I hoped – in fact I expected that I would fall in love with ‘Celia’s House’.
It promised things that I love, and things that I know D E Stevenson is very, very good at:
- A Scottish setting
- A big house
- The history of a family.
I did fall in love with the story as it began, but sadly I fell out of love again before very long. I found things to love, I found moments to love, but it wasn’t the same. Because the spell had been broken.
Let me explain.
The story opens early in the twentieth century. Celia Dunne had lived at Dunnian for every one of her ninety years. She knew that the end of her life was very near, and that she would have to leave her beloved home. She knew that there always been Dunnes at Dunnian, and she was going to do everything she could to make sure that there always would be.
She summoned Humphrey, her great-nephew, who she knew was home on leave from the Navy. She saw that he loved the house too, and that he understood how wonderful it would be to raise his children there; and so she told him that she was going to disinherit the nephew she knew had plans to redevelop her property as soon as he got his hands on it, and leave it to Humphrey instead. In trust for his daughter Celia.
It isn’t long before Celia dies, the nephew who thought the house would be his is sent packing, and Humphrey; his rather delicate wife, Alice; and their three small children, Mark, Edith and Joyce, move to Dunnian. It becomes a family home; two more children, Billy and Celia, are born; Humphrey and Alice take in a seven-year old cousin, Debbie, when her mother remarries and follows her husband to India.
This part of the story was lovely. The house and family life is so very well evoked. It was lovely to meet the family retainers, who loved Dunnian too, and to see them ease the family’s transition into a new life that was so lovely, but quite different from what they were used to.
Sadly, the story lost its way when the children grew up. Their lives became tangled with the lives of a family at a bigger, grander, neighbouring house. It turned into a reworking of ‘Mansfield Park’, with Mark, who was studying medicine cast as Edmund Bertram and his cousin Debbie cast as Fanny Price. If only it had been a little more than a retelling, if only more that a few of the character had been given the depth they needed, and if only it hadn’t gone on for quite so long, it could have been lovely. But it wasn’t, and I was relieved when it was over.
There had been some lovely touches along the way. The author used the world’s expectation that Mark, as the eldest son, would inherit, and the reality that he wouldn’t very cleverly. I appreciated her understanding of Humphrey’s feelings -as a father, as a widower and as a military man – when war came, his sons were called up, and he realised that there was very little he could contribute.
I couldn’t help thinking that if D E Stevenson had understood all of her characters as well this would have been a better, more even, book.
It was only at the end that Celia, the heir to Dunnian, emerged from the shadows to learn her destiny and to bring the story to a lovely ending, that had its roots in its very beginning.
It’s maddening that, though D E Stevenson does many things so very well, she sometimes goes terribly wrong.
I’ve read more of her books that have gone right than have gone wrong, and so I’m going to keep picking my way through them.
I just need to tread carefully …