A Historical Novelist’s Decorating Scheme: ‘Books and Dog Hair’

Beatriz Williams at Home in Lyme, Conn.

Beatriz Williams at Home in Lyme, Conn.

Beatriz Williams at Home in Lyme, Conn.

Beatriz Williams, the best-selling author of historical novels including “The Golden Hour,” “Summer Wives” and “A Certain Age,” had not quite bargained for 11 years in Greenwich, Conn.

But her husband, Sydney Williams, had grown up in Greenwich, and when the couple returned to America in 2004 after five years in London, it was a convenient perch — an easy commute to Manhattan for Mr. Williams, then a banker, and a good school system — if not necessarily a congenial one.

There was an undercurrent of competitiveness to everything there,” said Ms. Williams, 47, whose latest novel, “Her Last Flight,” the chronicle of an aviation pioneer and a war correspondent, will be published at the end of June.

Fortunately, her empty-nester in-laws had downsized some years earlier and relocated to the Connecticut River Valley, along the Long Island Sound. “We would go there for a lot of weekends, and the area became a second home for us,” Ms. Williams said. “We loved that it was outside the New York bubble, but it had a lot of sophistication. There were museums and interesting restaurants.”

She and her husband looked and looked for a place to buy along that swath of the Connecticut shoreline, but what they liked they couldn’t afford and what they could afford — well, you know the rest. In 2015, as a stopgap, they rented an antique house with a guest cottage, pool and tennis court on 10 acres in Lyme, about 80 miles east of Greenwich. Five years later they are still there — with their four children, three cats and Bailey the rescue beagle — happy as can be to have someone else take care of the grounds, someone else to repair what breaks.

Occupation: Writer

Clutter is good: “This is not a Marie Kondo house, but on the other hand, it all brings us joy.”

The house was built near the end of the 18th century and renovated near the end of the 20th. But the owner was sufficiently respectful to retain all that gave it character: the massive carved beams, the cunningly built-in cabinets, the doors with their original hardware.

“As someone who writes historical fiction, I love living in a house with so much history,” Ms. Williams said. “You feel that that history is alive all around you. You think of the number of hands that touched the latch on the front door. You think of all the people who were born and got married and died in these rooms. Without sounding too woo-woo, I feel all of that is in the air.”

But it is also the case, she said, that there isn’t a single right angle or straight line in the entire house; that in winter, the windows cannot be counted on to keep the snow outside; and that ye olde nails have been known to pop out of the broad chestnut floorboards. “I have to hammer and bang down the floor,” she said. “But you just think of people cutting those boards by hand.”

The library, with its wood-shuttered windows, paneled walls and working fireplace, was the initial draw. “Finding a place to rent with bookshelves is hard,” Ms. Williams said. “And we have a lot of books, many my father-in-law gave us when he and my mother-in-law downsized.”

She added: “There is no decorating scheme in place, unless you mean books. And dog hair.”

Since their marriage almost 23 years ago, the couple have bought a few pieces of furniture, including a pair of Directoire chairs they found in an antiques shop on a weekend trip to the Burgundy region of France during their time in London, a wood rowing shell that had been converted into a bookcase, and a monastery dining table from Restoration Hardware. But for the most part, they have been the seemingly willing recipients of many pieces handed down through several generations of Mr. Williams’s family, “in very WASP-y fashion,” Ms. Williams said.

The haul includes an antique chest, a bagatelle table, a secretary, a wing chair, sculptures by Mr. Williams’s artist grandmother, lamps and photographs. And, oh yes, the squirrel gun (“without the firing mechanism,” Ms. Williams clarified) on the fireplace mantel in the living room.

“It’s easy to fall in love with sleek, modern interiors which seem so restful,” she said. “I love white jeans. I put them on and I feel so sleek and stylish, and then I spill coffee on them, which is not restful at all. The thing about furniture this old and lived-in is that it reduces the stress level. I don’t feel I have to be so particular about keeping it pristine.” (For the record, the cats are kept out of the living room and the children, who range in age from 11 to 19, have little interest in coming in.)

Look to the hallway walls for what Ms. Williams herself will be handing down to the next generation. There are framed maps of the sections of London where she and Mr. Williams lived, and a particular favorite: a map of the London tube clipped from a newspaper. There are also English nautical prints (credit Ms. Williams’s fondness for the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian) and equine prints (since childhood she has had a thing for horse racing).

“My Christmas present every year was a subscription to The Thoroughbred Record,” she said, referring to the now-defunct publication of the horse business. “It would always have advertisements for prints from Richard Stone Reeves, who was the premier thoroughbred artist.”

Gallop forward a decade from an adolescence steeped in bits and bloodstock. On display in the home of her prospective in-laws were two very fine Reeves prints, one of Secretariat, the other of Ruffian. “They gave them to us, knowing my passion,” Ms. Williams said.

It’s not necessarily that the surroundings are conducive to writing or that they inspire Ms. Williams. “It’s just that the house is so in tune with what I do for a living,” she said, “and so in tune with what I love.”

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