The British call it Brick Lit: that genre of travel literature in which a sophisticatedly jaded man, woman, or couple falls in love with a crumbling farmhouse in some exotic, rural locale and in the comic struggle to restore said farmhouse, and via encounters with the native populace, gleans profound lessons about life, love, and local color. —Jonathan Miles, Garden and Gun
By any standard, Judy Corbett’s 2005 memoir, Castles in the Air, falls under the Brick Lit rubric. And its subtitle—“The Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion”—may not inspire confidence in its novelty. And yet, I recommend it without reservation.
I came across the book in a British catalog when I was an editorial assistant and put in an order for this title and several others. I’ve never cared much about renovation stories—This Old House always left me cross-eyed with boredom—but it looked fun. It was, but it was much more than that.
Even by quixotic Brick Lit standards, this is a quixotic undertaking: the young couple in question are both keen medievalists, determined to see a Welsh castle restored to its original glory despite the fact that they have virtually no money and absolutely no experience. The resulting chronicle is far less about the quirks of the locals and the crotchets of contractors than it is a story of history and reverence for that history.
While indeed idealistic, the pair are not fools: They don’t do stupid things or play up their fish-out-of-water story. Their challenges are real, and they meet them with gallantry and no small amount of energy. Most of all, I enjoy the book as a love story. The prose is restrained in this regard, certainly—but one rarely encounters two people so united in their idiosyncratic goals and ideals, or even their essential lack of sociability. Castles has long been my unofficial relationship primer.
One can go to Gwydir Castle now; they take overnight guests. The book leaves one ambivalent on this score; I imagine it’s considerably more comfortable ten years on, but one doesn’t always want to know how a B-and-B sausage is made—or, indeed, how much the proprietors resent the intrusion of guests. That said, the place looks stunning. The scope of the achievement is hard to take in. It’s not just the work that has gone into it but the dignified, haunted bones of the place. You understand why they fell in love. Sure, yes, they learn some lessons along the way, in the grand Brick Lit tradition—but then, some lessons are worth learning.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.