Richard Dennen meets the writer – and lady of the manor – Caroline Sandon
Behind Burnt Norton, a charming 17th-century manor house set between Chipping Campden and Broadway on the Cotswold escarpment, lies the garden that inspired T S Eliot’s famous poem from his Four Quartets. In September 1934, Eliot, who was visiting a friend in the area, wandered off the road and into the neglected gardens of the then unoccupied house, and the air of decay had a profound effect on him. In Burnt Norton, one of the great poems of the 20th century, he reflects on the passing of time and the loss of innocence.
Now the current lady of the manor Caroline Sandon, a former model turned interior designer, has brought the story of this house, and how it got its name, to life in a novel. Caroline is married to Conroy, a chartered surveyor who became the 8th Earl of Harrowby on the death of his father last year; the house has been in his family for 260 years.
‘I loved it from the moment I saw it, it was so romantic,’ says Caroline, who has lived at Burnt Norton, parts of which date back to the 16th century, for 15 years. ‘I had always wanted to write, and when my husband told me about its previous occupants, an incredible tale of love, betrayal and greed, it seemed the perfect material for a novel.’
Caroline’s book Burnt Norton reminds me of Daphne du Maurier’s historical romance Frenchman’s Creek, except that it is ‘faction’ – some of the events depicted really happened. Before Conroy’s family bought Burnt Norton, previously called Norton House, it was owned by Sir William Keyt, 3rd Baronet of Ebrington and MP for Warwick. In 1710, he married Anne Tracy, but she left him after he had an affair with her maid, Molly Johnson.
Keyt, a landowner, then spent his inherited fortune on building an extravagant new mansion next door to Norton House for his mistress Molly. According to local legend, when he first showed it to her she commented, ‘What is a kite without wings?’ so he promptly built two large extensions.
In 1741, abandoned by Molly and after days spent drinking, he set fire to the new house, which was destroyed, killing him with it.
The fire was so powerful that one side of the original house was also scorched, hence the property became known as Burnt Norton.
In 1753, with the family money squandered, William Keyt’s eldest son Thomas sold Burnt Norton to Sir Dudley Ryder, Conroy’s ancestor.
‘The more I discovered, the more fascinated I became,’ says Caroline. ‘Keyt ran off with his mistress and embezzled his sons’ inheritance in order to build a huge baroque mansion right next to this house, with a folly in the garden, and then burnt it down – well, you have to write a book about it, don’t you?’
She started writing the novel five years ago. The catalyst was a turn-of-the-century account of the story in the Evesham Journal. ‘It sparked my interest and I started to do more research. I spoke to the Keyt family archivist and he sent me more material. And then suddenly Keyt’s descendants started sending information, and anything I thought was relevant I used. I liked the idea of Keyt building the house for his mistress, so I used that.’
But it wasn’t always easy. ‘One of the most difficult things is to write about events that actually happened but are so far-fetched that they sound like clichés. For example, I discovered that William Keyt tried to murder his butler in his bed with a sword because the butler had told Lady Keyt that her husband was having an affair. But the butler had been warned so he put pillows in his bed in place of himself.’ It makes a brilliant scene in the book.
Caroline’s own upbringing was thankfully less eventful. She was born Caroline Marks and raised with her elder brother, Jonathan, now the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Marks, between a house in Upper Brook Street in London’s Mayfair and a country house near Pangbourne, Berkshire. ‘I always hated London, though,’ she says.
Her father was a private dentist who had his practice on the ground floor of the Mayfair house and operated at Guy’s Hospital twice a week, and her mother was a barrister. She boarded at Roedean but hated it, then went to another smaller school before attending, at 18, a tutorial college in Oxford, where she met her first husband, the late John Coram-James. He was 25 and a country solicitor. ‘My parents loved him but they weren’t sure about us getting married,’ she says. ‘They were very understanding, though. They knew I was quite headstrong and would marry him anyway.’
The couple moved to Gloucestershire and had three children, Henry, now 31, Clemmie, 26, and Eddie, 25. Caroline modelled throughout the 1980s, mainly for magazine fashion shoots after a Naomi Campbell-like fall gave her a loathing for the catwalk. ‘I didn’t actually like high fashion that much; I loved wearing what everyone else wasn’t wearing.’
Later Caroline moved into interior design. On the floor of her study at Burnt Norton are files of plans for traditional English houses she’s working on for clients in Shropshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, as well as various houses in Italy, where she’s known for her pared-down style and use of soft pastel colours. She is also working on her second novel, this time set in the 1930s in the house where she grew up, no 9 Upper Brook Street in London (‘It’s so much better if you use somewhere you know’).
