Looking for the 'madwoman in the attic'
Marina Saegerman writes:
I had done my research in advance and I knew the house was only open to the public on select days and times, but we were lucky: the house was open for visitors in the period that we were staying in the area (27 to 31 July 2016), only in the afternoon with guided tours at 2 pm, 3 pm and 4 pm. The estate is well hidden amidst trees and parkland, and it took us a while to find the entrance. We had to park the car near the stables and the walled garden, and then a short walk towards the House. We had to register for the group visit in a little shed next to the house and await the guide’s arrival. We received a brochure about the house and its history, written by the present owner, the eleventh baronet, Sir James Graham, which made a very interesting read. This was a good introduction to the guided tour we were about to receive.
Norton Conyers is a late medieval stately manor house, a pleasing mix of historic styles, with Stuart and Georgian additions. It has been owned by the Graham family (originally from Scottish origin) since 1624 (except for a period of 20 years between 1862 and 1882). The house is steeped in history and has welcomed a number of noteworthy guests such as King James II, King Charles I and of course Charlotte Brontë.
With a little delay we went over to the house via the side-entrance which still contains the bells that rang when service was required in one of the rooms (each bell having a very specific sound for each room). We were personally greeted and welcomed for our guided tour by Sir James and Lady Graham in the Hall. The first part of the tour consisted of an introduction by the current owners about the history of the house, but also about the extensive repair and restoration work they have been doing since 2005, when they discovered a major death-watch beetle infestation in the wooden floorboards. Many pictures were shown of how the house looked like during the restoration work, we could even see some real carcasses of the destructive beetle, collected by Sir James. During the ongoing restoration work, fascinating layers of the history of the house have been uncovered and the owners have been able to carry out 'extensive rescue archeology', as Sir James mentions in his brochure. The restoration work has been done with great care and a real passion and respect for the historic structure of the house. As a consequence of their remarkable renovation work, Sir James and Lady Graham received the Historic Houses Association & Sotheby’s Restoration Award 2014, which proudly hangs on the wall in the Hall.
The most interesting part for me was of course the link with Charlotte Brontë, who is said to have visited Norton Conyers in 1839 when she was a governess with the Sidgwick family. Lady Graham pointed out that the restoration works have enhanced many features of Norton Conyers mentioned by Charlotte Brontë in her description of Thornfield Hall: the battlements around the roof, the rookery, the main broad oak staircase, the high square hall covered in family portraits and of course the famous Mad Woman’s room in the attic.
The 'secret' staircase, hidden behind a door in the wooden paneling on the landing near the Peacock Room – the supposed model for Mr. Rochester’’s room in Jane Eyre – and connecting the first floor to the attic rooms, was discovered in November 2004 after having been blocked up for donkey’s years. “There was no way you could tell from outside that there was anything there,” said Sir James. This discovery aroused world-wide interest because of the striking similarity with the story of Bertha Mason, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester locked up in the attic in the novel Jane Eyre. The secret staircase was probably constructed in the late seventeenth century to provide servants with a short cut from their sleeping quarters to their workplace. It was certainly in use when Charlotte visited and she must have heard the story of a 'mad' woman called Mary who was locked in the attic of Norton Conyers in the eighteenth century. In Jane Eyre the staircase is vividly described by Charlotte and matches the concealed staircase in Norton Conyers perfectly, now officially also called “The Jane Eyre Staircase”. This story has most probably inspired Charlotte Brontë when writing Jane Eyre, as has the house itself.
Lady Graham showed us pictures of the staircase and of Mad Mary’s Room, as the attic room is called, which is situated in a remote corner of the attic. The attic is not open to the public because of the fragility of the structure, and the staircase (which is sadly too dangerous for the public to use) can only be seen from the landing on the first floor. Lady Graham told us that they plan to restore the staircase and attic rooms in time, but at the same time respecting and keeping the specific atmosphere of the Mad Woman’s room, supposedly quite a depressing and sad room: “this room is in a cul-de sac in the attic, very awkward to reach, the room is north-facing with a small gable window, it has a tragic feel about it”.
After this introduction we were allowed to wander around in the house and visit the rooms opened to the public. Sir James and Lady Graham stuck around and were very willing to answer any questions. I told Lady Graham of my interest in the link of Norton Conyers with Charlotte Brontë and she showed me the library which had been restored and re-furnished with items that Charlotte would have seen when visiting. She pointed out a few of these items, such as a pair of globes, a cabinet piano in the window-bay, painting equipment, the bookcases – most of which are locked apart from one triangular bookcase in a corner which contains “everything that could be needed in the way of elementary works” as described in Jane Eyre. The room was re-furnished in accordance with the description of Mr. Rochester’s study, which was used in the novel by Jane Eyre as a classroom for Mr. Rochester’s ward Adele Varens.
Apart from the Library the rooms open to the public are: the Dining Room, the Hall, where we started the tour, the Parlour (all on the ground floor), the main oak staircase, and on the first floor: the landing with the 'secret' door, the Passage, the Best Bedroom (with a reproduction of a unique wallpaper design found in an attic cupboard) and King James’s Room, where King James II and his wife stayed during their visit in 1679 - still displaying the traditional bed they are supposed to have used. Throughout the house, in all rooms open to the public, you can see a beautiful collection of family portraits and other paintings related to the house and its inhabitants, magnificent old furniture, beautiful eighteenth century plaster ceilings and many other valuable treasures and fine art work.
The house is a real marvel, so lovingly and passionately restored to its original grandeur, with great attention to detail, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I was in awe when I finished the tour. The house has indeed a special friendly, welcoming atmosphere, which according to Sir James “results from its having belonged to the same family for three hundred and ninety-two years”. Personally I think it is also the result of the passion and dedication with which the current owners have restored and taken care of the house. You can definitely see and feel this passion in every room you visit. And some hard work has gone into the restoration, for sure! Thanks are due to Sir James and Lady Graham for saving this fascinating historic gem for generations to come.
We still had to visit the walled garden and the stable block which is also a Grade II-listed building, like the house. It covers over three acres and was designed in the mid-eighteenth century. It still retains the essential features of the original design: two paths meeting at the central feature (the Orangery), flanked by greenhouses, with a small ornamental pond before it and colourful flower and herbaceous borders everywhere in the garden. It gives the visitor this feeling of utter tranquility, which we all need once in a while in our busy lives.What a perfect way of ending this extraordinary visit!
And, for those unmarried souls amongst us, a special message: Reader, you can marry here! Norton Conyers is indeed a wonderful venue for weddings and other celebrations.