Today I launched Susan Green's young adult novel Verity Sparks and the Scarlet Hand. The launch took place at Buda in Castlemaine. A lovely book in a lovely setting. I was reminded of a story I wrote for 'The Age' in August 2007. This is the story:
THROUGH A LOW, NARROW archway resembling a little tunnel that penetrates a huge cypress hedge, the gravel path leads up to the first view of the front of the house. This is Buda, a gracious single-storey Italianate Victorian house on a hill in Castlemaine.
It is a cold, cloudless, sunny winter afternoon, still and quiet. The hedge, aptly known as the "Great Cypress Hedge" rises and dominates in dark sculptured velvety billows, like a mysterious cloud in a strange dream. The tangled and twisted forest of dry twigs and interlocking branches inside the hedge lets in no light, suggests nightmares and adventures, small ghostly children becoming forever lost in the snarls of the interior.
A garden bed surrounded by gravel paths separates the hedge from the house, which beckons the visitor into the embrace of the two broad bay windows set at either end of the facade. Beyond the house's left-hand side, which is west, looms a giant bunya-bunya pine with its spindles of spiny, spiralling, overlapping little spiky leaves. The cypress and the pine, native Australian and distant European, are a statement of two elements at the heart of much of the work of Ernest Leviny, the head of the family who lived here from 1864 to 1981. I suggest they are a clue to the genius of this place.
Leviny, a Hungarian, moved into the house in 1864 with his wife, Bertha, who produced six daughters and four sons. Ernest is perhaps best known these days, apart from being the paterfamilias of Buda, as the silversmith who worked with emu eggs to create astonishing and intricate silver sculptures that include images of indigenous Australians, native flowers and animals.
The house and gardens are open to the public, and currently there is an exhibition of Winter Pastimes. You wonder what the family was doing throughout long winter evenings? Believe me, they were busy. The first thing you would need to do, I think, would be to stoke the fires. Nowadays if you spend your nights following, say, the narratives of Big Brother, you will end up with nothing. Not so the Levinys. They had the opportunity and leisure to pursue whatsoever they wished, and the house and garden are testament to their labours.
While the garden slept, and the daffodils prepared to burst forth in spring, the five unmarried daughters worked at their sewing, embroidery, painting, raffia, music, rugs, cloisonne, stained glass, photography, scrapbooks, woodcarving, knitting, reading, and letters and diaries. They were talented, industrious, thoughtful women.
Apart from the more serious pursuits there were also games and simple fun, as the exhibition makes clear. The exhibition itself is small, a focus on winter pursuits within the context of the broad and thrilling program of creativity that characterised life at Buda. Five of the rooms have displays in glass cases, showing such leisure objects as the ivory chess set (half of it dyed red), the magic lantern and coloured glass slides, the sewing set, the carved ivory needle case, the wooden skittles and the small toys such as the little nodding geese. But the rooms are testament to the industry and artistry, the hours and hours of meticulous attention to detail, of the family, industry that must have spanned all seasons. "Pastime" is too small a word for what went on here.
All the unmarried daughters lived at Buda for most of their lives, and throughout the rooms you will see examples of the different kinds of work in which each specialised. Hilda, who was the last to die, in 1981, was the embroiderer. A work of hers that has fascinated me for ages is Buda Blossoms, which is in the Castlemaine Art Gallery. In a flowing design of perfect stitches and subtle, dreamy pinks, greens and beiges, it exemplifies the Arts and Crafts period of embroidery in the Australian context.
In a small, custom-built bookcase is a set of encyclopedias, the internet of the day. Throughout the house are bookcases containing a wide range of literary and other works, not the least of which is the fat red volume titled Old Age - Its Causes and Prevention. Old houses such as Buda, containing the objects left and preserved from the daily lives of the people who inhabited them, are locations of a particular kind of reminder of death, a sweet and eerie haunting.
Ernest died in 1905, and Bertha in 1923, leaving the five daughters to continue living and creating in the house and garden for nearly 60 years. Some kept diaries, invaluable documents of a way of life that is also illustrated in the testament of the things they made, the things they left behind. Outside the elegant little aviary, where zebra finches, golden finches and canaries still live, is a board on which are recorded quotations from the diaries - one on the death of a canary. Such reminders of the personal lives and sorrows of the sisters bring moments into relief, spanning the years, binding the visitor to the realities of the Leviny family.
The windows are closed in the winter, but perhaps in summer they might be open to the breezes, and then the aeolian harps fitted to the windowsills of the front gallery might sound with the music that played there long ago, floating out across the path on still afternoons, heard by anyone emerging from the low, dark tunnel through the surging darkness of the Great Cypress Hedge.