Would you marry the man if it meant restoring the 400-year old Scottish country estate he inherited? (Lowlands, Northeast Scotland, near Arbroath on the North Sea; 1990-2000): “I knew when I married the man that I married the mansion,” biographer Belinda Rathbone opens her immensely entertaining and evocative memoir, echoing Charlotte Bronte’s classic line when Victorian-era Jane Eyre declares, “Reader, I married the man.”
Reader, it will be up to you to decide whether restoring a four-centuries-old “crumbling” British estate in rural Scotland (near Dundee on the map below) – essential to accepting a marriage proposal – was a fairy-tale come true, or something else? Keep in mind this romantic notion meant stepping further back than Britain’s Victorian times to the Georgian and Regency eras when the Guynd estate was envisioned and built.
In 2021 the Regency era is hot owing to the Netflix series Bridgerton, inspired by the historical romance novels of Julia Quinn. So, it’s a fitting time to read this charming, good-spirited memoir originally published in 2005, republished in 2019.
When single 39-year-old Rathbone, raised in New England living in a Manhattan apartment said yes to marrying 53-year-old Scottish bachelor, John Ouchterlony, living in a flat in London, she thought she knew what she was getting herself into. She’d fallen in love with a boyish man “cut of the old cloth,” a mechanical engineer who had a deep respect for his ancestors and cultural Scottish heritage. She paints broadly how both her parents influenced her appreciation for art, antiques, history, and nature.
Googling, we discover both her parents had distinguished careers. Her father was an international art expert who’d been the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for seventeen years (The Rathbone Years). We’re told her mother had British roots, subscribed to Britain’s gorgeous Country Life magazine, and was skilled in the “art of entertaining.” Looking further, we learn she was a ski racing champion on the slopes of the Swiss and French Alps. Fascinating biographies, but this is their daughters’ British story, fascinating too.
Belinda Rathbone, schooled in the fine arts, comes across as charming: eloquent, good-natured, good-humored, passionate, curious, resourceful, and literary. As a book lover, she imagined herself as “a character in a Jane Austen novel” when John proposed his fantastical proposition. But once married and moved into the Guynd mansion house she saw herself closing Austen’s Mansfield Park opening the Dickensian world of Bleak House. It didn’t take long to realize John was wedded to the past, adverse to change as he couldn’t bear to throw anything away, down to the torn stockings she’d thrown out. There’s no such thing as “waste” to a man intrigued by how everything works, and a savior for someday.
When does saving things cross the line? Psychologists diagnose hoarding as a disorder when it interferes with relationships and the quality of life. Yet, the couple found ways around their differences, with the author seeming to embrace the challenges, fully invested in bringing the Guynd back to life.
A different type of new life was awaiting amidst mind-boggling chaos and decay when Rathbone soon becomes pregnant. Now, she has even more reason to make her mansion home warm and comfortable. Her son Elliott is the biggest beneficiary, beginning life as an infant carried on his mother’s back seeing a fairy-tale world of ancient woodlands and parklands that offered a “sanctuary for birds and wildlife.” Four hundred acres worth. Early on he makes a pal, Christopher, often by his side. He’s treated to Christmas decorating parties, old-fashioned game-playing parties, parties at castles. All while his mother balances with remarkable ease dinner parties (making pains to use antique wares); hosting American and Scottish friends and relatives; enjoying the daily British ritual of afternoon tea; digging into family genealogies; and inviting a slew of historical societies to offer restoration advice and consultation on historical preservation grants as the estate is deemed a national treasure.
All while renovating, designing, and decorating a thirty-room estate home and gardens, and much more as the Guynd had been an “agricultural estate.” A farmhouse and farmlands are still occupied, minimally maintained by an old farmer barely seen. An overview map depicts these sites plus the original old house, the early-19th century mansion house, the walled gardens, a lake, and a lodge near the front gate.
What you don’t see is how grim the structures were; how dark, neglected, and threadbare the house and furnishings were, essentially untouched since soldiers were housed in it during WWII; the boathouse and temple by the lake; the terribly overgrown gardens disturbed by forty Christmas fir trees planted that failed to provide a thriving business; the shabby flats rented out on the east and west sides of the main house that attracted problematic tenants; cattle grazing in the distance; two horses boarded; and two dogs running free.
This is an overwhelming, overflowing mother’s plate, heightened by acclimating to another country used to a hard life. For a modern woman who expected modern-day conveniences unnecessarily exasperating, to be asked to wash clothes in an outdated washing machine housed outside the estate in the garage, which meant trekking in miserably cold and wet weather (Guynd means “high, marshy place” in Gaelic), and then discovering there’s no dryer! These revelations and obstacles happen over and over, but in Rathbone’s telling they feel part of the compromises made in a good marriage, though on a far grander scale.
Until we start to sense something else may be afoot.
When did things start to take a toll? When the newlywed had to tell her husband she needs a space to hang her clothing? When she can’t find a single working vacuum cleaner among a collection of vintage ones cluttering a hallway, enough for a “museum?” Humor is required and Rathbone has a flair for it, but when does this cease being funny?
To be fair, John relents to buying a Dyson machine for its high environmental marks as it’s bagless, thus no waste. What about wanting to paint the dreary yellowed walls fresh new yellow? The dining room Williamsburg Blue for soothing appeal? John eventually agrees to all, but not to equipping the frigid kitchen with an Aga stove ubiquitous in British kitchens for those who can afford it. He does find a substitute, and other inventive ways to assuage his wife.
For a home hidden five miles from any road, there’s a menagerie of people coming and going. One with staying power is an artist, Stephen, living long-term in one of the flats. He along with others join John in heavy labor jobs. Temporary tenants offer a perspective on how the British class system works between the landowner called laird and the working class. From how it used to be to how it operates in the 21st century.
Delighting in Elliot’s wistful and healthy nature-nurtured childhood, Rathbone’s professional work also explains why she devoted herself to the centuries-old estate. Referred to as a “photography historian,” she wrote the first biography of the photographer J. Walker Evans, whose famous black-and-white imagery depicted the Great Depression in America’s Deep South. Remarking she went from one plantation to a vastly different one, she now calls herself “a biographer of a country estate through the ages.”
Since Rathbone’s memoir ended a while ago, you can search where her story went after 2000. Suggest you wait until you’ve finished this outstanding book. It will leave you wondering: Did the marriage hold together after the estate was wonderfully brought to life?