A really, really, huge house: Knole
Combine the vast, sprawling expanse of two well-known fantasy locations—Gormenghast Castle and the Room of Hidden Things at Hogwarts—and the resulting mental image will be close to the reality of Knole, the ancestral home of the Sackvilles in Sevenoaks, Kent.
Knole is no run-of-the-mill residence. Fellow Americans whose only experience of the stately homes of England comes from “Downton Abbey” will completely underestimate the enormous scale of Knole. Dating back at least to the late 1400s, the original building was massively enlarged during the late 1500s and early 1600s until it reputedly contained 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards. In appearance it is less like a house than an entire town; the scale is reminiscent of a university building. Its countless rooms are filled with the mementos and detritus of centuries. The Sackvilles appear to have never thrown anything out, but merely packed their rooms fuller and fuller with objects.
My husband and I visited Knole during our honeymoon in England almost 25 years ago. Our memories of it are of dark, thick wood on walls and floors; dust motes dancing in the beams of light slanting from mullioned windows; dim rooms filled with gold- and silver-woven upholstery. One couldn’t begin to count the age-faded objects: ancient slippers, ottomans, tapestries, four-poster beds, an entire suite of massive silver furniture, cracked leather, even antique yard-long ale flagons of blown glass.
This was where British writer Vita Sackville-West grew up. Due to the Sackville family’s adherence to the antique rules of primogeniture, only males could inherit. Vita was thus prevented from taking ownership of the home in which she was the first-born. The house passed instead to her uncle and his descendants. She desperately loved the house in which she grew up, and the knowledge that it could never be hers was a formative loss in her life. In 1922 she wrote a detailed account of the book’s history, Knole and the Sackvilles. Vita’s love for the house was such a characteristic trait that her close friend Virginia Woolf set the first half of her novel “Orlando” at a vast house that was based on Knole.
All the home’s occupants have borne a great love for the structure. More recently, Vita’s latter-day cousin Robert Sackville-West has written his own book about it, Inheritance: the Story of Knole and the Sackvilles. There are several online articles about him and his book (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/kent/hi/people_and_ places/history/newsid_8661000/8661717.stm), as well as news about the pressing need that Knole has for millions of pounds for maintenance and restorations. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-16560656) I found it interesting that one of Robert Sackville-West’s favorite places in Knole is its series of rambling attics, through which one can step from certain windows to clamber across the countless roofs. Knole’s attic is where the opening scene of Woolf’s novel “Orlando” is set. One wouldn’t necessarily guess that the most magical and evocative part of a vast and imposing palace would be its attics.
Think of the overhead involved in keeping up a structure like this! (Or for that matter, the cost of building it in the first place.) When the roof leaks, it must leak in sixty different places. If a pregnant mouse gets in, how can humans hope to ever track down its progeny inside that immensity of rooms and walls and floors? This is a real problem: how does one balance the need to maintain a huge old structure that is certainly historic and worthy of stabilization with the fact that it’s a huge money sink? Although 80,000 visitors a year visit Knole, the price of admittance does not sufficiently defray the costs of maintenance. I’d like to know more about the economics of Knole—exactly how much would it cost to maintain it in equilibrium for the next hundred years, and for the centuries to come? I would like it to remain standing, in good condition, with visitors continuing to come; and yet I suspect it’s a losing battle due to the size of the structure and the changes in English culture. Things do not stay the same forever. When Knole was young, the locals of Sevenoaks, Kent worked there as servants, maids, cooks, groundskeepers and blacksmiths; today they work as tour guides or sell lunches to tourists. Despite the changes, Knole has existed for at least six hundred years and I hope it will last for many centuries still to come.
For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knole_House
You can read Vita Sackville-West’s book online, at http://www.archive.org/details/knolesackvilles00sack
The Guardian has an interesting essay about Robert Sackville-West’s new book, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/10/inheritance-knole-sackvilles-seymour-review