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Clara in the Denhams' House.





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(Extract from the book by Margaret Drabble "Jerusalem the Golden ". Abridged)

The Denhams' house was semi-detached. It was a large, tall, four-storeyed building, on one of the steep hillsides of Highgate. In front of the building was a large paved courtyard. It was separated from the pavement by a high, elaborate, wrought iron fence,1 the gate of which stood open.

The door of the Denhams' house was painted black, and it was solid, and heavily panelled,2 in the centre of the middle panel there was a lion's head with a brass ring in its mouth. There was also a bell, and Clara chose the bell. The door was opened by a thin, brown, balding, youngish looking man.

'I've come to see Clelia,' said Clara, standing on the doorstep. The man gulped nervously, and nodded, and said, 'Clelia, oh yes, Clelia, just a moment, I'll go and get her.'3

And he disappeared. Clara, uninvited, thought she might as well step in, so she did. The hall into which she stepped wasnot a hall at all, but a large and very high room, with doors leading off it in most directions, and it was so full of unexpected things that she found it hard to know where to look first.

The floor was tiled, in diagonal squares of grey and white mar­ble, and the walls were so densely covered with pictures and looking glasses that it was hard to tell whether or how they were papered, but the general tone and impression was of a deep purple and red. At the far end of the hall there was a marble fireplace, and under it was a large pot of dying flowers. There was also, she vaguely noted, in one corner a piano, and the windows had shutters of a kind that she had never seen in England.

After a while, Clelia appeared, from one of the doors at the far end of the hall.

'Well, I came,' Clara said.

'So I see,' said Clelia. 'I'm glad you came. Let's go up into my room.'

'Who was that that let me in?' said Clara, following Clelia meekly up the staircase, and up and up, to the second floor.

'That was Martin,' said Clelia. 'He's rather lovely, don't you think?' Clara could not think of any scheme in which the man she had just seen could have been described as lovely, but she instantly invented one.4

'Yes,' she said.

'And this,' said Clelia, suddenly throwing open a high white door, 'is my room.'

And she said it with such pride and such display that Clara did not feel at all obliged to conceal the amazement. And it was, by any standards, amazing.

It was a tall, square room, facing towards the back of the house and garden. The room's function — for it was, beneath all, a bed­room — was all but concealed.5 Clara, when she looked hard, could just descry a bed, almost lost beneath a grey and pink flowered cover, a heap of books, and a large half-painted canvas. There were a good many books in the room; one wall was lined with them, and they lay in heaps on chairs and on the floor. There were photo­graphs and postcards and letters pinned up and pasted on tables and walls, and amongst these more adult decorations, there was also a great quantity of carefully arranged and ancient toys. Clara was staggered and bewitched, she had never in her life seen anything like it.

She got round to thinking that one of the most charming fea­tures of Clelia's room was its sense of prolonged nursery associa­tions.6 The childhood objects were not only lovely in themselves, they were a link with some past and pleasantly remembered time.

They stayed in the bedroom for half an hour or so, talking, look­ing at the things, talking.

'I think it must be tea time,' said Clelia. 'I think we'd better go down.'

When they reached the drawing room, the only people there were Mrs Denham and Martin.

'This is Clara, mama,' said Clelia.

'Clara, yes,' said Mrs Denham. 'Clelia told me about you. Do sit down, have a cup of tea. Clara, will you have milk or lemon?'

'Lemon, please,' said Clara. And as she stirred her cup of tea, and sipped it, she lost track of the conversation entirely, so en­grossed was she in the visual aspect of the scene presented to her:7 She did not know where first to look, so dazzling and amazing were the objects before her.

It was a large, high, long room, and so full of furniture and mir­rors and pictures and books and chandeliers and hangings and re­fracted angles of light that the eye could at first glimpse in no way assess its dimensions.8 It seemed to be full of alcoves and angles,9 though the room itself was a plain rectangle: fish swam in a goldfish bowl on top of a bookcase, and flowers stood on small pedestals here and there. Over the marble mantelpiece was a huge oval mirror with an eagle adorning it. The floor was wooden, and polished, but most of it was covered by a large, intricately patterned coloured carpet.

On one wall hung a large picture of a classical, mythological na­ture: on another wall was an equally large picture of pale yellow and beige lines. The third wall was lined entirely with books, and the wall that looked over the garden was not a wall but a window, heavily shrouded with curtains of different fabrics and densities.10 Clara was astonished; she could compare the room to nothing in her experience. Mrs Denham herself made a fitting occupant for such a room.11 She talked of books, from what Clara, in her haze of observation, could hear:12 about some books that she was, ah yes, what was that word, reviewing? A critic, then? No, not a critic. A writer, then, perhaps: and Clara, searching for help, directed her excellent vision at the distant titles of the books on the shelves13 be­hind Martin's head. And help was forthcoming for there was a whole row of somehow familiar books, and the name on the back, she could just decipher it, was Candida something.14 Why, yes, of course, Candida Gray, a name that she had known for as many years as she had known any such names. In the sudden satisfaction of recognition, Clara nearly cried out, into the midst of the conver­sation, I read your book, I read that book of yours, I read Custom and Ceremony, but she didn't, she kept quiet, she did not want to betray, even directly, the novelty of her discovery.15 And she thought, a little aggrieved: I do think Clelia might have told me, how could she assume that I knew her mother's maiden name? Her discovery did, however, do much to help her understanding of the conversation. She began to feel that she knew where she was, a lit­tle: and after a while she too began to talk.

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