The Music Room

To paraphrase Shirley Jackson, William Fiennes has always lived in the castle.  With a lineage stretching back to the 14th century, the Fienneses have been the guardians and occupants of Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire.  William — a second cousin of the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and a third cousin of the actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes — grew up surrounded by all the trappings of a fairy tale: a 700-year-old Tudor-style mansion encircled by a moat and fortressed with a gatehouse tower above a stone bridge.  His mother spent her days polishing suits of armor while his father scooped algae out of the moat.

Life inside the thick stone walls, however, was not quite “happily ever after.”  The Music Room — Fiennes’s memoir of growing up at Broughton — is dominated by a turbulent presence, and a haunting absence.  The first is William’s older brother, Richard, an epileptic wracked by muscle-locking fits and moods that swung on swift pendulums. The young William stood by in awe as the his elder brother self-centeredly took command of the attention and affections of the rest of the family: Mum, Dad, and the twins Martin and Susannah. And there was another brother who held sway over the castle —  Thomas, who was killed in an accident as a young boy two years before William was born.  Fiennes writes sparsely, but movingly, of that sibling’s death — of which he has only heard bits and pieces handed down in secondhand conversation:  “a horse, a road, a car passing.”  The unseen brother becomes another of the many shadows inhabiting the castle and lurking like subtle fog in Fiennes’s childhood.

The result is a  lonely adolescence, but one in which Fiennes seemed to have absorbed every detail:

I played in a room at the east end of the house, the moat immediately outside.  On clear mornings light bounced off the water through the windows, the white ceiling suddenly unstable with ripples and wind-stir, the surface of the moat reproduced in sunlight overhead.

He has few friends and spends hours reading, walking along the moat, spotting herons, and watching for pike in the shallows.  Life at the castle is frequently interrupted by tourists, garden parties, film crews (Joseph Andrews and The Madness of King George are two of the many movies that have been filmed there), photographers, historians, and school groups who pass through on a regular basis.

I never asked why our house was open to the public or saw anything unusual in the fact that thousands of strangers walked past our bedrooms and peered in through the kitchen window each year…The house didn’t just belong to us: it was part of the country’s heritage, the world’s, and our task was to care for it for as long as we were here, and do our best to leave it in good health for future generations.  “We’re stewards,” Dad told visitors.  He and my mother wanted to look after the house on behalf of everyone who might one day appreciate it, in a month’s time or a hundred years.  It was ours, and more than ours.

Just as he didn’t question the cavalcade of England tracking through his hallways and dining room, Fiennes writes, “I didn’t question my brother’s seizures or the frightening and unpredictable swings of his mood from gentleness and warmth to opposition and violence-these too were just facts I grew up among, how things were.”

But while Fiennes may have early come to accept his brother’s condition as an ordinary part of family life, its violent flares still made an impact.  There is poetry even in how the younger brother describes what must have been alarming fits:

His head dropped as if a hinge in his neck had suddenly loosened, his arms lifting at full stretch in front of him, these salaam attacks coming so frequently that a bump developed on his forehead where he’d slammed into the edges of tables and basins: at breakfast, Mum sat beside him with her arm stretched out, her hand on the table edge to cushion the blow.  Atonic or drop attacks felled him without warning, as if all his bone-strength had deserted him on a whim.  Absence seizures stole his awareness for a few seconds, Rich staring blankly, eyelids fluttering, his head dropping before he looked up and carried on eating or talking as if nothing had happened.  Sometimes his arm flew up as if he’d touched a red-hot coal: he was holding a glass when one of these myoclonic jerks raced through him; the glass shot from his hand and smashed on the ceiling in a squall of crystals and water.

In addition to his seizures, Richard exhibited “cognitive and behavioural problems associated with frontal-lobe damage:  lack of initiative, insight, flexibility and self-control; failure to see other points of view.”  Obsessively loyal to the football team Leeds United, Richard took it badly If Leeds lost: “an inarticulate rage he carried from room to room, a thundercloud expression on his face, all the springs and coils wound tighter in him.”

Like the best of memoirs which briefly take readers outside authors’ lives to place them in the context of history and the natural world (Fiennes focused on the latter in his previous memoir, The Snow Geese), The Music Room intersperses the drama inside the castle walls with well-researched sections on brain disorders.  Epilepsy was once thought to be a form of demonic possession, with the usual traditional cures:

An iron nail hammered where the sufferer had first laid his head would pin the evil spirit to the spot.  Magicians forbade patients from taking baths, from wearing black garments or goat skins, from crossing their feet or hands, and from eating red mullet, eel, goat, deer, mint, garlic and onions.  Recommended treatments included seal genitals, tortoise blood and hippopotamus testicles, and peony root worn round the neck on an amulet.  Pliny records the sight of people with epilepsy drinking the blood of wounded gladiators in the arena.

By probing the science and history of other patients like Richard, Fiennes is searching for a rational explanation to a brother’s irrational behavior.  Even as the book charts the evolution of neuroscience, it is tinted with melancholy as we see the legacy and fate for which Richard is bound.  “I lived with ([Mum and Dad] in a country of undamaged brains from which [Richard] was forever excluded” gets my vote for of the book’s most heartbreaking sentence.

Fiennes’s memories are clotted with details and the often-crowded imagery of the castle grounds can slow the narrative pace.  The phosphorescent swans emerging from the mist, the wind-stirred lavender, the sun-dappled moat all collide in a wordy jumble, forcing the eye to go back and parse entire paragraphs.  Impatient readers are forewarned that this is maximalist prose, unabashedly old-fashioned in its execution.

Then again, that may well be Fiennes’s intent.  If so, then he has succeeded admirably in giving readers a fully realized sensory account of life in the castle.  The Music Room is a book to savor slowly, like sipping a fine wine from the stone-cooled cellar where one stores the vintages which are brought out only for special occasions.  This memoir is likewise a special occasion, a happy marriage of author, material and style that plumbs the depths of a family’s devotion to its most troubled member.