Over the past six weeks, my boyfriend and I have been shopping for a house. I’ve come to realize that I take a strange pleasure in wandering through these houses of varying styles and levels of decrepitude – some still inhabited, others hauntingly empty, others carefully accented with generic furniture brought in by a stager giving the house the feel of a theatrical stage set. The houses that still shows signs of authentic habitation are by far the most interesting. There’s something quite delicious about running my fingertips over a stranger’s bookshelf and pulling down a novel I’ve been longing to read and finding a hand-written message inside, or opening a closet and finding a pair of beat-up ballet slippers or a tangled bathrobe.
Yes, I could imagine myself living here.
Back in my moribund grad student days, I wrote a good deal of my dissertation on the relationship between novels and houses. Although I no longer speak that academic language (thank God!), there’s a part of me that remains fascinated by how novels use houses to tell the story of a protagonist’s state of mind, status and relationship to place. It’s a sad fate indeed for those characters who can’t find a home – think of Lily Bart, the wayward heroine of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, for instance. An impoverished socialite, Lily sponges off her wealthy friends who have decadent country houses, yet it’s the comfort of Selden Lawrence’s more modest home that catches her fancy, the bookshelves in particular: “She began to saunter about the room, examining the bookshelves between the puffs of her cigarette-smoke. Some of the volumes had the ripe tints of good tooling and old morocco, and her eyes lingered on them caressingly, not with the appreciation of the expert, but with the pleasure of agreeable tones and textures that was one of her inmost susceptibilities.” As Lily sinks down the social hierarchy, the novel charts her decline in terms of her increasingly tasteless and dreary surroundings, until she is finally left in a sparsely furnished tenement room: “The shabby chest of drawers was spread with a lace cover, and set out with a few gold-topped boxes and bottles, a rose-coloured pin-cushion, a glass tray with tortoise-shell hair-pins…. These were the only traces of luxury.”
In light of my love of this novel, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the most evocative houses I toured during our house hunt were places that I wouldn’t want to live in. They’re places that give me glimpses into other people’s lives – lives on the “other side of the social tapestry,” as Wharton puts it. On a whim, we visited a dilapidated white clapboard house at Bloor and Lansdowne that turned out to be an illegal rooming house. I know from my father that after the war, my grandparents ran a boarding house in this part of Toronto, and so I felt that in a curious way, I was getting a glimpse of that other world and time while peering into these cramped, dingy quarters and gingerly walking up precarious staircases and knocking on bedroom doors (or at least, the real estate agent did, while I cowered behind). Many of the boarders didn’t want to let us in, and it made me sad to think about how this was their last-ditch effort to claim a kind of squatter’s sovereignty. Yet even as they shut the door in our faces, I found myself peering over their shoulders, entranced by the curious shrines some of these people had set up on their dressers, candles and incense burning all round, the hint of earthier substances in the air, and one woman had a string strung around the entire perimeter of her room, from which dangled hundreds of pairs of colourful sunglasses.
Although we weren’t serious about buying houses of this sort, I remained eager to keep touring them as a kind of research for my historical novel, part of which takes place in the Bloor Lansdowne neighbourhood in the 1950s, in a boarding house similar to my grandparents’…. So for me, the house hunt was doubling as a sort of field expedition, but I think our real estate agent was getting tired of our dithering. Alas.
Yesterday evening, we purchased a fairly decrepit, but structurally sound Victorian house full of architectural possibilities (Chris is an architect, so we are looking to take on a “project” house). The house is at the slightly more gentrified end of the Lansdowne neighbourhood, but close enough that I will be able to walk past my grandparents’ old house every day, communing with ghosts of my family past.
Photo from: here