On belonging

Green tracts freckled with white sheep surround the roads, the pastures like a patchwork quilt divided by short stone walls, textured with lichen. Down in the south of England, the daffodils have already come and gone, withered to crinkled brown tissue. They remain hearty here in the Midlands, gathered in sprays that line the roads, buttery or white with soft baby yellow and mandarin trumpets.

I am with a carful of friends in the Peak District; for our spring break, we are visiting great houses and putting to good use our National Trust memberships. We’ve had blue skies each day – Carolina blue, mostly, sometimes clotted with clouds that cast shadows and drop the temperature by ten degrees. Claire is driving; many of the roads are single-lane, made myopic with hairpin turns and rock walls that threaten to scrape the car doors. But it is continually pleasant: we wind through grey stone villages laced with purple hyacinth, past parish churches with graveyards full of tilted headstones, through steam emanating from the occasional industrial blight. Mostly, though, it is green pastures and sheep – lambs tottering on new legs, nosing at their mothers. Today we are headed for our premier stop, one I’ve been waiting to see for years.

The vast spread of the manor holdings become apparent even before the sat nav tells us where to turn off the main road: the house is further ahead, but all around us, all of a sudden, the grassland is not mown but certainly manicured – planned, purposeful grass. Knobbled rock walls are replaced with lines of trees. We pass the manor’s farm shop – ‘the best in England,’ the sign claims – and edge of a golf course that abuts the road. Claire takes a left turn onto smooth pavement; a quarter mile and then, there it is.


First we see only a fountain spray, a perpendicular column of water shooting heavenward, then a great house that unfurls before us, honeyed stone made golden in the early afternoon sun. Later, we will go close enough to see the details that glint in the spring light: gilded window frames, Cavendo tutus (‘safe through caution’) in serif capitals along the edge of the roof, all situated within the pleasing harmony of Capability Brown’s un-engineered gardening: Chatsworth House. Our chatter comes to a standstill as we drive past.

This is a massive stately home in Derbyshire, seat of the Earls – and then Dukes – of Devonshire and part of the Cavendish family for nearly 500 years; Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here, on and off. The first few centuries of the house are marked with immense wealth; today, like many similar manors, it is run by a charitable trust which protects and cares for the buildings and the many works of art and treasures housed within. You can look at this house and shake your head at the opulence: 126 rooms, with only a fifth open to the public, the others occupied (when he’s there) by the 12th Duke of Devonshire and his family.

This house appears in literature – Jane Austen mentions it as one of the Peak District houses visited by Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. This legacy is carried into film – it appeared as Pemberley in the 2005 adaptation, the contested version which shoehorned a three-hundred-page novel into 120 minutes. Kiera Knightly is Elizabeth and Matthew Mcfayden is Darcy; Chatsworth nods at this with a bust of Macfayden’s head in the gift shop marked with a sign that says ‘please do not kiss.’ Beyond this, it takes on whatever form the reader’s imagination requires.


Tour signs guide us from the entrance, a dark, simply adorned space that smells heavily of fire logs, and through to the Painted Hall, where the ceilings sweep up and nearly every inch is gilded or covered in oil paints depicting the life of Julius Cesar. It seems to situate the family, the residents of this house, within a lineage of Western history, within a lineage of culture, power, sophistication, enlightenment. These paintings and statues – classical tradition, sure, but also an argument for inheritance, pointing back at the founding of Rome as if to say, this is where we began.

Perhaps this is why Americans like me drift back towards the place of our ancestors – instead of murals and statues, we throw parades and festivals and special days that celebrate Irish, Scottish, German, Polish, Japanese, Hmong heritage. And then we come back to the motherland, awed by the ancient found in everyday life. But I see it as something similar – looking for connection, looking for belonging within the broader sweep of human history, as our family histories are so often cleaved by the oceans and ancestors with their eyes focused on the future.

For me personally, the history of my family, outside of living memory, is patchy – most of it learned from a late-night climb up the Ancestry.com tree with some occasional stories from parents or grandparents, but only about their immediate relatives. Even then, there’s so much that disappears when the person dies. One of my grandfathers had a child outside of his marriages, someone I’ve never met, meaning I’ve got a mysterious uncle floating around LA somewhere. We often pass on myth and legend; someone back in the lineage somewhere said that we might be related to Thomas Jefferson or Lady Godiva; this comes up when I ask questions. Even if that were true, we are so far removed that it confers no greater understanding of the place of either side of my family in history; it informs me little about myself.

My parents’ sense of belonging is found in their chosen religious tradition, one that eschews the pomp of church history – their sanctuary is purposefully stark white; there is no incense or robes or any of the trappings of ecclesiastical faith. Their purity in the pursuit of Truth has caused a deep rift, one that untethers me from the moorings that parents typically offer.

But this is also very much the story of the United States. America has always presented itself as a stage for reinvention, to create yourself. We go hard into what we do: the pursuit of money, the exercise of religiosity, speculation, fundamentalism – big, bold, brash. The dogma of individualism convinces us that we don’t need others and we certainly don’t need the past – reinvention is far easier when your past doesn’t stare you in the face on a daily basis. It can breed showmanship, posturing, bloated confidence, or, conversely, introspection, self-awareness, caution. Maya Angelou once stated, ‘You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.’


Statue of the veiled vestal virgin, light of Rome in her hands

The house tour weaves through to a landing in a yellow room, brightened by skylights in a dome above. Arranged on the wall, two floors tall, is the family gallery, preserved in oil – portraits of the succession of dukes, sisters painted by John Singer Sargent as Gibson girls in white gowns and striped sashes, men in fluffy wigs, pointed chins, posh eyes.

For these people, to belong is something decided at birth. Social capital and connections are forged through boarding school, small elite college membership, the dense network of interrelated families and influence; to walk into places and feel that you belong, that you are not an interloper or obvious guest. I often wonder how this feels, for family and upbringing and education to decide your place and who you are, to begin your life in the world with the privilege – and the prison – of not having to be your own entrepreneur. This privilege means that other entire communities exist; this group or tribe once enjoyed exclusive access to things of beauty created by artisans working at the behest and sponsorship of such patrons: a carved pianoforte inlayed with pearl, the Rembrandt with its burst of light upon the subject’s face, the vast library of history and poetry and literature, wrapped in leather and stamped in gold.

So we don’t belong to this as we amble through their home; and yet, it is through those books that we can find a toehold, an edge of connection – not to belong to this elite class, but in human lineage. We find ourselves in literature – the continuity of thought, emotion, ideas, what makes us human. We feel related to characters, story arcs, lines of poetry –  it’s been a hard month, and I recite lines from Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’ as a form of CBT.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Wild geese, books, maybe a belonging that we engineer. We move on to the next room, the sun streaming into the courtyard outside and the illuminating the painted wallpaper.