Friday, March 29, 2013

Another Book about a House

In "A World Elsewhere," by Wayne Johnston, he tells the story of a quirky, but lovable character who goes by  the name of Landish Druken. He is a sealer's son, sent from Newfoundland to Princeton. There he meets up with the son of the wealthiest family in America. Johnston chooses the fictional name Vanderluyden to describe the young titan; it  is a nod to Edith Wharton who described New York's  reigning family as a holdover from the original Dutch colonialists, who sat atop New York society in a “celestial twilight.”

After an unceremonious end to his Princeton days, young Landish is destined to be tossed about on the winds of fate. Adopting an orphan boy to raise on his own and destitute from having both a drinking and writing problem (he burns every page) he ends up back in Newfoundland as an outcast until reaching out to “Van” who has, by this time, created the famed estate known as Biltmore House.

The house is so vast that Wayne Johnston describes it in segments, wings of the castle, to which Landish and his son are relegated. Rare invitations to Van's library and the journey it takes for them to get there, give you the impression of the size and scope of the place.

The book was gifted to me by my sister Mary, at Christmas. Following a family tradition going back God only knows how long, we give books that, not only we have enjoyed, but ones that tie back to other times and experiences in our lives. My sister explained that, like Wayne Johnston, she was awed, enthralled and wowed by a visit to Biltmore in the presence of our mother, the late Dorothea Smythe.  An Interior Designer, and with a nod to her French ancestry, our mother had a love of finery and beauty that knew no bounds. Naturally, she raved over every room of this beautiful estate and pointed out one exquisite choice after another, as they drifted along through the tour.  Brilliant interiors made her happy and in my mind's eye I can imagine her face lighting up at every turn.

Jan Aertsen Van der Bilt came over from Holland in 1650. It was Cornelius Vanderbilt who lived from 1794-1877, who amassed the great fortune by building railroads. His son, William Henry carried on creating enormous wealth. His son, George Washington Vanderbilt created the estate at Ashland. 
Being a book lover, he shunned New York society in favor of entertaining guests at home.

Beyond the physical description of Bitlmore House, I truly enjoyed Wayne Johnston's engaging  play on words, peppering the novel throughout.  Describing a skit composed at Princeton, entitled “Parodies Lost,” here is one example:

“Alfred Lord Tennyson became Well-Fed lard Venison.  A rotund and burstingly buxom Mary Shelley was carried onstage by Frankenstein. Rudyard Kipling, Rhubarb Nibbling...” and so on.

As I laughed out loud and smiled to myself throughout the book, I also found the story touching and moving. Once finished, I called my sister to thank her for the gift. Reading this book, I felt as if I had been transported to,  “A World Elsewhere.” Now, I too, long to visit Biltmore, and if I get there, let it be in spring when I may see the gardens in their full glory. If not, I have my imagination, and hosts of pictures online for my enjoyment.

 Living in America's finest house, George liked to read and be taken away to foreign lands and faraway climes. I suspect he sat in a comfy chair in front of a blazing fire. When he looked up though, and took a walk to a nearby window, just imagine what went through his mind. I suspect that not even Rhubarb Nibbling could have done Biltmore justice.


Jennifer Rova said...

Our daughter was married at Biltmore House on May 1 with the flowers in full bloom. She was gorgeous and her groom and his father were handsome in their clan kilts of greens and corals. A touching moment was when the groom draped the family tartan over her shoulder and welcomed her to the McNabb clan. North Carolina was settled by Scotsmen. Now I am eager to read the novel you previewed. What a lovely tradition of giving books at Christmas. One more memory to add to the magic of the Biltmore estate. (It is three miles from the main gate to the front door of the house!)

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Wow. What a setting for a wedding and thank you for letting me imagine it. I will lend you the book any time.