Caroline met her second husband Conroy through his sister Rosalthe, an old friend, and they have been married for 15 years. ‘Conroy was living in Gloucestershire; his wife Sarah had died and John and I had sadly drifted apart – though we had remained the best of friends. Conroy decided he liked me and that was that.’
When they started renovating Burnt Norton 15 years ago, the house had been empty for 30 years (during the Second World War it was used by the girls’ boarding school Tudor Hall, and after that as a school for troubled boys from inner cities). ‘It was completely empty,’ says Caroline. ‘Some of the ceilings were missing, and one of the biggest jobs was replastering. I often joked to Conroy that he married me for my curtains.’ Together they have restored the house to its original glory.
The building project took two years. ‘Conroy was going to move here after his wife died,’ says Caroline. ‘He planned to live in a hut in the garden with his four children [Hugo, now 31, Freddie, 29, Henry, 27, and Emily, 21] while doing up a small part of the house. But then he met me and was mad enough to take on another three children.’
They lived separately for the first year of their marriage, which took place in the tiny church in the local village, Aston Subedge. ‘Conroy and his family lived in the hut for the first year and I lived in my house a few miles away while Burnt Norton was renovated. It was an unconventional start to the marriage!’
After a year, the new extended family moved into the completed top floor of the house until the rest of it was finished six months later. Today the house is large, welcoming and filled with dogs, with a stone-flagged hall, several drawing rooms and a library, all decorated by Caroline in keeping with the period of the building. ‘Conroy’s remit was that the interiors should still look as good in 50 years’ time.’
For poetry fans, Burnt Norton is already famous. Conroy and Caroline are used to busloads of Eliot obsessives turning up to wander around the gardens. In the summer hundreds of orchids spring up on the lawns and the view across the Vale of Evesham is magnificent. Higher up is an amphitheatre, now overgrown, and, beneath a wood of 700-year-old yew trees, a ruined baroque temple – all that’s left of Keyt’s mad, magnificent folly.
Now with the publication of Burnt Norton, the house is about to become even more famous. And there are enough plot twists and racy story lines to make it the new Downton Abbey – in fact Downton creator Julian Fellowes, who Caroline sent her book to and who has become a friend, says it has all the ingredients to make the perfect Sunday evening TV series. Watch this space…
The night Burnt Norton got its name
After Lady Keyt discovered her husband’s affair with her maid Molly Johnson, she left him and moved into a smaller house on the estate with her daughter Dorothy and son Thomas, leaving her husband and his mistress in the new mansion he had built next door to Norton House. But then Molly left Sir William and his life began to unravel…
Her brother’s voice woke Dorothy.
‘Mama, I’m going to Norton. Something is wrong, I can sense it.’
Dorothy ran downstairs. Her mother and Thomas were in the hallway. She was trying her best to pacify him. ‘Nothing is wrong, my love.’ She pulled back the curtains. A pink tinge lit the sky. ‘It’s a beautiful night and all is well. I will pour you a brandy, and we will return to bed.’ Lady Keyt had just picked up the decanter when the sound of galloping hooves rang out in the courtyard. Dorothy’s heart hammered against the wall of her chest. Shouting followed as someone banged on the door. It was a stable lad.
‘Mister Thomas, come quickly!’ he yelled. ‘Norton is on fire! We need help.’
Her mother dropped the decanter. It shattered, spreading its amber contents across the floor.
‘Mama, be brave. Everything will be fine, I promise you. Get Pike to harness the cart and bring the water butts. I will ride on first, but you must stay with Dorothy.’
‘I will not stay here!’ Dorothy cried, images of her father vivid in her mind. ‘I’m coming.
You can’t stop me.’
‘And William? What of William?’
Thomas put his hands on his mother’s shoulders. ‘I will do my best, but you must promise not to come.’
Thomas and Dorothy galloped along the track towards Norton. At the end of the drive, they jumped down.
‘Go home,’ Dorothy yelled, smacking Fidelia’s rump. With little encouragement the horses galloped back towards Hidcote.
Taking Dorothy’s hand, Thomas led her through the yard, past the hay cart and the feed store, past the stable lads trying to soothe the terrified horses. They were barely through the garden door before a suffocating heat hit them like a wall, burning their throats and stinging their eyes.
Estate workers, servants, men and women formed a chain of black silhouettes against the red sky, passing buckets of water from hand to hand, but it was too late. The magnificent new mansion had blossomed into an inferno. Flames leapt through the roof, and one by one the windows shattered and the columns crashed to the ground.