The Fiennes family fascinates me. There’s Ranulph (the explorer), Ralph and Joseph (the actors), Sophie, (the filmmaker) and William, the writer. They all belong to one large, eccentric family that you could only find in England. Do you know that Ralph’s and Joseph’s real surname is Alberic Twileton Fiennes? Frightfully British.
William wrote ‘The Snow Geese’, which was about the migration of snow geese from Texas to their breeding grounds on Baffin Island, but also was a reflection on home life. In ‘The Music Room’, he also focuses on home life – his own.
His home life was not what we know. William grew up in Broughton Castle, a seven hundred year-old medieval stately home, complete with moat and gatehouse tower. This memoir is a fascinating insight into life in the castle, in which William lived with his parents, his brother Richard, twins siblings Martin and Susannah. Another brother, Thomas, had died young in an accident.
William gives us a glimpse of life in a real castle – the gardeners, the servants, the film-shoots, the tours for tourists, the music concerts. He writes casually about rooms like ‘the Great Hall”, “Queen Anne’s Room,” “The Chapel” and “the Music Room” – in the same way that we would refer to the dining room or the kitchen. When he swims, it’s in the moat (revoltingly murky and scary), not a swimming pool . When he walks through the gallery, ancient coats-of-armour terrify him.
But what made this book so memorable for me is William’s account of living with his brother Richard. Richard had severe epilepsy that had caused brain damage and, as a result, he was an unpredictable force that swept through the castle. Somedays pleasant and delightful, other days rude, aggressive and frightening. His mood was often dictated by the success of Leeds United football club, about which he was obsessed. His temper could erupt aggressively if they lost a game. He could be alarmingly rude to visitors and the odd unsuspecting tourist, but likewise charm them when he wanted. Seizures came upon him without warning and, as he got older and stronger, so he was difficult to help when having a fit.
Now and then glimpses of a ‘normal’ Richard would come through, such as the time he recited a poem ‘Cautionary Tales’ at the dinner table, word perfect, that no-one else could have remembered for its length.
His parent (in a very loving way) tried putting him in different homes to give him a sense of independence, but in the end he always came home, usually because his behaviour had been too aggressive.
William tells this story in an unsentimental, sometimes funny, and poignant way that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. He writes about his brother with such love and tenderness that there is no judgment on behalf of William, just an acceptance of this is how his brother is.
It is a sensitively written in an almost lyrical way and I enjoyed it in a quiet, comfortable way.