For compulsive carpet-treaders like Dylan and the rest of us, life-writing of this kind has the power to animate its subjects in ways that Sunday afternoon tours cannot. Lee suggests the answer to why we haunt the houses of others lies with a living luminary: Hilary Mantel. In her autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel writes that every place in which we live represents abandoned choices: “All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been.” Few of us reach high office, write literary masterpieces or perform to acclaim, but most of us have experienced domestic life of one sort or another. We are searching for ourselves.
It also allows readers to enter the houses of writers they love alongside a group of particularly eloquent and reflective guides. There are 23 pieces here, many of them reflections by biographers on their research, with a few poems, investigative essays and memoir pieces thrown in. All are attentive to the details of home-making, peeling away the layers of change across the centuries, from Roman times to the present, as they attend to what it feels like to move house, to lose a home, to return to the lost world of childhood, or to think, as Edith Wharton did, of our bodies as a kind of home: ‘In the innermost room, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.’
Together with her fellow life-writer Kate Kennedy, Lee has co-edited a rich and eclectic collection of essays about the role houses play in people’s lives and our fascination with the homes of our creative heroes. As a biographer, Lee knows that “the writing of lives often involves writing houses”.
The description of a house can vividly reveal the experience of childhood or the story of a relationship: “How a house is lived in can tell you everything you need to know about people, whether it’s the choice of wallpaper, the mess in the kitchen, the silence or shouting over meals, doors left open or closed, a fire burning in the hearth”.