of algae and English grit. There’s no hope for any of us.