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My grandmother's house
Diana Athill Writer
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It's a large Georgian house, red brick, that was built in 17-something. My grandfather had added a wing to it. It had been a sort of big, rectangular house, and he added a wing, making it sort of U-shaped, so that there was extensions. But he'd… there was a local brick kiln where the original bricks had obviously been made and he reactivated that and had bricks made from the same material by the same kiln, and you could, when I was a child, see the line where the wing he'd added went. You could just see it. I don't think you can, now. I think that it simply blended in.

It was a very elegant house, really, and it had a huge, lovely, cedar tree planted against the corner of it, which they've now cut down, because they said the roots were going miles underneath the house, uprooting it, really. And it was a big house. My great-grandfather bought it. He was a doctor up in Yorkshire who'd done well, anyway, as a doctor, and who had married, I think, a rich lady. And who had then, on top of that… he was left, I think, quite a lot of money by a grateful patient called Miss Greenwood, because his son was called William Greenwood Carr. And so he was obviously pretty well off. And his wife, who famously delicate, apparently – she outlived everybody, of course – she was said to be suffering from the bad climate up in Yorkshire. So he decided that he would move to a more mellow climate. Yorkshire must have been very hard if it was mellow… if Norfolk was mellow compared. And he bought this estate in Norfolk. A fairly sizeable estate, but what is maddening is that when you're a child, or when you're young, you don't think of asking people who know about your family history. I mean, my grandmother could have put me in the picture. She was a great one for family. She could have told me, I'm sure, exactly where they got their money from and everything about it. I never asked anybody of such things. And when I asked my mother, she didn't know, really. She said, well, she thought it was probably railways, and she thought it was railways, because Gramps, her father, when they went up to Yorkshire when she was a child, he had a little key on his watch chain which meant that when they wanted to stop at a station, they could stop there. The train stopped there, because he had this key. So he was obviously a shareholder. And what I suspect is that at the time of the Industrial Revolution, they had been originally… my grandmother did say they were originally yeomen, she said. And I think these canny Yorkshire yeoman sold land to the railways, probably. And I think my mother said also that my grandfather had shares in that railway which goes across Canada, the Pacific whatnot. And so that must, I think, have been where the big money came from because you must have had a considerable amount of money to buy not just a house, but a substantial estate in Norfolk. And not only Ditchingham Hall, which is my… ours, but Haddenham Hall which is next… and the parks of these two great big houses. It was a quite unusual arrangement, actually. Actually abutted against each other. And I'm not sure whether it was my great-grandfather who bought Haddenham or whether it was just my… or whether my grandfather added it. And it was eventually, when my great-grandfather died and everyone was saying, 'Well, what are we going to do with Aunt Mary?' who was my great-aunt. What they did was, she moved into Haddenham Hall, this rather boring old lady, single, never got married, lived in this princely Elizabethan house. But it gave her something to do, because she used it… she turned the top part of it into a home for orphan girls, who were taught how to be housemaids. Aunt Mary's orphans used to be seen going for very sad walks in little crocodiles. And one didn't actually… I mean, one just took it for granted: oh, there go Aunt Mary's orphans. It never occurred to me as a child to think, 'My God, poor children, how awful'. But…

[Q] So did you grow up with servants?

Well, my grandmother's house, packed with servants, yes. But… you know, butlers and all the lot. But our house… the daughters… you see, money always… he had one son, and he made settlements on his daughters, which I suppose, at the time when he made them, looked quite generous, but by the time my mother was an old woman, she was getting from that, from her settlement, something like under a thousand a year came in as a result. So that they… he was taking it for granted that his daughters would marry well, and they married nice people. They married… they tended to marry soldiers and sailors, who were pleasant, but not rich. None of the daughters were rich. And so we lived in a much more modest way.

[Q] Just to… I think I'm not quite sure I understand. You would go to your grandmother's house to stay, say, in the holidays or something? You didn't live there?

We went there… well, we lived for a long time on the Hall Farm, which was of course the park, which was part of the estate. Mostly, we went to stay there, and I had a great piece of luck when I was about eight or nine. They had a scare that I was going to have tuberculosis. I don't think… I think it was a completely made up scare. I think it was a ridiculous doctor, because I remember my mother saying, 'Darling, you haven't got consumption, but you've got a sort of tendency to consumption. You might get consumption in your glands, and the doctor says you've got to rest'. And I was horrified when she said, because I could remember Beth in Little Wives [sic] dying of consumption. And she got so weak that when she was sewing, her needle felt heavy. And I'd always remembered that. I thought: I can't be going to have that. And indeed, I was so sure I couldn't be going to have that, that I stopped worrying. I couldn't be going to have that, obviously not.

But anyhow, I had to be taken to rest, so I spent a whole year at Gran's house, not doing lessons, than which you couldn't possibly imagine anything more desirable. I mean, it was just heaven. But you had to have your bedroom window nailed open, because of the fresh air, but as you would have to have had it open anyway, because Granny didn't hold with shut windows, that made no difference. And I just had the most lovely year, and it really did become home for me, much more than it did for the others.

[Q] You didn't have to stay in bed all that time?

No! I had a lovely time, haring about in the garden, riding my ponies. My cousins were there, mostly, and they went… they had a miserable tutor, who used to come bicycling up the drive every morning to give them lessons. And I didn't have to have lessons. So I used to just be mucking about with the ponies. Oh, we had goats, too. Pen and I, my younger cousin, we each had a goat, which we looked after, because they had to see I was drinking goat's milk. Actually, there was a risk of tuberculosis then. I mean, a lot of people got it. There was a house in… the two big houses in Ditchingham, Ditchingham Hall and Ditchingham House. And the inhabitants of Ditchingham House, quite recently, had pretty well all died of it. And I think, you see, cow milk was not pasteurised at all, and they were… there was quite a risk of it. And it wasn't just silly, putting us onto goat's milk. But it was great fun, because we looked after our goats. We each called our goat after our mother. So we had Katy and Dorothy, our goats were called. And we adored them.

Diana Athill (1917-2019) was a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she came to be hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Little Women, Norfolk, Yorkshire

Duration: 9 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008