Sunday, May 5, 2013

I have spent my life in search of Manderley, but am willing to settle for the more prosaic Netherfield or Pemberley. I rationalize that even Thrushcross Grange had plenty of open spaces, and the darkly gothic Thornfield Hall must have been grand enough for an attic of sufficient size (and soundproofing) to contain the mad Bertha. With a sense of architecture entirely informed by Victorian novels, I read at an impressionable age of balconied staircases, passages, corridors, basements, and ever-present fireplaces, all disappointingly lacking from our California stucco ranch house.   

Smitten with delusions of architectural grandeur, I had the fortune to be married to a man who wanted the same. We seemed perversely capable of finding remote counties and inaccessible places, which, while gifted with natural beauty, were bereft of any urban conveniences. Our current house has lovely river views, pine trees that fall down regularly, power which goes out at the merest zephyr, and a distance from Boston which makes our very infrequent guests wonder if they are still in Massachusetts.

I scorned city dwelling. The foreign service sent us to capitals full of sidewalks speckled with dog poop, horn honking, and awkwardly designed apartments whose rear windows looked out onto fire escapes and trash cans. On visits to the penthouse high rises of friends who live daringly, I stayed warily away from their floor to ceiling windows, sheltering in the corners for comfort.

Cars are a curse in the cities. In Madrid people routinely say “estoy malaparcado,” as a means of excusing themselves from any meeting, and in Prague friends of ours had their rental car booted faster than the country ended communist rule. Who needs city life, we’d say, gleefully heading off not for the suburbs, but for the ex-burbs, just to be sure.
So now I work, but do not live, in Boston. While winter prevented me from getting to know anything other than my beloved parking spot, I am now making up for lost time, heading anywhere I can walk in an hour or so. To my surprise, city blocks are not as long as country roads. Unencumbered with anything beyond a jacket with pockets, I have covered a wide swath of ground – the Back Bay, the Fenway, and Beacon Hill

And then I stumbled onto Marlborough Street! Enchanting brownstone, limestone, and brick buildings. Tiny but controllable gardens without acres of lawn to mow, nicely manicured, leading up wide steps to heavy wooden doors.

And what lies within? The architecture shouts New England writers!  In fact there is no need to pretend, there is one for sale which is the former home of Pulitzer Prize writer Edwin O’Connor.  

What goes on inside? The novel reader in me eagerly supplies the details. Crystal tinkling at supper parties. Low voices, muted laughter, ladies in shawls, vintage wines and string quartets. Civility above all. Walking distance to everything, but especially the museum, the symphony, the university.

Above all this bespeaks a style of living which brings one close to other people, some of whom might, over time, become friends. Sidewalks and tree-lined streets invite strolling in a way that muddy county ditches never could.

Marlborough Street comes with prices that suggest civility is only for the one percent. But seeing that we won’t be hosting a ball, a hunt, or looking for Heathcliff, perhaps it is time to relinquish the beloved architecture of my teenage novel reading years and aim for something less isolating. We may not be ready yet for Green Buildings, but perhaps it is time to leave the 18th century behind and enter the 19th.


  1. Yes, move to the city! Here is my reflections on the Flaneurs of now and going for a walk with Gwyneth down Commonwealth Street.

  2. Hello Mary. Are you the same Mary Thompson that used to live in Antigua Guatemala? if so, maybe you can help me with some info I have been trying to figure out... Have a nice week! :D