According to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, 81 per cent of British people want to own their homes within the next ten years. George Osborne is the latest in a long line of politicians, including Thatcher and Macmillan, who have made our nation’s obsession with outright ownership central to their policy.
This preoccupation with actually owning a freehold is noticeably absent in my favourite literary depiction of acquiring a house, Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. On the death of her husband, Lady Slane defies her awful children and moves from Chelsea to rent a house in Hampstead, which she remembers from many years ago. ‘Very quiet, very distinguished, very old, very frail,’ it is as though 88-year-old Lady Slane ‘had some secret understanding with the house, and it were waiting for her, patient, after thirty years’.
The house is indeed lying empty. Lady Slane meets Mr Bucktrout, the agent and owner of the property — an endearing ‘strange little figure’, fond of twirling ‘neat pirouettes’. He explains that the house has been empty for such a long time because he didn’t like any of the people who wanted to rent it. When Lady Slane says she thinks the house ‘would probably suit me very well’, he says, ‘Ah, but the question is … will you suit it?’
The two of them embark on a painfully polite, very funny negotiation about the lease. Having agreed that Lady Slane will take it on a yearly tenancy, she asks, ‘What about the rent?’
‘Well, Lady Slane, I counter your inquiry. What rent would you be willing to pay?’
Shrinking, Lady Slane named a sum, too large; which Mr Bucktrout immediately halved, too small. But between them they came to a settlement.
Estate agents, take note.
Lady Slane settles happily into her Hampstead home, with its peach tree in the garden. Her maid Genoux looks after the house, Mr Bucktrout and the builder Mr Gosheron come to tea, and a friendship blossoms with a mysterious Mr FitzGeorge. ‘It was a gentle life they led now, thought Lady Slane … The routine of their daily life was all they wanted.’
Vita Sackville-West wrote All Passion Spent as a fictional counterpart to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Behind its lyrical prose is the idea of how important it is to lay claim to your own space, however late in life. It is the house in Hampstead that makes Lady Slane’s final days so happy and peaceful, and yet this house is rented, not owned. Indeed she loves the house precisely because she rents it. She has divested herself of most of what she owns — sold the house in Chelsea, given her jewels to her frightful children — and she would hate to take on the added responsibility that comes with buying a house.
Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Lady Slane’s book and relish the freedom of renting, and remind ourselves that a home can be special regardless of whether we own it. Of course, with today’s rents we might not be able to afford a house in Hampstead, and we certainly won’t have an estate agent as engaging as pirouetting Mr Bucktrout. We’d all be much less obsessed with owning our homes, if only estate agents were rather more amicable.
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