The houses and apartments most people live in are never given any historical significance; they are simply boxes for living. Or not living, as the case may be. So the description of old houses that are deemed worthy of description is, inevitably, limited to certain types, large, expensive, perhaps demonstrating a particular architect’s expertise, or enshrining the myth of some well-known occupant.
The two large houses that figure in The Blue Box are both nearly monstrous in size, one planted in Ireland, the other in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Irish one, a great grey edifice, was put up in 1837 by a remote collateral relative, Tom Lefroy, known as the Hanging Judge for his mercilessness on the bench. He is less well known for his teenaged flirtation with Jane Austen, broken off by Tom’s rich relatives because she was a penniless; after returning to Ireland and marrying someone considered more suitable, Tom named his first daughter and oldest child Jane—but he never saw Jane Austen again, and, when she died, described their relationship as the passing whim of youth.
I dread to think how this determined man would have curbed Jane’s spirit, combined with the toll of endless pregnancies and the deaths of small children; would she have managed to dilute his ferocity? I doubt it. Her novels would not have been written, and he would have achieved his reputation.
My sister Eleanor recently visited this great grey house, called Carrigglas Manor, and found it in ruins; the last Lefroy owners could no longer afford it, and sold it to a developer, who planned some kind of spa there but apparently fell on hard times and could do nothing to maintain the place. It looks more ghostly, more destroyed than its owners could ever have imagined; perhaps its eventual destruction will obliterate the memory of the Hanging Judge.The twin house, outside of Louisville, Kentucky, a vast Georgian pile, is not in danger of ruin, although its acre-wide slate roof needs replacing and the basement vault where several generations of ornate silver was stored was broken into; the house has not been lived in since my brother Barry’s death some years ago. Few people can cope with twelve or fifteen bedrooms and an equal number of bathrooms, each equipped with a chaise percée.
It, too, is a shadowed place, where I grew up in the presence of ghosts who could not be named. One of them may have been my step-grandmother, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, whose untimely death enriched my grandfather and led to the buying of the house and the five competing Louisville newspapers. He was appointed ambassador to London by President Franklin Roosevelt, who joked that his appointee was the nicest murderer the president had ever known.
This house is not slated for ruin but for new ownership, sold recently to a Los Angeles millionaire (or perhaps billionaire) who plans to use it as a party house, for which its enormous ground floor rooms were designed when the house was built by flour-fortune brothers in 1913. The new owner will have no difficulty recruiting guests to wander through the maze of rooms, poke in the gardens, or descend the stone steps to the ruined swimming pool. All kinds of myths will gild the place, and no one will want to know its true history.
So both houses, uninhabitable due to size in both cases and dereliction in one, will continue as housing for myths, the myths that always throng around fortunes and obscure most of the facts about the fortune-makers lives.
It’s lucky Jane escaped Tom’s clutches. It’s lucky I escaped the clutches of ghosts.