The Music Room must have been a difficult book to write and in parts it’s a difficult book to read. It’s lyrical and strong in setting the scene – the castle with its battlements, secret rooms and spiral staircases where William grew up and the landscape, the moat, the fields and birds all came vividly to life as I read it. And yet as I read more and more of it I almost began to tire of it. There was little variation and it felt detached and over-stylised and impassive. But on reflection, I think that maybe that’s the only way Fiennes could write this book.
I never felt I really got to know William himself or most of his family, certainly not his mother, father, or his twin brother and sister. Most of the book is about his brother Richard, who was epileptic, and about the brain – the discovery of how it worked and the causes and treatment of epilepsy. William’s reactions to Richard are there – how as a small child, eleven years younger than Richard, he just accepted that that was how Richard was and how as he got older he became fascinated with the anger and aggression that could dominate Richard, how William almost tested him to see how far he would go. His love for Richard is also evident and Richard himself is a strong presence, with his violent outbursts and his passion for football, his mood swings and his tenderness and remorse for what he has done.
William and the rest of the family almost faded into the background and I wanted to know more about them. There were glimpses of them such as the passages where his father finds strength from the castle itself:
One afternoon I saw Dad standing next to the house, his right arm stretched out, palm pressed flat against a buttress, his head dropped. He didn’t move.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
He said he was asking the house for some of its strength. (page 131)
William describes hearing his mother playing the viola in the music room. The music room is a place of refuge – his mother
… didn’t want to leave the music; she wanted longer in that private room, away from everything, playing each piece as if she were trying to say how much she loved it. (page 48)
Music played its part in Richard’s life too. He had a ‘clear, soft baritone voice’ and liked to sing songs from Gilbert and Sullivan and Welsh hymns such as ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer’.
He sang in the music room. Often he started too low or too high, and when the melody got away from his range he’d change key like someone shifting gear in a car so he could keep a grip on the tune. Sometimes in the evening, inspired, he’d dress up in suit, waistcoat and bow tie, and stand in the music room with the score held out in front of his chest just as a professional would, the Anglepoise at full extension over his shoulder. (page 210)
A disturbing book that has stayed with me over the last week or so, the idyllic setting, an extraordinary childhood and an outstanding portrait of his brother.