England III: Why I couldn’t stand Blenheim Palace, After Oxford

England Journal; Tuesday 8 March 2011

Oxford has 39 colleges around its vicinity–we saw a few of them: Christ Church, Merton and a few others. The campuses are small–usually consist of a few buildings close together. Some of the colleges, such as All Souls, have 73 members and are extremely selective…

It’s incredible because where I used to be fascinated with the buildings of the 18th Century in America–now in England, I think of anything built in or after the 18th century to be “new” compared with the medieval buildings we’ve seen…

I realized I have this unconscious habit of trying to figure out if the surface I am walking on, be it wood or stone, is the original surface that people of long ago did. Not exactly sure why, but I’ve picked up on the fact that I stare at the ground once in awhile in hopes of figuring out if the stone or street or wood or carpentry is authentic…so many things have been restored or replaced in museums or historical-type settings…it seems to me, though that if anything should be left untouched it would be the floor…and it gives you a kind of unearthly chill to know you’re walking on the same stones touched by (in today’s case) Oxford monks and students of old or countless horse-drawn carts and carriages or–at Blenheim Palace–the floors of 300 years of Dukes and Duchesses of Marlborough. It was especially spooky to walk around the gardens that the Dukes and Duchesses and their children and servants would spend their time walking and spending idly or gossiping or as such.

I hated Blenheim.

Well, not hated. But I didn’t really enjoy it. I felt smothered.  “It was an expanse of stone and elegance,” I wrote in my journal, “the kind of building that existed to show off one’s status and luxury. Every room had fabric wallpaper (and each room had a name) and furniture to match.”

Built in the 1700s, Blenheim was the birthplace of Winston Churchill. The famous one. You know who he is.

I was overwhelmed by the luxury, it felt cold and alien to me. It was an OVERHAUL. Overdone. Intricately designed chests, desks, chairs and plates… “kind of put perspective on the fact that this is the kind of life the rich have for fun,” as I wrote. “They collect plates and walk in artificial landscaping because they are too fine to do much else.”

There I am in the gardens at Blenheim. The reason there’s no pictures of my face is (1) I was wandering around in a daze and (2) I was feeling perturbed by the palace and lifestyle. Knowing what I’d be if I lived here. My words from the event do it best:

I was thinking on this as I walked through the Palace, gazing on the portraits of duchesses past–the current of which is Lily, the 11th Duchess of Marlborough. And I thought about how depressing it’d be to live that life. A life of suffocation and existence solely to (1) look pretty. All the time. Have impeccable manners. Make an impression. (2) Be a lady (3) Be a broodmare (4) Live in the shadows (5) Have no sense of purpose in the world whatsoever. I may be exaggerating here but I felt myself slowly withdrawing from the elegance and face value and turning from the tourism–I could only pity the Duchesses and anyone who lived in such a place. Palace or no, all I can say is that I truly hated it. I hated all of it, except to learn about Winston Churchill, and he wasn’t a Duke. Lucky him…

Some of the Duchesses were only 17.

Their portraits and statues hang in the palace for…pretty much ever. I was seriously feeling disturbed as I was walking the grounds because I thought the Parks–the only part of the land mainly untouched by man, were far more beautiful than the Palace itself. And if I stayed one more moment in that Palace (or worse–had to live in it, especially as a girl where outdoor activities were not appropriate), I would explode. Even the gardens were smothering–intricate, symmetrical and you had to stay on the paths. Fountains and statues obscured the landscape.

I was glad to have seen it. Glad to leave, though, and more glad that life doesn’t exist like that anymore–a stifling era of social classes and manners and rules and stuffiness and occasion. Propriety in all forms meant to place restrictions on a person’s freedom–no thank you. Set me up in a farmhouse and happy marriage and good hard work–sounds awesome.

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