Dilapidation, delight and determination make a stylish big house story
Patrick Skene Catlingreviews The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a House, a Farm and a Family By Selina Guinness Penguin, 244pp, £16.99
Creatively feminine and obdurately resolute, Selina Guinness, a lecturer at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire, has taught herself how to care for livestock and protect her ancestral farm from Dublin encroachment. She calls Tibradden, the estate she inherited from her Uncle Charles, “a staging post where city and mountain meet”.
Only 10km inland from the institute, sheep graze on hillside fields that made Celtic Tigerish property developers drool with avarice. One of them offered her and her husband, Colin, €5 million for 20 acres, but, though they found farming financially difficult, they resisted the temptation, believing that farmland should be inviolable. Anyway, “in the summer of 2008”, she remembers with relief, “the tide had turned definitively against the property developers and the banks were no longer lending”.
Guinness is an astute observer and stylish chronicler of landscape, architecture and human character. In this book, her first, she describes her domestic setbacks and achievements with engaging candour. The attractions and problems of life in the big house have never before been revealed with a more disarming bid for sympathy. There is a popular myth that everyone bearing her illustrious name is fabulously wealthy; however, it is not true that Selina Guinness is enriched whenever anyone drinks a pint. She briefly summarises her family genealogy. “My grandmother always explained to visitors that, contrary to their expectations, Tibradden had not been built with brewery money: ‘My husband’s family were all church mice.’ Although Thomas Hosea Guinness was the great-grandson of the legendary Arthur Guinness . . . Arthur’s eldest son, Hosea, took up holy orders in the Church of Ireland. The Reverend Hosea Guinness, of St Werburgh’s parish, behind Dublin Castle, persuaded his eldest son, Arthur, to follow suit. By the time Thomas came along, any worldly wealth in the senior branch of the Guinness family had been given up to the glory of God. Thomas was a practising solicitor of church law when he married Mary Davis.”
Providentially, “she was a good catch”. When they married, in 1859, her father built Tibradden as a wedding present. It was quite grand, with a couple of pillars and a stained-glass window at the entrance, and Minton tiles and a Corinthian plasterwork ceiling in the hall.
Selina’s parents took her to visit Uncle Charles for the first time when she was two weeks old. At the age of 11, after her parents had separated “without obvious rancour”, it was decided that she should stay with her uncle and Grandmother Kitty, and Tibradden eventually became Selina’s permanent home. After his education at Winchester and New College, Oxford, and teaching, not entirely happily, at Eton, Charles had moved into the house, and remained there for the rest of his life, as a bachelor, teaching French and German at St Columba’s, conveniently nearby.
Most of the book is written in the present tense, giving her recollections a sense of vivid immediacy. When Selina, with her husband, finally resumed residence, her grandmother had been dead for some time, followed by the housekeeper, and Charles was alone.